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Why This Creepy Melody Is In So Many Movies

You may not have known it, but this musical sequence is steeped in history.

Dies Irae Soundtrack Movies
Dies Irae Soundtrack Movies

I’ve got a soft spot for film scores since one of my very first forays into the world of cinema was a “Music in Film” course I took in college.

While you may not have ever put the pieces together yourself, some of the most memorable and dramatic scenes in cinema history–from “The Lion King” to “The Shining” to “It’s a Wonderful Life”–each have something in common: the Latin sequence “dies irae.”

Dies irae translates to “Day of Wrath,” a 13th-century Gregorian chant describing the day Catholics believe God will judge the living and the dead and send them to heaven or hell, traditionally sung during funeral masses.

As Catholicism spread around the world, the melody of the chant was re-purposed into classical music, where it was used to convey an ominous, eerie tone. It was later borrowed by filmmakers for the same effect, and while you may not know dies irae by name, you certainly know it by sound.

Check out the featured video embedded above by Vox to tickle your aural senses and better understand why the melody is such an integral component of cinema.