(WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the films listed below, proceed with caution)
Music is everything in a horror film, usually making up about 99 percent of the suspense, tension, and fear within the narrative. From the shrieking staccato of the violin puncture wounds in the infamous Psycho (1960) shower scene, to the clamorous crescendo of eerie dulcimers in the climactic scenes of the Saw (2004–present) franchise, there is no doubt: Terror is rarely a sound of silence.
Not all horror films utilize these traditional, fear-inciting musical scores however, with some preferring to appropriate more joyous melodies in their fright fests to create a heightened sense of paradoxical terror. Some of the movies on this list have made songs originally known for their upbeat and catchy natures a dread-inducing, aural nightmare, even eclipsing the song’s original message and reputation.
5. 'Ouija: Origin Of Evil' (2016)
Song: "Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye" – W. H. Thompson (1904)
The prequel to the 2014 film Ouija, the 2016 film is a welcome improvement over its predecessor in almost every way. The film tells the story of the Zander family – Alice and her two daughters, Lina and Doris. To make ends meet, Alice acts as a spiritual medium and (along with her daughters) stages (fake) séances for grieving townspeople. After Lina suggests that the family incorporate a Ouija board into their performances, Doris, after breaking one of the three rules of the Ouija board (never play alone, never play in a graveyard, and always say goodbye) comes into contact with a malevolent spirit whom she erroneously believes to be her deceased father.
A solid take on an overdone subgenre, this ghost movie uses the possessed children trope better than most, and culminates in an emotionally affective and thematically bittersweet ending. Alice and Doris die and are reunited with the patriarch of the family, Roger, leaving Lina behind to be institutionalized. As she summons Alice with a makeshift Ouija board, the credits roll and a sombre version of the song “Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye” plays. The song was originally intended as a poignant farewell to a girl from her father leaving for war. The song, despite its harrowing message, was intended to be a temporary goodbye, not a permanent one.
In #OuijaOriginOfEvil, however, the song can be taken in several ways — A goodbye to Doris, the youngest sister, as she crosses over into the next life, and also a goodbye to Lina, who has been left without a family. We also see Lina age into an old woman (which is a direct connection to the next film, Ouija), alluding to the fact that she has lost most of her life due to the demonic entity.
4. 'Lady In White' (1988)
Song: "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?" – Bing Crosby (1933)
The possessed child archetype may be somewhat overdone, but the White Lady ghost story really claims the prize in terms of most overdone plot/character device. #LadyInWhite, however, is a charming — though admittedly jaded and garish — gem of a ghost story. On Halloween 1962, Frankie Scarlatti gets locked inside the cloakroom of his school as part of a prank played by the bullies in his class. Trapped, he is then forced to spend the night alone, terrified, where he witnesses the ghost of a little girl who was murdered a decade earlier. He hears the girl humming a strange tune and, as visions of her final moments play out in front of him, Frankie now finds himself the subject of a deranged serial killer and also a mysterious lady in white.
Bing Crosby’s delightful version of “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” takes on an entirely different meaning in this film, shifting from wholesome 1930s pop song into an ethereal indicator of child murder and possibly molestation. While the film itself is tonally inconsistent and problematic in terms of racial politics, the juxtaposition of Crosby’s song and the haunting murder/mystery premise is enough to secure its place on the list.
3. 'Final Destination 3' (2006)
Song: "Turn Around, Look At Me" – Glen Campbell (1961)
Just as Jaws made us scared to go back in the water, the third installment of the #FinalDestination franchise made us scared to go back on rollercoasters, go back to the tanning salon, or pay a visit to our local hardware shops. To be fair to the filmmakers, we shouldn’t really need a film about a group of teenagers being supernaturally stalked and slaughtered by the environmental personification of Death itself to tell us these things. In #FinalDestination3, after a group of teenagers narrowly escape Death’s clutches during a mass-casualty rollercoaster accident, they are ceremoniously picked off one by one, with Death sardonically leaving clues to their demise along the way i.e., particular songs coming on the radio or being played by a nearby busker.
This trope is recurrent throughout the entire series, with John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” appearing notably in the first two installments (which were centered around a plane crash and a motorway pile up, respectively). However, FD3’s musical score is arguably the most haunting, with the use of the 1961 love song “Turn Around, Look at Me.” The song is used multiple times throughout the film to signify Death’s presence and, what was originally intended to be a love song about a person always being there for the one they love, is grotesquely transformed into a symbol for a twisted game of cat and mouse — or, more aptly, Life and Death. That being said, the lyrics, “There is someone watching your footsteps” remains relatively creepy regardless of the context.
2. 'The Loved Ones' (2009)
Song: "Not Pretty Enough" – Kasey Chambers (2002)
#TheLovedOnes is an Australian abduction horror film that sees Lola a.k.a. “Princess” and her father kidnap Lola’s classmate, Brent, after he kindly rebukes her invitation to the upcoming dance. The next hour and a half sees the unassuming and unfortunate Brent being tortured mercilessly by his captors in a faux-prom style charade, even having Lola’s initials carved into his chest (because nothing screams, “I love you!” like thorax mutilation).
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this gruesome tale of unrequited love is the use of the Kasey Chambers’ country-pop song, "Not Pretty Enough." The song was written by Chambers in response to the unwillingness of radio stations playing her music, despite being an established artist. The song would fatefully become her biggest hit to date, and would be heard on radio stations for years to come. In The Loved Ones, however, the song signifies Lola’s discontent with her own attractiveness and unpopularity. The viewer is allowed to sympathy with Lola to a certain degree; however, as the film progresses, it becomes astutely aware as to why Lola has “boy troubles,” as it were. Perhaps a more succinct title would be, “Am I Not Sane Enough?”
1. 'Insidious' (2010)
Song: "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" – Tiny Tim (1968)
Director #JamesWan is no stranger to the horror genre, having previously worked on successful projects such as the splatter film Saw and the psychological horror film Dead Silence. It was #Insidious, however, that truly cemented Wan’s name in the stable of contemporary horror visionaries, with its sustained suspenseful atmosphere, unnerving tone, and imaginative story making for a genuinely scary cinematic experience. The film tells the story of Josh and Renai Lambert and their experiences with the paranormal after their son falls into a catatonic state brought on by spiritual possession. The Lamberts enlist the help of a team of demonologists, which allows them to venture into the spirit realm and attempt to rescue their son from the clutches of an unholy entity.
Insidious is brimming with ghoulish imagery and frightening moments, despite some critics lambasting its second half for being ludicrous or cheesy. The real tour de force of terror comes in the third act, however, when we hear Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” played over the demon’s daily sharpening of his talons. Some would suggest that Tiny Tim’s incredibly high falsetto is enough to render any song frightening, but the joyful message of his song about strolling through a garden of flowers is most definitely perverted when the demon’s phonograph begins to shrieks out the tune. This, accompanied by the demon’s Satanic and chilling appearance, makes Tiptoe Through the Tulips one of the best uses of music in a #horror film ever (hence its place as No. 1 on this list).
What are some of your favorite songs used in horror films? Let me know in the comments below!