Don't Fear the Reaper: Why Horror Films Love Pop Music


In Rob Zombie's newest film, "The Lords Of Salem," vinyl brings evil into the world.

The title refers to a witches' coven that was burned alive during the town's famed witch trials by a preacher incensed by all aspects of their dark magick, including their "blasphemous music." Appropriately, the witches choose to announce their return by mailing an LP to a radio station. The song itself (co-composed by Zombie's bandmate John 5 and Griffin Boice) isn't too captivating — grindingly repetitive rock with just three grudging bass notes instead of the usual minimum three cords. The equally abrasive vocals signal the return of Satanic witches and bad news all round.

Zombie's soundtrack lavishes the most attention on the Velvet Underground. Early on, heroine Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) dances in her apartment after work with radio co-host Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) to "Venus In Furs," turning a song about "shiny whips and leather" into an excuse to prance around waving scarves. That's just a teaser for the climax, a full-on mass Satanic ritual with the main female sacrifice offered up to the VU's "All Tomorrow's Parties." Avoiding spoilers for a film not yet opened, the lyrics take on a grimly ironic, black comic aspect in this final context. Said Zombie during an interview at SXSW: "I always like to find songs that can represent the film, so there's at least one song in every movie that when you hear it, it brings back the imagery of the film." (The most memorable example is the climax of "The Devil's Rejects," set to "Freebird"; the first time I saw it, the crowd went nuts watching anti-heroes gunned down in slow-motion to the song.) "Sometimes you just hear a song and you go, 'This song sounds like how I want the movie to feel.'"

Zombie was a musician before he eased into directing, and his attention to soundtrack choices can be accordingly meticulous beyond the norm (he co-produced an entire fake country greatest-hits collection by "Banjo & Sullivan" for "The Devil's Rejects"). His songs are used for ironic purposes or to heighten lurid emotions, one of many ways a horror film can use a pre-existing tune. All movies have editorial rhythm, of course, but this genre's especially reliant on precise attention to cutting: the longer a shot during a tense sequence, the greater possibility it'll end with a) something horrible coming at us from the left, right or back of the frame with no warning b) a sudden cut to something horrible happening.

Songs serve as a sonic safety buffer that could be punctuated by sudden noise at any moment. Indeed, the tension between the ostensible security of pop music and the underlying terror implicit to scary movies is so rich and immediate that it's even come to influence the trailers for horror films (i.e. this great preview for "You're Next").

Here’s a look at how five different horror films used pop music to deepen their dread.

Blue Öyster Cult, "Don't Fear The Reaper" from "Halloween," 1978

"Halloween" didn't invent the unseen-/masked-man-kills-people slasher formula, but it codified the genre's structure and look, including one possible use for pre-established pop songs. 40 minutes in, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is in the passenger seat when friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) pulls out a joint. Behind them, a car emerges — driven by the unseen Michael Myers — but Laurie and Annie don't notice the vehicle ominously tracking them. The radio's trying to warn them via Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper" that they should very much be afraid of imminent death, but they don't pick up on the threat. The scene ends without incident, though Annie will later meet her gruesome end in the same vehicle (on the way to pick up a boy, naturally).

Stevie Wonder, "Superstition" from "The Thing," 1982

Director John Carpenter composed the score for "Halloween," and the theme's ubiquitously recognized still. His 1982 "The Thing" features another deathless sound of the '70s-and-onwards, the 100-million-plus-units selling Stevie Wonder. The tune is 1972's "Superstition," listened to by the cook in the kitchen. "Will you turn that crap down?" a cranky Arctic base resident yells over the intercom. "I'm trying to get some sleep. I was shot today." "Will do," says the cook and cranks it up. (Wonder was a racial radio uniter, but the fact that a white man's yelling at a black guy who's asserting his independence through volume doesn't seem incidental.) The camera moves from the kitchen to an empty room, the song's heavy irony inviting us to realize that the crew's fears aren't based in irrational superstition but on a real threat, ending with a dog being lured into a room where The Thing lurks in shadow. Picture fades to black, sound to nothingness, the scene's potential scare realized only in the static shadow's head abruptly turning; the audience, suitably keyed up, will have to squirm longer before the first Big Jolt.

Nick Cave, "Red Right Hand" from "Scream," 1996

Remixed for "Scream 2" and re-recorded by Cave himself for "Scream 3," "Red Right Hand" is the series' unofficial theme song. Its first appearance in the initial installment leaves a strong impression, even though it plays for barely a minute. Woodsboro's under curfew to foil the Ghostface killer as Cave rumbles "You'll see him in your nightmares/You'll see him in your dreams," linking Ghostface with director Wes Craven's earlier "A Nightmare On Elm Street." parents bustle their children along sideways, people grab their last brews from closing coffee shops, and the streets are deserted. The ominous music deflates the series' constant wit and cleverness, a brief injection of unmediated menace.

Joanna Newsom, "The Sprout And The Bean" from "The Strangers" (2008)

One of the odder and certainly less populist horror music cues, Joanna Newsom's "The Sprout And The Bean" nonetheless serves a textbook literal-minded function in this relentless slasher film. "Should we go outside?" Newsom asks as Liv Tyler sulks alone in her isolated house, her decidedly acquired taste vocals hovering over harp and strings. The obvious answer to even inexperienced horror viewers is "NO," but Tyler answers the door anyway when someone asks "Is Tamara here?" The record player (vinyl again!) will recur throughout, its sudden bursts into sound not cued by Tyler or luckless boyfriend Scott Speedman signaling another imminent burst of homicidal mayhem.

The Fixx, "One Thing Leads To Another" from "The House Of The Devil" (2009)

Unlike the other songs on this list, the lyrics of The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" have no bearing on the scene it's heard in. Two things matter here: Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is listening to the song on her Walkman (an outdated, nostalgically regarded object from the movie's vague early '80s setting, just like the tune itself), and she's got her headphones on while bouncing around a big, creepy house. The audio goes from just-song-with-no-ambient-context to a tinnier version heard from Samantha's headphones in different rooms. Every time The Fixx become just part of the overall soundscape, we're aware that something loud and homicidal could (and inevitably must) burst onto the screen, but it never does, not this early. Samantha dances on, oblivious to all menace.