Welcome back to the spoopiest time of year, Sacred Walloween! As always, we spend the month counting down the spookiest, scariest, skeletoniest lists possible across pop culture, in honor of my favorite holiday, Halloween. We will begin this five-week journey (it’s a Sacred Walloween miracle!) with the Top Ten Greatest Songs In Horror Movies!
You all know the trope; a classic pop song shows up to lull the audience into a false sense of security, or to add a discomforting air, in order to create a sense of dramatic irony. You know what I’m talking about – the moment where Alex DeLarge harasses and attacks a family set to “Singin’ In The Rain,” or where Mr. Blonde tortures the police officer to the tune of “Stuck In The Middle With You.” And today, I’m going to be counting down the ten best uses in horror, based on effectiveness and importance to the overall film. Obviously, I had a wide array to choose from, but in all honesty, despite its popularity in almost all of the Friday the 13th films, I wanted to focus on the ones that really make your skin crawl. This means that most (we’ll talk about the others in a little bit) of the comedic uses are eliminated, including “Roll With The Changes” from Cabin In The Woods” and the hilariously well-timed “Don’t Stop Me Now” from Shaun of the Dead. I also limited myself to only one tongue-in-cheek send-up to the genre, meaning “Because I Love You” from The Guest is also delegated to Honorable Mention. Other films considered include “In Dreams” from Blue Velvet, “Jeepers Creepers” from, well, Jeepers Creepers, “Mr. Sandman” from the Halloween series (2 and H20, to be exact), and even a 2018 film, thanks to The Strangers: Prey at Night’s use of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” during a fight scene. Oh, and no list of the best pop songs in horror movies can be complete without the horror movie for children, Hocus Pocus, and it’s wonderful use of “I Put A Spell On You” (included below for your entertainment).
So, without further ado, let’s kick off Sacred Walloween right with the Greatest Songs In Horror Movies!
10. Tip Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me – Insidious
Honestly, “Tip Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me” works as a horror song because singer Tiny Tim is, well, kind of creepy. I feel bad saying it, because historically speaking he was an incredibly decent and kindhearted man. But something about that high-pitched head voice is so unnaturally off-putting, it creates a sense of the Uncanny Valley. And that apparently makes it the perfect choice for the favorite song of a monstrous demon. First appearing as the song of choice for the ghost of a dancing boy, it signals the arrival of the demonic presence. And when the song comes on to show the terror of Lipstick Face’s realm, deep in the attic of the haunted house, it creates a hellish, otherworldly effect that throws the audience off-edge. And as we later learn, the only thing scarier than when a creepy song plays in a horror movie…is when it ends. I’m not as fond of the Insidious movies as other critics are, thus its lower placing, but I would have to be an idiot not to understand the ingenious filmmaking.
9. Rocky Mountain High – Final Destination
The concept of “leitmotif” is one of the most reliable tropes in all of pop culture. Introducing a character, idea, or place through a musical cue can help tell a story aurally and add an extra layer to the story’s thematic roots (think The Imperial March in Star Wars). I’ll be writing about the best use of the device later on (#5 specifically), but I can’t think of a better introduction to its ingeniousness than the film Final Destination. It’s a simple, silly story, really – a group of friends escape a horrific accident due to a vision, and Death wants to claim what was rightfully His by killing them off in grotesque and convoluted ways. Each sequel has somewhat diluted the series’ respectability, and truth be told, it wasn’t very great to begin with. However, one thing that the original did get very right is using a leitmotif to introduce Death’s presence; specifically, the use of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” Simultaneously off-putting in its peaceful nature and bitterly morbid in its reference (Denver met the near-fate of the characters in the movie, perishing in a plane crash), the song plays over the radio, through street musicians, and more as it signals the coming end of whichever character we are currently following. And as it plays through the comedically over-the-top series of events that lead to, say, teacher Valerie Lewton’s death, it starts to no longer feel soothing, instead taking on the traumatic weight the film intends.
8. Orinoco Flow – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Ok, sure. You wanna get specific? The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is not, technically, a horror movie. At least not by conventional standards (it’s much more a mystery or a thriller than traditional horror). However, I would argue that the way it takes true-to-life fears for women around the world and turns them into something much more sinister and intellectual is very much the definition of what horror can do. And considering how truly terrifying most of the film can be? It’s as close to horror as you’re going to get. And for that reason, no horror film released in 2011 had any sequence as truly upsetting as the “Orinoco Flow” torture sequence. Inspired, partially, by the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs scene, Daniel Craig’s protagonist finds himself captured by his employer, Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård). Vanger, it turns out, is a massive serial killer trained in the art of rape and murder by his sadistic father. And as he prepares to have his way with Craig, he puts on his “mood music” – which, as it turns out, is the tranquil stylings of Enya. As she quietly and naturally sings “Sail Away, Sail Away, Sail Away,” we are forced to watch Martin cut off Craig’s shirt, place a noose around his neck, and cover his head with a plastic bag, all with little to no hope of rescue (of course, Lisbeth Salander is another story). It’s terrifying, it’s humorous, and it’s unnatural – just as all horror movie pop songs should be.
7. Leaning On The Everlasting Arms – The Night of the Hunter
While perhaps not the earliest example (we’ll get to that in a minute), perhaps one of the most famous uses of a song in a horror movie comes in one of my favorite films of all time, The Night of the Hunter. Charles Laughton only ever directed one film, famously because he hated the experience so much, but it’s a shame to imagine what he could have come up with had the experience turned out better. I mean, just look at the way he uses the hymn “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” as not only a leitmotif, but as a symbolic gesture about the villainous Reverend Harry Powell. Not only does the song tip off the audience to Powell’s presence, often accompanied by a foreboding shadow, but it is also a ploy, intended to lure children into a false sense of security and adults into a sense of false piety. Powell is the furthest thing from a decent Christian – it’s doubtful he is even actually a reverend, and not a con artist using the title to prey on elderly women. However, his use of whistling and singing creates a creepy aura over something that should be decent and pure. And it sets up for a metaphorical battle between Testaments Old and New when he finds himself out sung by Lillian Gish’s much more saintly matriarch, countering him with “Lean On Jesus.” It’s a master class in Southern Gothic filmmaking, and one of the best uses of a song in a horror movie to boot.
6. Looking For The Magic – You’re Next
You’re Next very nearly disqualifies itself from this list. It’s tongue-in-cheek nature is so close to parody that it almost feels like a spoof (and thus disqualified). However, that’s exactly the type of film that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett like to make: self-aware horrors that deliver on the thrills and chills, but understand the ridiculousness of their scenario. Take the opening of the film, which combines the well-worn trope of “Sex=Death” with the well-worn trope of jump scares to immediately relieve tension with a laugh. As we watch couple Eric and Talia settle in after a bout of lovemaking, Talia walks around the house, drink in hand and blasting the Dwight Twilley Band’s “Looking For The Magic,” an upbeat 70s rock song. She hears a noise outside and goes to investigate. The song continues playing as Eric emerges from the shower and notices the phrase “You’re Next” written in blood – Talia’s blood. Masked assailants emerge from the darkness, and the song continues as Eric joins his mistress in an early grave. This alone would be effective, but Wingard and Barrett aren’t content there – the main characters later double back to this house halfway through the film, only to find the couple’s bodies with the song still playing on the CD player. Implausible? Yes. But hilariously and frighteningly tongue-in-cheek? Also yes. This is the type of filmmaking that these two revel in, and why their use of “Looking For The Magic” is one of the best horror movie pop songs of all time.
5. In The Hall of the Mountain King – M
Remember when I said I’d go further into detail about leitmotif? Well, that’s because I was saving my proper description for M, one of the greatest films ever made, and a personal favorite of yours truly. You see, M is one of the first films to ever utilize the leitmotif to its fullest abilities, using a piece of popular music – specifically, Peer Gynt’s “In The Hall of the Mountain King,” to not only show the presence of the villain, but also to show the broken psyche of a pathetic, monstrous man. You see, if Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert had only been shown in shadow, creepily whistling the famous Grieg tune as he kidnapped and murdered children, it would be frightening enough. But as we get to meet the man, and learn of his split psyche, we begin to empathize with him. And as we watch him go from pleasant man on the street trying to live a decent life to a man terrorized by the voices in his head to a monster, we are tipped off to his inner change by his slow, methodical whistling of the same tune. It is not only a frightening clue to the murderer’s presence, but an intrinsic understanding of his mental state. And it comes to have some significance on the plot, but I won’t spoil that here. All I’ll say is it is a frightening tune, and one made greater by its presence in one of the first true horror films.
4. Goodbye Horses – Silence of the Lambs
In hindsight, it’s kind of hilarious that a scene like this can exist in an Academy Award-winning movie. And with the passage of time, this scene is kind of ridiculous and memeable. However, when presented in the moment, there are few scenes as truly frightening in horror movie history than the Buffalo Bill Dance, aka the scene where Ted Levine dances around to “Goodbye Horses.” Objectively a good song in its own right, the “Goodbye Horses” is one of those scenes that just seems outright outlandish, and yet intrinsically terrifying the more you watch it. Buffalo Bill is a serial killer, one who is obsessed with transforming himself into a woman, and kills large girls in order to create a “woman suit.” Nearing completion, and with his latest target trapped in a hole in his basement, Bill celebrates by dressing up in a shawl – and nothing else – playing his favorite Q. Lazzarus song, applying some makeup, and flirting with himself in the mirror. “Would you f*ck me?” he asks, to no one in particular. It’d be silly if we weren’t frightened by his insanity, and his sheer pettiness at killing women just as a means to get laid. And when he tucks and poses as a butterfly right as the song climaxes, it seals the deal. And if the tension weren’t high enough, we also watch throughout this scene as Catherine, the girl in the hole, tries to escape by taking Bill’s dog hostage. It’s a master class in tension, horror filmmaking, and using a pop song to surreal, perfect effect. (WARNING: Following clip is fairly NSFW)
3. Hip To Be Square – American Psycho
Sometimes when a song is used in a horror movie, it’s supposed to be frightening. Sometimes, it’s supposed to be hilarious. And then there’s “Hip To Be Square” in American Psycho, which is both. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman is a sociopath, corrupted by the Yuppie society of the 80s and living the high life on Wall Street. He is narcissistic to a T, and spends most of his hours taking care of his body, with the remaining hours spent trying to explain this routine to the audience. He likes conformity, and he wants to be the best at his field. So when Paul Allen gets a better reservation than him, and has a slightly whiter business card than him, this insult cannot stand. Bateman gets Allen drunk and takes him back to his apartment, placing him in the middle of a creepily barren room on a chair surrounded by newspapers. And then he says it: “Ya like Huey Lewis and the News?” That’s right – before murdering this poor unfortunate soul (ok, Jared Leto, but still), he makes both him and the audience listen to a long lecture on the band, their triumphs, and why Fore is a seminal American album. All the while, he puts on a big plastic raincoat, dances around the room, sharpens a big shiny axe, and…well, I’ll let you figure out what’s going on. All I know is it is satire at its finest, a piece of comedy gold, and one of the most frightening scenes in film history.
2. Hurdy Gurdy Man – Zodiac
It’s not that original a setup, when you break it down: two teens are at the local point to watch some Fourth of July Fireworks. A creepy car pulls up behind them. They discuss investigating it, but the driver approaches them, dressed as a cop. He then proceeds to open fire, unexpectedly and horrifically. Of course, the reason this concept feels unoriginal in horror is because this is the true story most horror movies are based on. And I don’t mean “Based on a true story” in the same way as gimmicky way as The Strangers (ok) or Texas Chainsaw Massacre (good, but quit lying to us). I mean that this really happened. Right down to the last detail. We know this because we have a witness (the boy in the car, played here by Lee Norris, aka Minkus from Boy Meets World). And David Fincher wants us to be frightened of reality and of humanity. And he couldn’t match a better song to this scene (or a more accurate one – I believe that this was the exact song playing on the night of the shooting) than Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” Already creepy in nature, the song desires to be a 60s-era Peace and Love ballad. However, it’s twisted sounds made it much more suited for the 70s, when the former era was eradicated by the shooting of those peaceful protesters, the rise of Charlie Manson and the Zodiac Killer, and the downfall of faith in the American way. Fincher manages to capture all of this in a horrific little mystery/thriller, and by opening and closing the film with “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” both times to creepy effect, he manages to show that these traumas will never end – that the killer is still out there, uncaught, and that things may never be the same again, and that the Hurdy Gurdy Man of the song may never arrive, but a much more sinister man may.
1. Tubular Bells – The Exorcist
At last, the granddaddy of them all! Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” Technically speaking, this song shouldn’t even be eligible – I mean, there aren’t even any lyrics, and it almost doubles as a score. But that’s exactly why “Tubular Bells” needs to be #1. Can you imagine The Exorcist without it? Did you realize it was a song and not just the creepy score to one of the greatest horror films of all time? It’s quite possible you didn’t, because William Friedkin so effectively used Oldfield’s 19-year-old experimentations, it almost feels intrinsically a part of the story of two priests, a young girl, and the Devil. In truth, only the opening introduction to the song is used in the film, and it is only used twice, and briefly at that. But it doesn’t matter. The point of this list is to award songs that are so tied to horror movies, you can’t help but think of them when you hear it; to be transported away from a catchy radio jam and into a place of terror and suspense, inside that dark movie theater. And watching a young mother walk home, or a group of nuns battling the wind, all with a general sense of naiveté about the impending evil soon to be inflicted upon them all, or the terrifying opening credits of a film that will scar you from life, you know instantly that the creepy, incandescent melodies of guitars, pianos, and bells will haunt you until your dying day.
Well, I hope you enjoyed the first week of Sacred Walloweeen! Let me know your favorite songs form horror movies, or if there are any mentioned here that you personally love. Have a great week, and watch out for those things that go bump in the night!