Movement of Fear: The appeal of scary music

Avatar photo
The appeal of scary music

I don’t really believe in ghosts, ghouls, goblins, poltergeists or phantoms, but I’ve always been fascinated by them. When Halloween rolls around, I read about true-life paranormal sightings, not necessarily because I plan to tour the great haunted sites of America, but because I’m genuinely fascinated about weird phenomena, no matter how much doubt I might harbor about the likelihood of any of it.

Before I decided to cancel cable TV, I would, without fail, watch any show about the paranormal or hauntings across America. And now, without cable, I’ve been going through some serious withdrawals. But I’ll take what I can get – online streaming, DVDS, episodes of The X-Files — whatever I can find. I even sat through a good portion of a cable-access quality show about ghosts that was likely made no later than 1993, even though it offered very little in the way of a good spook, or even halfway decent production values.

Similarly, I have a fondness for horror movies, particularly those that don’t so much splatter their audiences with blood and gore, but leave one with an eerie, uncomfortable feeling. There’s nothing terrifying to me about splattering fake blood packets, but there is about a kind of chilling ambiguity or strange, gruesome irony. I’m drawn to movies like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a film whose horror stays with you long after it’s over. And I’m captivated by Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which is stunning in the way it combines genuine human emotion, and manipulative imagery, with unexpected terrors.

But one consistent way that I can’t help but delight in getting a true fix of all things terrifying is through music. We’ve done several rounds of Halloween-related music features at Treble. We wrote about our favorite murder ballads. And we even put together a Halloween party mix. But this all began with a round-up of our favorite scary music, and it’s an idea I love returning to, if for no other reason than that it’s one of the more elusive qualities in music — a difficult thing to get right, and an odd thing for a musician to actually want to do. Still, there’s an art to making a musical creation that pays dividends in heebie jeebies.

Video nasties

“Scary” music as a kitschy aesthetic has a certain appeal in much the same way that Halloween does – it’s fun to play dress-up and take the sting out of some otherwise frightening concepts. And that has a certain amount of wiggle room, from “Monster Mash,” to the decidedly more violent but nonetheless still fun tunes of The Misfits. It’s “scary” with an added dose of goof, which is typically more fun in the long run. But, digging deeper than that, since at least the ’60s, there have been popular musicians (and I use “popular” as a very loose term) that have sought to explore some of the darkest, ugliest possible sounds, to tap into something challenging, performing an exorcism of sorts through instrumentation and studio manipulation. The definition of frightening will vary from one person to the next, but a short list of works that have been known to scare listeners range from albums by The Residents, Captain Beefheart, Nico and Suicide, as well as Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, The Cure’s Pornography and The Beatles’ “Revolution #9.” And this is before we even dig into industrial.

The concept of actually enjoying anything made to be intentionally unnerving might be a tricky one to grasp, but let’s start with a more natural association: horror films. Plenty of people enjoy horror as an escapist genre, and a recent visit to a seasonal “haunted house” confirmed that teenagers still enjoy screaming at actors in zombie makeup. But actually selling the fright in a film does require novel use of a soundtrack. The most famous example is likely The Shining, the soundtrack of which alternately comprised brief bits of discordant, shattering squeaks from minimalist composer Wendy Carlos and several skin-crawling orchestral pieces from Györgi Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki. And though Jack Nicholson likely still would have made a terrifying antagonist, those extra shrieks of strings practically ensured that anyone seeing it for the first time would have some unpleasant dreams. But it can work in the opposite way as well; the near absence of any music at all in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, for instance, only heightened the tension in the movie, creating what, to date, stands as the most intense movie theater experience I’ve ever had.

With movie scores, however, the music is tied to a visual experience as well. Sometimes that can give the music even scarier associations, but it can also remove some of the ambiguity or mystery that can make a piece of music seem even more unsettling. But then again, there are those whose ambitions have proven too intense for cinematic horror. John Balance, better known as the songwriter behind Coil, once composed a film score so disturbing that the studio ended up rejecting it, or so the story goes. The punchline is that the film was Hellraiser. But the late Balance had a fiendish songwriting sensibility, as his many albums with Coil show. Horse Rotorvator, often considered his masterpiece, has plenty of moments of accessible, uh, “pop” songs. But it also has just as many, if not more, nightmarish moments that don’t often sit well for a casual listen — carnivalesque melodies mixed with hellish screams, spoken word narration of embalming, and more jarring WTF sounds than you can count on both hands

It’s about here that I should acknowledge that, on paper at least, this sounds like masochism to actually sit through something, especially more than once, that’s designed to be so disturbing. I’ll freely admit that I don’t put on records like Horse Rotorvator every day. Or even once a month. But I return to it for a reason, even if it’s a difficult one to actually put into practical terms. As I mentioned before, there’s an art to it, and when an artist is capable of creating music that can actually instill in the listener a sense of fear or dread, that’s no small feat. On a purely artistic level, I have to admire an artistic creation that can craft something that’s able to bring an extreme emotional reaction to the surface, or, in more extreme circumstances, a kind of survival instinct, which to most people means turning it off immediately.

Circles of Mania

However, beyond the mere idea of just acknowledging those pieces of music so powerful as to cause these reactions, I actually do enjoy listening to some of them, and being scary is also, in a way, what makes them interesting to hear. One of my all time favorite albums, Wire’s Chairs Missing, begins with a track titled “Practice Makes Perfect,” a song that, while not out of step with the rest of the album, casts a super creepy shadow over the next 14 songs. As a standalone post-punk song, it’s a great example of combining atmosphere with melody and abrasion. But what makes it unique is its overall ominous quality. The rigid rhythms, the abrupt jumps in key, and Colin Newman’s grotesque lyrics about Sarah Bernhard’s hand – it all adds up to an experience that, while awesome on an aesthetic level, actually messes with your head a little bit. And that combination of strange imagery and a degree of haunting mystery is one that I enjoy exploring, if only because it leads me to ask myself questions about what constitutes music for pleasure versus provocative performance art, and how often those two converge.

On a more extreme scale, there are albums like Scott Walker’s Tilt and The Drift, the latter in particular being a macabre masterpiece. Walker, who has always been known for orchestral pop, still helms a production rich in orchestration. But I wouldn’t call this “pop.” The orchestrations on this record are much more aligned with those of Penderecki, discordant, dissonant and engineered to elicit squirms. Some of the songs span past ten minutes, and in that time, the compositions can go from a low drone to a piercing shriek and a warbling moan. And it doesn’t hurt that Walker, whose voice is chilling in its expressiveness, croons phrases like “I’m the only one… left alive” against passages of near silence. It has a power to haunt after it’s over, and to leave ideas, unpleasant or not, spinning around in the listener’s head, to analyze and dissect and question and celebrate. And the great irony about all of this is that Walker, the mad genius responsible for such a twisted creation, hasn’t performed live in decades because of stage fright.

I’ll admit, however, that there are songs I don’t listen to very often, simply because of their odd psychological effect. My first time listening to Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” was alone in an otherwise quiet apartment, and Alan Vega’s blood-curdling screams scared the bejeezus out of me. But I still return to the song every now and then, because there’s something positive to be said about feeling those goosebumps again, as well as the rush of adrenaline that comes with it. I’m not a thrill seeker by any means. I don’t skydive, race motorcycles or go base jumping, and I’m mildly claustrophobic. But I seek thrills in music, and much in the same way I listen to extreme metal or hardcore, part of what makes the idea of scary music appealing is that there are musicians who seek to create music that pushes the limits and goes beyond comfortable or familiar. They have very different, and in many ways admirable motives.

Devil’s advocate

An opposing viewpoint, such as that of Nick Hornby, who wrote in his book “31 Songs” that he doesn’t ever plan to listen to “Frankie Teardrop” again, would say that when one becomes an adult, he or she experiences enough pain and torment to seek it out in music. But I don’t see it that way. Art isn’t always comfortable. Art shouldn’t always be comfortable. In fact, art needs provocateurs in order to move forward, and that inevitably means that some people will not like the direction in which it travels. And sometimes, these dark alleys and exorcisms are worth exploring because they find us listening in an entirely different way. Pop songs sometimes have the potential to be subliminal or hypnotic; when you’ve heard something a dozen times or more, at times it can fade into the background or become comfort food that you don’t realize you’re even consuming. But when it seeks to engage the listener on a more provocative, even adversarial level (see: Throbbing Gristle), it forces you to listen more carefully, to take in everything it puts forth without taking it for granted. And in turn, that can also positively result in other music meeting your undivided attention.

I recently heard an author on NPR explaining why he reveled in the experience of watching horror movies, and his explanation, in a way, perfectly summed up my own experience with regard to music and its sometimes mysterious power to terrify. He explained that, with his busy lifestyle, consistently caught up with planning ahead and being bound by schedules and technology, the act of watching a scary movie is a truly visceral experience that requires being caught up in the moment, and reacting to something in real time. Likewise, after spending much of the year planning ahead, watching the calendar and thinking about what I’ll be listening to a month from now, there’s a strange comfort about hearing something just so strange and unnerving that I’m forced to confront my own reaction to it as its happening. And that, to me, is a worthwhile aim.


Scroll To Top