Scary songs, hmmm. Are songs ever really scary, in the way that a movie or book can be? I guess there are songs that are scary because it’s terrifying to think of meeting the person singing in real life (please do not trick or treat at my house, practitioners of Swedish Black Metal) and songs that make you recoil in horror at the violence of what’s being described (my son was kind enough to play a few of these for me as I was mulling over this question). The music from “Psycho” puts me on edge when I hear it, but I’m not sure if that’s more because I’m remembering scenes from the movie it played beneath.
But can a song actually evoke fear? I’m not sure, though there are songs that for me summon the physical sensations of fear. Here are a few that never fail to give me shivers or make my hair stand on end or heart race a little faster. Remember, the scariest monsters are those that work within our souls! (I saw that on an Edgar Allen Poe poster.)
- “We Got a Date,” Hasil Adkins.
This one falls in that “never wanna meet this guy” category, as against a primitive rockabilly vamp the singer moans and salivates in anticipation of cutting off the head of woman with whom he has an upcoming date. “Don’t be late!” he reminds her, perhaps signalling some kind of death-pact complicity. The vocal seems authentically unhinged in a way that other serial killer songs don’t: “Frankie Teardrop” is unnerving, but it still feels like a song, a work of art. This doesn’t. The effect is enhanced by the distorted basement recording sound, all clipped and flattened. Clipping is like the musical equivalent of those found footage horror movies: it provides the illusion of reality, the sense there is more emotion on display than the technology can handle.
- “Rid of Me,” PJ Harvey.
A jilted lover coos and rants and baits and bridles in a vocal so nakedly emotional it’s horror-movie clammy and uncomfortable to listen to, like you’re overhearing something too private and painful. “Lick my legs, I’m on fire…”
- “I Want You,” Elvis Costello.
Perhaps not Elvis’s best song but in my opinion his best vocal. As with Hasil and PJ, it doesn’t even feel like singing: it’s like you’re overhearing something being made up at the microphone, something coming directly from a damaged psyche. (Of course I know it wasn’t made up at the microphone, but such is the magic of art.) The last time I saw Elvis in concert he sang this as his last encore and for the final few lines all the house lights went off and it was just that voice of twisted love and obsession coming out of the darkness. Truly spooky.
- “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Nirvana.
Another song of obsessive love and jealousy, another unhinged vocal. “I’d SHIVERRRRRR the whole [short desperate breath] night through…”
- “She Moved Through the Fair,” Sinead O’Connor.
This one really is a ghost story: young lovers are about to be married, unspecified tragedy intervenes, the man is visited by the woman’s ghost telling him he will soon join her in death. Many versions out there but Sinead’s is my favorite, although she hedges the supernatural aspect by substituting “young lover” for “dead lover” in the last verse. She’s not fooling me, the vocal is so devastated that the word choice seems an emotional evasion, a refusal to face or speak the truth. Listen to it in the dark. Listen to all of these in the dark.