Hearing Horror

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and the Roots of Horror Film Music

By Caleb Freundlich

So much of what brings us terror lies in the unfamiliar, uncharted, and uncomfortable. In many instances, music represents exactly the opposite of this, using recognizable melodies and phrases to ease and please the ear.

Horror film music, however, is deeply rooted in sounds and techniques that push traditional barriers. Some of the most significant influences on horror film music comes from the Second Viennese School of the early twentieth century, led by Arnold Schönberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

All three of these composers created music that was considered scandalous to many by not relying on the rules of functional tonality that had been in place in Europe for centuries.

Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1923) combines traditional and post-romantic musical techniques together with free atonality, and embodies what a horror film score should aim to achieve in many ways.[1]

With a story filled with blood, murder, and madness—frequent components to horror films throughout the twentieth century—Berg uses not only Wagnerian leitmotifs and memory motifs for characters and as a way to indicate the advancing of the story, but moreover his movement in and out of atonality mimics the unraveling mind of the protagonist.[2]

Furthermore, the use of this atonality challenges the listener in giving little sense to where the music may be headed. From the clip of Wozzeck’s “Tanzt Alle,” one can hear both these techniques; while there is a brief repeat of the piano motif in the second half of the clip, the majority of the piece is not only atonal but also highly unpredictable.

Berg’s use of trilled strings and droned brass adds significantly to the horrific aspects of the piece and the scene, as Wozzeck’s brutal murder of Marie becomes apparent to the other patrons at the bar.

Berg himself wrote that “at every moment from when the curtain opens until it closes for the last time, there must not be anyone in the audience who notices these various fugues and inventions…or anyone who is fulfilled by anything other than the principle idea of this opera, an idea that is far more complex than simply that of Wozzeck’s fate.”[3]

Berg’s genius and influence lies within his ability to gradually reveal deeper and more troubling horrors about Wozzeck and the tragic characters surrounding him. In personifying the dark opera through its music, Berg creates a blueprint for the modern horror film score.

Caleb FreundlichCaleb Freundlich is a senior Music and Media major at Davidson College. Caleb is an aspiring film composer who began playing music at seven years old. He also plays for the Men’s Basketball team at Davidson and is working on his capstone on Horror Film music.


[1] Alban Berg, “The Problem of Opera.” Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, (Schirmer Books, 1996), 277-279

[2] Carl E. Schorske, “Operatic Modernism,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36/4 (2006), 675-681.

[3] Berg, “The Problem of Opera,” 279.

Operatic Tragedy in Fatal Attraction

By Blake Skelton

Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction implicitly juxtaposes the stories of two scorned women: Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) and the titular character of Puccini’s 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly. Some of the most significant moments of Fatal Attraction are accompanied by music from the opera, including the film’s original (but unused) ending, wherein a heartbroken Alex commits suicide accompanied by Puccini’s “Un bel dì vedremo.”

Fatal Attraction – Alternate Ending,” YouTube video, 8:38, “rodirodi24,” June 2, 2002.

Although Fatal Attraction has some of the characteristics of a horror film due to Alex’s unsettling actions and her almost supernatural inability to be killed when she attacks Dan and his family, the alternate ending is so transformative to her character that it brings this classification into question.

A frequent definition of horror film involves an encounter between normality and abnormality; if Alex is a tragic heroine like Butterfly rather than a monster to be eliminated, is Fatal Attraction a tragedy instead of a horror film?

The version of the film as initially released in September 1987 portrays Alex as a monstrous, almost supernaturally powerful Other.

In her essay “Rereading the Bitches from Hell: A Feminist Appropriation of the Female Psychopath,” Deborah Jermyn suggests that Alex is one of the first cinematic female psychopaths whose behavior is motivated by explicit emotional and psychological trauma.

By drowning and shooting her, Dan and Beth fulfill the familiar ritual of horror that occurs with the elimination of an abnormal, evil element and subsequently reinforcing the boundary between the so-called normal and abnormal. Alex’s character arc is resolved with extreme violence, firmly categorizing her as an aberration threatening the domestic happiness of the Gallaghers.

The original ending encourages a starkly different reading of Alex’s character through the comparison of Alex with Butterfly. Although both characters commit suicide, the music playing as Alex slits her throat is not “Con onor muore”—a frantic aria fraught with tritones during which Butterfly commits sepuku—but rather “Un bel dì vedremo,” in which she fantasizes about the long-awaited return of her husband. Within the opera’s narrative, the aria is tragic, foreshadowing Butterfly’s heartbreak and death. The inclusion of “Un bel dì vedremo” in the original final scene of Fatal Attraction forces the audience to grapple with Alex’s anguish by evoking a tragic operatic death.

As Alex’s violence turns inward, we see the character as an imploding product of her circumstances instead of an abject disruption that has to be eliminated. The original ending portrays Alex as a deeply troubled person instead of a monstrous threat to societal stability, transforming Fatal Attraction from a horror film to a tragedy.

Blake SkeltonA Computer Science and Music double major at Davidson, Blake Skelton has been playing violin for sixteen years. While particularly enamored with the overlap between late Romantic music and the music of the early twentieth century, her interests also include 3D modeling and baking sourdough bread.

A Brief History of Horror Cinema

By Adam Ferraz

The horror film has a long and complex history that dates back to the early twentieth century, and with ancestral roots that stretch back even further, to Gothic novels and revenge tragedies and Greek tragedies, among others.

Horror films began to appear during the so-called silent era of cinema (roughly 1893-1927), and the first significant cycle of horror films started with the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s, specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). These German films influenced a wave of Hollywood horror films that began in 1931 with classics such as Universal Studios’ Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931).

The 1950s and the Cold War era saw an overlap between science fiction and horror films, as well as an appeal to adolescent viewers with films such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). In the 1960s, as Barry Keith Grant wrote in the Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and its infamous shower scene began the cycle of “family horror films” and “radically reconfigured the genre” by focusing on psychological villains in a mundane setting rather than supernatural villains in a Gothic or fantasy setting.[1] Listen to some of Bernard Herrmann’s music from that scene.

The 1970s brought an overall reexamination of genre movies in American cinema, and the horror genre during this time saw auteurs creating films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Halloween (1978).

The 1980s featured a resurgence of the sci-fi/horror blend as well as a focus on body horror and the horror comedy film. Finally, the 1990s brought both television horror (such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and big-budget, prestige horror such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Interview with the Vampire (1994).

Despite—or perhaps because of—its convoluted and well-established history, the horror film genre remains immensely popular today, and is still finding ways to both scare and entertain people.

Pictured (above): Janet Leigh in “Psycho” (1960)

Adam FerrazAdam Ferraz is a senior English major and Film and Media Studies minor at Davidson College.


[1] Barry Keith Grant, “Horror Film,” Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Schirmer Reference, 2007), 394.

Hearing Horror: Why a Davidson Seminar is Studying Horror Films and Their Soundtracks

By Neil Lerner

As a teenager I developed a strong interest in Bernard Herrmann’s film scores. Music in films like Psycho (with its savage accents and dissonances) and Vertigo (with its beautifully obsessive and repetitive qualities) fascinated me long before I ever took a music history course or began writing a dissertation on film music.

I couldn’t have articulated it yet as a young person, but Herrmann’s radical individuality as a composer impressed on me that a Hollywood composer could use a wide variety of musical styles, some of which could be quite experimental and might not at all sound like the typical post-romantic sound pioneered by composers like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold.

After studying modernist and contemporary music in graduate school, I began to notice that some of the avant-garde musical sounds that alienated concert hall audiences in the early part of the twentieth century appeared with some regularity in horror film soundtracks.

It may be regarded as a commonplace of twentieth-century music history that film music absorbed some of the practices of aesthetic modernism from the concert hall, and that in particular the genre of the horror film turned to unresolved dissonance, atonality, and timbral experimentation as part of its characteristic stylistic qualities. Frightening images and ideas can be made even more intense when accompanied with unfamiliar musical sounds, and music in horror films frequently makes us feel threatened and uncomfortable through its sudden stinger chords and other shock effects.

This fall, eleven Davidson students are participating in a seminar studying music and sound in horror films. Interdisciplinary in its approach, the course brings senior music majors into conversation with seniors minoring in film & media studies.

This breadth of backgrounds and perspectives, made possible through Davidson’s commitment to an open-minded liberal arts approach that doesn’t get hung up with disciplinary boundaries, allows us to talk in robust ways about films and their scores, and the students have written blog posts for the month of October that cover a representative sampling of topics and films from our seminar.

In the spirit of Halloween, we hope they’ll be both informative as well as maybe a little bit frightening.

Pictured (above): James Stewart in Vertigo © Paramount Pictures.

Neil LernerNeil Lerner is chair of the Music Department at Davidson College, where he has taught since 1997. A musicologist who publishes regularly on film music, video game music, and music and disability studies, Lerner has edited or co-edited four books, including Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (Routledge, 2010).