Wayne Zimmerman watches scary movies differently than most people.
When the vampire in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film “Nosferatu” stalks around his castle seeking prey, Zimmerman taps not into his mind’s reserve of fear, but to an index of music cues.
And when a portly mad scientist releases a sleepwalking murderer from his wooden box in the 1920 German expressionist film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Zimmerman doesn’t get the chills.
Instead, he’s running through his repertoire of “mysterioso” snippets of classical music, used to strike terror in the audience of a silent film.
Last year, when Zimmerman accompanied “Nosferatu,” the historic movie palace had one of its busiest nights ever.
By Saturday, he will have watched “Caligari” at home four times to prepare for the show, when he will improvise a score on the spot.
“I have a pretty extensive collection of silent movies,” said Zimmerman, 67. “I take notes, here’s a love scene, here’s a fight scene.”
To find appropriate melodies for each scene, Zimmerman draws on his own musical education, as well as “Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists,” a 678-page organist’s bible, compiled in 1924 by Radio City conductor Ernö Rapée.
“There’s a listing for ‘band, battle, birds, dances, doll, festival, firefighting, grotesque,’ ” he said.
For mysterioso, the index recommends an 1899 composition by Edvard Grieg called “March of the Dwarfs.”
Quoting classical music is how organists have been accompanying silent films for a century.
During the silent picture era, scores were written for full string orchestras.
But at theaters that didn’t have orchestras, a lone organist would have to adapt the score for his one-man band.
He’d use a cue sheet provided by the film studio that noted where in the film to indicate agitation, love or action. Organists would fall back on their personal bag of tricks and compose their own score each showing.
“Generally for what we call ‘hurry’ music, when the goodies are catching the baddies or the baddies are chasing the goodies, you might play the finale from the William Tell Overture or something from the White Calvary Overture,” explained Zimmerman.
Zimmerman has been playing the organ for more than 50 years. Afflicted with polio at the age of 8, Zimmerman’s throat muscles were paralyzed. He spent time in an iron lung and had to relearn to swallow. To fill his days while he recuperated, his mother decided to get him started on piano lessons.
When he was a teenager, Zimmerman’s piano teacher brought him to a church and asked him if he wanted to learn how to play the organ. “I climbed into the console, into a nook up there, saw all the keyboards and the pedals, and how it moved up and down, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is neat.’ ”
Zimmerman was born in 1944, when the silent film era was long over. (The first feature-length talking picture was “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927.) But he always felt connected to the movie theaters of the 1920s.
“It was a completely different era back then from what exists today. It was a wonderful opportunity to go into a palace of splendor, with grand staircases and marble. Just going into the Loew’s Jersey for me is fabulous.”
Michael Cipoletti, the president of the Garden State Theatre Organ Society, believes that appreciation for historic movie theaters — and for the silent film era — is on the rise.
“People suddenly realized we’re losing places like the Loew’s,” said Cipoletti, who, with the society, restored and installed the Loews’ Wonder Morton Organ over a 10-year period, and now maintains it.
“I think people are finding that going to a theater like this, they are having a much grander experience. And honestly, until you can push air through a transistor, electronic sound will never be the same as a pipe organ. There’s something about moving air that can’t be replaced by a speaker.” Especially at this time of year, said Cipoletti, when the acoustics of an organ in a large theater lend themselves well to horror films.
“There are tremendous reverberations in a building that has 3,200 seats, so the organ adds that ethereal effect obtained when you’re trying to create an illusion,” Cipoletti said.
For Caligari, Zimmerman plans to add to the illusion by dressing up in costume. “I have a goth costume, all black with a hood and small silvery chains and skeleton chest bones,” said Zimmerman.
“I love Halloween.”
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” with live organ accompaniment
Where: The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, 54 Journal Square, Jersey City
When: Saturday at 8:15 p.m
How much: $7; $5 for children and seniors
More silent scares!
Also this weekend, the Garden State Theatre Organ Society is hosting two screenings of “Phantom of the Opera” (1925) starring Lon Chaney, accompanied by Bernie Anderson on the Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ.
Where and when: Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Rahway Senior Center, 1306 Esterbrook Ave., Rahway, and Monday at 8 p.m. at the Brook Arts Center, 10 Hamilton St., Bound Brook
How much: $8; $7 for seniors and people in costume