When they were making Halloween, nobody really knew if it was going to work. Not John Carpenter, not even producer and franchise godfather Moustapha Akkad. It wasn’t that the film was necessarily bad in their eyes, but they had no idea exactly what it was going to be or how audiences were going to react to it. For the most part, they thought they were making a straightforward B-Movie. Only John Carpenter and Debra Hill shared a somewhat formed vision of what they wanted the feature to accomplish.
You can imagine their disappointment, then, when they showed the first cut to a producer who was left wholly underwhelmed. They told John Carpenter that the movie didn’t work and that there was nothing scary about it whatsoever. This was a rough cut. It was a finished visual edit and much like the end product with one major exception: there was no music yet.
The mindset John Carpenter had going into the composing process was assuredly one of disappointment. He tried to shrug it off and compose the best score that he could under the circumstances of a movie made for very little money that, in all likelihood, was going to be a flop. He didn’t go into the scoring process with the mentality that this was the thing that was going to save the film. In fact, Carpenter has explained that he doesn’t think all that much about the scoring process in general. He will have ideas for what he wants a feature to sound like, but he does not write out the score before he begins to record it. He simply goes with what feels right for a particular moment in the film.
With Halloween, Carpenter knew he wanted something of a unique sound. So he used the uncommon 5/4 time beat for a bongo drum and transferred that to piano, which resulted in the melody of the iconic theme. The uncommon sounds of the film worked. They might have even worked better than any film before or since. Carpenter scores the movie as a director, first and foremost. The thing he’s most focused on is establishing mood and tone. The music works on its own and has a distinct sound to itself, but it is there to aid the visuals.
In Halloween, the music creates an incredible atmosphere. The melody plays constantly throughout the film to let the audience known when the shape might appear, when he might be slinking around in the background, ducking behind hedges or houses. Like the shape itself, the music can pop up at any given moment and disappear just as quickly, due to its simplistic nature. Through the music, we are given a nightmare of suburbia where there is a sense of dread lying amidst the normalcy.
There had been melodic scores in horror films before Halloween, to be sure. The Exorcist had the infamous “Tubular Bells” but that was used in the film only twice, and very briefly both times. The score for Carrie was sweet and soft to counterbalance the overall tone, creating unease and tension in a different way than most horror films of the time. Halloween, with maybe the exception of Suspiria before it, was the first score to be melodic and sinister at the same time. Unlike Carrie, it did not have to break from one into the other. Instead, this was music that had a sound you wanted to listen to, it was catchy, but at the same time it was overbearingly sinister.
Perhaps the most infamous score in a horror film outside of Halloween is Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho (1960). Hermann’s music for that film is a masterpiece and created the modern horror score in many ways. It’s never sweet, necessarily, nor is it easy to listen to. With the amount that Halloween borrows from Psycho in both simple homages and on the technical level, it’s interesting to note that Carpenter decided nonetheless to take his score in a completely different direction. It was an influence perhaps, in learning the place of music in horror, but the two scores really are completely different.
Psycho, with its shrill repetitive strings, is completely harsh on the ears. It is actually a painful experience that completely embodies the tension and hostility of not only Norman Bates but the actions he is taking at the time, given that the score is most prominent during scenes of murder.
Halloween acknowledges this, but creates its own sound. The score is always there, drifting between two or three repeating themes, then going to a single note during acts of murder. The music is used less when Michael Myers is actually killing someone. Because, as pointed out, Michael Myers is essentially setting up gags, just as Carpenter is. He’s creating haunted house scares. The music aids this by focusing most on the tension and the buildup to the moment. Once the moment comes, the tension is over and the music drifts out.
It has been often said that Halloween would not work without its music. Even though it is a masterpiece of direction and cinematography, even though it is the perfect guidebook to crafting a simple, effective horror movie and getting the most from a limited budget—this might nonetheless be true. Even if it would still be ominous, even if Michael Myers would still be a haunting, silent specter, the film would not work nearly as well without Carpenter’s score. Music is one of the major keys to the film’s success. Whenever people think of the film, they will think of Michael Myers and they will hear the theme in their head, because the two things are not only inseparable, but are in many ways one and the same.