Who remembers Tales from the Darkside? Can you recall that introductory sequence, the slow trip through the woods, the eerie theme music, building tension until the scene flips, colors invert, and the organ lands its ominous final note?
It imparts a sense of unease, atmospheric tension. To halt the viewing experience at this point is to leave the details of the “darkside,” an alternate place which exists in the long twilight shadows of the world, to the viewer’s imagination.
The imagination can be powerful, intimidating, and sometimes inescapable.
Speaking of horror anthology television shows of the 1980s, another opening theme that comes to mind is that of The Hitchhiker. Late at night, the opening beat would start with a hitchhiker’s solitary walk down a dirt road between desolate hills and past a rock formation. It’s this aspect I remember most of all: the setting, the sense of isolation, and minimal accompanying theme music. But from an objective standpoint, it’s just a man walking, isn’t it? Or is it?
There is more to the picture, we sense, a crucial detail askew, and more to come. As the scene fades out, this lingers on our thoughts.
Reaching even further back, I could go on to speak of The Twilight Zone, the original version created by Rod Serling, one of my favorite television shows of all time and an early influence on my work as a writer. Its theme and opening sequence needs no introduction.
Visiting an old, abandoned barn, happening across an unusual cemetery to which no road leads, or a mere stroll through the woods might serve to stir these avenues of the imagination. A late-night drive along old roads, such as one I made years back to find the Joplin Spooklight, or walking the perimeter of a school at night, with bulbs casting faint illumination across each of the locked entrances. While the building appears abandoned for the moment, the heavy silence echoes an unspoken question: are we alone here? Or are we being watched at this very moment?
Frightening? Maybe. Better yet, inspiring. Prominent fuel for an opening theme, if only in our own minds.
Looking for audio inspiration? Check out some horror film and television soundtracks such as Bernard Herrmann’s original Psycho score, 1979’s Phantasm, composed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, or the soundtrack to Stranger Things. John Carpenter is another who doesn’t disappoint. Look to Lost Themes for musical scores to films that never actually happened.
Every horror story must have its beginning, after all, whether the beginning of the end, a stab of sheer terror, or a moment’s speculation that leaves us uncertain but wondering, unable to turn away. It begins with the senses—the sights, the sounds—and in the darker spaces of the imagination, culminates in the question: what next?
Tommy B Smith is a writer of horror and dark fiction, award-winning author of The Mourner’s Cradle, Poisonous, and the forthcoming Black Carmenia series. His presence currently infests Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he resides with his wife and cats.
Black Carmenia 1:
Insomnia. Headaches. Fear.
It drove Marjorie down, cost her a career, and almost destroyed her marriage. When she and her husband Terry escaped to the quiet green countryside west of the Mississippi River, their new home, it seemed too good to last.
The snake-ridden adjoining property, bordered by a row of maple trees, hosts a deadly secret. There the blood of fields and innocents stain the crumbling ruins of an old farmhouse, a decaying testament to a web of treachery and murder stretching back to distant times.
The horror in the ruins watches in wait. Marjorie fears the end, and the end is coming.