Without the tense, dissonant music supporting our most cherished nightmares, we’d hear only the entirely un-frightening stomp of blood-soaked boot heels, the tickling scrape of fingernails on the coffin lid, or the sing-song chirp of a final warning screech. For certain, horror without its musical accompaniment would be as mirthful and merry as any skip through a midnight cemetery overrun by a murder of rabid crows.
But add some music – discordant violin stabs, bludgeoning timpani thunder strokes, creeping bass synthesizers, or the solemn knell of funeral bells – and you turn a cheerful image like an empty noose swinging in an abandoned corn field beneath a sickle moon into something truly chilling.
To get behind the psychology of why these terrifying tunes and devilish ditties affect us so deeply, I spoke with several experts in the fields of eerie music, violent murder ballads, and creepy lullabies from beyond the grave.
My hunt began with the world-renowned primal scream therapist, Wolfgang Lobos, who agreed to meet me at the tony Trader Vics in Beverly Hills. When I arrived, he was finishing off a Bloody Mary. His hair was perfect. He ordered a round of Zombies in his charming British accent and we got to chatting about the benefits of the musical scream.
“There’s something cathartic about releasing your inner animal with a blood-curdling howl. It really opens up the insides, spills guts on the floor.” His razor-sharp canines flashed through his thick beard and he glanced at his watch. “I really must be going. If I get stuck in traffic after dark, I get dreadfully murderous.”
Deathno-Musicoligist, Dr. Frank N. Stein, of Todenheim, Germany, sees things a little differently. Skyping in from his dank, lightning-powered castle perched ominously above the famous Black Lagoon, Dr. Stein observed that by turning what he called the “angstschrei” (cry of fear) into “todenlieder” (death song) we, “diabolically strike the Faustian bargain of alchemical transmigration of the soul, infusing the rotting corpse of spoken language with the ecstatic but cursed life’s blood of melody.” Whatever that means. I couldn’t follow up because his connection went dead.
Next I spoke with Romanian “Psycho”-acoustician, Drake U. Laah. He’d flown into town the previous night, “Just to grab a bite,” he said, adding, “And boy are my vings tired,” trailing off with a striking, exaggerated bwah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
When I suggested that people seem to love hearing frightening music and horror film soundtracks around Halloween, he nodded his widow’s peak vigorously. “Good horror music really gets the blood flowing.”
“You mean, like increased heart rate and adrenaline?” I inquired.
“Uh…yeah, sure. That’s exactly what I meant.”
In the process of researching this subject, I seemed to have piqued the interest of an anonymous source, referring to himself whimsically as the “Headless Horseman.” He claims to have pertinent information for me on the perennial appeal of Ghostly Grooves and Spooky Symphonies, but apparently he’s only “partially” available for an interview.
A rolled up parchment recently appeared on my desk at work. Elaborate cursive writing in dripping red ink invited me to discuss matters further at midnight on October 31 in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery. I’ll keep you posted on that little slice of life. Hopefully it’s nothing grave.
– “Scary” Larry Fangman