Sounds of Horror
Songs That Scare the Shit Out of Us
"Emotional Rescue" starts out so innocently. It's vintage Rolling Stones white-boy soul, the hi-hat tinging, the bass deep, Mick Jagger's harmless falsetto chiming in—it's catchy, and you can't quite understand the words, and you're ready to dance, aren't you? When I heard it on the radio as a child, it always fooled me with its innocuous beginning: "I was dreaming... last night..." Dreams are nice. Not like nightmares. I'm just a little girl, living life, listening to some rock and roll while playing paper dolls or whatever. No problem. "You could be mine, mine, mine, mine, all mine," the man in the song says. Okay, like "Be mine" on a valentine... okay.
Things that are horribly creepy are all the more creepy when you're not expecting them. Children are forgetful. "Mmmmmm," the man on the radio says with monstery relish, and the happy bounce of the bass falls away. "Yeeessssssss, you could be mine. Tonight and EVERRRRY night. I will be your KNIGHT in SHINING ARMOR, coming to your eeeeee-MO-tional rescue." Nooooo. Incantatory, casting a spell, now: "You will be mine you will be mine all mine..." over and over and over. The saxophone here sounds terrorized, like it's bleating a warning before it gets slashed with this monster-man's claws. Now, wait—no, stop—"I will be your knight in shining armor, riding across the desert, on a fine Arab CHARRRRGER." He inhales with a hisssss. NO NO NO NO NO. Run across the room, turn off the radio, heart beating fast. Even a girl can see that this is not a rescue, emotional or otherwise. This is a demon looking for a host.
The rest of the song, should one be able to stand it, is more saxophone bleats and disturbing slipped beats, as the universe falls apart.
Only now, today, do I know the rest of the lyrics, including:
I come to you, so silent in the night
So stealthy, so animal quiet
I'll be your savior, steadfast and true
I'll come to your emotional rescue
I'll come to your emotional rescue
According to a Stones biography, Mick Jagger said "Emotional Rescue" was about "a girl who's in some sort of manhood problems," one who's "just a little bit screwed up and he wants to be the one to help her out." You're not making things any less creepy there, Mick. Can you even ride a horse?
Shudder. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
Sometimes the happiest songs are also the most sinister. Filmmakers know this all too well. Remember how creepy "Singing in the Rain" was in A Clockwork Orange? Or "Stuck in the Middle with You" in Reservoir Dogs, "Mr. Sandman" in Halloween II, "Sussudio" in American Psycho, and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in the horror flick Insidious? When something innocent turns evil, it packs a pretty hellish punch. For me, this evil song will always be the cheery late-1980s reggae a-cappella radio hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin. On the album cover, McFerrin is grinning with every single one of his upper teeth, and the title is written in all caps, with an exclamation point, and is centered between two yellow smiley faces. It demands that you BE HAPPY. In the MTV video, he played two people—himself (always HAPPY) wearing a white tux and no shoes, and another very UNHAPPY man in a brown business suit and round glasses. There's a quick close-up of this businessman's face over a blurry background, his tongue protruding a bit, the whole scene washed in red light, right before he jumps off a window ledge in a post-stock-market-crash suicide.
It was the song that was quietly playing on the radio the night I stumbled, barefoot, wearing only blood-soaked pajamas, into a 7-Eleven looking for a police officer to help my boyfriend after he'd slit both of his wrists. It was eerily playing in the waiting room at my Friday the 13th appointment with an oral surgeon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, named Dr. Fear (google him if you don't believe me) on the day I had to get all four of my wisdom teeth pulled before my health insurance ran out. I kicked a clock radio across my college dorm, smashing it to bits, when the song came on as an alarm one morning—the morning I was about to call my mom and tell her that, even though she did an excellent job of making birth control 100 percent accessible to me, even in my early teens, I'd fucked up and was pregnant in only the first semester at an expensive college we both worked really hard to get me into. I fully believe that whenever the shit's about to hit the fan in my life, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is playing SOMEWHERE, at a creepy low volume, whether I can hear it or not. And even though the song is now older than dirt (and not a classic or even "classic rock") and has pretty much vanished from most of the world's playlists, I fully expect it to pop up somehow on the day of my funeral. Oh yes, ol' Bobby McFerrin will try to take one last jab at me, I just know it. "Hey, Kelll-leeeeeee... here's a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it, note for note?" KELLY O
John Cougar Mellencamp's shaggy brand of blue-skies-blue-jeans-blue-collar-red-white-and-also-blue Heartland, USA, rock is so disturbing, so claustrophobia-inducing, that if it comes on the radio while I'm in the car, I will pull over, heart racing, and mash my hand against the console until it shuts off. You realize how terrifying his songs are, right?
"Small Town" is about being born in a small, middle-American town that secretly feeds sedatives into the water supply to ensure you work there, go to school there, and visit your parents every day there—your whole entire life—until you die and are then subsequently buried there. I'm sweating just typing that. "Jack & Diane" is a little ditty about peaking at the age of 16, somewhere in the Bible Belt, when your high-school boyfriend knocks you up after eating a chili dog. "I Need a Lover" is about the world's worst one-night stand with a sociopath. And "Pink Houses" isn't even a real song, it's a prop song played on an hourly loop in the aforementioned Small Town to further instill complacency by (a) vaguely naming two kinds of men you might find in America, and (b) reminding you that you are, in fact, "free," but that (c) leaving Small Town will end in bills and pills that kill (because you went after—you guessed it—thrills).
The most sinister element of the Coug's music is the bright, strumming, hot-apple-pie way it's delivered. The minute you sense anything creepy, a shrill harmonica tases you until you're screaming the pledge of allegiance from the top of your pickup truck made of Styrofoam, red meat, cigarettes, and incandescent lightbulbs.
Okay wait, the actual scariest thing about the Cougster has to be the hair-raising occasion when a loved one or respected peer turns out to be under his breadbaskety spell. Imagine: You're in the car. Your buddy turns on the radio. "Small Town" is playing. You instinctually reach your hand out to mash to another station. Your pal stops you: "I love this song!" they exclaim. You look up in horror. They're smiling, eyes glazed over. You're trapped. They sing along. Gonna die in this small town! AHHHHHHHHHH! EMILY NOKES
What is it about wells—stony, dark, deep reservoirs of terror—that creep me the fuck out? See, I'm a city (as in inner-) boy, and I've always gotten my fluoridated fix from a tap, whether it was the rusty LA vintage of my youth or Seattle's clean, bright brand. Wells, which I always associate with farms, conjure images of the usual countrified horror we all know—bloodthirsty rednecks, sharp pitchforks, endless silent woods—but also have a certain elemental creep-out that's hard to pin down. It's a fucking hole in the ground, deep as shit. Does it go to the center of the earth, where undiscovered creatures and evolutionary throwbacks still flourish—and occasionally feast on a hapless spill-taking drunk—or is it a flume straight to hell? Visions straight out of pre-censorship EC Comics dance in my head, even though the only encounter I've had with a well was the slimy, filmy-feeling water-softened shower I took in Wisconsin at my girl's dad's place.
Violent Femmes did it first with the blood-freezing "Country Death Song" (allegedly based on a real incident from 1862, when a man threw his daughter down a well before hanging himself), but it was the New York–based rappers Boogiemonsters (once obscure and now mostly, sadly, forgotten) that perfectly crystallized the creeping dread inherent in this man-made abyss. "Old Man Jacob's Well" is told (in chilling voice-altered verses) from the perspective of the titular child-killer, Jacob ("I kill to forget, the devil doesn't even dare me anymore"), and from that of his latest victim, who before his capture declares himself "the fastest kid around." It's the kid's verse that makes my chest the most tight—he goes from strong and quick to running, tripping, caught; he fears rape as Jacob sticks a sock in his mouth. Jesus. The hook chants, "14 souls dwell, in Old Man Jacob's well," but by the end, Jacob will "wipe the blood off [his] knife and drop the 15th body down into the well." After I first heard this song, every time I played The Underwater Album (underappreciated, natch), I always skipped track nine. LARRY MIZELL JR.
The Pop Group's For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? came out in 1980, and it hit me like machine-gun fire when I heard it as an 18-year-old. Led by the hysteria-prone vocalist/provocateur Mark Stewart, this British post-punk band thrust a hardcore left-wing ethos during Margaret Thatcher's reign, buttressed by some of the most savage funk, avant-jazz, dub, and noise rock ever laid down. The track "How Much Longer" especially sent a chill down my spine—and every other bone—upon initial contact during that summer before my freshman year of college. In it, Stewart makes indignant accusations against the world's corrupt, greedy, warmongering forces ("There's a hell of a lot of money to be made from wars," "Why let sadistic mass murderers control our world?" "Nixon and Kissinger should be tried for war crimes"). He really seems to be at the end of his tether. Meanwhile, the scathing guitar echoes that from James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," but tightened up with battlefield urgency, and the bass and drums agitate into militant dub maneuvers. Because of those dub influences, there's a lot of space in this piece, and in those lacunae, tension and menace thrive. Near the end, a calamitous noise-rock/free-jazz clamor bursts forth, signifying apocalypse and/or the Pop Group's infernal rage at the state of things. Then everything drops out except a deep, bubbling cauldron sound. That is the final straw, the element that pushes things into nightmare realms. It always makes me think of human bodies boiling, of unspeakable agony. Stewart whispers, "They're planning the holocaust," and you feel an urge to yank the needle off the record/hit pause. But instead, masochistically, you play it again. Because might as well admit it, you're addicted to horror. DAVE SEGAL
This song has always given me the willies, like the family friend who encourages you to call him "uncle" even though there is no relation. Something about the dissonance between the lyrics, rife with pleading and blatant emotional manipulation ("I beg of you, don't say good-bye,"), and the jaunty doo-wop has always conjured images of a blank-faced ventriloquist dummy, with no puppeteer in sight, singing from inside a darkened closet. The verbiage of the carpet doesn't match the audible drapes! Sedaka's signature lilting falsetto only adds insult to injury as far as the stalkerish, flowerbed Peeping Tom vibe is concerned. This is the song Marky Mark would have crooned through the keyhole to Reese Witherspoon in Fear, had it been a musical. I appreciate that it's an attempt at sweetening a particularly somber topic usually fraught with mascara-laced tears and the rupturing of a shared record collection (breaking up sucks, y'know?), but a world in which folks don't make the necessary changes in their life just because it would be a bummer is far more terrifying to me than any potentially lonely singledom. There are other more outwardly disturbing songs from this same era, like "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" by the Crystals and "Wishin' and Hopin'" by Dusty Springfield ("Do the things he likes to do/Wear your hair just for him"). But every time I hear the sniveling yet chipper shoop-bop-bop of "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," I can't help but picture Sedaka, pomaded hair all a mess, wielding a kitchen knife: "Don't take your love away from me, don't you leave my heart in misery!" KATIE MARTIN
I blame goddamn Genesis and their goddamn "Land of Confusion" video for a reoccurring nightmare I've suffered since I was at least 8 years old. Is the song itself scary? No. But the video damaged me. Even today, in my 30s, I can't hear "Land of Confusion" without seeing flashes of the video, with its lumpy, freaky puppets, the heads being plucked out of the swamp, the tongue sandwich. Oh god! The TONGUE SANDWICH!
"Land of Confusion" was the first time I remember a song pointing out that we are fucked. Hearing Phil Collins sing, "There's too many men, too many people, making too many problems," it made my adolescent brain face man's inevitable destruction and It... Was... Terrifying.
It was too much for my little mind to comprehend, in fact, and it has haunted me ever since. My nightmare picks up where the video leaves off (after Ronald Reagan accidentally nukes everyone): I'm at my parents' house, in the backyard, and I'm just realizing that everyone else in the world has ceased to exist. I hear something, though—tiny giggling. It's coming from under the cars parked in the driveway. It's coming from inside the house. I'm frozen, petrified. I see a flash of a creature run through my peripheral vision. I turn around. Another one! IT'S ONE OF THE LAND OF CONFUSION HEADS. They're surrounding me, bouncing around, bodyless and giggling horrible high-pitched giggles, darting up into trees and under porches. And then I wake up, screaming. MEGAN SELING