Horror in Music
The Sonic Curation of Fear
In today’s installment of Zen and the Art of Screaming, we examine the role of horror in music—from musicians selling their souls to the devil for fame & fortune, to artists whose appearance and sound conjure images of demons and hellfire.
Music has been a part of horror since the invention of the soundtrack, but it actually goes back much further than that. There has always been, in the shadows and the edges of the music industry, the ubiquitous tale of dark dealings for power and talent. To an older audience, it is probably more familiar as the blues man at the crossroads. The modern incarnation is the rock ’n’ roll star who sold his soul for fame and fortune. This goes all the way back to composers in the 17th and 16th century who were accused of doing these sorts of diabolic dealings to explain their brilliance.
Satan in Revolutionary Music
The monster is always something that lives at our fringes, our outer limits, if you will. Music is no exception. In the 20th century, the question was whether there was a diabolic element in jazz was quite prevalent because jazz was the music of revolution. Jazz was the music of rebellion, and wherever that rebellious spirit lies it is never very far from being pointed at and being called the Devil. This of course also included rock ’n’ roll, which was being stolen from its rhythm and blues roots and being repainted in the form of our various musicians of the age, the most popular of the time being Elvis Presley.
There were many newspaper, radio, and TV personalities who rose up against this music and said this was wicked, this was evil and it was going to lead our youth to destruction with its syncopating rhythms and tempting ways [ 1 ]. In short, old people were scared that young people were going to have fun. You know, doing things that, according to their flawed narrative, they couldn’t or didn’t do when they were that age. That aside, it wasn’t until much later that the birth of metal and rock ’n’ roll in its more advanced forms (eventually getting shortened to rock instead of rock ’n’ roll) replaced jazz as the “Satanic influence” of choice, to say nothing of rockabilly (or rather monsterbilly [ 2 ] and how monsters snuck into rock, something we’ll explore later more thoroughly.
A thing that I recall from my youth—as I grew up in and lived through the satanic panic—was that a lot of that was tied to music. The big headliner of evil was Ozzy Osbourne and his infamous band, Black Sabbath. It was reported, repeatedly, that they were engaging in Satanic rites, bat eating (which, funny enough to everybody but the bat, Ozzy admitted to biting the head off what he thought was a fake bat), and all sorts of crazy nonsense that they were credited with doing to acquire their dark power. This story exists in many other forms but is still basically the blues man at the crossroads all over again.
Then, with the rise of Alice Cooper, we then got something we have not seen before: spectacle rock. Alice Cooper put on these brilliant, over-the-top flamboyant performances that took advantage of many horror elements, performances that took inspiration from the Grand Guignol. You see this throughout the entire devil rock, glam rock era. This eventually gave way to DK, De La Soul, and using phrases like “rusty meat” in an attempt to make music more visceral, to get to a more gut reaction. Music began to use this symbolism to convey a message of rebellion of carnality. This was mostly founded in the horror elements they saw it in the music of the time, and of course in the ubiquitous nature of the Devil just showing up wherever, and whenever, he wanted. The Devil was becoming a part of the music scene in some mysterious way.
There is also music tied to various horror stories. You see this along with the birth of early rock and rock ’n’ roll in various tales, such as Tales of the Crypt-type things where various musicians would find themselves facing off against aliens, the undead, or what have you. It was basically a vehicle for them to engage in some hijinks, be heroic and play some music. This even extended so far as the famous Scooby-Doo, who had numerous musical guests while battling supposedly supernatural threats. The Scooby gang and Don Knotts, the Harlem Globetrotters, or some other guest star—whoever it happened to be—would engage in a little musical frivolity while fleeing from some spooky guy in a mask. That would be an excellent representation of horror becoming comedic, as that is the circle of horror.
It always starts with something horrifying, like this music that was something hellish bought forth by the Devil himself to tempt the youth to fuck, get pregnant and drop out of school, take drugs and become mindless Reefer Madness monsters running amok. “The youth are lost because the Devil is in our music, and it’s going to get their souls and oh by the way, Scooby Dooby Doo where are you?”
It seemed that, no matter what the crazy, conservative Christians said from the 1950s forward, and no matter how bad they make it sound, it eventually ended up on Scooby-Doo. In many of the early horror films, there were thinly veiled excuses to have the musicians wear some hilarious costumes and engage in some chicanery to play some tunes so the kids could dance. Usually there is a beach and there are some bikinis, or, if you’re closer to the ’70s and ’80s, the typical T&A movies.
Yet there are some forms of music that will always be associated with monsters. Most famously is Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” which is also played at various haunted houses. Horror music includes organ music in any form. My personal favorite musical instrument, the theremin, is the musical instrument constantly heard throughout horror and science fiction in the ’50s and ’60s, most famously used in the original Star Trek’s opening theme [ 2 ].
Music in classic horror films is typically classical. It has a strong, over-the-top feeling, and the producers can often get it for free as most of it is public domain. So, they could emphasize the scope and scale of the action the protagonist was getting into without getting caught up in copyright. You see this a lot in films where you hear about the soundtracks more than you hear about the movie. It is often going from background music to enhance the mood and to inspire the emotion to the music being the main character, where the action in the film is more background to enhance the music. This is opposite to the typical arrangement where action takes center stage and the music subtly works its magic on you.
You see this a lot in movies where they use infrasound. Infrasound is a barely audible-to-inaudible sound that subconsciously generates feeling of dread or fear, it’s the nature of the sound itself that makes infrasound so effective. It is used by the modern filmmaker to instill more fear than perhaps its appearance or any other aspect of it would warrant [ 3 ]. The sounds being used as the vehicle sometimes even include the monster itself being a sound. There are cases when the monster is directly tied to music, such as in the various iterations of the Phantom of the Opera. In this particular place, the monster is a vehicle for expressing our own obsession and our drive; in that regard the Phantom is a monster that represents fandom out of control.
Hair Metal and Glam Rock
Known for a particular sound, hair metal and glam rock bands—KISS being one such example—were controversial in their day thanks to the makeup, the pyrotechnics, and often one of the musicians posing as a demon. This was an example of where music and horror meet. The object, of course, is spectacle on a grand scale. Say what you will about KISS; whether you love them or hate them they were over the top, with huge flames, lights and larger than life spectacles and displays. They even did a riff on Phantom of the Opera in one of their videos [ 4 ]. They also filmed several others where the mysticism of the band was explored. Interestingly enough they also tie back to Scooby-Doo, as KISS and Scooby-Doo shared screen time in an animated movie [ 5 ]. It was a wild ride, with the core conceit being that Scooby and the gang were drugged by KISS, leading to all the psychedelic, supernatural events of the movie. You know, for kids.
On the subject of monsters and music no conversation is complete, if you are talking over the top musical spectacle, without bringing up GWAR. A band that’s transcendent in their over-the-top humor and horror, equally blended together, GWAR is clearly being satirical, mostly at their own expense, kind of the equivalent of the kid who eats bugs in your class. Their antics are creepy and weird, but they make an art of it with their costumes, their sets, and literally gallons of fake blood.
Their character portrayals, quite complex and developed in their own way, are all very exaggerated creatures for the purpose of musical spectacle. You will see this in other bands like Slipknot, with their grotesque masks. You will also see this sort of spectacle going on in numerous places such as Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, with our titular dark heroine having a background in music herself as a showgirl and a dancer [ 6 ].
So with strong ties to the performance arts and the stage, monster-based music is not far behind. This is, of course, to differentiate that from things like the classic “Monster Mash,” where someone deliberately made a song about monsters at a party. This has been perennially popular, with “Monster Mash” being revisited by bands such as the Key of Awesome with modern monsters like Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, and Jigsaw [ 7 ]. It goes about as poorly as you would expect that sort of thing to go, but it’s a personal favorite. Instead, you will see monsters in music mostly where the musician is attempting to acquire some of the mystique of the monster to sell their brand. In some cases, you will find that monster is sometimes seizing the glamour of the music to update or modernize itself to be a touchstone to its audience.
At the same time, music has often been a methodology of subversion. Whether this has been the ubiquitous jazz musician, the honky-tonk blues musician, or other stories of this nature, some of our best music is produced—or has been produced—by people who have existed at the fringe of the mainstream music industry and on the outside of white culture. The paradox of good music comes from is often seen in this paradigm.
Let’s see how can I put this succinctly and delicately: Middle-class white people are boring. Their music is boring, their food, their clothes: Pretty much everything about them is boring. When things become processed, when things become mainstream, they lose that bite—that taste of the other, of the outside, life and soul. If you look throughout music history, you will discover that most “legendary groups” started off by stealing their sound from a little-known Black musician.
The Beach Boys, Elvis, Michael Bolton, EMINEM, Robin Thicke, and many others have either acknowledged openly or got taken to court over this. So when you do this thing to music, when you homogenize its sound, it becomes a bland mix of the same damn sounds doing the same damn things. That is your horror story. That is your Nickelback. They aren’t bad; they are common. They are the 0 on a scale of -10 to +10. They have all the proper components to be great, but won’t step in either direction for fear of not making money. This is what happens when the soul is stolen from music.
Many of you who are aware of some of musical theory will surely know Don Kirshner. This genius of the modern era invented a thing he called the Don Kirshner Formula, a mathematical formula for music popularity. He would have a pop tune written for him along the formula, mathematically calculated to sound appealing. He would then have it recorded by some studio musicians and then hire actors to pose for an album cover. Then, using a similar algorithmic formula, he came up with a band name. Then he would sell a single for a band that didn’t exist yet still end up in the Top 40 because his math was good. He was raking in ridiculous amounts of money in and wouldn’t have to pay a band or actor anything more than standard rates. He made a fortune.
He also brought about a whole era of music that came from the use of his formulas. Whenever you see one of those Disney tween pop stars, that’s the legacy of Don Kirshner. So many cookie-cutter pop stars exist because of him, that most of the modern age is a variation of his creation, a zombie industry that he came up with where he can create an army of popular hits by a formula: We’ve got a 4/4 beat, we have these notes, they happen this way, and we are done.
The peak of this, which is where we return to Scooby-Doo and similar shows is with one of their cartoon peers: The Archies [ 8 ]. They were entirely constructed by Don Kirchner, all their music was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart for him, and his piece de resistance, a song in which he only paid one artist for a duet. By using some very clever recording studio magic and editing techniques, he made “Sugar Sugar” sound like a duet despite it being only a single person’s voice. A duet sung by one guy, who got paid for singing one track; all the other money went to Don Kirshner.
In other words, if you are looking for the Devil somewhere in rock, somebody who stole the soul of rock ’n’ roll to make money, you have no further to look than Kirchner. He’s not wearing red pajamas, he doesn’t have a pitchfork, and he’s not waiting at the crossroads to trade in on your soul; he’s sitting in an air-conditioned room with a spreadsheet and an algorithm, looking at pretty faces that will shake that ass for him and sing his soulless tunes.
Monsters Next Door
Next in our cycle of horror is the monster next door. We can’t really touch on this without going into some very popular characters from the ’50s and ’60s, namely the Addams Family and the Munsters. Starting with the former, which started out as a series of comics, The Addams Family was made into a T.V. show and later still a cartoon [ 9 ]. This series produced some very fine episodes and made household names of John Astin, Carolyn Jones, Jackie Coogan, and Ted Cassidy.
These are the monsters next door: although they have some monstrous aspect to them, they are friendly, outgoing, neighborly, and musically inclined. There is some priceless footage from the early episodes of the show, where Wednesday is teaching Lurch—a lumbering giant of a man—how to dance, which is really hilarious [ 10 ].
Meanwhile, there has always been a sort of rockabilly undertone to the Munsters. They are a vampire, a Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, and their “hideously deformed,” completely normal looking, not-daughter, Marilyn. That’s right! They were clearly cashing in on the whole Marilyn Monroe thing which was popular at that time, because she was blonde and beautiful like the famous Norma Jean. She is not Lilly Munster’s daughter but instead her niece, the daughter of her sister whom we never get to see in the series. Herman Munster is an all-American, hard-working average-Joe-kind-of-guy whose job is being a grave digger. The thing to keep in mind about Herman Munster is that he represents traditional middle American conservative values of the time.
Herman Munster is a good father. He plays catch with his son. The family pet is a dragon that lives under the stairs. His son may be a werewolf and he may be a Frankenstein monster, but he shows the sensibilities of middle America while having the appearance of the outsider. You can’t listen to the theme song of the Munsters and not hear the rock ’n’ roll connection there. That is sort of a thing for the whole genre of rockabilly.
Frankenstein’s Monster is something that you see in a lot of the rockabilly/monsterbilly scene [ 11 ]. Frankenstein and his Bride are reoccurring characters in it, who are also representing the same middle-class American values, and it makes a sort of sense that Frankenstein’s Monster would be, because they are constructed of many different parts all combined together in a cohesive whole. E plurubus unum; “Out of many one.” So Frankenstein is a symbol of American sensibilities at that crossroad between country and rock that you see in other genres of music such as stadium country.
The Addams Family, on the other hand, revel in their otherworldly existence while still holding on to classic American values. For example, the love between Morticia and Gomez is the stuff of legend. Nowhere in that era do you see a man so in love with his wife. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find any show in any time where so much passion was shown on television.
You also have their daughter, Wednesday, who is quite gifted and incredibly intelligent. Lurch is loyal and loving. Thing is helpful and Grandmamma and Fester will back the family for good or ill because that is what families do. This show above all others should be lauded as how every family should treat one another, if for no other reason than they say they love each other and mean it. Despite being a little strange they are the perfect family, and as shown in the later movies, they will accept anyone into the family and stick by your side no matter what. They may be creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, but they may well be the best representation of what humankind can ever espouse to be.
By adding various new horror elements, you breathe new life into older forms. We see a lot of this imagery bandied about in the new music, but it adds freshness to the horrific, giving it new life and instilling fear in that which was, moments before, not at all frightening. Whether it is the organ music in the haunted house or the big stage productions from the rock and roll arena, from the moment you hear it there is a form of dread that says there is a bad guy, maybe even a monster, playing that pipe organ. Why do they decide that the bad guy has a pipe organ? Well, it’s obvious: it’s huge and impressive surrounding and scary. It’s not so threatening if you have the bad guy playing the harmonica.
The point of music in horror movies is that music evokes emotion, sometimes unreasonably so. Here’s a little experiment to try at some point. If you have the opportunity to watch a movie when you are alone, turn the sound off and turn on the closed captions, so you can read the dialogue but take away the element of the music. It becomes a totally different experience. Many films change completely without the soundtrack. Try watching Star Wars without that famous John Williams soundtrack.
Probably one of the most famous modern movie composers is Danny Elfman, who has composed or compiled the music for a number of various films, many starring Johnny Depp. He wrote the music you hear throughout films like The Corpse Bride. I couldn’t discuss music in horror without mentioning the singular work of brilliance that is The Nightmare before Christmas. It doesn’t matter if you take it as a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie as it can be both, it is an interesting juxtaposition of music and character development. A lot of the story is carried by the music and a lot of the mood is expressed through music. The characters air their various misgivings and identities through music. It is one of the rare cases where it can only be described as a true horror musical.
There is also, if we are getting into that, Cannibal! The Musical [ 12 ]. This is as it sounds, a musical about cannibals, hence the name. There is always a certain amount where music is a way of infusing emotional content while removing reality. You can find a similar balance between the real and fake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer through the episode, “Once More With Feeling,” which was a way in which they could, through music, couch a lot of the emotional content in the form of song and dance to address some deeper issues [ 13 ]. It is an odd juxtaposition you get with that point because the monster is a symbol that gives you some distance from the things you are afraid of so you can talk about them, and music is another way that adds some distance from these things that puts them in an emotional context without having to put them in a logical one.
Meanwhile, music is frequently used to transition a scene and films are no exception. They express the grandiose nature of the tales that they are telling through this musical format, which makes the larger-than-life aspects of these stories more digestible, something which you can internalize; something you can hum along to. When the music is conveying the monster to you it is also conveying a piece of you in it.
Goth and Industrial Music
To switch gears a bit, we must look at the Goth music scene if we are looking at horror. Goth music is the outcropping of the punk movement, where rebellious youth once again pick up the banner to express their displeasure at a world that has no place for them. This eventually led to the rise of the Goth scene, hidden behind the smell of clove cigarettes, and lurking in smoke filled rooms filled with people doing repetitive and not particularly interactive dance moves that mostly involve stomping back and forth and looking unhappy. Black became the definitive color for the people of the Goth movement, along with severe makeup and a lot of pseudo-Victorian elements, many of which eventually evolved into the Steampunk scene.
This is really where music and fashion, nihilism and the state of the world, run headlong into each other. The Goth movement came about when the rebellious kids of the punk era looked around at the world they were surrounded by and were overwhelmed by the futility they saw in it, and so they quite naturally veered toward a nihilistic philosophy.
From this, an appealing graveyard style arose: top hats and capes, the frills and frivolity of it had an undertone that, ironically, was vibrant, as they weren’t pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. These kids knew they were being lied to; they knew that the world was not as it seemed. Then they rejected the happy-go-lucky imagery that they had been handed by the previous generation and took their furious anger and thrashing outrage of the industrial punk scene and turned it inward. They looked into themselves and it became a quieter, more studious examination—quite opposite of the angry millennial.
Of course, this inevitably became chock full of pretentiousness, which any form of artistic expression can fall prey to. It was put in the hands of angry teenagers; it fell so much faster. Whether it is music, sculpture or painting, anything can become overwhelmed with pretense; this is just a hazard of the human condition. Yet this had positive aspects as well; when nothing has value, you can do anything. When you realize the futility of all things, you can do anything, you can be anything, you can go anywhere because you have removed yourself from all limitations. That is what, in their highest aspect, they were doing. The reached for something bigger, something more complete. There were a lot of good bands in that era. They weren’t over-the-top, massive spectacles like KISS, Alice Cooper or GWAR, but they still had a sense of showmanship. The music was of very high quality, instead of the random thrashing that came from its punk roots that was all about pure outrage pouring itself through their instruments, it didn’t really matter if they had something intricate because of the purity of their rage. The pure beauty was the polished, razor-sharp gems of their rage whether you are listening to Depeche Mode with its ballad-like love songs, The Cure with its many anthems, or the parody and comedic undertones as well as the pure biting sarcasm of Voltaire.
- “The rise of Alice Cooper and spectacle rock was the carrier-wave for goth and horror mass cross-pollination into adjacent genres.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/berlin-november-14-legendary-american-rocker-199606076 (BERLIN – NOVEMBER 14: Legendary American rocker Alice Cooper during his performance in Berlin, Germany, November 14, 2011.) Shutterstock. yakub88.
- “Par for the course in their respective genres and venues, many alternative, goth and heavy metal musicians from GWAR to Slipknot, draw upon character play and heavy costuming, to affect a persona. Dancer and presenter Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is a formative icon of this trend.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/los-angeles-sep-24-cassandra-peterson-113835904
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
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- Cannibal! The Musical. Directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Troma Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993.
- Whedon, Joss. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. United Paramount Network (UPN), 6 Nov. 2001, Season 6, Episode 7