By: Colleen Gorgan
Noёl Carroll spends considerable effort defining exactly what makes horror in The Philosophy of Horror. Although focusing on literature, he argues all forms of art could be horror and thus avoids defining horror as requiring a narrative (Carroll 15). He cites other, non-written medias that are art horror, such as visual art and theater (Carroll 12). The painting Gina included on our syllabus, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, is also horrific, even if it is not a written narrative. Music seemed a prime example of non-literary art horror, but Carroll neglects the obvious source.
The first horrific piece that came to mind was Franz Schubert’s lied “Erlkönig.” Looking back through my old musicology textbook, the piece was even paired with The Nightmare in a section on romanticism. This lied is easy to decipher as horror; as a ballad set to classical music, it narrates a terrifying journey of a young boy and his father. The boy tells his father over and over again that the Elf King is coming after him and his father only understands when he finds his son dead as they reach their destination (Kerman 221). The more I looked into “Erlkönig” the more the literary tradition Schubert was working within became clear. Franz Schubert’s adaption of the poem was only published three years before Frankenstein and was blooming out of the same concepts of romanticism. The ballad uses elements of horror recognizable to us as 21st century listeners: the use of a child as the first connection with the supernatural and the deployment of the fantastic in the father’s doubts of the existence of a supernatural entity until it is too late. The music itself uses driving, repetitive melodies that urges the listener, and the father and son, always toward the Elf King.
Opera also became a stage for horror in the romantic period. Some of the most popular operas of the era dealt with dark topics: von Weber’s The Magic Bullet contemplates the devil and Verdi’s Macbeth tells Shakespeare’s play through music. Other genres consider similar subjects. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique dives into drug induced nightmares and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain ponders witches, a common theme in romantic era horror music. All of these pieces use, like “Erlkönig,” fast tempoed, repetitive rhythms. Those same musical principles are employed in horror music today in the musical themes we all know and love in The Exorcist and Halloween. Those romantic pieces with lyrics detail horrifying topics and even give voice to the monster, a practice seen in almost all of our pieces in class thus far. Nineteenth century romantic music saw the development of the musical elements that would transform into today’s horror.
Another musical tradition with lasting roots in today’s horror music is the organ. Last week I went to the original viewing of the 1925 Phantom of the Opera film with a live organ accompaniment. Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor is often used in performances of The Phantom. With driving runs and dissonant block chords, Toccata and Fugue became a definitive piece of horror music. The organ is the principal example of a horror instrument. Bach’s organ tradition would transform into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s broadway version of The Phantom of the Opera (an example of musical horror that was actually mentioned in Carroll). Webber’s is a modern, non-canonical example of horror music; its 1980’s synth guitar and rock drums might not be high art, but the lasting popularity of the musical speaks to the horror it captures through the music. Organ has the ability to combine the driving tempos seen in the romantic period with the inharmonious atmospheric sound that comes to define modern horror music. This atmospheric sound music is often defined by its use of “sound blocks:” complex, often dissonant, chords without rhythm or tempo. These sound blocks are heard and seen in Ligeti’s Atmosphères, known for its use in 2001: A Space Odyssey (with this video having visualizations of these sound blocks).
Although Carroll does no in depth look at music in The Philosophy of Horror, across genres and musical periods there are pieces that are truly definitive of art horror. The anxiously repetitive runs common in horror music makes listeners have a visceral reaction of a frantic heartbeat and the out-of-nowhere crescendos give listeners a jump. Romantic era music often worked directly with and from horror texts and even more commonly had a monster that would fit Carroll’s narrow definition. Even those pieces without a monster, like Atmosphères, works in a way like The Haunting of Hill House: creating a disturbing environment through horrific metonymy. Classical horror music employs the same elements of horror as horror literature and those elements are still apparent today in the horror music of cinema and beyond.