Picture if you will a simpler time. A time of greyscale black and white, popcorn crushing beneath your feet as you walk back to your ’56 Bel Air blending in a maze of white-wall tires. The drive-in is nearly silent, but for the unsettling quietness of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drawing the curtain as she gets into the shower. You put on a brave face as you open the car door, and just as you lean in to hand over the popcorn and soda to your date, a shadow appears on screen wielding a giant knife. Marion screams, you scream, your date screams, and the audience screams as popcorn flies across the car, all accompanied by the now unmistakable shrieking and pulsating strings from the “shower scene” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
You’re now traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twili… or, ermm… the history of synthesizers in horror films… zone. Whether you were alive or not during this time – the early 60s – you’ve likely just played back the Psycho sound effect, and the Twilight Zone opening theme in your head as you read along. You might also be thinking “sure, but what’s any of that got to do with synthesizers?” While Psycho used an orchestra’s string section to create the unnerving screeches, and Twilight Zone’s theme actually used guitars to make the mysterious and dissonant sounds, they set the stage for the future of horror film soundtracks and effects. At this same time, Robert Moog was working on his first prototype for a modular synthesizer. Though prior examples of electronic sound and synthesizers date back to the 19th century, Moog’s keyboard combined with voltage-controlled oscillation and amplification was the first built for the consumer market, becoming a mainstream instrument by the late 60s. It wasn’t long before they were being used in some of the most frightening films, taking cues from the scariest scores the big-screens had to offer.
The dawn of (post silent-era) horror films, with the likes of Boris Karloff’s Bride of Frankenstein, saw much of its musical influence from the orchestral soundtracks typical of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho was the initial departure from the grandiose orchestral thematic scores, and one of the earlier examples of the use of the “jump scare,” facilitated by the accompanying “shrieking” sound effects. It’s not until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, however, that we see the match made in heaven (or hell) between horror films and the synth, with John Carpenter’s Halloween being arguably the most prominent and influential example.
Similar to the horror films of old, Carpenter made use of the character theme for Michael Myers’ role in the film, but departed from the typical orchestral scores, making use of the relatively new synthesizer technology. Not only terrifyingly effective at creating unsettling and moody ambient sounds, effects, and scores, the synthesizer was also appealing for its accessibility. It was inexpensive, and gone were the days of having to hire an entire orchestra to score a film. Filmmakers and composers could now cheaply compose an entire score by themselves, making the synth perfect for late-night B-horror films, as well. He has even noted his synth influence was almost by accident, stemming from attempts to keep costs low while still finding a way to “sound big” with just a keyboard. Carpenter also made use of synth-heavy scores — mostly using a Moog and a Prophet — in his other films, including The Fog, and The Thing, with the latter’s soundtrack being a collaboration between himself, Ennio Morricone, and Alan Howarth (who is also the pioneer of multi-channel immersion surround sound tech now known as Dolby Atmos). The Fog, somewhat similar to Halloween, used a synth to create the more atmospheric sounds around piano pieces that served as the primary melodic soundtrack.
Carpenter worked heavily with Alan Howarth on his scores, who has noted in an interview “I had all the equipment and he had the ideas. Because it was his movie, he would sit down and make the first pass on what the themes were – he’s a master of themes – but all that sequencer work would be mine using the ARP.” Information on the equipment they used is a bit scarce, but we know, largely from interviews over the years, some of the equipment that was used, including:
Prophet 10, Prophet 5, ARP Avatar, ARP Quadra, ARP Sequencer, Roland CSQ-600/Sequencer, Sequential Circuits 700 Programmer, Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Stephens 821-A 24 track, Tascam 80-8 8-track, dbx 155 Noise Reduction, Otari 5050-B 2 trk, Tapco 7424 mixing consoles, Furman PQ-6 Parametric EQ , Furman RV-1 Reverbs, MXR DDL delay, Mu-Tron Phasor, Synclavier sampler, Oberheim SEM Module, Prophet VS, Oberheim Four Voice, Moog Vocoder, Prophet 2000, Ensoniq EPS, Ensoniq SQ-80, Kurzweil K250, E-mu Emulator II, E-mu Emulator, Fender Jazz Bass and Fender Stratocaster.
Carpenter has also stated “For years I used a Korg, the Triton, I believe. I loved that because it had so many good sounds in it. Easy to use. Now I’m on the computer using Logic Pro, which I love. Big library, it’s a lot of fun.”
Charles Bernstein’s work for A Nightmare on Elm Street took cues from Halloween and added even more synthesizer, in line with the mainstream synth-pop music coming out of the mid-eighties, and in many ways resembling the sounds of the 8-bit video games of the time. To reflect Freddy Krueger’s insatiable lust for murdering children, Bernstein’s melodic synth theme and electronic rhythms – often uncharacteristically upbeat — play on a kind of twisted and deranged childlike nursery-rhyme motif. With nostalgia in full effect, it’s no wonder we’re seeing a kind of reemergence of the artistic stylings of this era in shows like Stranger Things. Bernstein spoke about this shift, and his role in it, in a 2012 interview where he stated:
Honestly, at the time that I did the first A Nightmare on Elm Street there was no sense in the composing community of a shift from orchestral to home based scoring. It was only later that this began to be perceived as a trend among most of us working in the field. I had been using home studio-based techniques since the early 1970s. This approach can provide for more personal experimentation and exploration of sounds and possibilities. I remember doing a synth-based mockup of Mr. Majestyk around 1973, prior to recording the score with orchestra as a demo of intent. Many of my early scoring jobs included home studio recording techniques. Of course, now this is all quite common and widespread, even on large projects, and I feel quite literally at home with it.
In this same interview, Bernstein responds to a question about the gear he used for the Nightmare score, where the interviewer notes “I was under the impression that you had used a Prophet 5 as one of your primary instruments, but recently I saw a gear list for the soundtrack that included a Yamaha DX7, Oberheim OB-SX, Roland Juno-106 and a few others.” Bernstein replies “I think that’s right. No Prophet 5, but I noticed a Pro-One [ed: a descendant of the Prophet-5] in an old photo recently, and maybe an Emu SP12 as well as some small metallic colored Roland drum machines around.” He also used an Emu2 patch to create the chimelike effect on “School Horror/Stay Awake,” that was later used in a number of 80s horror films. Additionally, Bernstein made creative use of various pedals, and “plugged a cheap mic directly into the Boss digital delay and echo pedals with a 1/4″ plug and ran the signal through a mixing board,” to create eerie vocal elements heard throughout the score.
The late 70s marked the beginning of this shift in horror films, propelled by their synth-driven scores, with the likes of John Carpenter, and the band Goblin (soundtrack for Suspiria), leading the musical shifts. This came to a head by 1984, a year so influential in the horror scene that we’re now seeing movies like Summer of 84 (2018) and shows like American Horror Story: 1984 (2019) paying homage not just in their artistic stylings, but also in their 80s settings, as well as their titles. Similarly, the remake of It, as well as the Stranger Things both take place during the early to mid 80s, drawing influence from this era of horror, and capitalizing on today’s unquenchable thirst for nostalgia.
Nostalgia aside, plenty of other more modern films draw on this influence, including the 2014 hit It Follows, with its synth-heavy score by Disasterpeace (stage name for Richard Vreeland). In a 2014 interview, Disasterpeace noted “David used a lot of Penderecki, John Cage and John Carpenter in the temp score for It Follows, so I gravitated to those as a source of inspiration. I also channeled Goblin a bit.” Drawing on these influences, Disasterpeace noted:
Today, the influence of the synthesizer on horror films is undeniable. Whether we’re getting remakes of films like Halloween or It, 80s-influenced creations like Stranger Things or the newest season of American Horror Story, or completely new material like It Follows, one thing we can count on is that filmmakers will continue to rely on the creepy sounds that only a synthesizer could produce.