Guitars and Gore: Exploring the Horror Themes in Film and Heavy Metal

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In space, no one can hear you if you scream. In heavy metal, nobody will hear you unless you do.

Folklore themes, which feed into horror films, are all over early music. Violin virtuoso and world renowned composer of technically demanding music Nicolo Paganini was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his dazzling skills as a musician, and his cadaverous appearance in later life certainly holds true to this notion. For years, certain note sequences were banned, because they were said to be demonic — and, as we all know, the Devil gets the best tunes.

Giuseppe Tartini’s famous piece “The Devil’s Trill Sonata” was said to be inspired by a dream in which the devil visited him. In more recent times, the influential but mysterious Robert Johnson was also said to have sold his soul to the devil. According to popular myth, he waited at a crossroads. He was approached by a tall figure who took his guitar, retuned it and handed it back to him, along with the skills that he needed to write and play the music that he left to the world. In all, he left 29 songs, which are still played by many rock, blues and heavy metal bands. His songs, give some credence to the Devil theme, with titles such as “Preachin’ Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” His death, allegedly at the hand of a cuckolded husband meant that he became one of the earliest members of the 27 club.

The Devil is all over popular music. Some of it is quite obvious, but even a song as innocuous as Pat Ballard’s “Mr. Sandman” — with its Brill Street pop sheen, jaunty rhythm, harmony singing and innocence — is asking for help from a supernatural figure, whilst the Rolling Stones are asking us to have sympathy for the figure that we are all meant to fear, even if he did start life as one of the favorite angels.

The Devil is in horror movies, but so too are many other creatures. Blood-craving vampires have featured in light-hearted fare but, in many of the classic early Hammer horror films, they were figures to be feared — rather than a potential lover, as is the case with many films these days. With younger people wanting the choice of a vampire, or a werewolf, it puts the normal cliques such as goth, jock, and geek in the shade.

Aliens have featured as well, from the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” to Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” which added florid, progressive rock with heavier elements to H.G. Wells’ famous story — a triumph that pre-faced much horror and science fiction writing.

This lineage also included contributions from the Moody Blues’ Justin Haywood, singer and actor David Essex, the actor Richard Burton and Phil Lynot of Thin Lizzy, a band that had more rock in them and were perhaps too tuneful to be a heavy metal band, even if the quality of musicianship was of an impeccable pedigree. Thin Lizzy included the late and much-missed Gary Moore, who would go onto embrace full on rock/metal before finding his true forte in the blues.

It is the more unsettling music, though that has the biggest effect. Placing the opening, fleet piano and glockenspiel part of Mike Oldfield’s 1973 opus Tubular Bells in The Exorcist helped to cement the feel of the film: Although it has some horrific moments, it is the atmosphere and feel of the film which stays with the viewer long after the images of spinning heads, and pea-soup vomit have faded. The Omen, another classic horror film of the ’70s, also plays a similar trick — using the more well-known parts of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at suitable junctures. For the same reason, music by Wagner also works well in horror films.

The use of heavy metal in horror films has been around for as long as metal has. The genre — first explored by bands such as Cream, the Jeff Beck Band and Led Zeppelin, and then developed by groups such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Emerson Lake and Palmer — was a fusion of many different types of music. The groups often took on early songs by such pioneers as Johnson, Chuck Berry and many others, and built on them until they were a completely new genre.

Metal needed to be loud. It needed to be in your face, take no prisoners, and the combination of thundering drums, knee trembling bass and fast guitar playing meant that these bands soon pushed past the limitations of technology — both in the studio and on live stages. Pounding riffs and clattering drums proved a hit with listeners in the early 1970s, and the genre still appears to be popular. Groups such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath are still active, decades after first forming. Meanwhile, other bands such as Van Halen, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard built on the work of earlier groups, sometimes adding a more commercial pop sheen, and found new audiences.

Heavy metal does tend to be an amalgam of styles. It takes elements such as heavy blues and rock bass and drums, and marries that to a fleet fingered keyboard and guitars, and screaming vocals — all played at a high level of decibels. The use of classical motifs helps to add both drama and an unexpected twist to many songs, even while adding new color and accents to the music than might have been the case. Prog rock and heavy metal tend to be strange bedfellows, but they do have a lot in common, even if different tribes follow them.

Metal, it seems, came about by a series of accidents. The cut amplifier cover gave the guitar sounds to “Rumble” by Link Wray and the gritty, bludgeoning sounds of the early Kinks albums. Metal came out of the factories and steelworks of the Midlands. Bands such as Black Sabbath, from Birmingham, ware led by guitarist Tony Iommi, who lost the tops of two of the fingers on his left hand in a factory accident. he subsequently tuned his guitar lower, creating a guitar sound that made the band both world famous and influential.

The thing about horror movies is that they are meant to scare you. If they don’t, then it is just a lot of fake blood and screaming. Music adds a lot to that feel. Even though most showers are not accompanied by a screeching violin part, Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho does just that. Hitchcock surprised the audience in that scene, not just with the attack by Norman Bates but with the quick, fast paced feel of the scene. (It took 47 different edits to clear it, because of the Hayes code and its concerns with the nudity in the film, rather than the portrayal of murder.) Finally, there was the killing of the film’s biggest star, Janet Leigh, in the first half of the picture.

In Jaws, we don’t see the shark — and when we do, we are aware that it is rubber — but the two-note bass riff that John Williams wrote for the opening score has already done that for us. Horror movies, indeed all films, should be a feast for the senses, and not just for the eyes and ears. If a character is in danger, we should feel in danger; if a character has been scared, we should be scared. Music adds a lot to that sense of impending doom.

Conversely, filmmakers sometimes use completely unexpected music, often with the same impact. Little seen horror films such as Jack Frost, which is about a killer snowman, play around with Christmas music to give a feeling of security to the audience — before the Yuletide slaying begins. In Gremlins, the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life is on television when the gremlins are causing the most damage. By placing the horror in the homes of the lead characters, it’s seen as being a lot more evil and everyday in its intent. In Poltergeist, for example, the horror escapes through the TV screen, whilst previously harmless trees are seen as dangerous and a paranormal investigator looks after his ablutions in one of the bloodiest, and most horrific scenes in the film.

By placing horror films in everyday streets and houses, with everyday people, the horror becomes more real. Haunted houses, forests, and graveyards are one thing, but the bogeymen that hid under the bed, are now in our houses, maybe they watch tv with us, maybe they like the same music as us — and maybe, you won’t wake up. It was this uncertainty that make horror films so attractive. They have a huge following, among younger people and older people who saw them in their youth. With the use of CGI and other associated technologies, they are now far more believable — although cheap B movie films will always look cheap, and only attract a certain audience.

Heavy metal music is also very popular with the target audience for which many of the horror films are made, so in that regard, they seem like a perfect fit for each other. Horror movies and heavy metal seem to attract teenagers and young men, both of whom are interested in the bang for the buck that these genres both provide. They are testosterone-filled escapist fair, where bad things happen to bad people. The geek will typically end up surviving the last scene — except in Carrie, where the bullied and put upon protaganist launches her full power and rage on the class mates who tormented her, and the highly religious mother who held her to almost impossible standards.

Of course, horror and heavy metal feature both genders, but the fact that they are mostly made by men of certain ages and interests is sociologically interesting, and worth noting. Many of the most horrific films made in the 1970s where made very cheaply in foreign countries, so the likes of Dario Argento cut his teeth on early films like this. David Cronenberg fused intelligent story-telling with stomach churning effects (see Rabid, and the last half hour of his remake of The Fly as examples) whilst Steven King’s novels such as Carrie, It, Cujo, and Christine became huge hits — thanks, in part, to King’s skill as a story-teller.

More recently, bands have been more than happy to have their music featured, so films and television shows which draw on the traditional horror themes such as the Vampire Diaries and Supernatural have been soundtracked by all types of bands, because it helps to boost their profile.

Of course, there have been some misfires, particularly during the mid-1980s — where the growth in the availability of cheaper video cameras, and the growth in home entertainment with VHS meant that there was a brand new market for cheap, mass-market entertainment. Celluloid horrors such as Shock ’em Dead, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, Trick or Treat, The Gate, Pledge Night, Black Roses and Hard Rock Zombies all feature metal.

At the same time, many heavy metal album covers feature zombies, body parts and mythical creatures, while highlighting the dubious pleasures within. These covers also tend to be misognystic, with scantily clad women on the cover — another marketing ploy to appeal to teenagers. And anger their parents: Authorities have always had a fear of popular music, which started in the 1950s with Elvis Presley, and then the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — who were seen as being a subsequent threat.

The opening to “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint It Black” are still spooky songs. Meanwhile, the Beatles also had their own share of darkness, as well. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is a song about murder, set to a jaunty tune, whilst some of the soundscapes that the quartet created such as Tomorrow Never Knows have a sense of forboding doom about them. Fast forward into a new age and, with the proliferation of the internet, the growth of new bands and new taboos, there is a seemingly never-ending wave of new material with which to scandalize the conservative far-right.

In the 1980s, this was exemplified by Tipper Gore, who tried to ban the music of Judas Priest, claiming that if their albums were played backwards, then it encouraged suicide. The case was never proven, but if people think there is something there, they can find it. In the previous decade, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was obsessed with the occultist Aleister Crowley, going so far as to buy his house, and the influence of the occult can be felt in many of the songs — whether it was their full-on heavy metal songs or the more pastoral, folky moments.

One horror film which uses the slightly off kilter folk sound is The Wicker Man. The clue is in the title, but the sense of dread and horror in the film is exemplified by the use of folk music, with the recorders and violins that many of us will have learnt in school used to full effect. In fact, the story lines and narratives of many folk songs about death, life, plague and missed love are more horrific than anything in heavy metal music and horror films — because it is just human interaction, and the ordinary, everyday random nature of most crime is far more mundane, routine and boring than any horror story gives evil credit for.

Perhaps, in the end, the horror themes in heavy metal are not really there. Are these simply musicians playing with new noises, trying to create something different? Or perhaps it is just that the worst angels of our natures are given free reign in both horror films and heavy metal music, and that these are places where we can visit our worst fears and keep them trapped — until the next time we want to question the nature of good and evil, life and death, and be scared.

Ben Macnair

Ben Macnair

A resident of Staffordshire, UK, Macnair has written for Blues in Britain Magazine and The Independent. His poetry has appeared in Purple Patch and Raw Edge, while his short stories have been published in two Forward Press anthologies. Follow him: @benmacnair. Contact Something Else! at
Ben Macnair

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