WDAV Staff Members Share On-Air (and Onstage) Nightmares

What wakes you up in a cold sweat? For radio hosts and performing artists, a piece of faulty equipment or a missed cue is all it takes to send a normal dream into a tailspin. This Halloween, WDAV staff members share the terrifying radio and performance dreams that have haunted their midnights (plus a few real-life nightmares). 

“Years ago, I was in a college production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Though I have a lot of good memories from the show, I was a bucket of nerves for most of the run – we staged it at a local opera house, and I was absolutely terrified to sing in front of such a large crowd. My entire family, several of my professors, dozens of my classmates, and even a high school teacher of mine ended up coming to see it, which added to the overall sense of dread. To this day, I have a recurring nightmare every few months, and it always plays out the same way: my college voice professor calls me in a panic and says, ‘We’re doing Oklahoma! again, tonight, and the whole cast is waiting for you to drive down so rehearsals can start.’ It sounds silly, but I wake up in a cold sweat every time!”

Mary Lathem
Marketing & Digital Communications Specialist

“Any person coming into a new job in a new field will most likely be nervous about messing something up. I came to WDAV in late 1986 from a theatre background, never before having worked in radio, even though I had dreamt of a radio career since I was a teenager. So, I was lucky enough to be hired at WDAV as a paid part-time community announcer, mainly on the weekends or late at night. Back then, WDAV signed off at 1 a.m. every night and signed on at 6 a.m. After my first couple of weeks, I felt I had the hang of things. I was sleeping well at night. One morning, I thought I had overslept, so I hurriedly put on my clothes, hopped in my car and zipped up I-77. I feared I was really running it close to the scheduled 6 a.m. sign-on time, and I began to get nervous as I had to get to the station, flip the switches that turned on the transmitter, pull the pre-scheduled LPs for that morning’s shift, cue up the needles on the turntables and be ready to speak in a calm and clear voice right at 6 a.m. Could I pull it off? I was confident that I could.

Well, I got inside the building at 5:55 a.m. and I opened the door to the on-air studio and all I saw were loads of wires and cables hanging from the ceiling with no equipment there to do my radio stuff. It was like a bomb went off in there. It was a horror scene as I went into a sheer panic and ran around the building screaming like a banshee not knowing what to do. I was hyperventilating and crying as I knew I was going to get fired even though I knew I did nothing wrong. Suddenly, I woke up breathing heavily not knowing where I was. I looked around the darkened room and in a few breathless seconds I realized I had just experienced a nightmare!”

Ted Weiner
Music Director

“Back in early 2020, before COVID hit, The Davidson College Choral Arts Society was performing a Britten concert, and I had a solo part in one of the pieces, Rejoice in the Lamb. I was so nervous about this performance as it’d been a while since I was on stage that I began to have nightmares about it. The night before the concert, I had a terrible yet hilarious one where I completely forgot what piece I was supposed to be singing and just stared at the audience in front of me. Out of fear of the silence, I just began singing Sure on this Shining Night. Everybody was staring—the organist, the choir, audience, conductor, everybody. No one knew what was going on. I finished the piece to a smattering of confused applause and the conductor just gave me a look that said ‘Ooook, well, thanks for that?’”

Heidi North
Administrative Assistant

“It’s common for actors to have nightmares involving being in the wrong play, where the lines you learned and the costume you’re wearing make no sense in the play you happen to be in. I certainly had my share of those when I studied for and pursued a career in live theater as an actor and director. When I made the transition to radio, I began to have a similar nightmare in a new setting. I’d be in a radio studio, but it would be completely unfamiliar to me, so I wouldn’t know how to operate the turntable or start the mic or any basic things (which is kind of a silly dream, considering how similar the equipment is in most studios). Another variation on that nightmare was one in which the recording I was playing would end without me having time to find or ‘cue up’ the next musical selection. What would ensue was the dreaded ‘dead air,’ which is anathema in radio, and it would last interminably in the nightmare while I searched frantically for the next music on the playlist.

I also experienced a real life nightmare in radio many years ago, when we first experimented with using the Internet to transmit the signal of a live broadcast from the venue to the station, and from there to listeners using our broadcast signal. I was very nervous about this and argued that we should still rent a phone line as a backup in case anything went wrong with the then notoriously unstable Internet connection. But the phone line was expensive, so the GM at the time shot down that idea. The day of the broadcast came, and the program, which was a Christmas holiday concert from a church in Charlotte’s Center City, was underway when suddenly we became aware that the signal was breaking up on its way to the station, and on air, of course. We scrambled to work around the faulty connection, but it continued to be unreliable, so we had to abandon the live broadcast. Instead, we played the recording of the concert we were making simultaneously later that afternoon. We were all embarrassed, not least the GM who had insisted we use only the Internet. And we were alternately annoyed and amused when we learned that the cause of the disruption was that someone in the church office had been using up the available bandwidth of the Internet connection during the concert by streaming an episode of The Daily Show on their computer!”

Frank Dominguez
General Manager

Playlist: Sinister Scores for Halloween

by Connie Kim

It’s Halloween season! Perfect for a party or an eerie evening of trick-or-treating, our selection of spooky scores from iconic horror films and television will give you the chills.

  1. “Cabrini Green” (Philip Glass, Michael Reisman, The Western Wind) – The Music of Candyman (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)
  2. “Main Title” (John Williams) – Jaws (Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  3. “Polymorphia” (Krzysztof Penderecki) – The Exorcist (Original Motion Picture)
  4. “Main Title” (Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind)- The Shining (Original Motion Pictures Soundtrack)
  5. “Flight”(Bernard Herrmann) – Psycho (The Complete Original Motion Picture Score)
  6. “Dance” (Max Lilja) – The Exorcist (Original Radio Play Soundtrack)
  7. “The Car Lot” (Bernard Herrmann) – Psycho (The Complete Original Motion Picture Score)
  8. “The Shark Approaches” (John Williams) – Jaws (The Collector’s Edition Soundtrack)
  9. “The Shadow”(Bernard Herrmann) – Psycho (The Complete Original Motion Picture Score)
  10. “We’re Not the Only Ones Watching” (David Julyan) – The Cabin in the Woods (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  11. “Night of Terror” (Clint Mansell) – Black Swan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  12.  “The Cabin in the Woods” (David Julyan) – The Cabin in the Woods (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  13. The Haunting of Hill House (The Newton Brothers) – The Haunting of Hill House (Music from Netflix Horror Series)
  14. The History of Hill House (Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra) – The Haunting (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  15. “Headless Wizard” (Christopher Young) – Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  16. “Gassed” (Bobby Krlic) – MidSommar (Original Motion Picture Score)
  17. “Femme Fatale” (Michael Abels) – Us (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  18. “Go Tomorrow” (The Newton Brothers) – The Haunting of Hill House (Music from Netflix Horror Series)
  19. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Johann Sebastian Bach, William McVicker) – Great Organ Classics
  20. “Finale” (Michael Abels) – Us (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  21. “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” (Michael Abels) – Get Out (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  22. “Children of the Corn” (Marco Beltrami) – A Quiet Place (Original Soundtrack Album – edited)
  23. “WTF is That” (Michael Abels)- Nope (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  24. “Caleb is Lost” (Mark Korven) – The Witch (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  25. “Filthy Dog”(Mark Korven) – The Lighthouse (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
  26. “All Together Now” (Marco Beltrami) – A Quiet Place (Original Soundtrack Album)
  27. “Suspiria”(Goblin) – Suspiria (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Sinister Scores Playlist

Part 2: Paranormal Haunts and Happenings of the Classical Music Realm

For many listeners, hearing some of history’s greatest classical works can be a transportive experience. You’re sliding your headphones on one minute, and the next, a composer’s personality comes to life within your mind. Soon enough, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rebecca Clarke, and Edvard Grieg begin to feel like old friends. But the effect might not be so comforting if, say, Beethoven showed up at your door one night. 

As you’ll soon discover, that hasn’t stopped long-dead classical music icons from (allegedly) returning to the land of the living, leaving orders and nuggets of wisdom in their wake. One word of caution: you might want to read these stories with the lights on.

Part 1 of this article is available here


Tears of the “Unknown Normal” 

Chopin’s death mask, by Clésinger
By JackGibbonsPianist, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Chopin’s restless spirit strikes again! In fact, this story is just one of several spooky experiences pianist Byron Janis has had involving the late composer. Feeling a supernatural link with Chopin, Janis was once gifted a rare cast of the composer’s face from Georges Sand’s estate, which he proudly displayed on his piano. One day, guests who were visiting Janis’ family at home asked about the mask – and suddenly, something remarkable happened. Salty fluid began to leak from the cast’s eyes, followed by a frothy foam bubbling forth from its mouth, leaving the family and guests in awe and “terribly shocked.” Janis’ explanation for the incident? The mask was crying tears of joy – and “Chopin was happy he could communicate, somehow, with the current world.” 

As for Janis’ attitude toward uncanny moments like this one, we’ll let him explain. “I don’t like the word ‘paranormal,’ I like ‘unknown normal, because that’s what it really is,” he shared in an NPR feature. “Things are unknown, and once they become known then they become normal after a bit.”


Chad Lawson’s Audience of One

Two years ago, North Carolina’s own Chad Lawson was wrapping up a soundcheck at Austin’s Paramount Theatre when he got the idea to snap a few pictures of the empty recital hall for social media. Three quick taps in rapid succession later, Lawson had what he needed and carried on with his day. However, while scrolling through the pictures to make an Instagram post later that night, he noticed something odd: although he believed he had been alone in the hall, someone was standing on the mezzanine floor in the second snap. In the first and third pictures, no one was there.

Soon, Lawson discovered that the theatre had a reputation for paranormal visits, in particular the specter of a woman in a white dress who often appeared in the mezzanine – exactly the type of figure that had appeared in his photo. Though there is no consensus about the spirit’s identity, some have guessed that she might be a relic of the Civil War era or a former projectionist, and audience members sometimes report an unexplainable feeling of discomfort in that area of the theatre. For now, all we can do is speculate (and get a glimpse of the haunting photos for ourselves). 

Chad Lawson: So, I wasn’t gonna post this because it freaked me out a good bit and hadn’t noticed until returning to the hotel. After soundcheck for our Lore Podcast show, I took 3 quick-tap photos from stage to share. In the photo you can clearly see someone in the mezzanine. Noticing it, I looked at the 1st & 3rd pics and the person is absent. So, i google “ghosts paramount theatre, Austin (see 2nd pic). Needless to say....I didn’t sleep too well last night.
From Chad Lawson’s Photos on Facebook


Koussevitzky Gives His Blessing

Serge Koussevitzky, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Even in death, conductor, composer, and double-bassist Serge Koussevitzky wouldn’t trust just anyone with his beloved instrument. Years after the Maestro’s passing, his wife Olga accepted an invitation to hear the New York debut recital of the up-and-coming bassist Gary Karr, unaware that an eerily familiar face would be in attendance. 

As Karr played, Olga was awestruck to see an apparition of her late husband, which appeared to embrace the young bassist. Olga would present Koussevitzky’s instrument to Karr as a gift days later, inspired by what she viewed as a sign from beyond the grave, and from that moment on the bass would be Karr’s faithful companion until his retirement forty years later. 

In a fitting way to return the Koussevitzkys’ generosity, Karr donated the coveted instrument (now known as the Karr-Koussevitzky bass) to the International Society of Bassists, which has lauded the gift as “perhaps the best known bass in existence.” The jury’s still out on whether it’s also the most haunted bass in existence – but some who have played it, including bassist Dennis Whittaker, have sensed something more historical than ghostly. “It’s impossible not to feel the heritage of the instrument. Some say they feel a presence,” Whittaker explained in an interview with Culture Map Houston. “I’d like to think that it’s the spirit of Koussevitzky making sure that we are playing music right.”


Chopin In The Shadows: The Supernatural Adventures Of Byron Janis (NPR Classical)

This pianist thought he was alone in the concert hall. His photo tells a different story. (Classic FM)

Phantom of The Paramount? Artist performing at Austin theater shares chilling photos (KVUE ABC)

Karr-Koussevitsky Bass (International Society of Bassists)

Serge The Musical Ghost: Great haunted instrument makes a spooky Houston debut (Culture Map Houston)

Paranormal Haunts and Happenings of the Classical Music Realm

For many listeners, hearing some of history’s greatest classical works can be a transportive experience. You’re sliding your headphones on one minute, and the next, a composer’s personality comes to life within your mind. Soon enough, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Rebecca Clarke, and Edvard Grieg begin to feel like old friends. But the effect might not be so comforting if, say, Beethoven showed up at your door one night. 

As you’ll soon discover, that hasn’t stopped long-dead classical music icons from (allegedly) returning to the land of the living, leaving orders and nuggets of wisdom in their wake. One word of caution: you might want to read these stories with the lights on. 


A Violinist Summons Schumann

(And Wouldn’t You Know It, He’s a Fan)
Jelly d’Aranyi
By Unknown author

If your cousin’s wife’s middle school friend is to be believed, ouija boards are bad news – but Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi must have been willing to take a risk. D’Aranyi and her sister Adila, both accomplished musicians and lovers of the supernatural, reportedly spoke to the ghost of Robert Schumann through a gadget similar to a ouija board at a séance. Schumann instructed d’Aranyi to find and perform a long-lost work of his, and just like that, Jelly d’Aranyi had been chosen to premiere Schumann’s Violin Concerto from beyond the grave. 

Despite this compelling news, a battle broke out over who should be the first to perform the work when its existence became public knowledge. After the dust settled, d’Arányi gave the concerto its third performance in London with great success (though it’s unclear whether this outcome was disappointing for Schumann’s restless spirit). 

Schumann’s Violin Concerto has since gained recognition as an important work – and to think, we might have never heard it had it not been for his meddling ghost. 


Scott Joplin Comes Home

Scott Joplin
By Unknown author
Palisades Virtuosi, Public Domain.

It’s closing time at the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis, and the museum’s curator is getting ready to lock up for the night. The curator turns to tell the final guest it’s time to head out, but the man, who had been idling by the window seconds before, has disappeared without a trace. Later, it occurs to the curator that the guest had looked extremely familiar – and in fact, the museum was once his home.

Well, that’s what the curator told author Tananarive Due (who was subsequently inspired to write the novel “Joplin’s Ghost”), and whether the story is true or not, there is another way we might feel Joplin’s phantom presence. In 1959, a St. Louis music collector uncovered player piano rolls that may have been punched by Joplin himself, and the rolls remain in good enough shape to be used today. According to Due, the sound the rolls produce “is almost like having a ghost in the room.”

More from Tananarive Due – and snippets of what could be Joplin’s handiwork at the piano – can be heard here in a 2006 NPR segment


Masterpieces from Beyond the Grave? 

Rosemary Brown
By Louis-Maxime-Dubois
Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

A visit from a spectral stranger in a long black coat would set anyone’s nerves on edge, but for seven-year-old Londoner Rosemary Brown, the alleged encounter marked the beginning of a very unusual career path. The spirit claimed to be a long-dead composer, explaining that he would return to make her famous one day – and years later, Brown identified the visitor as none other than Franz Liszt. 

In her late 40’s, Brown began to report ghostly visits from Liszt and nearly a dozen other classical music figures, claiming that the composers would dictate new works to her as she sat at the piano. Liszt’s promise was soon fulfilled: after a media firestorm erupted, Brown briefly became a household name. She went on to publish several books detailing her experiences, including “Unfinished Symphonies: Voices from the Beyond” (1971) and “Immortals at My Elbow” (1974). 

But was Brown’s story too good to be true? Some psychologists and composers believed the tale, mostly because Brown’s musical training was viewed as too limited to have written such convincing imitations of famous composers’ works. Others felt Brown was simply a genius who had pulled off the ultimate hoax. Whatever the truth may be, surviving recordings of Brown’s works baffle classical music fans – and inspire conspiracy theories – to this day. 


David Bowie Meets the Ghost of Chopin

David Bowie
By AVRO – Beeld En Geluid Wiki
Gallerie: Toppop 1974, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl.

Nestled in the French countryside a stone’s throw from Paris, the 18th century castle Château d’Hérouville began a new life as a recording studio in the 1970’s, attracting many of the era’s most high-profile artists (Elton John, Pink Floyd, and Cat Stevens, to name a few). However, when David Bowie arrived to record his 1977 album Low, he may have been greeted by more company than he anticipated.

You see, Frédéric Chopin and the writer George Sand were guests of the chateau at the height of their ill-fated romance in the 19th century – and there’s a persistent rumor that their spirits roam the chateau’s halls, causing mayhem and passing on ghostly messages. The story goes that Bowie instantly refused to sleep in one bedroom upon his arrival, citing inexplicable cold spots and general unease. Producer Tony Visconti, who took the room in Bowie’s place, told Uncut magazine that “there was certainly some strange energy in that chateau… but what could Frédéric and George really do to me, scare me in French?” As for whether Chopin and Sand made any appearances on the album, well… you’ll have to listen for yourself. 



The Séance and Robert Schumann (The American Scholar)

Ghost Stories: The Rediscovery of Schumann’s Only Violin Concerto (Strings Magazine)

Joplin’s Ragtime Style Lives on in Print and Song (NPR)

All hail Rosemary Brown – the dinner lady who played like a pianist possessed (The Guardian)

Château d’Hérouville: The Castle Studio Where Bowie, Elton, and Pink Floyd Recorded (Reverb)

Secret History: David Bowie and the Ghost of Chopin (Slipped Disc)

The Return of the Honky Chateau (BBC)

Bowie Golden Years: Low

A Performer’s Worst Nightmare: Carolina Musicians Share their Spookiest Dreams

Nightmares often wander into the world we know best. Maybe you’re a student who routinely dreams about taking a test you didn’t study for, a waiter whose nightmares are haunted by the sound of trays falling to the ground, or a motivational speaker who dreams of addressing a huge crowd, only to realize you’re wearing pajamas.

For performing artists, dreams that start off with a routine trip to the concert hall can quickly devolve into a performance gone wrong… very wrong.

Carolina artists and friends of WDAV recall musical nightmares that made them wake up in a cold sweat. 

Barbara Krumdieck

Baroque Cellist
Davidson, NC

“This musician’s worst nightmare FELT as if it went on all night long!

In the dream, I was in the John Clark Performance Studio at WDAV, which was more like a creepy warehouse than an actual studio. I was there to play solo Bach live on the radio, but things kept going wrong at every turn.

The folks at WDAV put me in a tiny corner surrounded by furniture, so I wasn’t able to move my arms back and forth. They turned off all of the lights, so I wasn’t able to see my music, and of course, I hadn’t memorized the pieces. Then they brought in a brass ensemble and wanted me to play a piece with them. I didn’t have the music, AND the brass group was tuned to A=440, while I was tuned to A=415 (Baroque pitch).

I felt like a terrible, inflexible musician, and I could tell I was really getting on Frank’s nerves!”

Ethan Uslan

Ragtime, Jazz & Swing Pianist
Charlotte, NC

“I once dream-journaled for a week or so, keeping a pen and paper on the nightstand to jot down my dreams before I forgot them.

I discovered that almost every night, I would dream that I was before a live audience with the impossible task of playing a song I didn’t know. For example: I was at the piano, accompanying Louis Armstrong at the Bechtler.

He started playing a song that I didn’t know and I struggled to keep up.

Louis was doing his famous schtick, scat singing and hamming it up. He even had his famous white handkerchief. The crowd was loving it! But Louis was tremendously disappointed in my piano playing. As soon as the song soon ended, he turned towards me and his big smile gave way to a long, contemptuous death-stare.

I was so mortified and ashamed, it was literally my worst nightmare!”

Pamela Howland

Winston-Salem, NC

“My scary recurrent performer’s dream began like this:  a singer and I were backstage waiting to go on for the performance, when I was handed a raft of Richard Strauss songs (some of the hardest and most beautiful piano music I know), told that this was now the music she would be singing, and we were immediately thrust out on stage.

Shockingly, here I was sight reading horribly in this performance, and wondering how this could be happening. 

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the week before, my singer daughter’s M.M. degree recital accompanist quit just a week before the recital, and guess who had volunteered to learn the music and accompany?!”

And one real-life nightmare

Tom Burge

Trombonist, Euphoniumist
Charlotte, NC

“In 9th grade, I was asked to perform at my local town hall in front of the whole school. Of course, back then I used to spend much more time playing my instrument than running the required maintenance and repairs on it that I should…

A trombone has a thumb valve that we use to open up extra tubing for some notes, but on the night of this performance, my valve was on the fritz.

Right before the performance. Not a problem – you can get those notes elsewhere on the slide without using the valve, so the show would go on.

Reflexes, however, are funny things. What I didn’t factor in was the fact that I had only ever practiced this beautiful piece with those notes on the thumb valve, and in the heat of performance my reflexes did what they had been trained to do. Each time I would play the wrong note (because the valve didn’t work) I’d hear it, remember, and scramble to the other place I could get the right note. This happened maybe 50 times in the space of 5 minutes. I was devastated, and this potentially beautiful piece was… well… not beautiful. I think for the last phrase I just stopped playing – I just looked at the audience and sadly shrugged. I’m sure it was the highlight.”

WDAV Staff Members Share their Favorite Halloween Memories

Whether you’re old enough to remember seeing the original Halloween movie in theaters or young enough to go trick-or-treating, Halloween brings back special memories for all who celebrate. To help you get in the spirit this time around, some of our staff members have shared their favorite Halloween moments from years past (and reading them will feel almost as good as finding the house with the full-size candy bars). 

Kendra Intihar
Assistant General Manager & Director of Community Outreach

“In 2009, we were getting ready to make a big move from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. My daughter loved flowers – especially magnolias (or, as she called them, ‘mag-a-nolias’), so I made her a Magnolia costume for Halloween that year. I think it was my way of hanging on to a tiny bit of the South for just a little while longer… and she was the cutest little mag-a-nolia I’ve ever seen.”

Heidi North
Administrative Assistant

“I let my daughter pick out my costume two years ago, and she picked Glenda, the Good Witch of the North. I was of the opinion that I resembled an exploded bottle of pepto bismol, but this little girl, a regular patron of our library, thought I was a Disney Princess and insisted on getting her picture taken with me. First and last time that’ll happen, guaranteed, but made my day.”

Will Keible
Director of Marketing and Corporate Support

“This is a picture from one of my memorable Halloweens.

I was in college, didn’t have any money, and was too busy to think of a costume until 30 minutes before a party. So, I did what any good student would do: I made up a costume out of what I had in my dorm room – a Friday the 13th mask, cape, and of course, duct tape.

I don’t recall if I named my character, but I do know that I billed myself as some sort of vigilante crimefighter. Although the costume was well-received, it was taking it off that became a major fail. In my dedication to going ‘all in,’ I had duct-taped my hair. Removing it required scissors and new haircut. College is the best.”

Mary Lathem 
Marketing & Digital Communications Specialist

“When I was in school in Indiana, I planned a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show over Halloween weekend while working at a local theater company. If you’re not familiar with Rocky traditions, you should know that no one comes just to watch the movie. Die-hard fans dress like their favorite characters, chant in unison, throw things in the air and at the screen, etc. – it’s a full-on interactive experience.

To raise extra money, we packed and sold 500 prop bags with water guns, rolls of toilet paper, pieces of toast, and everything else an audience member would need to participate. Imagine that everything in those bags ends up in the aisles, soaking wet, trampled by hundreds of dancing feet – and you’re the one who has to clean it all up at 2 a.m.

It was miserable, but what makes this memory a good one is that some of my friends stayed behind to help, missing out on the Halloween festivities downtown. It was the first time since moving from Georgia two months earlier that I realized I had good people in my corner so far away from home!”

Myelita Melton
Afternoon Host & Producer, Symphony at 6 & Concierto

“Magda, ‘the Witch of the North, South, East and West-well, the Witch of everything,’ made her first appearance several years ago in a video explaining her love of classical music.  Her mummy friends love their ragtime and her ghostly friends adore spirituals. Magda’s fav is the Scherzo!”

Get Out and Hereditary: Innovative horror film scores to make your pulse race

by Marisa Mecke

As horror fans flock to their screens this Halloween, they’ll notice fresh, striking additions to the holiday movie marathon lineup from the past few years. Recent psychological thrillers such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) are noted for weaving social commentary and family dynamics into the genre, but there’s something else that sets these films apart: their innovative scores. 

Director and writer Peele called on classical composer Michael Abels to score Get Out after coming across his orchestral piece Urban Legends on YouTube. While creating a horror movie focused on the experience of being Black in America, Abels explains that it was important to Peele to find a composer who “could have lived some of the scenes that the lead character in this film has lived.” Though Get Out was Abels’ first film score, he was able to pull inspiration from his own experiences as a mixed race African-American man, especially moments in which the lead character “suddenly becomes very aware that he’s the darkest face in the room.”

During their first conversation in pre-production, Abels and Peele began to develop the score with the idea of gospel horror:

“(Peele) told me that he wanted the African-American voice both literally and figuratively in the music, so we talked about African-American music and about how it tends to be hopeful… but what he really loves in horror movies is the unexpected terrifying music, and how can we manage to bring both of those things together?”


Peele also sent Abels examples of music he found unsettling – but that is not typically considered “scary” – including samples of bluegrass, blues, and chanting. Abels melded these influences into a cohesive sound, opting for live instruments like rattles and strings over electronic noises to keep the score connected to the natural world. A great example of this blend is the bluegrass-tinged main title “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” which features a choir of voices chanting in Swahili over an ominous, pulsating rhythm. Abels explains that the whispers are “meant to represent the departed slaves and lynching victims” who are trying to warn the main character, Chris, that he is headed into a nightmare: “Brother, run! Listen to the elders! Listen to the truth! Run away! Save yourself!” 

Listen: “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” Get Out

Toni Collette in Hereditary (2018)
Toni Collette in Hereditary (2018)

To create the score for Hereditary (2018), director Ari Aster looked to the more avante-garde approach of saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson. Having worked with everyone from Arcade Fire to Tom Waits, Stetson is known for his inventive solo records and has scored films ranging from Westerns to thrillers – but Hereditary presented a unique challenge.

The film relies very little on jump scares, instead building a sense of slowly increasing dread, and Stetson wanted to mirror this by avoiding “cheap horror tropes” that would not line up with the film’s revelations. In the beginning stages of the project, Aster explained to Stetson that the music should embody a “spectre of evil” without “any semblance of sentimentality or nostalgia.” 

To achieve this, Stetson avoided the use of strings and synthesizers and chose to to replicate traditional horror sounds with non-traditional instruments, particularly the clarinet and his own voice. The idea of “hiding in plain sight” was vital to the instrumentation: when the audience thinks they hear a section of violins or the drone of a synthesizer, they’re likely listening to carefully layered woodwinds and vocalizations.

Listen: “Charlie,” Hereditary

Abels and Stetson demonstrate unconventional, but vastly different takes on the horror film standard of heightening fear through music. Abels takes inspiration from blues, bluegrass, and African and African-American musical traditions to intertwine the subtext of the film into the music, while Stetson creates deceptive instrumentation by trading in a full orchestra for clarinets, saxophones, and his own voice – but no matter the approach, the disquieting movies they accompany are better for it. 

Sources and Further Reading

How Scores to ‘Three Billboards,’ ‘Get Out’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Tune Up Intensity (Variety)

How composer Michael Abels produced the chilling score for Get Out (Crack Magazine)

The Meaning Behind ‘Get Out’s’ Haunting Score  (The Hollywood Reporter)

How Hereditary composer Colin Stetson made the movie ‘feel evil’ (The Verge)

The Most Terrifying Move of the Year, Hereditary, Has Colin Stetson to Thank (Pitchfork)

The Story Behind the Haunting, Unconventional Music of ‘Hereditary’ (Thrillist)

Spotify Playlist of Notable Tracks