1. Spirit films—also called “spirit dramas” or “spirit comedies” in newspapers of the period—were fairly numerous. John T. Soister, who has indexed early American science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, writes, “While not quite a dime a dozen, pictures dealing with Spiritualism were fairly plentiful during the late 1910s and 1920s” (Soister et al. 2012, 36). Soister identifies dozens of films from throughout the silent period that involve spiritualist séances, ghosts, and the trappings thereof. The Mistletoe Bough (1904) shows a ghost leading her husband to her body, and The Phantom Carriage (1921) depicts a man whose ghost must become the collector of souls for a year. Period newspaper articles make note of the popularity of “psychic” films and describe the related events and music surrounding them, including séances and musical performances. Although it is difficult to match any particular pieces of music with individual films, extant materials show that spirit films were often accompanied by “special music;” The Mistletoe Bough would likely have been accompanied by one or another version of the song that tells the story of the film. Advertisements reveals that the Tully Sisters’ Orchestra accompanied the 1922 film Whispering Shadows, and Adele V. Sullivan’s music library indicates that she accompanied spirit films The Thirteenth Chair (1929) and Halfway to Heaven (1929), two “part-talking” films that had mediums as characters (Adele V. Sullivan Papers). Hazel Burnett’s music library similarly includes music for accompanying spirit films, such as pieces for the “fantastique,” witches, “enchantment,” and “visions” (Josephine Burnett Collection). Handwritten indicia show that she used Edward MacDowell’s “Will O’ the Wisp” and excerpts from Der Freischütz for at least one motion picture that would have involved spirits. This conflation of the spirit or ghost and other supernatural being is common in all of the music meant to accompany such things.

[Hear Edward MacDowell’s “Will O’ the Wisp”]

2. Silent film accompaniments depicting real-life activities and events often referenced the existing music used for those events: parades were accompanied by marches; children were accompanied by nursery rhymes, and so on. Thus films involving ghosts required music that matched public expectations for what ghosts sounded like, as established by earlier stage works and the sounds of the séance. Thanks to the popularity of Spiritualism and the documentation of séances in the public press and other outlets, performers knew how to accompany films that incorporated Spiritualist elements. At séances, ghosts spoke and sang through spirit trumpets—long cones that muted and distorted sound (Connor, in Buse and Stott 2002, 212). Spirits playing instruments—either themselves, through unseen means, or by taking control of a medium’s body and using it to play—was common. Violins emitted both pleasant and eerie sounds, the latter being created by playing tremolo, or a very rapid repetition of the same pitch, and sul ponticello, or near the bridge of the instrument (Adorno and Eisler 1947). Strummed guitars and other stringed instruments signified ghostly appearances and interaction with musical technology. Mediums used glass harmonicas to signal the presence of spirits and to communicate their messages; sudden sounds, such as the breaking of glass or sudden low noises also contributed to the soundscape of the séance (Mannoni and Crangle 2000, 141). Spirits also engaged with mechanical forms of musical reproduction, playing or interfering with phonographs and music boxes.

3. Music for spirit films was relatively easy to source and replicate. There was a large body of preexisting music as well as new works that could create the sound of the Spiritualist church and séance. This repertoire included Spiritualist hymns or pastoral songs, indicating a Spiritualist service or individual. Widely known pieces included “Lead, Kindly Light,” “Sweet By-and-By,” “The Land Beyond the River,” and “Auld Lang Syne,” which appears in The Spiritualist Hymnal in a version with different lyrics (National Spiritualist Association 1911). Music for Spiritualist services was modeled on Protestant church music. It employs multi-verse hymn forms and often borrows the music of preexisting Christian hymns while giving them new words. But the repertoire for the Spiritualist Church is intended to be reassuring and promising to its congregation of life beyond death and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead, and in fulfilling this mission, it is rather staid. In addition to the Hymnal, accompanists could use such works as Messages from spirit land in song form, published in 1910 (Beebe and Legg 1910); The Spirit Minstrel (Packard and Loveland 1860); The Golden Echoes (Tucker 1897), and many more books of music used in séances or services or attributed to spirits. Screenings of Do the Dead Talk? (1920) were accompanied by séances by practicing mediums before and after the film as well as a choir that sang spiritualist songs (“Do the Dead Talk,” 1921; “At the Majestic” 1921). However, none of the repertoire from the Spiritualist Church or other organizations were used  frequently at séances; they were intended instead for large gatherings of Spiritualists at services where leaders spoke about the beliefs of the religion rather attempting to contact the dead.

4. Just as mediums performing in séances borrowed from the operatic and vaudeville stages, where tremolos and high pitches or harmonics on the strings had been used for a long time as signifiers of the otherworldly, so did cinema accompanists. Writing his instruction guide for cinema piano and organ accompanists in 1914, London-based accompanist W. Tyacke George suggested that keyboard accompanists mimic exactly  this, as well as use “Oriental” music for anything “weird” or “mysterious”: “Pictures showing ghost or magic scenes require something weird, say the First Movement from Bendix’s “Pasha’s Dream’ or Schubert’s “Erl King” (George 1914, 17, 25). George also advised performers on creating sound effects, noting that the tom-tom, “when struck softly [….] gives a mysterious, evil-boding tone, highly suitable for ghost scenes” while poltergeists and other noisy spirits could be aurally represented through the use of a box filled with broken glass or china tipped from side to side. (George, 34, 36) Celebrated film accompanist Edith Lang, writing in 1920, described using the organ to create raps, unclear voices, and stingers—sudden loud chords—to represent breaking glass and other sudden movements or appearances on the part of a spirit. She and George West also recommended accompanists used organ stops and instruments that sounded like the instruments used in séances: by the late 1910s, the timbres of certain instruments and organ stops, like the flute, clarinet, and horn, had come to represent the supernatural (Lang and West 1920: 54-55). Lang and West provided a list of repertoire suitable for “scenes of ‘mystery, or suppressed alarm, sinister forebodings, ghost scenes, supernatural apparitions, etc.,’” stating that such music should be “Misterioso” in nature, with tremolo and either sudden silence or stingers (sudden loud chords) for the best effect in horror. (Lang and West 1920, 54-55) A spirit strumming the guitar or playing a run on the piano in the séance was transformed in the cinema into several quick grace notes; the coming and going of spirits at a séance represented by rapid and dramatic shifts in dynamics; and the sounds of muted brass suggested distant heralds from the afterlife. Because of widespread notions that black Americans were more susceptible than whites to believing in the supernatural, including “‘conjure’ men and ‘spiritualists’,” accompanists may also have used black spirituals to suggest a character’s belief in ghosts (Reed 2003, 98). Finally, film accompanists were encouraged to use both popular and classical songs to create supernatural atmospheres, even when there were no vocalists to sing them in the cinema. They selected songs that were popular locally or nationally, or had been in existence long enough for the public to become familiar with them. Songs about ghosts, both humorous and serious, made their way into the photoplayer’s repertoire. Schubert’s “Erl King” was recommended frequently for ghost films, even if the ghosts were benevolent and not threatening like the phantom king of the title. Robert Schumann’s “Widmung,” in which the narrator sings of love beyond death, was also popular (Leonard 2019).

[Hear a transcription of Schubert’s “Erl King” for piano here on a Duo-Art piano roll.]

5. Both new songs and new instrumental music about ghosts were composed for the cinema as well. These fall into several broad categories: ghost pieces and songs for novice performers and audiences (often specifically children), which were often repurposed for the cinema by experienced players; pieces about phantom musicians; works called “misteriosos” in which the music mimics gestures that might be found in ghost stories, such as creaking stairs, finding an open window, the presence of a breeze or the wind, heartbeats, trembling, and other physical elements, or creates suspense; and, finally, works that borrowed or were influenced heavily by preexisting works representing the supernatural.

6. Between 1900 and 1927, more than 100 pieces with “ghost” in the title were published (not including references to the “Holy Ghost”), most of them for piano and all of them suitable for use in cinema accompaniment. Ghost pieces are characteristic works that evoke a sense of ghostly presence through texture, timbre, rhythm, and harmony. (See Fig. 2-1.) These works, often composed by vaudeville and cinema accompanists or written for photoplay albums, include pieces like Cora Salisbury’s “Ghost Dance: a Dainty Novelette” (1911); “The Phantom Melody,” by Albert Ketelbey (1912); Mathilde Bilbro’s “Ghost Tales” (1918); Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s “Phantoms” (1918); and N. Louise Wright’s “The Ghost” (1924).  Many of these were sold as individual pieces and also published in magazines like The Etude and Melody Magazine. In 1911, an article in The Etude suggested that for Halloween, piano students be encouraged to learn a variety of pieces referencing the supernatural that were widely available, including Horvath’s “Mystic Procession” (published in The Etude in 1910); “Ghosts” by Schutte; “By Lantern Light” by Rockwell (published in The Etude in 1911) and “Will-o-the-Wisp” by Behr (Watson 1911, 699). These pieces include various musical signifiers of the ghostly gleaned from séances and the stage, including rapping or knocking, a hymn-like section use of a minor key, tremolo, motifs emulating the strumming of strings, and stingers. Works for ensembles also include calls for special string and brass effects to emulate the sounds of séances and the presence of spirits.

Fig. 2-1. This introduction from the piano reduction of Walter Broy’s “Ghost Scene” includes numerous characteristics of music for spirits: tremolo, stingers, chromaticism, and minor key, and use of the lower register.

7. Numerous works also reference ghosts playing instruments, as they did in séances. Composers developed a subgenre that depicted the musical abilities of spirits, including pieces like Ted Snyder and Bert Kalmar’s “The Ghost of the Violin” (1912); “The Ghost of the Saxophone” by F. Henri Klickmann (1917); and Fred Rose’s “The Phantom of the Blues” (1927). These pieces were designed to a sense of nostalgia and eeriness at the same time. Even more common were works designed to accompany spirits dancing. These relied on audience familiarity with French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’s well-known 1874 concert piece Danse Macabre. Works intended for accompanying both grotesque or monstrous body horror and ghosts or spirit-animated figures like skeletons were common, as demonstrated by the moods indicated on sheet music: pieces like ‘Gruesome Tales’ (Rapée and Axt 1923) and ‘Rage: for fiendish anger, sudden outbursts of madness, etc.’ (Axt 1925) could be used for introductions; for setting a scene in a convent, manor house, or slum; or to accompany the actions of a phantom, monster, or person possessed. Other pieces were clearly composed with particular images in mind: ‘Mysterious furioso: suitable for infernal and wierd [sic] scenes, witches, etc.’ (Langey 1919); and ‘Stealthy Escape: Terror, hideous monster, dark mystery’ (Zamecnik 1927) both make reference to specific figures and elements found in spirit films and horror movies. Many misteriosos were appropriate for and used to accompany spirit films. I’ve chosen three that were widely available, were published with orchestral parts, and are significant in length to analyze here.

[Hear Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre arranged for piano on a Duo-Art piano roll here.]

Three Case Studies

8. Two frequently used misteriosos, Thomas S. Allen’s “Dance of the Skeletons” (1901, republished for cinema accompaniment in 1916), and Ellsworth Stevenson’s “Phantom Visions: Skeleton Dance” (1917), include elements that call on perceivers’ memories of pre-existing pieces dealing with Death and skeletons and ghosts, but also adhere to the aesthetic conventions for the grotesque in general. This made them useful beyond simply accompanying images of dancing skeletons or mischievous or malicious ghosts, just as the piece on which they are patterned, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, came to be employed as a generic signifier of ghosts and ‘spooky’ situations itself. In the third piece I analyze here, Paul Levy’s “Sinister Theme” (1918), many of the same aesthetics apply even though the work does not name or directly cite the supernatural. Further, while it is titled “Sinister,” Levy’s piece can be performed to signify ghostly presence without overtones of evil thanks to the wide use of misteriosos to accompany benelovent spirits.

[Hear Thomas S. Allen’s “Dance of the Skeletons” performed by The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble.]

9. Most music for the cinematic spirit was composed over a fairly long time, most pieces nonetheless adhered to stylistic conventions established in the 1910s or even earlier, such as in the Gothic-themed works by Camille Saint-Saëns, Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. In 1911, cinema accompanist and author of the column “Music and the Picture” for Moving Picture World Clarence Sinn made recommendations for The Ghost of the Vaults. (Sinn 1911, 32) Having already attended one showing of the film in which the accompanist used a number of cues from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser and Chopin waltzes for happy scenes and Beethoven’s “Funeral March” (from the composer’s Third Symphony) for the spooky scenes within the titular vault, he endorsed the use of this funereal music, writing that “first [Beethoven’s March] was given as a funeral march befitting the ghostly character of the scene; then a mysterious character was given to the number;” that is, the accompanist modified or extemporized on the “Funeral March” to make it sound more “mysterious” or “creepy,” perhaps by adding tremolos, sudden changes of dynamics, and/or altering the tempo.

10. In both Allen’s “Dance of the Skeletons” and Stevenson’s “Phantom Visions: Skeleton Dance,” the composers call on musical memories of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre to reference animated bones, phantoms, and an embodiment of Death himself, including the use of tremolo, grace notes, dotted rhythms, chromatic passages that suggest instability, and an overall narrative that ends with the coming of dawn and the gradual creeping away of the dead. Saint-Saëns himself was inspired by a poem by Henri Cazalis in which Death, playing the violin, calls forth the dead to dance on Halloween night. Incorporating the Dies irae motif and a tritone—the so-called “devil in music,” the interval of an augmented fourth or diminished fifth (for example, A to D-sharp/E-flat)—Saint-Saëns’s piece contains two distinct themes, first presented separately and then in various forms of contrapuntal interaction. The work ends with the break of day and the crow of the cock, sending the skeletons back into their graves for another year. By 1922, Danse macabre was referenced as a work “every musician should know” by film music columnist Norman Stuckey, who advised that it should be used to accompany the “weird.” (Stuckey 1921, 778) Allen’s and Stevenson’s earlier homages are clear presages of the long and storied career the French work would have in influencing music for accompanying spirits.

11. In Allen’s reissuance of “Dance of the Skeletons” for cinema use in 1916, the composer also provided a textual program in the music to help the performer understand exactly what is going on in the piece by adding parenthetical notes under the treble line. “Dance of the Skeletons” begins with an introduction, two bars of tremolos in the middle of the piano’s register and a quickly rising and falling melodic runs an octave above these, marked “wind; skeletons arriving in the storm;” all of these emphasize D minor. Allen alternates these two bars with two bars of heavy fortissimo chords outlining the subtonic, marked “thunder.” The skeletons continue to arrive throughout the eighteen bars of the introduction, then politely “line up” as the thunder crashes in A major, and the dance proper begins. Like in Saint-Saëns’s piece, Allen creates two separate themes and textures, which are then interwoven. He begins with two repeated sections of eight bars each: the A section introduces an unequal, dotted rhythm to indicate the jerking motions of the skeletons, while in the B section, “little ones” and “big ones” take turns dancing with one another. Here both sizes of skeletons are signified by an augmentation of the earlier dotted rhythm, but the little skeletons are represented by a higher pitch and lower volume—mezzo forte—while the big ones dance more heavily in a lower register and at fortissimo. After these two passages, the skeletons start ‘getting excited’—the dotted rhythms speed up, and there is a mix of musical materials from the “little ones” and “big ones” until, with a sudden crescendo ending abruptly with a long rest, “they all fall.” Together the various skeletons resume dancing, and in this C section the “dance goes smooth.” Allen incorporates a new rhythmic motif of triplets that he uses for sixteen bars as the skeletons enjoy their party. At the end of this section, however, there is sudden “confusion,” complete with descending chromatic sixteenth notes and an accented and fortissimo bass line. The reason for this confusion is soon given, musically and in words: “dawn [is] approaching].” The music depicts the skeletons’ mix of continued dancing (continued smooth eighth note triplets) and panic (the dotted rhythm that led to their earlier falling returns). Both rhythmic motifs become less frequent as the dynamic fades to piano, and, with a few last stingers, as prescribed by Lang and West, the skeletons are “going, going, gone.” Allen’s “Dance” is descriptive both musically and textually. Although he does not employ the common Dies irae motif, his use of minor key areas, chromaticism, and rhythmic instability are all musical signifiers of danger and death and correlate with the Gothic affiliations created in the Saint-Saëns work.

12. Allen’s “Dance” was recorded by an ensemble called Sodero’s Band for Edison first in 1904 and again in 1915 on an Amberol, or cylinder record, for use in the cinema. (Edison Phonograph Monthly, October 1903: 12; Edison Kinetograph Monthly, October 1915: 10) The Walter Jacobs Company of Boston purchased the rights to the sheet music in 1916, and advertised it as music cinema musicians could perform without having to pay additional tax or fees to the composer. (Motography, January 12, 1918: 57) Film music critic and cue sheet compiler Clarence Sinn recommended “Dance of the Skeletons” as non-taxable music in Moving Picture World (January 26, 1918: 510), which almost certainly resulted in the continuing use of the piece. “Dance of the Skeletons” had a long life in the cinema: it was likely performed in cinemas for the first time in the year it was published, and The Film Daily records it being performed before and during the picture at a showing of an unidentified film at the Roxy Theater in New York in November 1927 (November 20, 1927: 5)

13. Stevenson’s “Phantom Visions: Skeleton Dance” (1920) also borrows from Saint-Saëns’s music to depict skeletons animated by spirits. Stevenson marks his piece as ‘“misterioso” and calls for special instrumental effects, including the use of col legno (using the wood of the bow to tap the strings), mutes in the brass, muffled drums, “castanets or bones” in the percussion, and a “wind whistle” to create an especially eerie sound. The Dies irae motif is set between various voices, sometimes has other pitches interpolated between its four pitches, and appears in inversion and retrograde, making it less obvious to perceivers. Stevenson’s only other deviation from the skeleton dance as established by Saint-Saëns and imitated by Allen is in his orchestration. Rather than giving the melody to the violin, Stevenson assigns it—as Lang and West advise—to the winds, starting with the bassoon before handing it off to the oboe, the clarinet, and flute. Like Allen’s “Dance,” however, Stevenson’s is structurally similar to the Danse macabre: a quiet introduction with staccato quarter notes outlining the tonic—F minor—leads into an A section of twenty bars that uses a rhythmic figure of triplets on the upbeat followed by dotted rhythms. A long, low horn line moves from scale degrees 5 to 6 and back, not only providing additional emphasis on the key and key relationships but also a funeral march-like complement to the constant octaves in the bass line.

14. The sixteen-bar B section abandons the jerky dotted rhythms for longer and more even note values in suspenseful progressions in A-flat major over three and four bars that move from tonic to subtonic to dominant and back to tonic. Over each progression, the dynamics grow from pianissimo to a sforzando on the return of the tonic and short forte before dropping to pianissimo and beginning the progression again. While the sforzando chords soon become predictable, they nonetheless adhere to Lang and West’s good practice guidelines for stingers and allow the performer to add anticipation and surprise for the perceivers of the film. The A sections returns and segues into the C section, a Trio. The Trio, like the passages of confusion in Allen’s “Dance,” offer highly chromatic motifs in the upper winds which crescendo rapidly from pianissimo to forzando and then drop again, suggesting, again like Saint-Saëns and Allen, a period of chaos as dawn approaches. The performer then has the option of repeating either just the A section or the A and B sections before bringing the piece to an end in which the skeletons offer one last sudden stomp before disappearing into their graves. Stevenson’s piece was frequently recommended for use in a variety of films, including those not in the Gothic genre. Within the genre, however, it was a favorite recommendation of Max Winkler’s for films involving all kinds of secret, stealthy evildoing and murder, including the 1921 The Price of Silence (Winkler 1921, 591).

15. Paul Levy (a pseudonym for prolific early film arranger and composer Sol P. Levy)’s “Sinister Theme: for scenes of impending danger” was composed in 1918 and was published in 1925 in the photoplay album The PianOrgaN Film Books of Incidental Music, Vol. 1: Misteriosos, which contained seven such generic pieces by a number of well-known film composers. Vely’s piece is marked “Andante molto e misterioso,” becoming faster in tempo throughout its A section until it becomes “piu animato” at the beginning of the B section. The A section offers suitably dramatic, suspense-building left-hand motifs that are staccato eighths followed by two chromatic sixteenths slurred to an eighth an octave above the initial eighth and accented, creating frequent but irregularly spaced stingers, contrasted with syncopated sustained chords in the right hand. At bar eleven, this motivic arrangement is interrupted by a series of dramatic sustained chords tied to falling sixteenths that bring the A section to and end at bar fourteen. The B section consists primarily of running chromatic sixteenth and thirty-second notes, evoking a feeling of excitement or confusion, not unlike the chaos created when the dancing skeletons fall down. The piece returns to the A material at bar thirty-two, where the initial motif returns. In this piano score for the piece, Vely offers cues as to which instruments are playing when, and, following West and Lang’s advice, gives the A motif to the low winds and strings, while the upper winds and violins are assigned the more chromatic passages that suggest the otherworldly.

Performance Practices

16. While all of these pieces are influenced by earlier works, it is also important to note the ways in which these later works were designed for use specifically in the cinema. All three—and the majority of works in this genre—are highly sectional and non-developmental. This is particularly cinematic. Music for the ballet engages in fairly simple forms, but includes variations and even sonata form; music for vaudeville was usually designed to fit a single sketch or act. Cinema allowed for multiple acts without pause, but, in its earliest days, could also be unpredictable in duration because of varied film speeds. Thus an accompanist might fit Piece A to Film A at Cinema A, but in Cinema B, the same film might take an additional thirty seconds to show, or, more likely, took thirty seconds less. Single pianists or organists could easily jump to a cadence as needed, but the ensembles of 3-30 musicians common to larger movie palaces weren’t as nimble. The result was cinema music with multiple subdivisions and cadential points that could be rapidly and easily edited for films as they came to the theater. Allen’s “Dance” could easily be ended at bars 16, 34, 50, 66, and 74. Stevenson’s “Skeleton Dance” is divided into sections ending at bars 20, 37, 53, and 71, and can be performed with or without the Trio section. There is evidence, based on the copy of the work held by the Mirskey Collection at the University of Pittsburgh, that conductors also used the trio separately or repeated it in performance. Vely’s “Sinister Theme” is similarly repetitive and sectioned so that performers using it to accompany a film could easily stop at several different points to fit the projection. Musicians could end at bar 14, 29, or 31, in addition to the written end—all of these allowed for an accompanist or ensemble to play a final cadence in the tonic. They could also end more abruptly for the purposes of suspense or interruption. Accompanists could thus play any scene for which this was the music as a complete and finished encounter, could leave the audience in suspense, or could segue directly into another work for the following title card or scene.

17. In addition, these works were composed for variable instrumentation. All have parts for piano, which could be used alone, and for a variety of instruments. In most cases, the instrumentation for this genre was that of the standard classical orchestras, but sometimes also included the banjo, saxophone, and other instruments not typically found in classical orchestras. Most if not all of the instrumental parts include cues for other instruments, so that one instrument could double for a missing one in performances, a practice that was common because of the small sizes of cinema orchestras. In “Skeleton Dance,” the piano-conductor and violin-conductor parts both include full cues, including expression and timbre markings, for every instrument that carries the primary theme of a dotted rhythm preceded by stepwise ascending eighth note triplets, plus percussion and many supporting instruments. Cues in each instrumental part are extensive and indicate that the published anticipated a variety of ensembles using the music. The second violin can fill in for the clarinets; the viola for the bassoon; the cello for the viola or bassoon; the clarinet for the oboe, violin 2, and viola; and so on.

18. Despite the apparent popularity—as judged by the sales, recordings, and published recommendations—of misteriosos like these works, many recommendations for spirit films still relied on pre-existing works with equally pre-existing connotations. Musicians using such pre-existing pieces and hoping to evoke these connotations—what Anahid Kassabian calls “affiliating identifications”—assume that perceivers bring with them a shared understanding of the works’ “histories forged outside the film scene.” (Kassabian 2001, 3) For cinema accompanists who had little time to learn new pieces, it is easy to understand why older and better-known music remained in circulation even as new pieces composed specifically for the genre were hailed as appropriate and effective in use. This likely explains why, in recommending music for The Haunted House (1917), accompanist and columnist Ernst Luz prescribed older and more established musical signifiers for the supernatural for the film, including Schubert’s “Erl King.” He did recommend some newer pieces, including generic “mysteriosos,” leaving the exact title for individual performers to select from the dozens available in new sheet music publications or photoplay albums. (Luz 1915, 2417)

19. Archived music libraries like Sullivan’s and Hamack’s contain numerous pieces to be used in conjunction with the supernatural, including several of the pieces listed above. (Sullivan Papers; Claire H. Hamack Papers) Hamack’s repertoire also included pieces titled “Meditation;” “Ominous Forebodings;” “Dance of the Devils,” which was specifically intended for accompanying “sprites;” “Enchanted Forest;” and various mysteriosos. Sullivan’s library contained music for “celestial visions;” “death bed scenes;” “magic;” “mystique;” and the “fantastique;” and works called “Haunted House;” “Lure of Souls;” “Mysterious Event” (marked for “Foreboding” and “Eastern mysticism”); “Queer Antics” (for “phantom”); as well as multiple mysteriosos. As in many music libraries for silent film, the pieces in these libraries are not arranged in a particular order and do not always bear markings that enable researchers to connect them with specific films. Burnett owned additional pieces that could have been used to accompany spirit films, including “By Moonlight;” “After Sundown;” and “Moonlight Sketches.”

[Hear Gaston Borch’s “Creepy Creeps,” a frequently-used mysterioso, played by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra.]

20. In creating new works, composers developed a rich and deep body of sounds and music signifying the supernatural that extended from the séance to the repertoire for silent films. Because they were not expected to follow any particular existing sonic conventions in their performances but were trusted as inherently capable of selecting the perfect sounds and pieces from existing sources and creating original soundscapes, mediums and film accompanists developed and expanded sonic representations of kindly or mischievous ghosts. These representations were widely circulated and heard. When sound arrived, spirit films like Topper (1937) were supplied with soundtracks that emulated the scores silent spirit films had received, with musical motifs and effects right out of Lang’s recommendations and the compositions that emulated the soundscapes created by women for séances. These elements created by mediums and cinema musicians are still present in the scores for films with ghosts today: as I will demonstrate in Chapter 4, we can hear nostalgia and humor in the scores for movies such as Ghost (1990), The Haunted Mansion (2003), and Cabin in the Woods (2012).



Josephine Burnett Collection. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Claire H. Hamack Papers. Silent Film Music Collection. American Music Research Center, University of Colorado-Boulder.

Adele V. Sullivan Papers. Silent Film Music Collection. American Music Research Center, University of Colorado-Boulder.


Adorno, Theodor W., and Hanns Eisler. 1947 (2007). Composing for the Films. London: Bloomsbury.

“At the Majestic.” 1921. The Fort Wayne Sentinel. May 20, 1921:21.

Beebe, G. H, and E. Chouteau Legg. 1910. Messages from Spirit Land in Song Form. Oklahoma City, Okla.: Beebe Publishing Co.

Connor, Steven. 1999. “The Machine in the Ghost: Spiritualism, Technology and the ‘Direct Voice.’” In Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History, edited by Peter Buse and Andrew Stott, 203-225. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

“Do the Dead Talk.” 1921. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, May 15, 1921: 8B.

Edison Kinetograph Monthly. 1915. October.

Edison Phonograph Monthly. 1903. October.

George, Tyacke. 1914. Playing to Pictures. London: E. T. Heron and Co.

Josephine Burnett Collection. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas-Austin.

Kassabian, Anahid. 2001. Hearing Film : Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music. New York: Routledge.

Kates, Zaida Brown and G. Tabor (George Tabor) Thompson. 1911. Spiritualist hymnal: a new collection of words and music for the congregation and choir, specially adapted for spiritualist meetings. Washington, D. C.: National Spiritualist Association.

Lang, Edith, and George West. 1920. Musical accompaniment of moving pictures a practical manual for pianists and organists and an exposition of the principles underlying the musical interpretation of moving pictures. Boston: Boston Music Co.

Leonard, Kendra Preston. 2019. “The Gothic and Music: Scoring ‘Silent’ Spectres.” The Gothic and the Arts, ed. David Punter. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Luz, Ernst. 1917. ‘The Music and the Picture.’ Motion Picture News. October 6.

Mannoni, Laurent, and Richard Crangle. 2000. The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema. Exeter, Devon: University of Exeter Press.

Motography. 1918. January 12.

Packard, J. B, and J. S Loveland. 1860. The Spirit Minstrel; Collection of Hymns and Music, for the Use of Spiritualists, in Their Circles and Public Meetings. Boston: Bela Marsh.

“Presentations.” 1927. The Film Daily. November 20.

Reed, Teresa L. 2003. The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Sinn, Clarence. 1911. “Music for the Picture.” Moving Picture World. July 15.

———. 1918. “Music for the Picture.” Moving Picture World. January 26.

Soister, John T., Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce, and Harry Long. 2012. American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.

Stuckey, Norman. 1921. “Music for the Photoplay.” Exhibitors Trade Review 11, no. 11 (Feb. 11, 1922): 778.

Tucker, S. W. 1897. The Golden Echoes: A New Collection of Original Words and Music for the Use of Meetings, Lyceums and the Home Circle. Boston: Banner of light Publishing Company.

Watson, Jo-Shipley. 1911. “A Good Musical for Halloween.” Etude, October 1911: 699.


Skip to toolbar