In Irish folklore, the banshee is an apparition whose mournful, wailing song signals someone’s recent death. In most versions of the myth, the banshee’s song is so piercing and strong that it can cut through solid objects and drive those who hear it insane. It’s a shame that this intriguing myth isn’t used more often in cinema, but there is, thankfully, a fine tradition of foreboding music and song in horror films. I’m not referring to soundtracks, but to songs that exist inside the world of the film that the characters can hear, but likely wish they hadn’t, as they indicate that horrible, violent things are about to happen.
1. “Jeepers Creepers” from Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Jeepers creepers, where’d you get those peepers?
Jeepers creepers, where’d you get those eyes?
Gosh all git-up, how’d you get so lit up?
Gosh all git up, how’d it get that size?
Undeniably, this is the jazziest song in my list. It’s been covered by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald to Siouxsie and the Banshees. In the film Jeepers Creepers, Trish and Darry are warned by the mysterious psychic Jezelle that whenever they hear the song it means they’re in danger, and that it’s also the key to understanding the mysterious creature called the Creeper. I’m not sure that the song ever really helps in explaining the Creeper, as the only connection between the two seems to be the fact that he has a thing for stealing eyes. But that’s enough for me, as I would have been very disappointed if it turned out that you could dazzle the Creeper into submission with jazz hands.
2. “Hey You!” from The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
With the naughty eye
When you pass us by
We just have to cry
“Hey, you! Yoo-hoo!”
Deep in a Louisiana bayou, the mummy of Princess Ananka is resurrected in the form of beautiful woman when an excavation team exposes her to sunlight. “Cajun Joe,” the team’s foreman, takes her, for some inexplicable reason, to Tante Berthe’s Café where Tante Berthe herself sings the folk classic “Hey You.” The song sets the exotic, alluring mood for the film, and also heralds the imminent demise of both Tante and Cajun Joe. Ananka’s mummified hubby isn’t about to let his ancient bride be subjected to Cajun crooning. Why the mummy is in a Louisiana swamp to begin with is anybody’s guess, as its prequel, The Mummy’s Ghost, ended in Massachussetts. Lon Chaney, Jr. apparently hated this film, and it ended the Mummy franchise at Universal Studios for several decades. Still, I’ve always liked the Cajun vibe of this film.
3. “Your Eyes See But My Shadow” from Phantom of the Opera (1989)
Your eyes see but my shadow
My heart is overflowing
There so much you can learn to love
You’re not content knowing
Tenderly you could see my soul
The current stage version of Phantom gets all the glory, but Robert Englund put aside his striped sweater to play the part of Erik, the brilliant composer turned monster who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for the perfect song for his opera Don Juan Triumphant. Naturally, the deal goes south and his face melts off as soon as the song is complete. The song, called “Your Eyes See But My Shadow,” is lost for decades until an up and coming opera singer needs a break and rediscovers it. To be honest, this film is a pretty lousy version of Phantom, but the song is actually quite good. As is often the case with catchy diddies, anyone who hears it in the film is likely to die in a freak stage accident involving scaffolding and sandbags. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the song is good enough to justify having your face horribly disfigured, it’s undeniably the best part of the film.
4. Freddy’s Lullaby from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five, six, grab your crucifix.
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten, never sleep again.
I don’t know why lullabies are so inherently scary. Perhaps it’s because they remind us of how strange and uncanny sleep really is–something children seem to know, even if adults learn to forget it. Most traditional lullabies have a surreal and even violent subtext that equates sleep with death, or suggest that mysterious things happen during the night when we’re asleep and vulnerable. Wes Craven taps into all of these fears in the original Nightmare, a film that scared me as a kid far worse than other films of that era. That was due in no small part to this creepy lullaby often sung by jump-roping children and always a portent of Freddy’s arrival.
5. “In Dreams” from Blue Velvet (1986)
A candy colored clown they call the Sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper
“Go to sleep everything is all right.”
It’s amazing that this film can turn such a classic, if saccharine, song into something so utterly depraved. The sexually ambiguous Ben initially does a bizarre pantomime version of the song, but it’s Frank’s recitation of it to Jeffrey before savagely beating him that makes it so horrifying. He delivers the song’s lyrics, after dosing himself with a powerful hallucinogenic gas, with such emphasis and force that he seems to insist that there’s a hidden message in it, or that it might give Jeffrey the answers he’s looking for. None of this is true, but the fact that Frank thinks so makes him—and the song—all the more frightening.
6. “Nights in White Satin” from Halloween 2 (2009)
Nights in white satin, never reaching the end,
Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send.
Beauty I’d always missed with these eyes before.
Just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore.
In his version of Halloween 2, Rob Zombie uses the classic Moody Blues song to symbolize Michael’s insanity and his powerful attachment to his dead mother. And it means a whole lot of hurt for anyone in the film who hears it. The song is very effective in setting an eerie tone for the film, and Zombie also uses it to establish the film’s use of white as symbol for oblivion. To that end, he also includes an archetypal white horse, which, as he explains at the beginning of the film, is a universal symbol for instinct, purity, rage, chaos and destruction. In much the same way, the television show Twin Peaks used a white horse to symbolize heroin addiction and the loss of reason. In Melville’s Moby Dick, the white whale symbolizes both god and death. None of this is even remotely relevant to John Carpenter’s Halloween or any of his original characters, and I don’t think Rob Zombie gives a rat’s ass. “Nights in White Satin” is still an awesome song though.
7. The cell phone ringtone from One Missed Call (2004)
Being a ringtone, this song has no lyrics at all, but it’s strangely haunting and the kind of tune that gets stuck in your head and you can’t remember where you heard it. The American remake chose inexplicably to use a different song than that used in Takishi Miike’s original, but the Japanese version of the song is far better in my opinion. It reminds me of a child’s music box that’s somehow playing underwater or after it’s been badly damaged. As far as I know, the song is unique to the film, and is not a traditional lullaby. In the world of One Missed Call, hearing this ringtone on your cell phone signals your imminent death, similar to the phone call from The Ring but without the prerequisite of having watched a pretentious art school project on VHS. Here’s a little fact that I didn’t know until writing this post: Corey has this ringtone assigned to my incoming calls on his iPhone.