Thursday, June 28, 2012

By All Means, Fear the Reaper: Five Horror Movie Songs That Should Send You Running

Often when we think of horror films or horror TV programs, we think of the terrifying imagery first.  And yet, over the years, some popular music has become virtually inseparable from the horror genre experience too. 

These widely-remembered songs have come – for many of us -- to be synonymous with their memorable horror associations.  Therefore, when you hear these compositions on the radio as you’re driving to work, you don’t think “that’s my favorite song!” Instead, you think “uh oh, here comes trouble.”

Better watch out…

Without further prologue, here are five pop culture tunes that, if they appear in a horror flick, portend lot of trouble. 

So turn up the volume, sure.  But check those mirrors, watch that traffic, and steer clear of any Plymouth 1957 Fury…

1. “The Hokey Pokey.”   This weirdly catchy and child-like dance song boasts a strange history.  Some trace the composition back to London in the 1940s, during wartime.  But other scholars have suggested it actually arises from a song written by sisters in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, in 1857.

There are even some who assert “The Hokey Pokey” goes back to the 17th story and suggest that the titular term “Hokey Pokey” refers, in fact, to the magic words “hocus pocus,” thus branding the song with a kind of hidden horror context to begin with.

In the horror genre,” The Hokey Pokey” has been conjured up in at least two important settings.  In Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch (1998) -- a remake of the Danish film Nattevagten (1994) -- the monstrous serial killer plays the “The Hokey Pokey” at all of his bloody crime scenes.

In terms more relevant to the “hocus pocus” incantation, “The Hokey Pokey” also appears in the fifth season episode of The X-Files by Stephen King, titled “Chinga.”  That episode is set in the northeast (though in Maine, not New Hampshire) and involves a malevolent doll given life by ancient witchcraft.  “The Hokey Pokey” is that doll’s theme song of sorts…always playing when the doll is about to strike. 

2. “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” This 1976 Blue Oyster Cult hit from the album Agents of Fortune, explicitly concerns death, but also a love affair that transcends mortality and lasts in “eternity,” just like Romeo and Juliet’s.  The song played in the background of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a film about a reaper of sorts, The Shape, and in the 2007 remake by Rob Zombie. 

The tragic love affair angle of the song came to the forefront in the ballad-styled rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” that played over a scene between Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).  The same year, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” closed the Peter Jackson film The Frighteners, a film about a ghostly reaper figure.

On television, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” appeared in the mini-series adaptation of The Stand (1994) starring Molly Ringwald, and in episodes of Smallville (“Precipice” in 2003) and Supernatural (“Faith” in 2006).

Most recently, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was resurrected for Zombieland (2009).

3. “Mr. Sandman.” This song by Pat Bullard and The Chordettes first premiered in 1954, but has since become something of a horror movie and television standard. 

Again, there’s a connection in the song to horror to begin with.  The Sandman is a mythological figure who can bring good dreams by sprinkling magical sand into the eyes of slumbering kids.  This kindly spirit, featured in Hans Christian Anderson’s Ole Lukoje, was inverted and made malevolent in Der Sandmann (1816), a short story by E.T.A Hoffman.  There, the Sandman would collect the eyes of children who refused to settle down for a good night’s sleep.

In horror movies, “Mr. Sandman” became the unofficial love song between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and The Shape, Michael Myers.  The connection began when the song appeared in the first sequel Halloween II (1981), but the song was reprised – briefly – in Halloween: H20 (1998).  “Mr. Sandman” works so well with the Halloween saga because many film critics have speculated that the monstrous Michael is actually a projection of Laurie’s sexually-repressed id.  So therefore, Sandman does bring Laurie a dream…a rather horrible one, in the form of Michael.

On television, “Mr. Sandman” has appeared on the incredibly awesome adaptation of Ghostbusters called The Real Ghostbusters (1985).  My five-year oldson is watching this series right now, and in one first season episode, “Mr. Sandman, Dream me a Dream,” the song plays alongside a manifestation of the mythological monster. 

“Mr. Sandman” is also reprised in the TV series version of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone in “Wheel of Fortune,” and once in the supernatural series Charmed (1998 – 2006).

4. “Jeepers Creepers.”  Like the other songs featured on this list, even the title of this composition -- which includes the word “Creepers” -- sounds frightening. 

“Jeepers Creepers” was written by Harry Warren with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, in the year 1938.  In 2001, Victor Salva created a terrifying horror franchise around the tune with the film, Jeepers Creepers, which involved a monstrous demon, “The Creeper,” devouring the organs of various unlucky victims.  One unlucky victim, Derry, had his eyes eaten and then assimilated by the Creeper, which fit in perfectly with the lyric “where’d you get those eyes?”

The song recurred in Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003), and was also heard briefly in the time travel episode of The X-Files: “Triangle,” in 1998.

5. “Bad to the Bone.”  This tune by George Thorogood and the Destroyers will live forever (just like rock and roll) in my memory as the tune which introduced the killer car in Stephen King’s Christine (1983). 

In that film’s prologue, audiences witnessed the birth of malicious Christine – a Plymouth Fury – on a factory assembly line.  In short order, this car -- born bad to the bone – claimed its first hapless victim.

More recently, “Bad to the Bone” introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg from the future in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Here the use of the song was more comical than creepy, though in 1991 we still associated the Schwarzenegger character with the villain in the previous outing.

“Bad to the Bone” also appeared in the 1983 horror film Slayground, for those who remember it.

Finally, there are at least two runner-ups on this list that deserve a mention too.

The first is John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” which is the theme song of Death Himself in Final Destination (2000) and reprised in Final Destination 2 (2003).  Released in 1972, the creepy aspect of the song is the real life context: Denver had died in a plane crash in 1997, and Final Destination’s narrative revolved, likewise, around a plane crash.   To this day, I won’t get anywhere near a plane if I hear this Denver song…

And then there’s “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” a tune from a 1957 album by Johnny Mathis.  This tune was revived with incredibly creepy results for gory The X-Files fourth season episode “Home.”  There, the song became the creepy theme for the inbred Peacocks, and was a harbinger for their presence.

You hear that song – like so many others in this list – and you don’t second guess.  You run like Hell!


  1. I have a few candidates that may or may not fit the criteria:

    "The Breakup Song" by The Greg Kihn Band, especially perhaps for today‘s younger audiences, will be forever synonymous with Let Me In.

    "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones was used in celebrative fashion in the closing credits for The Devil’s Advocate, and in Stir of Echoes it infects the memory of Kevin Bacon’s character. And while it doesn’t constitute a horror film in the conventional sense, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket nonetheless closes on a dark and disturbing (and near apocalyptic) note where, again, the song is used for closing credits.

    Likewise from the Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil", though covered by Guns N' Roses, closes Interview with a Vampire, giving Lestat his own personal anthem of sorts as he drives off into the San Francisco night. It was used again a couple years later in the opening scene for Tony Scott’s The Fan, introducing De Niro’s psychopath character (oddly enough, as he’s driving to work through San Francisco).

    "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan was employed with a very haunting, fatalistic effect in the opening and closing scenes of Fincher’s Zodiac; again, another classic rock song that will likely be forever associated with a thriller by today’s youth cinephiles.

    "People Are Strange" from The Doors was covered by Echo & Bunnymen for the Santa Carla montage in The Lost Boys.

    "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder definitely, if not jokingly, sets the tone for John Carpenter’s The Thing; the same could perhaps be said of Men at Work’s "Who Can It Be Now?" for the 2011 prequel.

    Finally, these are two big ones that I’m shaming you, John, a horror movie aficionado, for not including on your list:

    CCR's version of "Midnight Special" that opened and closed Twilight Zone: The Movie -- cue Mr. Aykroyd: "Hey, you wanna see something really scary?"

    Also from director John Landis is An American Werewolf in London, which incorporates a number of 'moon' titled songs, including Van Morrison’s "Moondance", CCR’s "Bad Moon Rising" and three different versions of "Blue Moon", by Bobby Vinton (opening credits), Sam Cook (infamous transformation scene) and, my personal favorite, The Marcels (hilariously abrupt closing credits).

    Oh, there’s one more that I just now remembered. The next time you’re flying in an Army chopper over the jungles of Central America, make sure to blast Little Richard’s "Long Tall Sally".

    1. Hi Cannon,

      These are all excellent selections, and will no doubt find rotation at WKRGR Radio Station (to quote from Nightmare on Elm Street).

      I didn't intend to include all the songs that feature in horror film/tv, just some that I could think of that have had multiple appearances. That said, I'm not shamed...just thrilled that you've added to the play list, my friend.

      I'm especially glad you mentioned Little Richard and Long Tall Sally, which appears in Predator, and over the end credits of the recent Predators (2010) too. Nice call, buddy.

      Excellent and typically thorough comment!


  2. JKM: Maybe I'm an old-timer, but I really dug how haunted submarine movie "Below" (2002) used Benny Goodman's "Swing, Swing, Swing." The ferociously upbeat, expansive song in a cramped metal tube was a nice counterpoint.
    Also, while not a sci-fi or horror flick, I thought how John Waters used "The Hokey Pokey" in "A Dirty Shame" was awesome (helped by Tracey Ullman's off the wall perf).

    1. Hi Ivan,

      I need to see "Below," and the contrast you mention (expansive song in cramped metal tube) sounds intriguing to me.

      As far as I'm concerned, John Waters can pretty much do no wrong! :)

      Great comment,


  3. I'd include Bobby Vinton's cover of "Blue Velvet" from David Lynch's film of the same name. Lynch always has a nice touch with music in his films.

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Oh yes, that was incredibly haunting. Blue Velvet is one of my favorite Lynch films, and incredibly disturbing. I can't think of the song without thinking of the movie. Good call!