The Strange Potency of Old Songs in Horror Movies

Bing Crosby in A Nightmare On Elm Street 2? It's just one example of vintage songs being used to up the chills in horror films...

As the end credits roll on Jack Sholder’s horror sequel A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), an unexpected voice from yesteryear erupts on the soundtrack. It belongs to legendary crooner Bing Crosby, asking “Did you ever see a dream walking?” in a brassy big band tune dating from as far back as 1933. Jaunty, whimsical, the song is utterly unlike anything we’ve just seen, providing an ironic tonal counterpoint to the violent slasher surrealism preceding it. The contrast offers comic relief, a release of tension. We can relax now. Or can we?

The new context for this old standard invites us to take Mack Gordon’s lyrics at face value. For Freddy Kreuger is quite literally a dream, the ghost of a killer invading the psyches of suburban youths while they dose, his clawing, mauling attacks manifesting themselves as real bleeding wounds in the waking world. This dream walks.

The gender of the song’s subject is also switched in the transplant. Crosby presumably had some luscious, Dorothy Lamour-shaped female fantasy figure in mind, but now finds his serenade addressed to a man (albeit a disfigured monster in a soiled fedora). This reversal ingeniously mirrors the film’s subtext: its teen protagonist’s struggle with his own burgeoning homosexuality, an anxiety cruelly exploited by Kreuger to drive him to murder.

Such clever recycling of creaky popular songs is a common trope in horror movies and one that’s worth examining in more detail.

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The Chordettes’ bubblegum classic “Mr. Sandman,” for instance, was sinisterly repurposed at the close of Halloween II (1981), rescuing the mythical bringer of sleep from their wholesome prayer and aligning his bedroom interloping with the crimes of masked maniac Michael Myers. The process interferes with our personal relationship with this familiar song, upsetting whatever pleasant associations it might hold, toying with us in a way that no orchestral score, even one as terrifying as John Carpenter’s original, ever could.

A number of lunar-themed oldies grace the soundtrack to John Landis’s An American Werewolf In Paris from the same year. The likes of Van Morrison and Credence Clearwater Revival are heard, but it’s the three versions of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” by Bobby Vinton, Sam Cooke and doo wop quintet The Marcels that really stand out. Each artist brings their own idiosyncratic flavour and energy to Landis’s effects-driven horror comedy while the repetition echoes the recurring pattern of transformations its lycanthropy-infected backpacker protagonist is doomed to undergo.

In Carpenter’s auto nightmare Christine (1983), a possessed Plymouth Fury blares out several rock and roll classics from its dashboard stereo as a substitute for speech, the animalistic convertible locking its doors and trapping passengers inside to the sound of Little Richard’s manic “Keep A-Knockin.” Here the song taunts Christine’s helpless victims and serves a practical purpose, stifling their dying screams. It also helps humanise the car by conveying a marked taste: Christine only plays songs that were current when she was assembled on a Detroit production line three decades earlier.

The trend continues to more recent times. Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers (2001) took its title from a wartime novelty by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, with Paul Whiteman’s version playing in the movie. As with the aforementioned Crosby favorite, the actions of the movie’s antagonist cast Mercer’s lyrics in a horrifyingly literal new light: “Where d’ya get those eyes?” Poor Justin Long… That film also features a 1930’s children’s lullaby on its end credits called “Hush Hush Hush, Here Comes The Bogeyman by Henry Hall, itself as ripe for subversion as The Chordettes were.

Heavy metal also-ran turned movie director Rob Zombie enjoys playing the same game, deploying blues tracks by Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush to give an uneasy sense of place to his Texas-set, neo-grindhouse trailer trash horrors House Of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). These black voices evoke the shameful history of the American south, their soulful laments born in a climate of prejudice, oppression and poverty.

Zombie’s use of Buck Owens’ defiant Christian anthem “Satan’s Got To Get Along Without Me” further adds country authenticity, as well as a note of irony, given the appalling acts carried out by his devilish family clan, all of whom are named after Groucho Marx aliases. One of their number, Baby Firefly, mimes and dances to Betty Boop’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in the first film, a tongue-in-cheek burlesque performance intended to sow disharmony among the stranded travellers who have unwisely crossed their threshold. As with David Lynch’s use of Vinton and Roy Orbison songs in Blue Velvet (1986), the choice reminds us how weird and unearthly the originals are when heard anew.

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American horror movies have of course made equally good use of modern compositions. Think of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” in The Exorcist (1973), The Ramones’ rollicking title song for Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ revision of their own “Red Right Hand for Wes Craven’s Scream franchise or minimalist composer’s Philip Glass’ delicate and incredibly unlikely score for Candyman (1992) and its first sequel. But why is it that the genre keeps on coming back to the relics of pop culture past?

In the same way that crumbling houses are scary, the songs of an earlier generation carry with them the sentiments and ideals of a world otherwise lost to us. The voices sealed in wax on vintage recordings pop and crackle with the tastes, attitudes and aspirations of a bygone age, whose inhabitants have long since grown up or passed away. Playing dusty records, one behaves like a medium conducting a séance, conjuring spectres from another moment in time.

But however much these old dance tunes might belong to the past, however ornate or fusty their arrangements and orchestration now seem, the universality of their themes allow us to make a connection in defiance of the drastic changes the world has undergone in the intervening decades. After all, what could be more compellingly human and timeless than yearning for a dream?

Nobody understood the strange potency of cheap music – to borrow Noël Coward’s phrase – better than Stanley Kubrick. The Shining (1980) includes two numbers on its soundtrack by band leader Ray Noble with eerie vocals by Al Bowlly – selections perhaps influenced by the work of TV dramatist Dennis Potter, who included vintage music of the same period in his contemporaneous BBC series Pennies From Heaven (1978). These twin tunes, “Midnight,” “The Stars And You and “It’s All Forgotten Now,” echo through the empty ballroom of the Overlook Hotel, calling to mind the Colorado resort’s 1920s heyday as Jack Torrance slides slowly but surely into homicidal madness.

Perhaps the most straightforward answer is that horror films generate their thrills by placing innocence in jeopardy, introducing an element of violent menace into previously tranquil circumstances. The subversion and corruption of these emblematic old songs enacts the same ritual. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) offers arguably the purest example of this going: those carols sung in its sorority house are queasily undermined by our knowledge of the deranged lunatic hiding in the attic above the girls’ heads.

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Silent night? They wish.