Horror films are enhanced by their tension-building music. Norman Bates is more terrifying thanks to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. The Swahili choir’s ominous warnings in Michael Abels’ Get Out score let us know that Chris’ vacation isn’t going to be relaxing. Then there’s everything John Carpenter has ever done, and everything he’s inspired, from Halloween to Stranger Things.
But what about our other favorite way to get scared, the haunted house? Many have behind-the-scenes composers, who masterfully pluck at our nerves as we’re winding our way through mazes full of chainsaw-wielding clowns or whatever other horrors these Halloween (and, in some cases, year-round) attractions may present.
Chris Thomas is a self-described haunt enthusiast who splits his time between Bend, Oregon, and Los Angeles. Back when he was a student in USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program, Thomas became enamored with Los Angeles’ many haunted houses. Every October, he would set aside four nights a week, trying to cram in as many Halloween attractions as he could. As he attended them, one thing became clear.
“I noticed audio was the last thing on everyone's minds,” Thomas says. “There'd be these amazing scenes with these horrible, license-free loops on in the background that just pulled the rug right out from under them.”
In 2009, Ten Thirty One Productions’ Los Angeles Haunted Hayride debuted. He loved the attraction, but noticed that it had “the same junk spinning on the speakers as every haunt in town.” Thomas' wife suggested he contact them to see if they'd be open to a different soundtrack. So Thomas sent a message via the attraction's “haunt line” and, to his surprise, received a call from Ten Thirty One’s Melissa Carbone. This led to a meeting at Bob's Big Boy in Burbank where the two realized they could create not only an original score, but one timed to actor events, pyrotechnics and other key moments.
This year, Hayride's theme is clowns, which should come as no surprise given this year's horror blockbuster IT. The “Midway Theme” is what guests will hear when dodging prowling monsters on the grounds. It’s a circusy harbinger of doom, full of hellish choirs, assertive brass and shrieks of laughter. Throughout the ride, certain characters sing along to or pontificate over Thomas' score (but we wouldn’t want to spoil it for you).
Through his company, Music for Haunts, Thomas also writes music for Drunken Devil's horror-tinged parties. Founder Matt Dorado says he's worked with Thomas since launching in 2015, and uses his “Theater Macabre” piece as Drunken Devil’s official theme. In its earliest incarnation, “Theater Macabre” was a bawdy track reminiscent of a booze-fueled stagger through New Orleans' French Quarter. Thomas has since reworked the theme to fit all of Drunken Devil's subsequent parties, Dorado says, from “an exotic version for our horror-tiki summer event, and a Bernard Herrmann–esque version for our Hitchcock-inspired Halloween soiree,” which took place on Oct. 21.
At Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, original music has been so intrinsic to their shows that composer Christopher Reiner says they've come to think of it as their “secret weapon.” Their Halloween show “Urban Death: Tour of Terror” might begin and end with a maze, but its core theatrical performance blossoms in a series of bizarre, disturbing and occasionally humorous vignettes. There is no dialogue, so the music plays an important role in establishing the mood.
Reiner, a poet and songwriter, says he's been working with the eponymous Zombie Joe and “Urban Death” co-creator Jana Wimer for more than a decade. It’s an intuitive collaboration, in which Reiner is typically able to anticipate exactly what's required. For instance, one vignette, titled “Severed Head,” features a woman with a wide grin holding a head in one hand and a saw in the other.
“Zombie Joe said he wanted sleigh bells, and to give you an idea of how he and I communicate, I knew what he meant by that — something jingly and happy,” Reiner explains. So that's what he provided. “It's just a tuneful little piece and it's meant to contrast with this grim thing going on. If it was all just really grim, I don't think it'd be as fun.”
Another piece, “Dance With a Dead Girl,” features a man in a top hat and tails dancing with, well, a deceased woman. Reiner produced a cinematic, yet mournful melody for the piece. “Dead, Dumb and Blind” features an actor wrapped in gauze who slowly approaches a bewildered audience
“It was very creepy,” Reiner says, “but it didn't need a melody. It just needed a certain atmosphere to be created.”
“Immersive theater depends very much on the action
Not every composer gets to work with perfectly timed hayrides or free-flowing ambiance. Adrien Prévost recently scored Rogue Artist Ensemble's immersive theater piece Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, which falls somewhere in between.
The Japanese word kaidan broadly translates to “ghost story,” and that's exactly what unfolds in this 70-minute show. Groups of 12 at a time arrive at a storage warehouse where employees gossip about the alleged haunting in the floors above. Soon, a foreboding freight elevator deposits the audience on a higher floor, where various Japanese legends are explored via incredible set design, talented actors and a fantastic array of puppets, both large and small. The story is centered around a woman named Kana, who serves as a guide throughout the piece. She has been haunted by a specific spirit since childhood and needs the audience's help to escape.
Prévost grew up in France, the son of an orchestra conductor and a singer, and moved to Los Angeles three and a half years ago. Long enamored with film and finding ways to make music fit with the motion on screen, Prévost now composes for movies, commercials and theater. He's been working with Rogue since 2014, and for this particular project, brought on traditional Japanese musicians, producing a gorgeous, often melancholy soundtrack. He also worked with sound designers Gilly Moon and Steve Swift to create a complete soundscape, enveloping the audience in the magic of the show.
“This kind of project is very challenging to me, as theater and immersive theater depend very much on the action,” Prévost says. As a horror fan, he studied several horror film scores in preparation for the job, nodding to Mark Korven's haunting score from The Witch (2016), as well as composers Joe Hisaishi and Toru Takemitsu as inspiration.
“Every night is different,” Prévost says of his score. “It's somehow close to scoring a video game. You work on layers. It's very challenging when you're not used to it, but it’s a fun challenge.”