Thank you for reading my guest blog post (at least the first line)!
I love Halloween so much, mostly because of all of the scary shit that comes with it. Like the AMC horror movie marathon! I don’t understand why they can’t do that all year. I realize that Fearnet exists, but most of the movies on Fearnet totally blow and it’s not the same. Just because people like horror movies doesn’t mean that they will blindly consume the worst movies ever. We have standards. Step up your game, Fearnet.
Anyway, for my blog post, I wanted to write about something that I always notice and appreciate, but have never taken the time to sit and think about carefully: the use of popular music in scary movies and books. By popular music I don’t mean pop music (necessarily). Rather, I’m referring to music that isn’t part of the film score or that wasn’t written specifically for the film; the use of “real” songs, presumably written with some other intention, that are repurposed or transformed to accompany or portend horrible things.
For me, the reason the use of popular music is so effective is because it takes a song that you’ve likely heard before, maybe even one that you have on your iPod, and uses your familiarity with it to pull you further into the story. It brings an element of realism that serves to remind the viewer that this could happen to you, too.
I started off really trying my best to make a top 10 list that didn’t oversample from Stephen King but I failed and so this list really oversamples from Stephen King. I was very disappointed that I couldn’t find the actual clips from many of these movies…when I could, I included them. Otherwise I posted just the song.
Speaking of Stephen King, let’s talk about him for a hot second. I LOVE Stephen King. His books are really good. When his stories are in the hands of capable filmmakers you get the best movies ever (Carrie, The Shining, Stand by Me, Shawshank Redemption, Misery, etc…). When his stories are made into miniseries, they tend to have some snippets of awesomeness amidst hours of garbage. Or they are really good leading up to the end and then they fall flat and regardless of whether or not you’ve read the book you feel like you kinda got effed in the a because you spent so many hours invested in this awesome story and then the payoff is lame (It, The Stand). Whatever you think of Stephen King’s stuff, you should know that he is a fucking master of incorporating popular music into his stuff.
So here are my favorite uses of popular music in scary movies/books in no particular order other than that I start with the books. I’m sorry that I didn’t include "American Girl" as used in Silence of the Lambs in this list, but when I think of that I really think of Fast Times.
1.) Bad Moon Rising – CCR (as used in the novel The Shining by Stephen King)
Just under halfway through the book, we’re presented with a scene in which Wendy and Danny are driving in a truck to get supplies before the first big snowstorm hits the Overlook. Wendy talks with Danny about leaving the Overlook before it’s too late (i.e., before the snow comes) and staying with her mother for the winter instead. Danny says no 1.) because he’s afraid his dad will get pissed (and he’s probably right - I think we all know what goes down when Jack Torrance gets pissed) and 2.) because he knows that Wendy’s mother makes her feel bad. Why a child has so much decision-making power in this situation is kind of weird, but he’s like a psychic magical child so I would probably listen to him too. Anyway, it’s during this car ride that it’s decided that Wendy and Danny will stay at the Overlook with Jack for the duration of his employment. And what’s playing on the radio? Bad Moon Rising by CCR! Could there be a more perfect song to be playing in the car? No, there really couldn’t be. Even though the song isn’t featured in the Kubrick movie (I don’t remember if it’s in the miniseries or not) I still always associate it with the CCR song, all because of this short, but pivotal, 4-page chapter in the book.
2.) My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) – Neil Young (as used in the novel It by Stephen King)
Unlike Bad Moon Rising, which is used very briefly in The Shining, My My Hey Hey is interwoven through much of the latter half of It – when they’re adults going back to Derry for the epic battle. The song is used as an epigraph to at least one chapter, but more salient for me, is its use as the characters descend back into the sewers as adults to face what’s haunted them their whole lives. If you have read a Stephen King book, then you are probably familiar with his writing style, which sometimes presents characters’ inner thoughts as a sort of stream of consciousness - probably what our thoughts might actually look like if we tried to articulate them without a filter. In this stream of consciousness format, the lyrics to My My Hey Hey (particularly the line “Out of the blue and into the black...”) are used over and over and as a result, I have a strong association between the song and the book It. If I think about it in the context of the It miniseries, the song doesn’t work really But when you’re invested in the book, and the characters are going back as adults to face the thing they’re most scared of, knowing that their lives will never be the same (and when it doesn’t seem at all silly that they’re facing serious psychological repercussions from fighting It when they were kids) then the song really fits.
3.) Hurdy Gurdy Man – Donovan (as used in Zodiac)
I really love the movie Zodiac. I’m obsessed with true crime stories because they’re kind of like survival guides, a “what I wish I’d known then” as written by victims. I don’t think Zodiac is technically considered a horror movie because it’s a true story so maybe it gets classified as a drama or something. But I think the fact that it’s true makes it so that it should be considered even more of a horror movie. For the longest time when I thought of Donovan I thought of happy hippies frolicking in the grass. No more! Now I think of serial killers. Hurdy Gurdy Man is used at the beginning of the movie as the couple in the car talk about getting it on. I think what makes it so creepy is that the couple’s fate is being decided by the Zodiac killer right as the song is playing. Think of all the times you’ve sat in a car and listened to the radio…like a million, right? For some people that song on the radio as they sit in the car is the last song they’ll hear. Now, in real-life, was the couple listening to Hurdy Gurdy Man? Probably not. But, they were probably listening to something on the radio.
Another reason I really like the use of this song is because I think it characterizes the time period well.
I can’t find a link that shows the opening scene but here’s some video someone made with the song and scenes from the movie, which is kind of a lame consolation, but whatever.
4a.) Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult (as used in the miniseries The Stand)
When Stephen King chose this song to open the insane 8-hour commitment that is The Stand miniseries it really worked for me on several levels. First, the stuff that you’re shown is kind of horrifying in that “deadly virus killed everyone montage” way and it’s an interesting contrast to the music which is kind of upbeat. Second, it’s darkly humorous because the lyrics are telling everyone not to fear the reaper when in fact they’re all dead already anyway. And third, it works to foreshadow the climax of the story when shit gets real between good and evil. Here’s the opening:
4b.) Don’t Dream it’s Over – Crowded House (as used in the miniseries The Stand)
Two songs that start with the word “Don’t” and that were both featured in the Stand. What are the chances?
In many ways I found this scene of the movie more impactful than the opening because it took a song that I never particularly cared for that much and transformed it into a song I really like now, because of what it signified in the movie. In this scene we have Frannie and Harold. Harold is a huge nerd and has been in love with Frannie forever. She is nice to him, but doesn’t consider him a romantic prospect. But guess what happens? Everyone she knows starts dying. Her dad’s dead. Pretty much everyone in the town is dead. So, she’s left alone with Harold, with whom she’s decided to join forces for the time being out of necessity and desperation. Now later Harold turns out not to be that good of a guy -- years of being a nerd have made him more susceptible to the wiles of the dark side -- and I think in this scene we start to get the first hint of that: despite the fact that this super flu is killing everyone, Harold is legit LIVING HIS DREAM. The girl that he pined for his whole life is now completely his, in a way. So what if everyone had to die? I feel like this point is driven home by the shots towards the end of the song reminding the viewer just how fucked the world is (tons of litter = world is fucked). But then there’s also the part of me that totally understands where Harold is coming from – how awesome would it be if you were in high school and everyone was gone except you and your crush?
There’s also the very blatant foreshadowing from the lyrics which I’m guessing weren’t originally written about a virus wiping out most of the human population and the ensuing battle between good and evil but somehow really really really fit.
6.) Nights in White Satin – Moody Blues (as used in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II)
Let me be clear: I am not a huge fan of the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes. However, I will say that the man knows how to use a song to set the mood in a horror movie (e.g., his use of Midnight Rider and Free Bird in The Devil’s Rejects). For some reason, when he used Nights in White Satin in this movie it really stuck with me. The song is used within the diegesis as Laurie wakes up in the hospital and is being pursued by Michael. They show a TV in a security booth that’s airing a live performance of the song. When I say “live” I mean that the Moody Blues are shown performing it. But, I’m not sure if the viewer is supposed to believe that it’s being shown live as it’s happening or if it’s a recording. In fact, I’m never quite sure what time period his remakes are supposed to take place in. Anyway, I think this song contrasted with being relentlessly pursued by your homicidal psychopathic brother is pretty creepy.
7a.) Notorious - Duran Duran (as used in Donnie Darko)
I know that Donnie Darko is probably more sci fi than horror, but it is a Halloween movie, so shut it. I really like this scene where Sparkle Motion is dancing at the talent show and Donnie leaves the movie theater to torch Patrick Swayze’s house. I also really love that it’s set to this Duran Duran song. When I saw the director’s cut I still really liked the scene still, but as you may know, in that version the song is replaced by West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys. Although I do enjoy that song, I didn’t think it worked as well in the scene. I can’t articulate why.
Here’s the song with a picture of Donnie Darko looking confused. Who the hell makes these videos?
7b.) Head over Heels – Tears for Fears (as used in Donnie Darko)
Such a great “get to know the characters” montage.
8.) I Put a Spell on You – The Sanderson Sisters (as used in Hocus Pocus).
Hocus Pocus is friggin’ awesome. Not in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. In a legit, it’s really good type of way. If you don’t believe me, look at this list from Buzzfeed, paying specific attention to item number 23.
9a.) Strong as I Am – The Prime Movers (as used in Manhunter)
I recently watched this movie with a fine group of people and was reminded of how awesome the scene featuring this song is. At this point in the movie, our primary antagonist has finally gotten laid and learned to love someone. As he sits in his van outside of her apartment (not creepy at all) he sees her getting a ride home from her co-worker. Like a nice dude, the co-worker helps her to her door (she’s blind). Although this is a very innocuous, the killer doesn’t perceive it as such. He imagines that the woman kisses her co-worker. This song is playing as he loses his shit (e.g., ripping the cover off of his dashboard). He then kills the coworker dude and abducts his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.
Here’s an unofficial music video for the song:
9b.) In a Gadda da Vida – Iron Butterfly (as used in Manhunter)
Once in his evil clutches, the killer seeks to torment the woman for betraying him. She’s already at a disadvantage because 1.) he’s crazy and 2.) she’s blind and in a house with which she has limited familiarity. To further incapacitate her, the killer BLASTS this song, rendering her almost completely defenseless. So creepy.
10.) 96 Tears - ? and the Mysterians (as performed by whatever random band covered it for the movie) (as used in Cat’s Eye)
Ok, I started with Stephen King and I’m going to end with him. One of my favorite short stories by him is Quitters Inc., which is one of the three stories featured in Cat’s Eye. In this story a guy reallllllly wants to quit smoking so he solicits the services of a company that guarantees to help you quit. The way they do this is by telling him that they will constantly watch him and that if he slips up, his wife and handicapped daughter will pay the price. Naturally, the guy screws up. So, they kidnap his wife and put her in a room with an electrified floor. Then, they make him sit there and watch from an adjacent room as she is repeatedly shocked. All while 96 Tears is playing. Pretty effed!
The shocking starts just before the three-minute mark.
So that’s my list. It’s not exhaustive and it’s kind of random and, like I mentioned before, it
oversamples from Stephen King.
Just a little bonus feature: if I had to pick a song that was written specifically for a movie to include here, it hands down goes to this gem, from The Worst Witch (1986) as performed by Tim Curry. Just watch it... you’re welcome.