I’m not really much of a horror movie fan – in fact, I’m probably what you’d call “a big baby.” I do enjoy listening to film scores and soundtracks, though, and I’ve noticed something funny: many scary movies include at least one song that’s sweet, cheerful, or even straight-up pleasant. Here are a few.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
“Theme from Cannibal Holocaust” by Riz Ortolani
This movie is about a group of filmmakers who venture to the Amazon rainforest in hopes of making a documentary about the tribes living there. In the interest of getting material that will shock audiences, the team repeatedly provoke the tribes in violent ways, leading to horrific retaliation. Soon after release, the movie was seized and the director was accused of having really killed people. While he disproved this and was released, the movie was banned in many countries, and to this day, remains so in some. This sweet song plays during the film’s opening titles, where scenes from nature are shown.
2. Carrie (1976)
“Theme from Carrie” by Pino Donaggio
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the story involves a meek young girl, Carrie White. Carrie is brutally bullied by her peers and abused by her hardcore Christian mother, who fears the paranormal powers that her daughter has been slowly developing. When one of the school’s more popular girls takes pity on Carrie and asks her boyfriend to ask her to the dance, the alpha bitch plans the ultimate humiliation for Carrie. This triggers Carrie’s powers to fully activate beyond her control, which ends up having grisly consequences. This dream-like song plays at the beginning of the movie.
3. The Strangers (2008)
“Sprout and the Bean” by Joanna Newsom
This scary movie is all about what a lot of us fear most: home invasion. A couple, Kristen and James, are on retreat at a remote cabin when odd things start to happen. First, a creepy visitor comes to the door, asking for someone who isn’t there. Then Kristen notices that objects in the house are being moved, and she gets the sense that it’s not just her and James there… Kristen listens to this song on a record player during the movie when she is trying to calm herself down.
4. We Are What We Are (2013)
“It Was Me that Made Her Bad” by Tommy Strange
The Parker family has a dark secret – each year, they have a cannibalistic dinner. This tradition began many decades ago, when their relatives resorted to the practice to survive. Since then, each generation has kept it up by kidnapping and murdering members of the community. In the film, the matriarch of the present-day Parkers dies suddenly, so the responsibility of obtaining and preparing the main dish falls to the eldest child in the family, daughter Iris. They listen to this song during one of their dinners.
5. Unfriended (2014)
“How You Lie Lie Lie” by Connie Conway
This movie is more of a horror comedy but still has plenty of gore for those of you who enjoy that. A young woman, Laura Barnes, commits suicide after a mortifying video of her is posted online and goes viral. A year later, her spirit returns to haunt those responsible for creating and publishing the video, taking control of their electronics and using them to force the teens to kill themselves. This song plays when Laura assumes control of the Spotify account belonging to the film’s main character, Blaire.
6. The Blob (1958)
“Beware of The Blob” by Burt Bacharach and The Five Blobs
While not exactly terrifying to behold by today’s standards, this movie does have a rather unnerving premise: a meteor crashes to Earth, and inside it is a hostile, amoeba-like alien that consumes people by absorbing them, becoming larger and stronger each time it does so. This song played during the movie’s opening credits and was intended to clash with the film’s macabre story. It became a popular single in its own right, reaching #33 on the Billboard charts.
7. 1408 (2007)
“We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters
For some, the premise of being trapped in a room is scary enough on its own, but this movie takes it way further. A skeptical man named Mike is looking for some inspiration and gets an anonymous tip about a haunted hotel room. The clerk tells him that no one has lasted longer than an hour in room 1408, but Mike takes it anyway. Soon, the room begins tormenting him with a wide variety of hallucinations while Mike struggles to maintain his sanity. This song plays soon after Mike settles in to room 1408. Fun fact: in addition to its presence in a thriller movie here, it’s a popular wedding song!
8. Dogville (2003)
“Young Americans” by David Bowie
This upbeat track contrasts with the dark themes of the movie, which tells the story of a desperate young woman, Grace, who begs the residents of a tiny town for refuge from a band of gangsters. They agree, and she begins doing small tasks for them to win their respect. After the police visit town with a Wanted poster with Grace’s photo, the citizens become suspicious and decide she must re-earn their trust. They gradually make larger and larger demands of her until their treatment descends into rape, abuse, and psychological torture. This song plays during the end credits, after the film’s complicated conclusion.
These are just a few examples of films that make use of this technique. I think its popularity has to do with the way that a song whose tone conflicts with what’s on screen can serve to strengthen its effect. When done well, the cheeriest pop ditty can become associated with the most terrifying content.