Although we sometimes have a tendency to think of horror as being a relatively niche genre of interest, the truth is that, from a cultural standpoint, its an absolute juggernaut. Horror iconography is everywhere. The genre’s most famous films, characters, and tropes have been referenced, parodied, and alluded to in and on nearly every single possible piece of merchandise and media imaginable.
And while TV and film references to horror films tend to be the most prevalent and well-known of this phenomenon, the genre has made a substantial impact on music as well. From lyrical references to specific films (Will Smith’s legally-questionable ‘Nightmare on My Street‘) to vague acknowledgements of broader archetypes and themes (TV on the Radio’s ‘Wolf Like Me’ comes to mind), horror has inspired countless artists to dip their musical toes into to darker side of pop culture. And aesthetically, there’s no denying that many rock, alternative, and metal bands have heavily borrowed imagery from the genre.
Looking at you, Slipknot.
But the most fun instances of these bits of media cross-pollination, in my opinion, are when music videos decide to play around with the horror movie toolbox. The music video as a creative medium is one that naturally lends itself to homage and cheeky shout-outs to existing and recognizable material, so it’s a fantastic place for directors and producers to throw in references to their favorite films and franchises.
There are more examples that you could ever accurately count, but here are just a few of my own personal favorites.
Living Dead Girl – Rob Zombie
Choosing any Rob Zombie song is basically cheating, as the man’s based his entire career on jamming as many horror references into both his music and his visuals as humanly possible. He has a song about the car from The Munster’s, for god’s sake. But perhaps his most interesting usage of horror iconography is this video for the second single from his appropriately-named debut solo album Hellbilly Deluxe. While the song itself is chock full of soundbites and musical cues from films like The Last House on the Left and Lady Frankenstein, the music video takes a decidedly more classical approach. Styled after German director Robert Wiene’s iconic 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this video replicates the jumpy, fluttery framerate of degraded filmstock to a charmingly accurate degree, all the while filtering through his own fondness for psychedelic, desaturated colors. And naturally, as with all his work, his wife plays the titular undead attraction. It’s my favorite of his songs, and I’d rather watch this video a thousand times than have to ever see his Halloween 2 ever again.
Thriller – Michael Jackson
C’mon. How could this not be on the list? ‘Thriller’ is the quintessential horror music video. Hell, you could argue that it’s the quintessential music video period. Directed by iconic director/negligent homicide committer John Landis, fresh off of his success on An American Werewolf in London, this Halloween staple is a short film in its own right. Featuring incredible make-up effects from industry legend Rick Baker (who’s credits and contributions are, quite literally, too long to list), ‘Thriller’ puts a lot of genuine, bona-fide zombie movies to shame with its shambling ghouls. This music video gets props not only for its technical achievements, but for cementing the music video as a legitimate art form for many in the music industry, especially for black artists who had been neglected on the airwaves by channels like MTV up until this point. Plus, it has narration by Vincent Price, which automatically makes it a horror classic on that merit alone.
good 4 u – Olivia Rodrigo
I am a complete, total, self-admitted pop-music-hating hipster. But man, even I have to admit this song, by Grammy-winner Olivia Rodrigo, is an absolute banger. It’s catchy and fun, while also exhibiting a real edge of anger and passive-aggressiveness that gives off real Alanis Morissette vibes in the best way possible. It’s a real guilty pleasure of mine. But when I saw the music video for the song, the horror fanatic in me was positively gleeful. There’s direct references to Carrie, Jennifer’s Body, and Takashi Miike’s brutal cult-classic Audition scattered throughout the video, making it one of the most horror-centric pop displays of all time. Carrie references are pretty common. Jennifer’s Body, less so, but it was still a mainstream hit in the US. But Audition? C’mon. That’s some obscure stuff for a Top 40 radio hit to borrow visuals from. I don’t know if Rodrigo herself had any input on these cinematic allusions, or if it was all director Petra Collins’ idea, but whoever it was has earned some major scream queen street cred.
Everlong – The Foo Fighters
The Foo Fighter’s love their pop-culture references. From the Falling Down-inspired video for ‘Walk’ to the General Hospital-esque satire of cheesy soap operas in ‘Long Road to Ruin,’ you can often find blatant movie iconography in their work. But it’s their 1997 hit ‘Everlong’ that featured their most direct allusion to the horror genre. A surreal narrative taking place within the dreaming minds of the band members, the video quickly takes a turn from a Sex Pistols-themed party to a pitch-perfect parody of Sam Raimi’s iconic Evil Dead. From the sets to the cinematography, the parody is about as respectful of the source material as it could possibly be. It wouldn’t feel at all out of place for Bruce Campbell to show up wielding a shotgun at any moment. And, it’s a great song on top of that. Gotta love Dave Grohl.
Psycho – Puddle of Mudd
Look, I get it: Puddle of Mudd isn’t anyone’s favorite band. Discovered and promoted by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst (strike one) and not-so-subtly positioned as a Walmart-brand knock-off of Nirvana (strike two), the group has endured through the years despite some extremely cringey and embarrassing moments (one of which should have rightfully been strike three). But even I have to admit, the video for their 2007 single ‘Psycho’ is a lot of fun. The goal seems to have been to go on a guided tour of some of history’s most famous slashers, from the Hitchcock film the song is titled after to later icons like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We get appearances by Michael Myers and Leatherface, along with cheeky nods to I Know What You Did Last Summer and Poltergeist before finally ending up at the famous Bates Motel. Along the way, the video spoofs celebrities ranging from Kid Rock to Paris Hilton and Kanye West. The song itself isn’t too terrible either, and has admittedly made its way into my yearly October playlist. It’s a goofy, Scooby-Doo parade through the horror section at Blockbuster video, and I can’t find it in me to hate it for that.
The Kill – 30 Second to Mars
As much as I hate giving Jared Leto any attention, I have to admit, the first few 30 Seconds to Mars albums have some decent tracks sandwiched between the moody, subpar drivel you’d expect from the man who gave us Suicide Squad’s Insane Clown Posse Joker. ‘The Kill’ is arguably their biggest hit, featuring Leto at his least obnoxious, and was accompanied by a similarly not-terrible music video. Following the band as they check into a familiar-looking hotel, the narrative then veers into a reasonably accurate homage to The Shining, complete with fursuit fellatio, typewriters, and mysterious bartenders. If nothing else, it’s got some slick cinematography (with some tricks that Leto picked up from Darren Aronofsky), and pays respect to one of the horror genre’s greatest entries. If you can stand Leto’s screaming, it’s an entertaining watch.
Technologic – Daft Punk
While this 2005 Daft Punk hit isn’t technically referencing any particular horror film, I’m including it on this list for two reasons: One, because it’s creepy as hell. And two, because it actually does feature an iconic horror character, albeit in a relatively disguised way. The eerie, mechanical baby chanting the lyrics to the song’s rhythmic, hypnotic verses is, in fact, the same animatronic used for Chucky in the preceding year’s Seed of Chucky. So not only is this a funky tune, it’s also (in my head) a canonical entry in the Child’s Play franchise. And I absolutely love it.
And there’re scores of other examples out there of artists lovingly pairing their music with images and scenes borrowed from the world of horror. I could go on with dozens more! But it’s a long month, and I’ve got other bits of Halloweeny goodness to get to, so shout out some of your own favorites in the comments!