Netflix thriller limited series Devil in Ohio tells the story of Mae Dodd (Madeleine Arthur), a young girl with a pentagram engraved on her back in the care of troubled psychiatrist Dr Suzanne Mathis (Emily Deschanel). Among the scares, the series not only explores the underground world of a Satanic cult, but it also delves into the complex bonds that exist between women – mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Needless to say, this is a thriller with a lot more in mind than thrills.
It’s something that immediately appealed to composer Will Bates (Unbelievable, The impending tower) and posed a daunting challenge: how to base a story on a satanic cult?
“There are a lot of layers to the story. Obviously there’s the kind of that, the horror aspect, and all the cogs and bolts that have to be done. But there are also deeper layers in the characters themselves. It seems like all of these characters are trying to change something in themselves and never really succeed,” Bates explained. “For me, it’s really nice – that kind of cutting edge between a kind of emotional vulnerability and horror and something that is scary and disturbing. We had a lot of discussions about how to balance these two aspects of the score’s tone.
For Bates, each of his scores develops from a “eureka moment,” that moment when things fall into place and he finds his way into the project through a single scene. The Devil in Ohio eureka moment came in a quiet and moving scene between the two main characters at the start of the series. In the pilot, Deschanel’s Suzanne Mathis tries to reach out to a traumatized and shocked Mae in the hospital. When Mae finds comfort in Suzanne’s presence, she lays her head on Suzanne’s shoulder. The music that accompanies this sequence becomes what Bates calls “Suzanne’s trauma theme.” This maternal theme repeats through the series in moments of emotional connection.
This theme, however, evolved from an unexpected source.
“It was on a hurdy-gurdy, believe it or not, that I ended up writing this theme. It’s this weird, crank thing that I manipulate through a lot of weird effects and stuff,” Bates revealed.
But the score isn’t all emotional, heartfelt beats. Bates also had to create very different tonal shifts to reflect the Satanic cult world Mae escapes from. These scenes, culminating in a satanic church sequence in the series finale, took advantage of smaller instrumentation and Celtic percussive sounds. He also worked with singer Maya Manser whose voice functions as an instrument throughout the show’s most sinister moments.
Bates’ score even uses his voice in moments serving as a tribute to the great David Lynch.
“I started using his voice as an instrument throughout the show, and there were times when I had him sing a melody, reverse the melody, learn it backwards, sing it, then flip it. again. I borrowed it from Lynch, you know, the red room. Kind of the same idea, but obviously, on this show, they’re just talking. In that context, it was quite interesting to have these melodies and to sing backwards, scary and rather satanic.
Devil in Ohio is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.