Horrorwave: The Evolution of Synthwave and Horror
What was it that George A. Romero said: “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will…rock the earth”? I tend to agree. Whether it be the subtle two-chords in the opening theme for Jaws, or John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, which showcased some pre-synthwave glory, horror films would be quite incomplete without their soundtracks. Not to take anything away from the masterful John Williams (who will forever haunt beach-goers with his Jaws theme song for years to come), but horror has a very special relationship with synthwave. Not only has this relationship also blossomed into a subculture of its own, but since the dawn of the 80s, I’d even go so far as to say that synthwave has become somewhat of a standard for scores in horror films. While I will always love Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho (1960), or Krzysztof Komeda’s chilling score for Rosemary’s Baby (1968), it seems as though the development of synthesizers and electronic drum machines have added a sense of urgency that horror fans had not had the pleasure of experiencing before.
While we have been blessed with some of the best synthwave horror soundtracks over the years from The Fog (1980) to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), it seems as though synthwave has continued to develop its cultural foothold in both film and music over the past ten years with a fresh new audience. The synthwave revival of the 2010s spawned a ton of great movies. Most memorably, It Follows (2014) and the haunting score that went along with it, written by Disasterpeace. As a horror fan who loves that grainy, 35mm 80s aesthetic, I couldn’t have been happier to discover It Follows. It only seemed right that it was accompanied by Disasterpeace’s killer score. Some people might call this a happy accident, but this is no coincidence. The resurgence of synthwave is a call-back to 80s media, whether it be horror or science fiction movies. It brings with it a sense of nostalgia that resonates with the audience. And they love it. It was no mistake that Stranger Things (2016-present) also takes place in the 80s.
Much to my delight, following the success of It Follows, the rebirth of synthwave horror has continued for years with films like The Void (2016) and Color Out of Space (2019). Some films have even gone so far as to rely completely on the synthwave aesthetic as their hook to catch the attention of the genres audience... I’m talking about you, In Fabric (2019). As much as I love synthwave and horror movies, I also love a plot and good writing.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering who we owe this debt to. Who can we blame for the rise of this synthwave movement? The answer is simple. There is one man that I can confidently describe as one of the most talented horror filmmakers and film composers of our time: John Carpenter. Not only has he directed some of the greatest horror movies of all time, but he also curates his own synthwave-inspired scores to compliment his films. I’d even go so far to say that without his scores for Halloween (1978) or The Fog, those movies wouldn’t be nearly as good as the classics we’ve known them to be for decades.
And even when you’ve thought that he had given us enough already with his music and his movies, I hold John Carpenter at least partially responsible for inspiring a good chunk of horror related synthwave content over the past 40 years. Most notably, Carpenter Brut. If you’re reading this as a horror fan, I’m sure you could put two and two together to realize that Carpenter Brut is not a construction worker or woodsman named Brut. Carpenter Brut blends his hard-hitting, upbeat synthwave with themes that are reminiscent of horror and science fiction movies from the 80s. The catchy hooks from the likes of ‘Disco Zombi Italia’ and ‘L.A Venice Bitch 80s’ (Trilogy, 2017) almost lend themselves entirely to amp up any ‘victims’ in their pursuit to finally put an end to any monsters that are in their paths. Carpenter Brut also just released the long-awaited studio version of his live cover of Michael Sembello's 1983 hit Maniac. The cover was incredible on its own, but I must say, whoever designed the album art for the single did a fantastic job.
This movement is not one that only consists in the realm of pure synthwave or horror films either. GosT, an electronic outfit from ‘hell, Michigan’ (don’t shoot the author, blame Bandcamp for the accuracy of this information) has made their own brand of synthwave (which they refer to as ‘Slasherwave’) which incorporates influences of heavy metal and even Depeche Mode on some occasions. For some A+ quality music, please do yourself a favour and check out their album from 2015, Behemoth, or their most recent album, Valediction. Both are favourites of mine, but the latter has become an instant classic in my books.
As we begin a fresh new decade, I’m excited to see what horror has in store for us. Whether it be more synthwave, or maybe even something new. Regardless, as long as it’s done right, I’m a sucker for that synthwave aesthetic. But also, a note for any filmmakers who may happen upon this article: If you’re going to make a movie drenched in synthwave aesthetic, please ensure that you have a good script behind that neon camouflage. None of that trickery from Hot Summer Nights (2017). With that being said, I think I’ve just talked myself into a long nighttime drive with the windows down while blasting The Midnight’s Endless Summer on repeat.
Hasta La Vista, Baby.