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THE B-LIST: Some of the most iconic soundtrack composers in horror

Composer/musician Mark Korven playing the Apprehension Engine, a bizarre "Frankenmachine" instrument of his own design.
Composer/musician Mark Korven playing the Apprehension Engine, a bizarre "Frankenmachine" instrument of his own design.

What would horror be without screechy violins? Basso profundo notes deep enough to make your ribs shiver? Unsettling synth that reaches a fever pitch just before the killer strikes?

Without their soundtracks, movies would be a lot less frightening. Or memorable. Often the music makes the horror, subtly — or not so subtly — playing off our anxiety to ramp up the thrills and chills.

Music has always and will always have a profound psychological effect on us.

My mum was so horrified by "The Exorcist" in the theater that just hearing Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," even years later, is enough to make her panic.

Whether you've seen "Psycho" or not, the shrieking violins of Bernard Herrmann's iconic score are instantly recognizable — how fitting that the musicians essentially stab their bows as Norman (Anthony Perkins) is stabbing the showering Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).

Academy Award-winning composer John Williams terrified a generation out of the ocean with two low notes in "Jaws." Harry Manfredini's distinctive "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" leitmotif in the "Friday the 13th" series only appears when the killer is on screen (or is the point of view of the camera).

And Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind gave the ominous Overlook Hotel of "The Shining" its own sound by altering Hector Berlioz's tuba-heavy take on "Dies Irae." Originally a Gregorian chant and Mass for the dead, "Dies Irae" has become synonymous with horror, popping up in numerous "Dracula" adaptations and the gothic films of Tim Burton.

So this week, I'm paying homage to some of the greatest horror composers, starting with:

6. MARK KORVEN ("Cube" and "The VVitch"). Korven goes above and beyond traditional music making: with the help of Tony Duggan-Smith, he created an entirely new instrument he calls the Apprehension Engine.

This bizarre machine, "part bass and six-string guitar, hurdy-gurdy, percussive instrument and so much more," doesn't play standard notes — it produces eerie, otherworldly noises, a collection of sound effects that make you feel as if you're trapped inside a haunted house.

"The VVitch" already had buckets of atmosphere, but thanks to Korven's truly creepy musical work, even banal moments in between the outright frights become stressful. (I highly recommend Googling the Engine and listening to some of its music for yourself.)

5. JERRY GOLDSMITH ("Poltergeist," "The Omen," 1999's "The Mummy"). Goldsmith was a chameleon of a composer who perfectly paired his compositions to the movies' tone. "Carol Anne's Theme" from "Poltergeist" is a sweet lullaby for a sweet (yet haunted) little girl, while "The Mummy" is a rousing desert adventure with a fun, action-packed soundtrack to match.

And, as is only fitting, the theme from "The Omen" — "Ave Satani" — is a Gregorian-style chant brimming with nefarious organs praising the Devil (and his dead-eyed little boy).

4. TOMANDANDY ("The Mothman Prophecies," "The Strangers," "Resident Evil: Afterlife"). This collaborative duo (Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn) rely heavily on synth and electronica to craft eerie, unsettling atmospheres.

Their work in "The Mothman Prophecies" is an especial standout: in a story centered on an inhuman entity that communicates through electronic disturbances and phone lines, the pair crafted a soundtrack brimming with static, wailing beeps, whispering voices and dial tones. "Prophecies" wouldn't be half so great without their unique auditory background.

3. DANNY ELFMAN (nearly everything Tim Burton has ever done, "Men in Black," "Red Dragon," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"). Elfman is an all-around legend in the music industry, scoring everything from horror to superhero adventures and action flicks. In his work for Burton, there's always a dark but joyful air to the music. A fitting compliment to the gonzo goth-ness of the films.

Would "The Nightmare Before Christmas" be so charming without his upbeat, yet macabre songs (or his voice work as Jack Skellington's singing voice)? Would "Sleepy Hollow" be so spooky without his choral-backed, bell-heavy score?

2. GOBLIN (1978's "Dawn of the Dead," "Deep Red," "Suspiria"). When it comes to pulse-pounding music, you can't beat this Italian prog-rock band. Most known for their work with giallo director Dario Argento, the quartet really made a mark on pop culture with "Dawn of the Dead" and "Suspiria."

The main theme from "Suspiria," with its bright chiming bells contrasted by breathy, guttural chanting, is one of the most memorable pieces of film music to date. And the ridiculously upbeat end titles to "Dawn" was parodied with chicken bawks for the end theme of Cartoon Network's Claymation parody series "Robot Chicken."

1. JOHN CARPENTER (1978's "Halloween," "The Fog," "Prince of Darkness," "In the Mouth of Madness"). Talk about a Renaissance man — Carpenter's a writer, director, composer AND actor. Horror wouldn't be what it is today without him; we certainly wouldn't have such a robust slasher sub-genre without his oft-emulated Michael Meyers and "Halloween."

Carpenter is the king of the synth horror soundtrack. Many of his songs are deceptively simple arrangements that could be put together on a cheap Casio keyboard; when you hear a Carpenter piece you might be tempted to think, "Anyone could've come up with that."

The trick is no one did before Carpenter, just as no one invented sci-fi horror until Mary Shelley came along with "Frankenstein." His keyboard-heavy themes instantly evoke masked killer Meyers, vengeful and leprous ghosts in a supernatural fog and Lovecraftian madness — they're catchy enough to stand on their own, but will never truly be divorced from the fantastic, frightening films they embellish.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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