The Synth of Fear: Horror and Sci-Fi Films with Synthesizer Scores – Article

Keith Emerson's sound-man gets to grips with the Moog
Keith Emerson’s soundman at work…

Electronically produced sound has been available to adventurous film composers since the silent era. Among the earliest electronic instruments were the Ondes-Martenot (invented in 1928), which produced a characteristic quivering sound by varying the frequency of oscillation in an array of vacuum tubes, and the trautonium (1930), a monophonic synthesizer-like instrument in which sound generation was based on neon tubes and modulated by the action of fingers on a metal resistor wire.

Later, the clavioline (1947) was the first electronic keyboard instrument to reach the mass market, boasting a five-octave range derived from a single tone generator; its rich buzzy timbre can be heard on Joe Meek’s classic single “Telstar” (1962) and the work of jazz maverick Sun Ra.

Among the more obscure instruments, the ANS synthesizer (1937) was perhaps the most unusual: created by Russian engineer Evgeny Murzin, it modified sine waves photo-electronically by means of five glass discs, through which light shines as the player scratches patterns on an outer surface coated with non-drying black mastic. It can be heard on Edward Artemiev’s score for Andrei Tarkovsky’s sublime Solaris (1972).

The Theremin

The earliest and best known of these pioneering instruments is the theremin (developed in 1920), which produces a distinctively eerie tone shifting up and down in pitch according to the position of the operator’s hands in relation to a pair of magnetised antennae. It made its soundtrack debut in a 1931 Soviet film called Odna (“Alone”), for a sequence in which a woman gets lost in a furious snowstorm.

Miklós Rózsa was the first film composer to use the theremin in the West, in the otherwise orchestral scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Spellbound (1945) and Billy Wilder’s drama about alcoholism Lost Weekend (1945).

Spellbound Blu-ray


The theremin also turned up in Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) and was incorporated by composer Ferde Grofé into Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950), after which it became strongly associated with science fiction, thanks to Bernard Herrmann’s influential score for Robert Wise’s classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which involved the use of both treble and bass theremins.

The same year, Dimitri Tiomkin added theremin to his score for Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951), which could be said to mark the first use of electronic sound in a horror movie.

The first film to boast a completely electronic score was Forbidden Planet (1956), featuring sounds created by husband and wife team Louis and Bebe Barron, the latter a student of American avant-garde composer Henry Cowell. During 1952-53 the Barrons worked with John Cage as engineers on his first tape work “Williams Mix”, a four and a half minute piece which took over a year to complete.

Forbidden Planet Blu-ray


In 1956, having realised the limited commercial potential of avant-garde composition, they put feelers out to Hollywood and were commissioned to produce twenty minutes of sound effects for Forbidden Planet. When the producers heard the astonishing results they signed the couple up for the whole score. Using a variety of home-built electronic circuits, principally a ‘ring modulator’, the Barrons further manipulated the results by adding reverberation, delay and tape effects. Such was the sheer novelty of their work that, at an early preview of the movie, the audience applauded the sound of the spaceship landing on Altair IV.

Forbidden Planet – spaceship landing:

Alfred Hitchcock turned to electronic sound again in 1963, for his innovative horror film The Birds. This time he decided to dispense with an orchestral score altogether and opted for Oskar Sala’s ‘Mixtur-Trautonium’ to create synthetic birdcalls, along with an abstract electronic soundtrack by Sala and Remi Gassmann.

Alfred Hitchcock with Oskar Sala at the Trautonium

Psycho + The Birds Blu-ray


Sala also provided an extraordinary trautonium score to Harald Reinl’s 1963 West-German horror-thriller Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor aka The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle.

Distinguished by complex harmonic arrangements of pure electronic sound, and some striking approximations of brass and woodwind, Sala’s music for this better-than-average krimi deserves more attention – a twelve-minute suite from the film can be found on the Oskar Sala compilation CD “Subharmonische Mixturen”.

Strangler of Blackmoor - poster

Robert Moog at the controls

In the mid-1960s, American physics graduate and electrical engineer Doctor Robert Moog unveiled an invention that was to revolutionise the field. The first commercially available ‘synthesizer’ as the term is understood today, the ‘Moog’ was smaller, cheaper and far more reliable than previous examples. Before this the only synthesizers in existence were enormous, unwieldy, custom-built machines like the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, installed at Columbia University in 1957.

Robert Moog, with the assistance of New York recording engineer Wendy (at the time ‘Walter’) Carlos, launched his first production model – the 900 series – in 1967, with a free demonstration record composed, recorded and produced by Carlos herself. (She created an even greater sensation in 1968 with “Switched on Bach”, an album of synthesized Johann Sebastian Bach pieces, and went on to record music for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining).

Wendy Carlos with Moog 900 circa the late 1960s

1968 was the year in which George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences. And at the heart of this seminal modern horror film, electronic sound is deployed to suggest unutterable horror: when would-be heroic young couple Tom and Judy are killed, and zombies attack in graphic detail, a deep, distorted oscillator drenched in white noise and reverb underlines the severity of the scene and amplifies the taboo-busting power.

The rest of the score consists of library orchestral tracks, sometimes slathered in echo to add a hallucinatory edge; only this one key scene utilizes pure electronics. It’s an artistic decision that would reverberate through the genre for years to come, setting the seal on the synthesizer as the instrument of choice for representing abject physical horror.

Night of the Living Dead Blu-ray

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Tom and Judy devoured, in Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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