With the life-altering invention of DVR, a bad TV theme song means absolutely nothing anymore. So if your favorite show has a forgettable or downright annoying opening tune, you can just skip right over it along with all the never-ending commercials for prescription medication.
But a great TV theme song is something altogether different. A great TV theme song makes you want to sit through it over and over again, no matter how many episodes of your favorite show you’re watching in a row on a work night when your deadlines for Blumhouse.com are passing you by. Or maybe that’s just me.
In any case, using that as our test, we have compiled our list of the absolute greatest horror television theme songs in history. The one rule was that the music must be original, or at least originally released as the opening credits theme for each series. And so we must extend our condolences to ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, whose unforgettable use of Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” can – in this context – only be interpreted as cheating.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY
Creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky, the unforgettable theme to THE ADDAMS FAMILY has left audiences snapping their fingers for years. Composed by Vic Mizzy (who also did the classic GREEN ACRES theme), the tune features a playful harpsichord and the vocal stylings of actor Ted Cassidy, adding the words “neat,” “sweet” and for some reason “petite” in character as the Addams’ family butler, Lurch.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY
The disturbing television series AMERICAN HORROR STORY changes its title sequence every season to reflect the changing storylines, but although the arrangement usually changes, the central theme by Cesar Davila-Irizarry and Charlie Clouser remains the same. Overlapping themes that evoke playfulness, insidiousness, and painful screams set the stage early on, so the audience is alert and prepared to be freaked out.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Classical organ music gets ripped to shreds by the punk pop sounds of Nerf Herder in the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER theme, which is as tidy a musical metaphor for Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking show as anyone could hope for. Horror movie conventions subverted and transformed into witty commentary, that’s what this music promises, and that’s what BUFFY delivered every single week.
A perfect marriage of imagery and music, this workaday montage of serial killer Dexter Morgan getting ready for work finds the eeriness in every little thing he does. Rolfe Kent’s theme is downright amused with itself; with just a little tweaking this beloved theme from an ultraviolent Showtime series would also make a delightful theme song for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
Alex Hirsch’s cult hit GRAVITY FALLS has a youthful energy that gels just about perfectly with its many oddball mysteries. So it’s only fitting that the Disney series boasts a theme song that makes you want to jump out of bed and face the day, especially if UFOs, extra-dimensional beings or shape-shifters await you.
Jhonen Vasquez’s short-lived but utterly remarkable sci-fi series INVADER ZIM told the story of a tiny little alien whose ego was infinitely larger than his actual worth. The theme music by Kevin Manthei begins with a call of triumph and proceeds with a militaristic cadence. This the music of a bloated mind, whose ongoing quest to conquer Earth by harvesting organs, converting human flesh to bologna and transforming into an evil Santa Claus was usually only dashed by his own insecurity.
We’re not sure who, exactly, insisted that a sitcom about Universal Horror monsters living in suburbia needed a wild and woolly surfer rock theme song, but the world is a better place because somebody did. This unapologetically fun riff comes courtesy of composer Jack Marshall (father of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK producer Frank Marshall), who also composed the music for the cult classic 1959 drag-racing horror movie THE GIANT GILA MONSTER.
SCOOBY-DOO, WHERE ARE YOU?
Most horror TV shows have theme music that promises you will be scared out of your mind. The theme to the animated classic SCOOBY-DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? basically promises the opposite, piling groovy tunes on top of the show’s spooky monsters and eery locations to put the young audience at ease and build a relationship with the talking dog protagonist. The song, composed by David Mook and Ben Raleigh, talks directly to Scooby-Doo and tells him to be brave, cleverly forcing kids to be brave too, just for Scooby’s sake.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT
Is this the greatest horror TV series theme song of all time? It’s got my vote, but we’re listing these alphabetically anyway, just to be fair. Danny Elfman’s gothic, downright enormous orchestral theme to the classic HBO series TALES FROM THE CRYPT takes us on a guided tour of The Crypt Keeper’s decrepit castle, and quite smartly the music doesn’t so much “end” as it does give way to John Kassir’s shrill, seemingly impossible cackle.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
The opening theme to THE TWILIGHT ZONE is one of the most instantly recognizable in television history. Or rather, the second opening theme is. The first season of this iconic anthology series used a composition by Bernard Hermann (PSYCHO) (listen here), but from the second season onward THE TWILIGHT ZONE instead utilized the above theme, originally composed by Marius Constant as incidental music for the series. Bizarre and ethereal, Constant’s riffs invite you into another dimension, and there you’ll stay until the show is over.
To this day, people still don’t know what to make of TWIN PEAKS, a series that combined comedy, horror, daytime soap operas and dream logic to create one of the greatest cult series of all time. The theme music, composed by Angelo Badalamenti, doesn’t prepare you for any of those things. It plays like dreary elevator music, or outtakes from a nature documentary. This theme is its own eccentric entity, much like the town of Twin Peaks itself. Perhaps that is the nature of its warning.
THE WALKING DEAD
There is an inescapable bigness to Bear McCreary’s theme to THE WALKING DEAD, which is just about perfect, since the film is about an inescapable horror. The repeated string motif implies an element of futility to the show you are about to watch, an accurate assessment if there ever was one, as the survivors of the zombie apocalypse wander the landscape in search of some tiny shred of hope, on a seemingly never-ending journey into darkness.
THE X-FILES (Cover Photo)
Mark Snow’s unmistakable theme music for THE X-FILES could, in another universe where THE X-FILES was less popular, be mistaken for any other TV series about mysterious mysteries. The eery whistling noise also has the eccentric quality of a theremin, an instrument commonly associated with sci-fi films of the 1950s. Regardless, this arrangement is so otherworldly and bizarre that it seems to evoke the show’s fundamental promise: that the truth is way, way out there, and it will never be fully revealed.