The Horror Score Rebellion – Part 3 (Rosemary’s Baby And Popular Music In Horror)

Though 1968 may best be remembered for Romero’s zombies, another film released that same year had a similar impact to the way horror films in the subsequent decade were scored. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Polish émigré Roman Polanski, has a legacy of imitators that developed from its scoring techniques.

Polanski’s tale of the occult in a Manhattan apartment block primarily employs a classical score but large amounts of the film are also scored using popular music. It was in the 1960s that popular music truly came of age in cinema, but the use of a jazz-infused score here has deeper meanings than simple aesthetics.

Whilst New York has a strong association with the jazz world – evidence for this on film can be seen in the likes of Taxi Driver and New York, New York – in Rosemary’s Baby jazz employs an altogether deeper relevance. The music is youthful, playful and free, very much like Rosemary and Guy themselves.

Mia Farrow is also the subject of another debate in terms of the title music, as the lullaby that opens the film is sung by the actress. “Beginning with a nondiegetic vocalise, a gentle, wordless lullaby, the film warmly anticipates birth and maternity” (Link, 2010).  This plays into the rather modern idea of mother’s voice theory and plays against the screen narrative that is determined to build hatred between Mother and Child.

Again in horror this was practically unheard of, and trying to imagine a similar scenario in a horror before 1968 is close to impossible.  This Freudian, psychoanalytical edge is highly provocative in being utilised in the film’s opening sounds and as Gorbman states “The mother’s voice is central in constituting the auditory imaginary, before and also after the child’s entry into the symbolic” (1987), so this made Rosemary’s Baby instantly rebellious in terms of its music.  The debate for whether this opening lullaby music is popular or classical scoring is rather foggy.  Whilst no classical instrumentation is used, the music is distinctively non-pop, almost verging on an experimental folk sound.

Like Night of the Living Dead, the next decade would see horror films pass through the door that Rosemary’s Baby opened, and it is in these films that we see further evidence that 1968 was the turning point in musical creativity in the horror genre.


Rosemary’s Baby’s score was a radical departure from what had come before and its influence produced a strong variety of popularly scored films in the subsequent years.  The most vivid and powerful use of popular music in a post-1968 horror film is undoubtedly in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).

Again a debate opens about what actually constitutes a ‘popular’ score but in this case the term is loosely defined as any non-classical and non-electronic score.  Paul Giovanni’s folk score is an extremely anomalous affair in terms of overall film score techniques in that large amounts of the music, though obviously produced and mixed for the benefit of the audience, it is in fact diegetic and heard by the characters.

The story is set on an island where the disappearance of a young girl has lead to a police investigation.  However, the Island of Summerilse is home to a pagan community that are seemingly against the investigation which, it turns out, is ultimately a ruse to lure a pure Christian to sacrifice in a Wicker Man for the sake of next year’s crops.

Characters on screen often sing the music in the film yet aurally it takes a non-diegetic approach to mixing.  Songs about the spring and the pagan festival dominate the score and any truly non-diegetic music is performed with the same instrumentation, blurring the line between nondiegetic and diegetic; something that horror films before 1968 simply didn’t do.  This again can be seen as “Source Music” as the soundscape is presented as diegetic but also impossibly so, especially in the Willow’s Song scene, with the volume levels all perfect even though the sounds creating the song are coming from different rooms in a public house.

Kassabian talks about this effect found at the end of the first Star Wars film, yet it fits perfectly with The Wicker Man, which remains ambiguous as to its true position; “Thus, this music occupies an ambiguous position within the narrative world of the film, while retaining a limited but clear relationship to the events of that world”.

The Wicker Man took seemingly innocent folk songs and turned them into highly disturbing leitmotifs for pagan rituals and death.  As the people of Summerisle sing joyously while watching Edward Woodward burn to death, we watch the traditions of a classical Christian die with a new pagan belief winning the battle.  This works wonderfully as a metaphor for the cycle of films that came after 1968, as the reason the traditions were burned to the ground was to promote the growth of the crops or, in film terms, promote a generation of new films.

Chion states that “We only have to close our eyes at a film or look away from the screen to register the obvious: Without vision, off screen sounds are just as present – at least as well defined acoustically speaking – as onscreen sounds.” (1990).  The Wicker Man is a perfect film to experiment with this idea and the visuals actually confuse our perception of what we hear.

The popular tradition even started to enter into the realms previously occupied by the gothic and the classical.  Hammer Horror’s Dracula 1972AD is a perfect example of this mixing, with the gothic traditions of Dracula being transported to the hippy days of the early 1970s. Christopher Lee’s Dracula seems shocked by the ideals, perfectly summed up in its now dated popular score.  “In the early 1970s, Hammer attempted to modernise its internationally successful horror films by, first, using contemporary settings, second, including copious amounts of female nudity and, third, using pop songs.” (Donnelly).

Some films didn’t fully adopt the popular score, mainly because of a classical/gothic narrative theme making it unsuited to use, but even then films dealing with the gothic still had space for some popular score.  Though the score to The Exorcist (1973) is largely classical (due no doubt to its themes of devil possession) its most famous motif is the popular score used in its title sequence, which is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Horror films proceeded in this fashion for quite a few years, gradually incorporating pop music to root the story in the modern the day while relying on classical elements to represent the old and often evil nature taking hold of the story.  A perfect example of this is Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), which signifies the beginning of the end of the rebellion and the start of new tradition of balanced scoring.

Even low-budget horror films of the late 1970s were beginning to mix up their scores to the point of them being almost unclassifiable.  Cheap thrills like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and films by Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento mixed up everything they could while bigger budget features started to move back to the older ways while at the same time taking the new rebellious traditions with them.

The Legacy of Balance

Towards the end of the 1970s the pendulum that is the horror score was swinging back to the previous way it had been inclined.  The classicisms of pre-1968 horror score had merely aligned themselves with the high end of the market meaning a handful of films even from 1968 still had a classical score no matter how slight. Witchfinder General (1968) is a good example of this as it also gives the most obvious reason for why the classical score managed to survive in those changing times.

The tendencies of the gothic traditions meant no real place for anachronisms and any attempt to achieve the state of gothic would be severely hampered by the presence of a non-classical score.  Even The Exorcist settles down after its initial popular music opening to portray its tale of devil possession with a classical score raging behind it, while films like The Omen (1976) and the late films of Hammer, such as Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1974), display similar gothic tendencies (though the former does boast one scene accompanied by some electronic wailing).

The Omen itself was a tipping point again that started the pendulum swing back to the older ways.  It was proof to the big studios that expensive horror could easily pay for itself and make good money.  With bigger budgets available allowing scores to be composed rather than the use of stock music like in Night of the Living Dead, the big studios began again to make big budget horror leading to an initial renaissance in the classical score, spearheaded by Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien (1979).  However, this did not mean that horror simply reverted back to the classical traditions.  On the contrary, what was left by the end of the 1970s was a legacy of balance, meaning horror films could be scored in just about any way the director and composer saw fit.

The 1980s were filled to the brim with cheap horror ‘slashers’ that there was healthy ground for the inexpensive electronic score to cover.  At the time some of the high end market were also using electronic scores for their pictures but this electronica was properly arranged by classical composers and mixed electronics with classical ideals as well as occasionally actual classical instrumentation.  Ennio Morricone’s score to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a good example of this as is Howard Shore’s score to Videodrome(1983).

The best example of this balance though comes in the form of The Shining.  Its score mixes electronic mutations of Berlioz’s Symphone Fantastique with recordings of Bartok and Ligiti as well as 1920s popular music such as Al Bowlly’s Midnight, the Stars and You.  This amalgamation of every style of scoring from pre-1968 classicisms (albeit the experimental side) to the electronica and popular music score made available by the rebellion of 1968 is the jewel in the crown of the movement (along with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead)  and is the first of many examples where every type of score is given equal respect and, more importantly screen time.

There’s no doubt that 1968 was the breakthrough year in inventive horror scoring techniques. World cinema had been experimenting with many ideas in the genre for a quite a few years but it took a combined assault from Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead to open the door leading to electronic and popular score being acceptable in horror cinema of the West.  Its legacy is vast as has clearly been seen, and it is in these two films that horror score stepped out of its own shadow and found a new innovative voice far more suited to a genre that has, in many ways, always been a by word for innovation and experimentation.

Adam Scovell

4 thoughts on “The Horror Score Rebellion – Part 3 (Rosemary’s Baby And Popular Music In Horror)

  1. What a fantastic essay, Adam! I am very impressed with all the info and your perspective. I will pass this post around to my film pals. Good job and as a lover of Film Scores I appreciate your understanding of how important they are in films old and new.

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