Music in the Horror Film: An Interview with Neil Lerner

Click the podcast button to hear Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, performed by Frederich Magle, courtesy of Magle International Music Forums.

I come from a generation of fantastic film fans who wanted a greater depth of knowledge about the films we loved. This moved beyond knowing who the actors and even the directors were. We knew about the special effects technicians, the make up artists, the matte painters, the model makers, stop-motion animators, and even who composed the scores. Some of my favorites included Bernard Herrmann, James Bernard, Jerry Goldsmith, and of course John Williams.

A few moments reflection on the movie going experience, especially in regards to the horror genre, reveals how important music is. Some of the more noteworthy examples are the shower scene in PSYCHO, the main theme for JAWS, and the memorable music for John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Unfortunately, while the images of horror have been the focus of much critical and academic discussion, little attention has been paid to the music. Addressing this deficit, Neil Lerner has edited the book Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (Routledge, 2010). Lerner is Professor of Music at Davidson College, where he teaches courses in music as well as film and media studies. His work on film music has been published in numerous journals, essay collections, and encyclopedias. Lerner discusses horror film music in this special interview for Cinefantastique Online.

John Morehead: Neil, thank you for being willing to discuss your book here. Can you begin by sharing a little of your background in music, and why, on a personal level, you chose horror as the genre of film for analysis in terms of music’s significance and impact?

click to purchase

click to purchase

Neil Lerner: First of all, I want to you thank you and Cinefantastique for your interest in this work. As a longtime fan of Cinefantastique, it’s a great honor to get to discuss these things with you.

My professional background is as a musicologist, and my dissertation studied music in some U.S. government documentary films. At the time I started working on my dissertation, there were only a handful of music scholars who were taking film music seriously. So that’s partly why I went with these documentary film scores, by established concert hall composers like Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland: because they were in many ways safer to the academy. It was also a case where I was confident I could get to the relevant archival material, like score manuscripts and production papers, something that’s still not easy to do with Hollywood scores.

One question that I found myself drawn to throughout that research on documentary scores was whether or not a composer could do more experimental things in a score for a documentary than in a Hollywood fictional narrative. I actually found several instances where composers could push the compositional envelope in a documentary film score—like using extended dissonances, or writing fugues, things that didn’t happen too much in Hollywood’s mainstream scores—and that question of where and how modernist strategies enter into film music continues to interest me.

Finally, I’ve always been a fan of horror films, but I started studying film more seriously in college, which, believe it or not, was at Transylvania University. I had one particularly brilliant professor there who took great pleasure in talking about vampire films in his film courses, and his intellectual curiosity was contagious. In many ways, then, I’ve been on a crash course with this topic.

John Morehead: Can you sketch how music developed in terms of its inclusion in the horror film? Viewers take its presence for granted in contemporary cinema, but may forget that there was a process of development as it was included in film, and in horror as well, beyond the jump from silent films to sound.

Neil Lerner: I think studying music in horror films brings with it the same challenges as in other genres in that transitional period between “silent” and sound film: composers had multiple strategies for dealing with different kinds of dramatic situations; it’s often difficult or impossible to reconstruct with certainty what early musicians did (in cases of live accompaniment); and it’s too easy to over-generalize based on just a few examples. There’s still a good deal of basic research to be done in trying to map out just what was done in horror films in the 1920s, but we have some important clues in a book like Ernö Rapée’s Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures (1925), which lists all kinds of categories and topics that musicians accompanying film could have used. That book doesn’t have notated music, but rather it has lists of possible pieces that would fit each topic, giving us now an idea of what music was considered appropriate (at least according to Rapée) for different genres. If you look up “horror” in the Rapée, it directs you to the topics of “gruesome” and “outcry,” which themselves then direct out to other categories like “dwarfs, ghosts, spooks, and mysteriosos” (for “gruesome”) or to “dramatic” in the case of “outcry.” It ends up suggesting quite a wide spectrum of music that was available to someone accompanying a scary scene, but certain basic ideas tend to surface over and over again in these pieces, and these are things that aren’t unique to music for horror film, but rather things that fall in a much longer tradition of ways that composers could create a sense of fear or dread: extended unresolved dissonances, surprising bursts of sound, unfamiliar timbres, etc.

I do think Robert Spadoni’s recent book on horror film and the transition into the sound era makes a strong case for the significance of the sound track and how it could make films more horrific. The success of horror films coming out of Hollywood (starting in 1931) really does overlap in interesting ways with the coming of synchronized, recorded sound to the cinematic experience.

Candace Hilligoss stands before the church organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Candace Hilligoss stands before the church organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS

John Morehead: Your book begins appropriately with a consideration of the organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS in a chapter by Julie Brown, with a comparison of the same instrument in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Was this the first major instrument to be used in horror films, and how significant is it in associations with the genre today?

Neil Lerner: I don’t know if we can say that it was the first major instrument of horror films, just because I’m not certain we know enough yet about music in horror film in the 1920s, but Julie Brown’s work makes a compelling case for why the organ would recur so much in horror films. Namely, the instrument’s connections with certain kinds of religious spaces as well as its associations with funerals are all rich things to explore in a genre (horror) that probes at our sublimated anxieties. The tradition of the baroque organ is one where its huge sound was supposed to overpower its listener through sheer volume and acoustic weight, in ways that Robert Walser has compared with heavy metal music (and how heavy metal music works in horror films, when it starts to appear, etc., is another topic that needs work).

The film that I researched for the book, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), makes the organ a central icon connected with Henry Jekyll, adding a musical dimension that doesn’t occur in Stevenson’s novella. I believe it’s there to provide a quick and efficient clue to Jekyll’s character: he has a certain level of wealth and high culture sophistication in that he plays Bach organ works for pleasure at his home, and it also suggests something of Jekyll’s piety and goodness (towards the end of the film he cries out to God).

Our first glimpse of Dr. Jekyll: his hands playing a pipe organ

Our first glimpse of Dr. Jekyll: his hands playing a pipe organ

Yet there’s another component to Jekyll’s organ playing that I explore in my essay, and that’s the possibility that Rouben Mamoulian’s conception of Jekyll & Hyde might set the entire narrative up as a dream occurring in the midst of Jekyll’s organ playing. The film opens with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a piece that recurs in the middle of the film—with some of the middle of the organ piece—and then the film closes with the final measures of the organ work. I know it’s a fairly radical way to read the film, but I found some other clues in the literary references that I believe at least complicate some of our assumptions about that film and how it works.

John Morehead: Of course, PSYCHO is perhaps the horror film most associated with striking music, as in the infamous shower scene. In the interesting chapter on this film, Ross Fenimore connects the film’s “aural fragments” of imagined and real voices with the musical “screams” of Marion’s (Janet Leigh) death as she is stabbed in the shower. Most viewers are familiar with the significance of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the film, but may not have connected this as part of a bigger aural whole that paints a picture of terror. How do these elements come together under the direction of Hitchcock?

Neil Lerner: I agree with you that the shower scene music from PSYCHO has become an iconic example of horror music, but I’d extend it even further, to say that it’s become one of the most iconic examples of all film music. Ross Fenimore’s essay raises some important questions about the music and to whom it might be connected (to Marion? to Norman? to Mother? to someone else?), which becomes really interesting when you start to factor in the film’s trickery in regards to connecting voices to characters.

I don’t know, however, how much credit should go to Hitchcock’s direction. I mean no disrespect to Hitchcock here, but I think it’s important to remember that Hitchcock originally wanted that shower scene to have only natural sound effects (like shower and knife sounds) without music. Herrmann lobbied to put music into it, and Hitchcock acquiesced, but Herrmann probably paid a heavy price later with Hitchcock for upstaging his director with a better idea. Herrmann’s score here is just brilliant; he was a composer at the peak of his powers, creating music that continues to yield new readings and interpretations. It’s just so marvelously simple and effective in its blend of extended, unresolved dissonances (major sevenths and minor seconds), descending registral gestures (moving from high to low), and repetition. Plus there’s the effect of having the string instruments play the quick portamento, the sliding up on the string, which creates a terrible ripping or tearing effect; it fills in the blanks of what’s happening because visually, we never actually see the knife ripping through flesh, but aurally, we get a clear idea of what’s happening.

John Morehead: As a long-time horror fan I should have been aware of this, but it was not until I read Music in the Horror Film, and Claire Sisco King’s chapter on music in THE EXORCIST, that I realized that the film includes an unconventional approach to musical scoring at the insistence of director William Friedkin. Why did he approach music in the film in this way, and how is this reflective of cultural anxieties of the time as well as the film’s narrative?

Neil Lerner: It’s hard to try and get inside a director’s head, but Claire Sisco King does a fabulous job of collecting all sorts of evidence from the production of the film, thereby giving us clues to what might have been motivating him. I was struck at Friedkin’s resistance to thinking of THE EXORCIST as a horror film, because it reminded me of Rouben Mamoulian’s similar remarks about DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. I have a hunch both of these directors might have felt that horror as a genre was perhaps too undignified for the kinds of larger ideas they were addressing, and appropriately enough, both of them ended up transforming and complicating the genre in pretty important ways. Friedkin was motivated by a kind of documentary impulse in THE EXORCIST, and Claire Sisco King argues how this probably led to the unconventional musical choices he made. She then goes on to read the music in relation to the larger cultural anxiety of a widely perceived crisis of masculinity. I think her essay can help viewers to see THE EXORCIST in a new and different way—note the visual metaphors here, it’s just tough to escape them—but the underlying goal behind all of the essays in the book is the idea that by paying closer attention to the music, the ear can lead us to see these films in new ways.

John Morehead: I was raised on the fantastic scores of folks like Bernard Hermann, James Horner, and a little later John Williams. But one of the others I enjoyed was director John Carpenter with his synthesizer music. Your book includes a chapter discussing Carpenter’s music in THE FOG, and I wonder how original and significant you see his electronic scoring in this and other films like HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK?

Neil Lerner: I think there’s still a good deal of basic work that needs to be done on this question, but K. J. Donnelly’s essay makes a strong case for the potential returns in giving close attention to film scores that might be thought of as too simple or basic. A good deal of scholarship on film music has tended to focus on fully notated orchestral film scores, but of course there’s a much wider spectrum of musical strategies out there, like rock or jazz, and Donnelly has been an important scholarly pioneer in this regard.

The synthesizer timbres weren’t original to John Carpenter—several of the important Vietnam-era horror films, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, or LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, have some prominent use of electronic instruments—but Carpenter does seem to have done something that worked well and proved influential with the synthesizer scoring in HALLOWEEN (1978). Plus I just think those early modular synths were incredibly cool, so I’m happy we got a picture of a Moog in the book.

John Morehead: It is understandable that, since film is a visual medium, the image has been the primary focus of film analysis, but given the significance of sound and music to film, particularly to horror (not to mention science fiction and fantasy), why has musical analysis been largely ignored? And is this situation starting to change?

Neil Lerner: My college film courses emphasized that film is a visual medium, and of course much of the writing about film does that also, but maybe because I was studying music while taking film classes I was more attenuated to what was happening in the soundtrack. I’ve always found it interesting that so much of the attention in film goes to the visual elements, but the experience of film (and now television and video games) is almost always tied together with a soundtrack. One might speculate that there’s a larger cultural bias against the acoustic, that there’s a hegemony of the visual; what we consider basic educational skills dwell largely if not exclusively on things that are visual, like reading, but where in our culture do we teach about the sonic and the musical? I believe most of us are self taught in regards to knowing how to interpret the music we encounter with a film or video game—if we’re raised watching these things, we figure it out from the context—and most people can interpret these musical codes with a great deal of nuance, even if they aren’t trained in music and have no idea how the music is doing what it does. It’s useful, therefore, to have music scholars devoted to studying music in screen media as a way of providing students and devotees with another tool in their own lifelong encounters with these things.

As a music historian, I’ve long heard the truism that concert hall music in the twentieth century, particularly the experimental, avant-garde styles, hit a kind of impasse where audiences became disinterested in it and where many of these musical languages then found their way into film genres like fantasy and horror. One of my goals with the book was to help to provide some examples of that, whether it be through the radical sound collage that Mamoulian created for the first transformation scene in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE or the later appropriations of Penderecki in THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. There’s still a great deal of work to be done in tracking all of these musical languages, and that’s exciting for musicologists, film scholars, and folks who love movies.

(Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, performed by Frederich Magle, courtesy of Magle International Music Forums)

About the Author

John Morehead

I work academically and popularly in the area of intercultural studies, and apply these insights to the sociological and cultural study of the fantastic in pop culture through TheoFantastique, my website that explores sci fi, fantasy, and horror.

One Response to “ Music in the Horror Film: An Interview with Neil Lerner ”

  1. A couple minor points:

    1. Mr. Lerner perpetuates the myth that “we never actually see the knife ripping through flesh” in PYSCHO. In fact, there is a brief shot of a retractable knife sinking into Marion Crane’s abdomen.

    2. Mr. Lerner cites NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has predecessors to HALLOWEEN’s use of synthesizer music. A much bigger influence on John Carpenter was probably Goblin’s music for Dario Argento’s films DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.