My Horror Playlist

cg.pngBy: 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.



A Halloween Treat

By: Gina Brandolino

Just in time for Halloween, have a look at the the darkly comic new video for “Mess of Things” by the Chicago indie alt-rock band Hemmingbirds. It stars a skeleton caught between his girlfriend and his friends until . . . well, until he’s not anymore. The video was directed by Daniel J Clark and written by Megan Green, Joe Kwaczala, Joe McAdam and Chris Stephens who also star. That leaves only the skeleton unaccounted for in the credits.

To listen to more of Hemmingbirds, visit their website:

Music in Horror

By: Ira Brandon III


When thinking about horror as a genre, one generally thinks of things that scare them such as places, entities or the unknown. Others may think of a scary movie that scarred them as a child or even a frightening book that chilled their spine as they turned every page. When I think of horror I think of film and music. Unbeknownst to many, horror stories in film are enhanced dramatically by the music. Lizzy Critchlow introduced this concept earlier this year in a post entitled “Bone Chilling Chords”. Music is used to add suspense when a woman is walking down a hall checking rooms from door to door trying to see what made that noise, it adds dramatic intensity when the protagonist opens the closet and an evil clown doll pops out in attack, and it also adds ambience as the music builds up as the antagonist serial killer walks out of the water towards the innocent campers in the woods. Those are just a few examples where scary moments simply become horrifying when music is added.

A specific movie that uses all of these elements in a brilliantly is called Insidious: Chapter 2. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a film that revolves around the Lambert family as they seek to uncover their mysterious past and how it links them to the dangerous spirit world. In this movie the main composer is Joseph Bishara and his music is nothing short of creepy. A great example that really captures how Bishara was able to create a sinister ambiance can be found in the track called “you think I did this”. Here you can hear a very sharp, almost out of tune, violin crescendo as it plays very unnatural patterns. There are no other sounds except that of other violins strumming a counter melody in the same styled unnatural patterns. This song was played as the camera panned through the empty house making the viewer feel unsettled. It just shows how something like a house is easily turned creepy with music.

In a second example, Bishara shows how he is able to capture the elements of suspense and also a ‘jump scare’ in one of his tracks. In the track, “feel real Pain”, there is a bass monotone that fades in with the same sinister violin sounds that are similar to the previous track. The violin patterns crescendo and the layers build to about 0:36, where we receive our ‘jump scare’ in the score. Here multiple violins can be heard, all strumming sporadically to indeterminable rhythms.  Here we are also introduced to some percussion as drums, synth and noisemakers can be heard in the background. Key signature is a huge contributor to the creepiness of this track because it is in a minor key; it is not comforting to hear. There are no resolution notes, no major notes, just minor notes and chords. The track erupts into a sinister bass line around 1:18 and this takes the scariness to a whole different level. This track was used as the main character is searching for a way out of the spirit world and then realizes that he is not alone, and ultimately is chased by an entity.

After looking at these examples, it is clear to see that music plays a huge role on establishing horror. Not only are the tracks I selected creepy because of their unnatural pattern, but they also show how they use the science of major and minor keys to also create creepiness. Minor keys are unsettling naturally, horror aside, and it’s extremely interesting to note how composers are able to utilize these facts to establish creepiness.

Bone-Chilling Chords

By: Lizzy Critchlow

As a child, I was scared of pretty much everything, but especially of any scary movies. Naturally, having a good family friend who was seven years older than me, I was constantly dragged into doing things that I didn’t really want to do, including watching horror movies. As soon as the creepy introduction music started, I knew I was done for. It became routine to hide my face during the parts I expected to be especially frightening (which often ended up being the entire movie). I would rarely get any relief from doing so, however, because I could never block out the music, which I discovered was really what frightened me the most.

During one of these traumatic horror movie sessions at home, my friend muted the television. Suddenly, I felt safe. Everything I saw on the screen looked ridiculous; all I saw was a man with his face painted green, a group of stupid teenagers constantly tripping over tree roots in the woods, a flickering lightbulb in an empty hallway. None of these images were frightening to me on their own because I could see them for what they were without creepy music persuading me to make any assumptions about what they “meant”.

Normal, everyday occurrences can be manipulated through sound, and these sounds draw you into the film. Taking away the music and sound brings you back to reality as you see merely flashing images, most of them too dark to see clearly anyway, which alone are rarely frightening. After all, what would Rosemary’s Baby be without its trademark lullaby? What would The Shining trailer be without its terrifying, anxiety-inducing music? How would you perceive climactic chase scenes without the accompanying music? How different would pointed moments of horror be without the orchestral accompaniment to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, heavily hinting that something will soon jump out? How would you even know you should be scared?

To take this in reverse, try listening to orchestral tracks taken from famous horror movies. The Saw soundtrack above alone is scary enough to make me cry. I find it fascinating that music alone can give you a gut feeling such as pure terror, when you often are unable to even identify what it is that you are afraid of. The use of minor cords, dissonant sounds, and sudden loud noises are most notable features of “scary” music, but even by identifying these features, it’s hard to explain exactly why they affect us so deeply. Here is a fascinating article on why exactly these types of sounds scare us; it argues that these sounds mimic terror calls and screams of wild animals.

This Halloween, if you’re afraid of everything like I am, just put that scary movie on mute and watch it turn from horrifying to humorous.

Monster Mash

By: Gina Brandolino

I ran across this video on The AV Club, a site I check in on pretty regularly, and it’s so fantastic I had to share it with you all.  It’s a music video for a song by Chicago band Common Shiner that places a ton of horror movie antagonists into a short story about high school romance. I was glad to see what I think of as the big two—Jason from Friday the 13th and Michael Myers from Halloween—starring, and Freddy from The Nightmare on Elm Street in a supporting role.  But I think my favorite monster appearance is the very minor one of that girl from The Ring, who we see threatening a kid at the school drinking fountain with her sinister video tape.

One really clever aspect of this video is how it turns these characters we usually think of as antagonists into protagonists—Freddy celebrates with Jason when the girl Jason likes invites him over for a study date, then helps him pick out the right outfit to wear; the monsters studiously apply themselves to a class called Stalking 101; and when Jason needs a confidence boost to pursue the girl he’s interested in, his dad gives him a pep talk during which he pulls out a photo album with pictures of “Mom’s old boyfriend”—Dracula—with Jason’s dad looking dejected in the background.  The next picture implies that Jason’s dad beat out that older monster and “got the girl” in the end (pun intended).

The story the video tells is set in and around high school, a setting so important to so many horror films, and absolutely essential to the ending of the video. But it also makes clever use of other horror film tropes: look for the “startle scare” in the bathroom mirror and the antagonist you’re sure is dead coming back again, among others.

I’ve taken great pains in this post not to ruin the ending of this video, though it’s an ending that, if you watch a lot of horror films (and one in particular), you know is coming the moment we’re given the first clue.  Do yourself a favor and watch it all the way through—it’s a nice homage to the genre.

Oh, and when you think the video is over? It’s not.  Hang tight through the credits to see who was late to the party.

Greetings, Fall 2014 Class!

By: Gina Brandolino

Whether you have found this course website before classes begin or are visiting it after I showed it to you during our first class, I’m glad you have found the Course of Horror! This semester will be the second time this course will have a blog, and I’m excited to see the ways this class builds on and changes what last year’s students have done. Click around on the blog and take a look at what kinds of posts the 2013 class put up–some of them may still be following the blog and will keep up with what you’re posting and commenting. The blog makes it so that you may get a final grade in ENG290, but no one ever really leaves the Course of Horror; in that way, the blog is sort of like the Hotel California.

Here’s to the great semester ahead!

Horror as a Music Genre

By: Kim Batchelor

I usually have a soundtrack to my homework that is quiet enough to keep from distracting me from what I am reading or writing. Recently thought I realized that for this class I have to be really careful about what I put on while I’m reading our horror texts. How I discovered this was by letting my iTunes play on shuffle and forgetting that I owned this song.

I challenge you to listen to this song “Skin” without thinking about the scene in Black Hole that involves a similar skin shedding scene.

This got me thinking about music and the genre of horror. Was it only the overlap of topics that makes this song unsettling for me or was it something intrinsic about the song? Clearly, the music used in a movie can affect the horror in it. But I became interested in the idea that, when you look on iTunes, there should be a genre entitled “Horror.”

The first music that came to mind when I thought about artists who reside in the horror genre were groups like Evanescence that are clearly Gothic. Anyone who has ever heard their style of music will most likely agree with me when I describe it as slightly creepy and fairly haunting. But what makes a song elicit this response? This led me to a Google search of “Unsettling music” which proved surprisingly lucrative. I’ve picked a few that really, really freaked me out and I’m going to attempt to explain just what about them is so creepy by using one as an example.

The song is “I Know Where You Sleep” by Emilie Autumn. Listen to it here. The video is especially creepy because it uses clips from the Marble Hornets series we watched.

For me, video aside, this song is unsettling for many reasons. One of them is the changes in tempo. It keeps you on your toes and does not follow the traditional patterns of music. It get’s faster and faster and louder and louder but there is no loud finale that is expected. There is instead a whisper, and one that tells the listeners that someone is watching them sleep. The first time I heard this song I had earbuds in and it made it more personal. I feel like the person was whispering in my ear, in my bedroom where I actually do sleep. That is another reason this song is creepy. It addresses the listener. Like how we have talked about in class, with Marble Hornets and the Dionaea House, things are scarier when it seems like we are able to fall victim to the horror ourselves. This song skips the middle man and takes the threat right to us and makes us lock our windows.

Though different songs use different techniques to play up their horror. Those two seem to, for me, be the most effective at unnerving the listener. I’d be curious to hear what songs freak you guys out and why you think they do so. Here are some that I’ve found:

30kft by Assemblage 23
Beheaded by The Offspring
Come to Daddy By Apex Twin (Warning. The music video for this song is nightmare fuel.)