A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days immersed in Netflix’s new original series, Stranger Things. As someone who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s, the show proved a wonderful exercise in nostalgia; a delightful amalgam of the wide-eyed Spielbergian ingenuousness and nightmarescapes of Stephen King that so informed my youth. From the moment the opening credits began I was hooked and a large part of this had to do with the show’s opening theme music.
Composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the Austin-based electronic outfit SURVIVE, the show’s theme immediately brings us into the curious world of Stranger Things. Analog synthesizer motifs creep in and out of the mix, pulsating ominously, intoning dread. A percussive heartbeat simmers underneath, propelling us forward into awaiting disaster and, paradoxically, backward to another time and place. When combined with the show’s titles—its typography recalling the King novels and horror VHS covers that so entranced and terrified kids in the 80s and 90s—the effect is simultaneously satisfying and unnerving, an ambivalence that extends to the show’s overall aesthetic. There’s comfort to be found in nostalgia, yes, but with Stranger Things it’s a twisted déjà vu.
So how or, rather, why, does the show’s theme music create this feeling? In my estimation, it is the combination of the synthesizers’ electronically-driven sonorities, a timbre that has long been used in cinema to signify the weird and the unearthly, and the theme’s minimalism, its economy of instrumental color and repetition of thematic material. It’s a sound and style that has its roots in both the sci-fi of the 1950s and horror films of the 1970s, and with it comes a wealth of musical associations that are unconsciously unlocked in the listener.
For those of you who can’t seem to get enough of Dixon and Stein’s Stranger Things score, here are some pre-1980s influencers and inspirations to listen to alongside the show’s soundtrack release.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
For Robert Wise’s 1951 sci-fi classic, Bernard Herrmann (best known for being Alfred Hitchcock’s go-to music man) composed an incredibly innovative score that featured two theremins, electric violin, electric bass, four pianos, four harps, and a large brass section. In the film’s opening title sequence, a backdrop of starry constellations is accompanied by Herrmann’s “Prelude.” The piece opens with a descending theremin wail which is followed by brass crescendos and repetitive arpeggio figures on organ, piano, and harp, the latter imitative of a spaceship’s radar pulsating into outer space. The theremin had previously been utilized by film composers in the 1940s to connote psychological instability (see: The Lost Weekend, Spellbound), but in the world of 1950s sci-fi, theremins, and other electronically-driven sounds instead provide a voice for the alien “Other.” Years after his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann also used electronic sonorities to destabilize in his score for Brian De Palma’s horror film Sisters (1973). Twin Moogs mirror the twin sisters of the film, their dissonant shrieks cutting through the demented playground taunts of the French horns and bells.
The Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)
Composer: Louis and Bebe Barron
The first extensively electronic film score was created by the husband-and-wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron for the sci-fi film The Forbidden Planet. The composers created musique concréte sound collages for the film’s soundtrack, painstakingly designing and arranging circuits and tape loops to produce a variety of sounds. These sounds were then combined in different ways to create individual themes for the film’s different characters, such as Robby the Robot and the Id monster. One can only imagine how unusual this must have sounded to the average 1950s cinemagoer, who probably had very little exposure to avant-garde electronic music. In fact, the composers reflected years later that people had often remarked that the film’s soundtrack reminded them of the sounds they heard in their dreams.(1)
Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (Dario Argento, 1975)
The Italian prog-rock band Goblin made a name for themselves in the 1970s providing soundtracks for horror maestro Dario Argento’s gory, albeit gorgeous, giallo films. The band first worked with Argento on Profondo Rosso, replacing the composer Giorgio Gaslini who had originally been commissioned for the film but had produced a score that Argento had felt had not captured the spirit of the film. Goblin’s opening theme features a swirling guitar and harpsichord motif that is eerily reminiscent of Mike Oldfied’s theme for The Exorcist (1973), and is joined by a driving bass ostinato and high-register ascending synth line in the title credits. It then makes way for a saccharine Mozartian lullaby that centers on a childlike voice singing a melody to ‘la-la-las’ accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, ironically underscoring a murder on screen, before cutting back to the breathless opening credits theme. This contrasting of the sweet with the sinister would be heard again in Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria, with a music box motif on celeste being pitted against a wailing Moog and Claudio Simonetti’s distorted muttering and hissing.
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1977)
“Distant Dream” from Lost Themes II (2016)
Composer: John Carpenter
The music that immediately sprung to mind whilst I watched/listened to Stranger Things was that of the synth-based compositions of John Carpenter. The director often scores his own films, either alone or in collaboration, and has even released two studio albums in recent years of brooding and beautiful "Lost Themes." Carpenter took the DIY route for the 1977 cult classic Halloween due to budget constraints, using synthesizers to compose himself a low cost, suitably creepy score. In the film’s “Main Title” theme (which was actually influenced by Goblin’s theme for Profondo Rosso) an urgent, repetitive piano motif sits atop low-register synth rumblings, the sonic manifestation of the menacing Michael Myers, and immediately sets up a mood of overwhelming dread.
Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
Composer: Tangerine Dream
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Dixon and Stein discussed their love of both Goblin and the influential German electronic artists Tangerine Dream, Dixon noting the latter’s score for Sorceror specifically. Of all the music written for Sorcerer, it is the cue “Betrayal” that is most sonically akin to the Stranger Things theme. Both bubble along at a similar pace and feature a repetitive, creeping motif that sits over a throbbing synth beat, projecting a definite sense of foreboding due to their relentless motifs and eerie synthesized layering. In Sorcerer the electronic sonorities are the impetus for fate, weaving in and out of the narrative in short bursts as the four central characters of the film hurl towards certain doom.
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.