Tunes of terror: music that will give you the heebie-jeebies

Thom Yorke’s horror soundtrack ‘Suspiria’ is out this Halloween, we explore what happens when songs send shivers down your spine

A silhouette of a man stands in front of a house at night in a still from the film,' The Exorcist', directed by William Friedkin, 1973. (Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)
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From Nosferatu to A Nightmare On Elm Street, horror flicks have long relied on our curious appetite for being scared witless. Horror star Vincent Price – also the creepy guest narrator on Michael Jackson's zombie-inspired floor-filler Thriller – once explained the pull of the scary from his perspective: "I sometimes feel that I am impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race," he said. "I know this sounds sick, but I love it." 

Now, perfectly timed for Halloween, Radiohead's Thom Yorke is releasing Suspiria this weekend his soundtrack for Luca Guadagnino's horror film of the same name. Guadagnino's movie is a reimagining of Dario Argento's 1977 classic, and Yorke's eerie score complements the quiet terror of a movie about supernatural murder at a ballet academy in Berlin, Germany.

Where scary or purportedly scary music is concerned, rock and pop artists have traditionally gone down two rather different paths. Firstly, there are the horror tunes that rely on kitsch and pastiche, such as Bobby "Boris" Pickett's 1962 novelty song The Monster Mash, or Vic Mizzy and His Orchestra's theme tune for The Addams Family TV and movie franchise (They're creepy and they're cooky / Mysterious and spooky", is the opening couplet of the latter).

But there are also those pieces of music that can induce genuine fear and unease. Kate Bush's Under Ice, from her 1985 album Hounds of Love, for example, is not the kind of song you want to listen to alone at midnight. A nightmare rendered in sound, it details a skater who comes face to face with herself trapped under the ice, and drowning. And as if that weren't enough, the song is immediately followed by Bush's Waking the Witch, wherein the comforting voice of Walt Disney's Jiminy Cricket segues to a troubling mash-up of programmed drums, church bells and demonic voices intoning "You won't burn! You won't bleed!"

If Bush seems to go for all-out terror, other spooky songs, such as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' Red Right Hand have a more subtle menace. Who is this mysterious figure with a red right hand? "He's a god, he's a man, he's a ghost, he's a guru", Cave sings at one point, but it's no stretch to imagine that this character might just as easily be the Devil. The song's masterful, slow-creeping arrangement uses punctuating tubular bells and a sinister organ to amplify a sense of impending doom. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Cave seems to understand that what is implied can be more terrifying than what actually happens.

It's also interesting to note that the context in which a piece of music is heard can render a hitherto innocuous recording petrifying. Mike Oldfield's main theme from his 1973 instrumental album Tubular Bells took on a whole new resonance when used in William Friedkin's deeply unsettling horror classic, The Exorcist. It was Friedkin's use of Tubular Bells that brought the album to worldwide attention, but Oldfield reportedly said he didn't want to see the film because he thought he'd find it too scary.

Careful use of timbre and dissonance in music can also give us the heebie-jeebies. One prime example is Bernard Hermann's terrifically unnerving score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic, Psycho.

Hermann's use of stark, harmonically jarring violins in the film's infamous shower scene is probably cinema's most famous horror cue. Hitchcock later remarked that  "33 per cent of the [troubling] effect of Psycho was due to the music". He said "Psycho depended heavily on Hermann's music for its tension and sense of pervading doom." In 2009, a survey conducted by music royalties collection agency The Performing Rights Society found that the British public thought Hermann's shower scene motif to be the scariest piece of music in cinema. It is often imitated but it has never been bettered.


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Consciously or otherwise, what we find unsettling about dissonance is its lack of harmonic resolution.

Popular music’s neat resolves have hard-wired our ears to expect resolution and symmetry, and when we don’t get it, we feel out of sorts.

As early as the 9th century, religious authorities in the West even identified what became known as the Devil's triad or the "diabolus in musica"; a specific harmonic combination of three notes that jars upon our ears. You can hear the the Devil's triad clearly in the opening riff of Jimi Hendrix's 1967 song Purple Haze, but it is put to more sinister, foreboding use in the back catalogue of  British heavy metal pioneers, Black Sabbath.

One of the more recent songs that people find unsettling is Magpie from The Unthanks 2015 album, Mount The Air. Accompanied only by the flutter of bird wings and the drone of a harmonium, singing sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank bring a dark, folkloric power to Dave Dodds's song about that most mysterious of birds. As with Sufjan Steven's quietly terrifying ballad John Wayne Gacy Jr, a song about the US serial killer of the same name, less is disturbingly more.

If you really want to terrify yourself, the more outré sub-genres of heavy metal (black metal; death metal, etc) explore all kinds of deeply disturbing themes, but for most of us the terrain of bands such as Obituary, Merciful Fate and Cannibal Corpse is a dark-side journey too far. Most of those guys – and they are almost always guys – sound like they are trying way too hard.

What we want from a Halloween playlist is a thorough but non-traumatic spooking, topped off with the kitschy frivolity of tunes such as Ray Parker Jr's Ghostbusters, or Jake Thackray's comic tale of suburban devil-worship, The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle. It's with this in mind that we present our Spotify Halloween playlist below. Prepared to be scared, then, but remember the old Japanese proverb: "Fear is only as deep as the mind allows!"