Horror Themes in Heavy Metal
In space, no one can hear you if you scream….In Heavy Metal nobody will listen to 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. For years, specific note sequences were banned, because they were said to be demonic, and as well 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 the 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 represented by many rocks, blues, and heavy metal bands. His songs, give some credence to the Devil theme, with titles such as ‘Preachin’ Blues (up jumped the devil)’ ‘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 character that we are all meant to fear, even if he did start life as one of the favourite 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 movies these days. With younger people wanting the choice of a Vampire or a Werewolf, it puts the typical cliques, such as goth, jock, and the geek in the shade.
Aliens have featured as well, from the Byrd’s ‘Mr Spaceman’ to Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ which added florid, progressive rock, with heavier elements, to HG Wells famous story, which pre-faced much horror and science fiction writing, and included contributions from The Moody Blues’s Justin Haywood, singer and actor David Essex, the actor Richard Burton, and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott ( 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. The group included the late, and much-missed Gary Moore, who would go onto embrace full-on rock/metal before finding his real forte in the blues)
It is the more unsettling music, though that has the most significant 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, which although it has some horrific moments in it, 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. Another classic horror film of the 1970s, The Omen 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 Heavy Metal has. The genre, first explored by bands such as Cream, The Jeff Beck Band, and Led Zeppelin, and 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 Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and many others, and built on them until they were an entirely new genre.
Heavy 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 popular with listeners in the early 1970’s, and the genre still appears to be popular. Groups such as Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath are still active, more than 30 years after first forming, and other bands such as Def Leppard, built on the work of earlier bands, added a more commercial pop sheen, and found themselves popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and finding themselves popular with fans of other bands of a similar genre, such as Van Halen, and Bon Jovi, who married a pop appeal to serious musicianship.
Heavy Metal does tend to be an amalgam of styles. It takes elements such as heavy bluesy and rock bass and drums and marries that basis to a fleet-fingered keyboard, and guitar style, and high, screaming vocals, played at a high level of decibels. The use of classical motifs helps to add both drama and an unexpected twist to many songs and adds a new colour, 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, it is just the tribes that follow them.
Heavy Metal, 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 came from Birmingham, where guitarist Tony Iommi, in a factory accident, lost the tops of two of the fingers on his left hand, and tuned his guitar lower, gaining the guitar sound that made the band 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 only with the attack by Norman Bates, and with the quick, fast-paced feel of the scene (it took 47 different edits to clear it, because of the Hayes Code, and their concerns with the nudity in the film, rather than the portrayal of murder) and also with 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 bass two-note 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, and music adds a lot to that sense of impending doom.
However, the opposite can also be true, with the wrong music, spoiling a scene, but adding to it on repeated viewing. 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 Christmas slaying begins. In Gremlins, Christmas classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is on the Television, when the Gremlins are causing the most damage.
By placing the horror in the homes of the lead characters, the fear is seen as being a lot more evil and every day in its intent. In Poltergeist, for example, the horror escapes through the television screen, while 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 ordinary 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 homes, maybe they watch tv with us, perhaps they like the same music as us, and maybe, you won’t wake up.
It was this uncertainty that makes Horror films so attractive. They have a vast following, among younger people, and older people who saw them in their youth, and 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 specific 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, who are interested in the bang for the buck that these genres both provide. They are testosterone-filled, escapist fare, where bad things happen to bad people, the geek will end up surviving the last scene, except in Carrie, where the bullied, and put upon protagonist launches her full power and rage on the classmates 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) while Steven King’s novels, such as Carrie, It, Cujo, and Christine became massive 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 in films, so 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 the profile of the music that is used.
Of course, there have been some misfires, particularly during the mid-1980’s, 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 affordable, 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 features Heavy Metal, both as characters, or as an essential plot point.
As well as horror movies, many Heavy Metal album covers feature zombies, body parts, and mythical creatures, and highlight the dubious pleasures within. These covers also tend to be misogynistic, with scantily clad women on the cover, another marketing ploy to appeal to teenagers.
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 the threat (the opening to Gimme Shelter and Paint it Black are still spooky songs). The Beatles also had their own share of darkness (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is a song about murder, to a jaunty tune, while some of the soundscapes that the quartet created, such as Tomorrow Never Knows have a sense of foreboding doom about them. With the proliferation of the internet, and the growth of new bands, and new taboos, there is a seemingly never-ending wave of new material with which to scandalise 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.
Of course, this is nothing new. In the 1970s, the Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was obsessed with the occultist Alestair 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 storylines and narratives of many folk songs, about death, life, plague, 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 much crime and behaviour is far more mundane, routine, and tedious than any horror story gives evil credit for.
But perhaps the Horror themes in Heavy Metal are not really there, it is just people playing with new noises, trying to create something new. Or maybe 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.