Sounds of horror: musical instruments used in scary movies

Posted on: 25 October 2016

Halloween pumpkins with scary faces

Ever wondered how they make the scary music in horror, sci-fi and thriller films? Alongside computer generated sounds and synthesisers (have a listen to the soundtracks for A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween which feature heavy use of synths), film composers sometimes use obscure instruments to create some of the creepiest sounds.

Have a listen to some of these eerie instruments that you’ve probably heard before but never seen:


Featured in Aliens, Poltergeist, Let the Right One In, The Matrix and Dark Water

Have you ever questioned how that haunting, slicing sound was created in your favourite horror movie? Well, it’s likely it was the Waterphone.

Considered the ‘King of Horror Movie Music’, the Waterphone is a stainless steel resonator pan (sometimes filled with water) with rods of different lengths and diameters. It can be bowed, struck with beaters or tapped with a hand to create a variety of terrifying noises.

Ondes Martenot

Featured in Ghostbusters, There Will Be Blood, The Black Cauldron and Heavy Metal

The Ondes Martenot is one of the earliest electronic instruments, with origins in the First World War. It creates a haunting, melancholic sound, and is described as ‘nerve-jangling when gleefully abused’.

As a cross between an organ and a theremin, it has a four-octave keyboard with moveable keys that create vibrato when wiggled and a glass lozenge shaped volume control. The Ondes Martenot has been featured in popular and classical music as well - check out this particularly creepy piece by Messiaen.

Blaster Beam

Featured in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Star Trek and Forbidden World

The Blaster Beam is a beast of an instrument: 14 to 18 feet of machined aluminium, with 24 piano strings and moveable, sometimes motorised, pickups.

The instrument was perfected in the late 1970s by Craig Huxley, who also performed the Blaster Beam part featured in Michael Jackson’s Beat It. It is played by striking or plucking the strings with fingers, sticks or pipes. Its sound is often described as dark and sinister because of its distinctive bass tone.


Featured in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and Existenz

The Theremin was featured heavily in Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood StillThe Theremin is the only musical instrument you play without touching.Named after its Russian inventor Leon Theremin, it is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact.

Originally used to play classical music, it was then later discovered by film composers and has since been typecast as a spooky sound effect, especially used to reflect otherworldly activity.

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