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The ‘Halloween’ Theme Is the Nightmare From Which You Can’t Wake Up

John Carpenter’s incredible score for his classic horror movie is a marvel of simplicity. The more you listen, the more gripping it becomes

We have John Carpenter’s dad to thank for the Halloween theme. The filmmaker’s father, Howard, was a music professor who, after unsuccessfully trying to get his son interested in the violin as a boy, gave him bongos when he was 13. “I got a pair for Christmas,” Carpenter recalled recently. “My father taught me 5/4 time with these bongos and up until that point, 4/4 time was all I knew. This was a revelation. So I kept it with me in my head, sat down at a piano one day, and just played this rhythm and that was it. It just came out. I played it before I made the movie.”

The movie he’s talking about is Halloween, the 1978 horror landmark that’s spawned a series of sequels, reboots and, this month, Halloween Kills. The original Halloween is known for plenty of things — the introduction of the iconic killer Michael Myers, the ascension of Jamie Lee Curtis as a movie star — but its score is just as major. Several horror movies have indelible soundtracks — Psycho, The Exorcist, Jaws — but the Halloween theme ranks as highly as any of them. It’s terror incarnate, but it’s also just a terrific song. Not bad for something Carpenter whipped up in a couple days on his own because he didn’t have the money to pay anyone else to do it.

Technically, the song is titled “Halloween Theme — Main Title,” clocking it at just under three minutes. If you talk to professional musicians and recording engineers, they can mathematically break down how Carpenter’s use of unconventional time signatures created the track’s disorienting effect. But even those ignorant of music theory can feel in their bones why the song works so well — after all, part of the beauty of music is that you don’t need a grasp of theory to be transported. “Halloween Theme” transcends rational thought. It’s terrifying because it simply is.

Carpenter was born in upstate New York in 1948, making short films as a teen. But even then he was thinking aurally as much as visually: Although his dad failed to turn him onto the violin — the instrument the old man played — the younger Carpenter paid attention to how music worked in movies. The 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet was especially foundational. “It was an epic, Cinemascope space adventure,” Carpenter told The Guardian. “And the score was completely electronic. The way the sounds and images were married together. I cannot tell you how profound that was. I had just never heard anything like that. I saw it and I said, ‘I want to do that for a living.’”

Carpenter attended USC film school, where he composed scores as well as wrote and directed movies. And once he graduated, he kept making films, starting with 1974’s Dark Star, a sci-fi comedy he developed at school alongside co-writer (and future sci-fi legend) Dan O’Bannon. They had no money for Dark Star, so they divvied up the jobs between themselves. “We shot with barely adequate, poorly functioning equipment because we could afford nothing better,” Carpenter said at the time. “Our cameras would rattle and purr like cocktail shakers full of glass. The Coke bottles rammed on the front of the camera were posing as lenses. They wouldn’t focus.” From there, he made Assault on Precinct 13, again working with modest funds and famously having to come up with the score in 24 hours. “It was brutal!” he said recently. “I didn’t have much to do. I had the main theme, I had a quiet theme, I did some rhythmic material. When the clock ran out, that was the end of the score.”

The main theme of Assault on Precinct 13 hinted at Carpenter’s musical strengths. He tends to be self-deprecating when he’s asked about his scoring. (“I have absolutely no talent,” he told Spin earlier this year when discussing his inability to learn violin as a boy, later adding, “So from there, I went to the keyboard and kind of picked it up, then the guitar, and I picked that up. See, I’m just sort of a bum in music. A second-rate bum.”) But his sense of rhythm and his knack for finding cool sounds on synthesizers would become crucial assets. What some might see as primitive in Carpenter’s elemental compositions was, in fact, remarkably bracing. You couldn’t get his songs out of your head.

But Carpenter’s third film was the breakthrough, the story of a disturbed individual named Michael Myers (Nick Castle), who escapes from a mental institution, and luckless babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who faces off with him. The idea for Michael came to Carpenter unexpectedly. “I saw Westworld, the original movie, and Yul Brynner’s character was this unkillable robot,” he told me in 2018. “I thought, ‘That is a really cool character.’ That’s how I came up with it, but it evolved — it wasn’t exactly Yul Brynner.” 

Indeed, what was terrifying about Michael was that he was unknowable — Castle was identified only as “The Shape” in the end credits — which made it easier for the audience to project their own fears onto this horrifying avatar. Whatever scary thing you could think of, that’s who Michael Myers could be.

The script, written by Carpenter and his longtime producing partner Debra Hill, was put together in less than two weeks. Production lasted about three weeks. The budget was only around $300,000. And once Carpenter had finished shooting Halloween, he had to figure out what music would accompany it. “I had three days, a piano and a tube synthesizer program by the synth teacher at USC,” he said this month. “And he had to tune these babies up before you could play [them]. Some of the stuff that I was playing was like a semitone off. It was horrible, but we got through it. And in three days, I didn’t have a way of looking at the movie; I just had to make five or six themes that I could cut in anywhere I needed them.” 

Though composers work in lots of different ways, traditionally they’ll see some sort of rough cut of the film and write to that. (As just one example, Steven Spielberg once said of his longtime collaborator John Williams, “I give him images and John finds the emotions for each one.”) But Carpenter didn’t have that luxury. “I had to guess at various moods,” he admitted. “What surprised me is, they actually fit pretty well into the movie. It’s a cheap but effective way of scoring.”

Halloween isn’t just its main theme, of course: The whole soundtrack is a suite of eerie, spare synthesizer numbers. But “Halloween Theme” is its most famous song, and it’s the first thing we hear when the movie starts. Immediately, you’re thrust into this unnerving mindset. That frantic keyboard is somehow both stately and unhinged — it’s perfectly modulated anxiety that seems to be spiking as it goes along. You haven’t even met Michael yet, but already you’re sweating.  

Neil Lerner, Davidson College’s music chair and professor of music, was asked recently to explain exactly why “Halloween Theme” gets its hooks into us. “The main thing is that it’s in 5/4 time, an asymmetrical meter,” he said. “It’s got five pulses instead of just a group of two or of three. That’s pretty unusual, at least for film music and for mainstream music. We’re used to hearing music that has really even, steady pulses. A grouping of five is just something our ears aren’t accustomed to. It gives the theme a subtle way of sounding like the world is out of balance, that something is askew or not right. … Then, the music is just simple. The theme is mostly three pitches that he repeats several times, and then he shifts it all down a half step. He’s cycling through patterns and efficiently reusing musical ideas. Carpenter’s setting up an idea of surprise with the music. And it works as a design principle for the whole way the film is going to work. Halloween is about these shocks and surprises and so the music has shocks and surprises as well.”

In other words, “Halloween Theme” operates differently than most music we hear, and because our brains are thrown by it, we freak out a little, trying to make sense of these strange sonic quirks. Or, as Michele Darling, who’s Assistant Chair, Electronic Production and Design at Berklee College of Music, put it, “[T]he syncopation is created with accents in groups of 3, 3, 2 and 2. The initial pace in the groups of three is set, but then is suddenly changed to groups of two, making it feel as if it’s pushing us forward and creating an unsteadiness.”

But forget the more analytical explanation for a moment. The pure cheapness of Carpenter’s approach is also incredibly important. When you think of those earlier horror-score landmarks, they were often done with orchestras, albeit in stripped-down fashion. The classic “Ree ree ree ree!” violin shriek of the Psycho shower scene incorporates stringed instruments to achieve its effect — even the piano-driven theme from The Exorcist feels elegant and refined. Appropriately for a film that was far scrappier than its predecessors, “Halloween Theme” is proudly lacking in such classiness. Rather, the song has a nasty, DIY edge — its unpolished nature made it seem unpredictable and dangerous. As scary as those earlier songs had been, they still radiated a certain warmth because of the instruments on which they were played. By contrast, synthesizers could be chilly, inhuman. Halloween’s terror sprung from a remorseless, faceless Shape — and its score was just as cold-blooded. 

The success of Halloween paved the way for tons of slasher ripoffs and Halloween sequels. Those subsequent Halloween films were inferior — often, downright ghastly — in comparison to the original, with Carpenter becoming less involved, sometimes serving as a co-writer or producer. (“Every time a sequel is made, I get paid” is how he puts it.) And along the way, “Halloween Theme” evolved as Carpenter added new sonic ideas while maintaining the keyboard-centric approach.  

After Halloween, the filmmaker saw his profile grow, getting bigger budgets for his follow-up movies, although he often continued to compose the scores himself. They were as important to him as the images on the screen. “There is a point in making a movie when you experience the final result. For me, it’s always when I see an interlock screening of the picture with the music,” Carpenter once wrote. “All of a sudden a new voice is added to the raw, naked-without-effects-or-music footage. The movie takes on [its] final style, and it is on this that the emotional total should be judged. Someone once told me that music, or the lack of it, can make you see better. I believe it.”

Carpenter had been inspired by Psycho when he conceived the plot of Halloween, and he long admired that film’s composer, Bernard Herrmann. Soon, “Halloween Theme” would become as synonymous with horror movies as Herrmann’s score — just a few notes could instantly conjure up the accumulated terror of years of scared viewers watching Michael wreak havoc. Setting his movie on the freakiest night of the year was a stroke of genius: Every Halloween, we think of Halloween, and so people put on Carpenter’s score to get themselves in the mood.

The story of John Carpenter is that of an expert genre filmmaker whose brilliant movies often failed to connect with audiences the first time around. But misunderstood marvels like The Thing ultimately gained a cult following, prompting future directors to want to remake them. Sadly, Carpenter hasn’t directed a film since 2010’s The Ward, and in recent years he’s gained an elder-statesman stature — a legend because of his influence on the art form, even if he hasn’t had anything resembling a critical or commercial success in decades.

But there’s a happy ending to that story. In the last few years, Carpenter has turned his attention to the thing he always insists he has no talent in. Six years ago, he released Lost Themes, a series of instrumentals he composed with his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies. Although the album contained the same chilly, gripping vibe as his soundtracks, Carpenter hadn’t intended any of it for some future film project — the whole thing happened sorta by accident. “My son and I would play video games for two hours, and then improvise music for two hours at our home studio, then return to the videogame, and so forth,” he said at the time. “This just went on and on over a period of around six months.” 

The well-reviewed Lost Themes were followed by two future installments — the latest came out in February — and Carpenter went on tour, playing album tracks alongside selections from his film scores. You can imagine one particular oldie that always got a great reaction, no matter what time of year he played it.

Carpenter’s recent renaissance has only been boosted by David Gordon Green’s Halloween remakes. The superb 2018 Halloween in particular helped remind people how brutally effective Carpenter’s original was — especially because the maestro returned to create a score for the new film. It harkened back to the 1978 soundtrack, but it also felt eerie and muscular in its own way. “We started by getting the themes from the original movie and moving them into the computer,” he told me in 2018. “Using new technology, we just brought them back to life — we put new life into it, really. The sounds that are available to us today, they’re just so much more modern and so much better than the original stuff. I mean, even the audio quality of the sound is improved.”

It still sounds like “Halloween Theme,” although it’s got a little more bottom end — it seems a little more dance-y. But the key elements remain killer. That thumping beat. That jittery keyboard line. The frosty synths that add some punctuation from time to time. The song has retained that sense of grandeur — a feeling of a nightmare that you can’t break free from. (He revisited it again for Halloween Kills, giving it a more funereal vibe this time.)

Whenever I listen to “Halloween Theme,” I often think, “What am I actually hearing?” Is it the sound of Laurie being frightened out of her mind? When I hear the Jaws theme or the shower-scene music from Psycho, my mind associates those tunes with the act of the predator attacking its prey. (That “dun-dun” of Jaws is meant to replicate the arrival of the shark, right?) But the “Halloween Theme” doesn’t necessarily represent Michael. It feels like it extends beyond the Shape, conjuring up some vague uncertainty that’s always surrounding us. If Michael is a symbol of every faceless bogeyman — all those terrible things out there in the world that we can’t control — then “Halloween Theme” is the soundtrack to that irrational fear. 

That unconventional time signature messes with your mind, making it hard to situate yourself in the song. You feel trapped in “Halloween Theme” in the same way that the characters feel at the mercy of Michael. Carpenter won’t let you escape.