The best horror movies make us feel nervous in spaces we once considered safe. Hitchcock understood this well, why do you think he decided to have Marion Crane murdered in the shower for Psycho? The domestic home connotes safety and security. What better way to terrify your audience than to shower that safe space in blood?
Music also provides us with comfort, pop music especially. It’s no wonder, then, that horror directors have, time and time again, relied on classic songs to create a grim sense of foreboding. Often this is due to the juxtaposition between the song’s playing and our knowledge that things are about to take a rather bloody turn. There will be no dancing once the killing is done; this we know to be true.
A well-chosen song can also provide us with subtextual or thematic material. Although, it is often only when we rewatch our favourite horror movies and hear those songs again that we realise this was their purpose all along.
Other times, a song serves to generate dramatic irony. As viewers, we know that these characters are destined to meet a sad fate. They, sadly, do not. So, when we see them dancing and singing along to their favourite song, we can’t help thinking that this will be their last happy moment on earth.
Five classic songs used in horror movies:
Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ – Scream
Before it became synonymous with Peaky Blinders, ‘Red Right Hand’ by Nick Cave was closely associated with the Scream franchise, which saw Wes Craven reinvent his unique brand of horror for a new generation of viewers.
The track first appears just after Randy Meeks dubs Billy “a killer” despite a severe lack of evidence. He has reason to be suspicious. Just a few nights before, a fellow student at his high school, Casey Becker, was brutally murdered along with her boyfriend Steve, her body strung from the branches of a tree.
Sam Cooke’s ‘Blue Moon’ – An American Warewolf in London
This classic track by the great Sam Cooke was actually edited to play at a lower pitch when it appeared in (arguably the best horror comedy movie of all time) An American Warewolf in London.
Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1934, ‘Blue Moon’ is one of the great jazz standards. Everyone from Billie Holiday to Elvis Presley has had a crack at it. But in my humble opinion, the best reimagining is Cooke’s gloriously over-produced rendition, which comes complete with lush orchestration and syrupy backing vocals.
Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’ – Dawn of The Dead
Featured in the opening sequence of Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of The Dead, ‘The Man Comes Around’ plays out to footage of zombie-induced panic, protests and carnage from around the world. The apocalypse has arrived, and The Man in Black provides the soundtrack. With its frequent Biblical allusions, this track from Cash’s American IV album was a brilliant choice.
The story goes that ‘The Man Comes Around’ came to Cash in a dream in which he was talking to Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace. She turned to him and said: “Johnny Cash, you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.”
Cash took this as a biblical message and so consulted his bible, where he found the passage: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.”
Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ – Silence of The Lambs
Tom Petty’s all-American classic forms the perfect soundtrack to this all-American story about a cannibalistic serial killer stalking unsuspecting women. The tune, released in 1977, was never a hit, but it is now practically synonymous with Jonathan Demme’s horror classic focusing on the grisly murders of Buffalo Bill.
The song, which tells the story of a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, can be heard playing on the radio just before Catherine Martin – a woman with her whole life ahead of her – makes the foolish mistake of helping the serial killer move some furniture into his apartment.
Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ – Halloween
Like ‘American Girl’ in Silence of The Lambs, ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ by Blue Öyster Cult is a warning and an omen of things to come. The similarities don’t end there, either. As in Silence of The Lambs, the song plays from a car radio before the characters inside know they’re being stalked.
In Halloween, ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ plays while Laurie and her friend Annie are driving home – both of them unaware that they’re being trailed by the murderous Michael Myers, who will soon commence a bloodthirsty killing spree.