"Dies Irae" at the Movies

You've heard this piece before in many, many, many creepy movies, but why do we find it so creepy? First, the Dies Irae was written by 13th-century Catholic monks as a funeral dirge for the funeral mass (that's pretty creepy).

But that's not really why we find it so creepy. It's not as if we subconsciously connect a funeral dirge to creepy things. We find it creepy because the first four notes of this music are in a minor key . . . and minor keys are always creepy. In western culture, our ears are trained not to "like" those notes, especially when they are played together, or go down the musical scale.

As pointed out at Open Culture: "Of course, we know these notes from the iconic, oft-parodied Amadeus scene of Mozart composing the “Dies Irae” movement of his Requiem in his sickbed, as ultimate frenemy Salieri furiously transcribes. Once you hear the magisterially ominous sequence of notes, you might immediately think of Wendy Carlos’ themes for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. But did you notice these four notes in Disney’s The Lion KingStar Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, or It’s a Wonderful Life?"

This dirge can also be heard in The Exorcist, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman Returns, and Jurassic Park at points when a creepy, scary, or sad scene occurs. The oldest example of the Dies Irae in film can be found in the futuristic Metropolis. One of the best, I think, is from the movie Amadeus when Mozart's requiem is played at his own funeral. The story goes that he was sick when he composed it (borrowing the chant) and died soon thereafter.

Can you think of other films with particularly scary or creepy musical scores? Where/when can this music be heard in the film? Would these movies be the same without music that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up?


  1. I think music really contributes to the "mood" of a film. Psycho has made a particular musical effect so famous it's used in parodies, but even many people who haven't seen the original film recognize that particular sound clip and know it's meant to scare you.

  2. I believe a scary movie isn't truly scary without music to go along with it. Most of the time the sound behind the film is what actually scares me more than the visuals itself. It builds anticipation and when a jump scare comes the music seems to intensify. Lots of films have their signature music, especially Michael Myers. We know what's coming when we hear the music and it's terrifying. I never noticed this little Easter egg in dozens of movies. I think it's amazing that Dies Irae is still being used to this day. Its origin is fascinating.
    -Jessica Esquibel

  3. A movie's soundtrack can really make or break the movie. A majority of people know the classic sound during the "Jaws" movie that plays every time Jaws is about to attack. People to this day will mimic that sound in not only real life, but also in other movies. That small soundtrack made such a huge impact on many people just like Dies Irae does, and without it "Jaws" probably wouldn't have made as big of an influence as it did. Just as Jessica Esquibel states above, it is sometimes even just the sound that scares the viewer, not even the visual. The loud, sudden bass sound that plays every time Pennywise from the new IT: Chapter Two movie rushes towards the kids to attack, made me jump ever time it happened simply because the sound made my heart race. Without these sounds in scary movies there would be less "jumping out of our seats in horror" moments.
    -Trinity Long

  4. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shining. Jack Nicholson is creepy, ghosts are spooky, the kid is a little creep, and Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. One of the best things about that movie is the soundtrack. It has a really high, echoing trill that's suddenly broken by these loud, booming brass instruments in short bursts.

    There's a scene where Wendy Torrence is standing in front of the elevator and sees the massive amount of blood just gushing out the sides of the doors. The music swells and the ominous chanting reaches a fever pitch as she screams silently. It's a great scene and it still freaks me out.

    That movie wouldn't be the same without the soundtrack. Otherwise it would just be Jack Nicholson being his usual creepy self for close to 3 hours. It's still creepy, but it's not scary like it is with the full soundtrack. (With no respect to Jack Nicholson)

    Finnigan Butterfield

  5. I don't think certain scenes in movies would be as effective without their accompanying score. The music in the background is a really good tool for movie makers to accentuate any emotions they want to evoke from the crowd with their film. The use of music in films helps audiences know the magnitude of the situation on-screen and can be used to build suspense. I thought it was really interesting how common that little dirge is in a lot of iconic movies and the creepy part is the fact that the monks that originally sang this intended it for funerals. I looked up more about 'Dies Irae' and it says online that the key of the chant is in D minor and the title of the song translates to 'day of wrath' in English. That's really actually kinda wild how a chant (not song) from such an early era of music made it's way into the contemporary age for exactly what emotions it evoked in the people back then.

    - Jhaycee Oliveros

  6. A friend and I were recently planning our scary movie marathon for Halloween night, when she mentioned that movies aren't as scary as when she was younger. We theorized that perhaps it was the lack of original ideas in new media? But of course advancements in sound score and special effects would be able to make up for that. She then remembered that her dad had installed a sound bar as well as hidden surround sound speakers in the living room. Multiple speakers made the suspense more realistic. While the sound bar made the house tremble with every jump scare. The musical accompaniment to a scary movie will always be a defining part of the views experience. However, nothing can compare to hearing an earth shattering boom from behind your head.

    - Skyler Ramirez

  7. Horror and thriller are my favorite movie genres. I have watched a lot of scary movies, and I feel that music is a very important aspect of horror movies. "Insidious," for example, uses a sudden, loud music for its title screen that is sure to scare and take anyone by surprise. Other elements of sound, such as silence before a jump scare, and a sudden, loud music during the jump scare, are what makes horror movies truly terrifying. I remembered that the last time I watched the horror movie "Us," I was unable to get its scary opening theme out of my head, and every time I heard that music, it gave me the chills.

    Horror movies won't be the same without scary music. Music intensify the suspense the movie producer is trying to produce, and it gives a sense of anticipation and sudden scare. Scary music are often used in horror scenes that leads to a jump scare or a sudden revelation of the ghost and evil characters. I tried to watch a horror movie once without any music or sound, "The Conjuring," and the movie became super boring to the point I fell asleep. It is so because I was unable to feel the tension nor the suspension that is present in the movie scene. I was unable to experience any sudden scares also due to the absence of the surprising, loud music.

  8. The first movie that I could think of is the horror movie, The Anabelle. The movie played the scary music just before the jump-scare parts. I would say without the music, the movie would not be the same at all! Honestly, the movie was not even that scary, but the music played a huge role in giving me goosebumps.


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