Column: Slicing Score: Halloween (1978)

By Maria Mitchell

halloweenHalloween (1978, soundtrack). Music composed by John Carpenter.

John Carpenter and his fellow musicians dubbed themselves the ‘Bowling Green Philharmonic’ when they set out to perform Carpenter’s score to Halloween. Carpenter made a very economic move by hiring himself as his own film scorist for Halloween. This was just one of many good choices concerning the film. In fact, Carpenter may be able to attribute his position as director of Halloween to his talent for writing solid, interesting themes, as Halloween’s producer, Irwin Yablans, was familiar with the music Carpenter wrote for the earlier film, Assault on Precinct 13, and was impressed with Carpenter’s evocative talent. (AMC Backstory: Halloween, 2000)

Halloween‘s score is an outstanding achievement in film music composition. The score is melodically simple and its most enduring theme is composed only of three notes played in the odd meter of 5/4 time. Carpenter jokes that the Halloween theme was born from his attempt to play a pair of bongos that his father gifted to him, which he never really learned how to play, but remembered being taught the unusual 5/4 meter. While playing the meter on the bongos, he imagined what it would sound like on the piano and the result was one of the most enduring musical menaces that has helped frighten countless audiences around the world for over three decades. Some viewers have opined that the music itself is too frightening – more frightening than the killing onscreen. This is because, in many ways, the music of a film is the most real part of the film. Suspension of disbelief is not easy to do in a visual context because people often rely on their eyes to separate fact from illusion. Sound is a completely different story. Sound “shows” without showing anything. You hear a noise and your imagination will supply the visual interpretation. Film music engenders the creation of this phantom reality and the success of this creation is where a score’s job will either succeed or fail. Halloween is a score that paints lurid images in the mind which the viewer sees, or senses, before he or she sees any gore in the film. The audience ‘sees’ all of this without seeing any more of the film than the main titles.

What is it about Halloween’s theme that evokes these images? A musical meter which sounds incomplete in its musical “sentences” is a meter that can be utilized effectively in the creation of suspense. 5/4 is such a meter, sounding like there’s a note that is being “squashed”: the middle strain. While listening over and over to musical strains that sound incomplete, the brain begins to construct a blind spot: a sense of missing something important. The mind creates a sense of dread in the same way people feel dread when they can’t recall something important or feel disoriented by ordinary things they should know well. All music is designed to mesmerize the senses. This mesmeric manipulation can create in the brain a vast array of soundscapes. The juxtaposing of the main Halloween piano theme with the synthesized string accompaniment creates mounting tension. The listener is exposed to a furtive, erratic, high-octave piano that suggests the sound blood dripping would sound like if it made a musical sound. The slowly-ascending strings evoke the feeling of a looming shadow coming closer and closer. These images are suggested but the imagination hasn’t fully developed the picture. Nevertheless, the theme is an accurate echo of what will happen before it actually does and so, the viewer has already “seen” much of it by the time the onscreen horror materializes. Once the audience actually sees it, it’s a shock, much like remembering a long-forgotten nightmare, because the audience realizes it’s “seen” it already, but can’t identify the source of the visual stimulus because the visual stimulus was completely auditory: the music.

Maria Mitchell is a writer of dark fiction who reviews film scores that pulse with a beat to match.

John Carpenter’s original soundtrack to Halloween is available through