As Halloween approaches, the old question returns: “What are the scariest songs you ever heard?” Before we start tossing around song titles, however, let’s take a breath and ask, “What makes music frightening?”
Songs, after all, do not work like movies. There’s not enough time in a four-minute pop number to develop a narrative with as many twists, turns and red herrings as a film script. A piece of music can’t do what a movie like Psycho does: carefully set up one nasty surprise in a shower stall and then set up another in a mansion’s basement. Even if it could, a song can’t rely on catching its audience off-guard, because that will work only once, and songs are meant to be heard again and again.
If it can’t rely on the big surprise, how can music remain scary the third or sixth time it’s heard? Well, it can create a soundscape so uncomfortable that the listener will start to squirm. Music can compress 90 minutes’ worth of creepy soundtrack sounds into four minutes of minor-key piano, distorted guitar, subliminal bass lines, sci-fi synthesizer, baritone growling, falsetto screeching and/or microtonal note bending. That’s enough to make any listener’s skin crawl. Masters of this approach include Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Tool, Scott Walker, Sly Stone, Albert Ayler, Bob Mould, Mastodon, Slint, Suicide and Throbbing Gristle.
The limitation of such music is that the fear lasts only as long as the music is playing. The truly scary songs are those that stay with you long after the playing stops. To do that, they need a story that will focus the vague disquiet of creepy sounds into an identification with a specific character trapped in a terrible situation. But what kind of story is that?
When musicians want to scare their listeners, their default move is to dream up a monster so gruesome or violence so grisly that it will shock the listener. But this often backfires, for the very exaggeration that makes these scenes so unusual also makes them seem unreal. Has anyone old enough to legally drink ever been truly scared by the dystopias depicted in Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on Nine Inch Nails’ “March of the Pigs”? Even the murders described in Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” or Bloodrock’s “D.O.A.” are so obviously overstated that the listener feels like a detached observer rather than a participant in the scene.
This is why heavy metal, even death-metal, has never deserved its reputation for menacing music. Every metal gesture—whether sonic or verbal—is so absurdly inflated that it becomes impossible to take the stories seriously. And as soon as you stop believing in the reality of the song, it’s impossible to be scared. You can still be entertained, but you’ll never be afraid. The only difference between Alice Cooper and Metallica is that Cooper knew he was trafficking in musical cartoons. And gangsta hip-hop is little more than heavy metal built atop beats and loops rather than guitars.
So what does it take to create a truly frightening song? It requires the opposite of exaggeration: a realism so complete that the listener has no escape hatch from the scenario. It requires a story that strips all romanticism away from death, poverty, addiction, mental illness and power to reveal their true cost. It requires a drama so believable that the listener is unwillingly drawn into the action and becomes a participant. These aren’t easy songs to create but they do exist.
For example, the best song about suicide is “River’s Invitation,” written by the great bluesman Percy Mayfield and most memorably sung by Aretha Franklin. In this song, the narrator is standing on a riverbank, pondering whether it’s better to go on living without a departed lover or to embrace the quiet nothingness at the bottom of the beckoning river. The water’s purring invitation seems so persuasive and Franklin’s vocal so obviously wavers in intention, that the listener can feel the attraction of suicide—and that’s really chilling.
Almost as frightening is The Replacements’ suicide song, “The Ledge,” which also puts the listener on the edge of self-destruction. Or Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” where fate proves too implacable to resist. Or Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” where a suicide is barely noticed. The notion that your death could mean so little is far scarier than the thought of people weeping at your funeral.
Just as alarming is the idea that someone could murder a loved one or family member without a trace of guilt. There are many songs along these lines, but the three best are still the traditional ballads “Delia,” most bracingly performed by Blind Willie McTell, “Knoxville Girl,” sung most indelibly by the Louvin Brothers, and “Pretty Polly,” most powerfully recorded by Dock Boggs.
The men in these songs lure women to romantic assignations, only to kill them and coldheartedly dispose of the bodies. These men are scarier than any supervillain or monster precisely because they are so plausible. A modern rock variation on the same theme, with even more guiltless cruelty, is Lou Reed’s bloodcurdling “Street Hassle.”
Reed had a rare gift for scaring the shit out of his listeners. The most daunting depiction of addiction that I’ve ever heard is Reed’s “Heroin,” as recorded by the Velvet Underground. It makes your flesh pimple up because it captures both the allure and negation of the drug: “When that heroin is in my blood and the blood is in my head,” Reed sings over the guitars whining like a morphine rush, “thank God that I’m good as dead, thank your God that I’m not aware.”
The hold that alcohol and drugs can have on us, pressuring us to do things against our will, is frightening to contemplate. A song like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” is sad but not particularly scary, because it’s sung from a detached, elegiac perspective. But Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” produces real shivers, because it captures the initial shock of hearing about a drug death in its jittery, ramshackle arrangement and stunned/stunning vocal: “’Cause people let me tell you: It sent a chill up and down my spine, when I picked up the telephone and heard that he’d died.”
The Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss duet “Whiskey Lullaby” is the epitome of the honky-tonk death-by-drinking song, climaxed by its cruel punch line: “She put that bottle to her head and pulled the trigger…we found her with her face down in the pillow.” Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” is equally chilling in the way it strangles its title character in his own fate, delivered in Mayfield’s matter-of-fact, journalistic vocal: “Everybody’s misused him; ripped him off and abused him. Another junkie playin’, pushin’ dope for the man. A terrible blow, but that’s how it goes.”
Even scarier is Jon Dee Graham’s “Beautifully Broken,” a bitter refusal to grant addiction any glamor or romance. His protagonist emerges from rehab to a grinding guitar riff, not as a heart-tugging VH1 story, not made stronger for what hasn’t killed him, “not beautifully broken,” he sings, “just broken, that’s all.”
The most frightening songs of all, to my mind, are those about the finality of death—songs that undermine the notion that any part of us outlives our body’s last breath. These are songs that you want to deny or turn away from, but the best are so compelling that you can’t. “Don’t be a cry baby,” taunts Tom Waits as he declares that our only destination is the “Cold, Cold Ground.” Neither religion nor culture can change that fact (“The piano is firewood,” he sings, “Times Square is just a dream”); every hope will be buried with us in the grave.
Even scarier than that, the most discomfiting song I’ve ever heard, is Randy Newman’s “Old Man.” Just a sleepy baritone vocal, simple piano part and melancholy strings, the song paints a portrait of an adult son and his dying father, an atheist who’s now confronted by the implications of his own beliefs. You can picture them in an antiseptic hospital, the son being as ruthlessly honest as the father once was with him. “You want to stay; I know you do,” the son sings, “but it ain’t no use to try…You don’t need anybody; nobody needs you. Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry. Everybody dies.”
When he shifts the harmony a half-step up into a diminished chord for that last line, it’s as if the listener has been pushed out of time and frozen for four seconds. It’s the creepiest moment I’ve ever had in half a century of listening to music. I once asked Newman why he never performs the song in public, and he said that the few times he tried it, he completely lost the audience and could never get them back. No wonder. Who could absorb another song while still digesting the terrifying implications of a song like that?