Netflix’s suspense thriller limited series Devil in Ohio tells the story of Mae Dodd (Madeleine Arthur), a young girl with a pentagram carved into her back taken in by troubled psychiatrist Dr. Suzanne Mathis (Emily Deschanel). Among the scares, the series explores not only the clandestine world of a satanic cult, but it also looks at the complex bonds that exist between women — mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. Needless to say, it’s a thriller with a lot more on its mind than thrills.
That’s something that immediately appealed to composer Will Bates (Unbelievable, The Looming Tower) and posed a significant challenge: how do you ground a story about a satanic cult?
“There are a lot of layers to the story. Obviously, there’s the kind of this the horror aspect of it, and all of the nuts and bolts that needs to be done. But there are also deeper layers within the characters themselves. It seems that all of these characters are trying to change something about themselves and never really succeeding,” explained Bates. “For me, that’s really enjoyable — that kind of knife edge between some kind of emotional vulnerability and horror and something that’s creepy and disturbing. We had a lot of discussions about how to sort of balance those two aspects of the tone of the score.”
For Bates, each of his scores develops from a “eureka moment,” that moment where things click into place and he finds his way into the project through a single scene. The Devil in Ohio eureka moment came in a quiet, emotional scene between the two main characters early in the series. In the pilot, Deschanel’s Suzanne Mathis tries to reach out to a traumatized, in-shock Mae in the hospital. When Mae finds comfort in Suzanne’s presence, she rests her head on Suzanne’s shoulder. The music accompanying that sequence becomes what Bates dubs “Suzanne’s trauma theme.” That maternal theme repeats through the series in moments of emotional connection.
That theme, however, evolved from an unexpected source.
“It’s a hurdy-gurdy, believe it or not, that I ended up writing that theme on. It’s this eerie, hand-cranked thing that I’m manipulating through lots of weird effects and stuff,” Bates revealed.
But the score isn’t all emotional, heartfelt beats. Bates also needed to create vastly different tonal shifts to reflect the world of the satanic cult from which Mae escapes. Those scenes, culminating in a satanic church sequence in the series finale, leveraged smaller instrumentation and Celtic percussion sounds. He also worked with singer Maya Manser whose voice works as an instrument throughout the more sinister moments of the series.
Bates’s score even uses her voice in moments serving as an homage to the great David Lynch.
“I started to use her voice as an instrument throughout the show, and there are moments where I had her sing a melody, reverse the melody, learn it backwards, sing it, and then flip it again. I borrowed it from Lynch, you know, the red room. Sort of the same idea, but obviously, in that show they’re just talking. In this context, it’s been quite interesting to have these melodies and singing all backwards and spooky and rather satanic.”
Devil in Ohio is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.