The composer for THE WALKING DEAD talks about the show’s Hitchcock heritage and subverting horror music tropes.
AMC spoke with McCreary, who offered his opinions on horror music and his work on THE WALKING DEAD. “There are certain things that horror music needs to do: It needs to create spooky atmosphere, and loud noises when something scary happens,” McCreary says. “These things are necessary and they work. So Frank [Darabont] wants to avoid those things, but you can’t just say, ‘I wanna avoid those things’ and then not do them. Your sound design has to be built with this kind of different approach in mind. So one of the things I think people are going to be struck with is the general lack of score altogether. And the way that Frank has built these scenes so that they can function without horror score really makes it something that is unusual.”
McCreary acknowledges a certain Alfred Hitchcock collaborator has influenced his contributions to THE WALKING DEAD. “With the string element, I wanted to go back pretty far, and with that we’re really referencing Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock and genre films from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s,” he admits. “And one of the things you would do is really small, bizarre ensembles. PSYCHO is a perfect example of this: a small string orchestra, an unusual brass ensemble and then bizarre percussion. And one of the things that’s happened in horror, really starting in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is that horror now is all about volume. It’s just screeching, screaming, noises. And there isn’t anything I find spooky about that music. I wanted to create something that I find more scary, which is that dissonance that sneaks in; dissonance that isn’t screaming at you.”
So far on the series, McCreary has stayed away from giving different characters their own musical themes. “I’ve found that there’s very little room in THE WALKING DEAD to approach it with character themes,” he offers. “The trick with themes is you need to establish them, so one of the things that I’ve found has been happening is I’ve just been scoring the show, I’ve just been giving it the dramatic arcs that it needs. The characters are all enduring the same thing. It’s a shared experience, so instead of trying to highlight all the subtle differences between them, I’m trying to unify them all together. With the music being so minimal, you really have to rethink what you’re going to do. You gotta make it count.”
Asked what has been his favorite moment in the series to score so far, McCreary responds, “So many. Episode four takes us on an interesting detour, and one of the things I had a lot of fun with was playing up this expectation—it feels like the episode is going in one direction, and the score is really leading you to believe a certain type of conflict is about to happen. And then in the last act it reveals it’s not at all what you think it’s going to be, and then the music can totally change. Taking part in that kind of intentional misdirect, that’s always a lot of fun for me.
“The thing that makes the music of THE WALKING DEAD effective is that audiences have become so aware of what you’re describing—they have become so aware that music is trying to lull you into a false sense of security when you’re about to get scared, or that the music is genuinely scary when it’s about to turn out to be a cat walking around the corner. These are things that we just don’t do. I find that as I watch these finished cuts now, you’re watching a scene and there’s no music. It’s almost like that’s the only way we can really get around this. It becomes really disconcerting when you’re walking down a hallway and you don’t hear anything—you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
For more on scary movie music, see FANGORIA magazine’s regular Sound Shock column.
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