In a previous post, I talked about horror’s influence on popular music, starting with (for the purposes of my discussion) the blues in America and continuing through the development of rock and heavy metal. I argued at the conclusion of that piece that Rob Zombie, in my opinion, represented the zenith of the heavy horror sound from underground: the ultimate intersection of music and horror, in part due to his excellent musical projects and in part due to his also-excellent career as writer and director of horror cinema. As is so often the case, I regret nothing. I remain a huge fan of Zombie’s work (both in film and in metal) and think his body of work represents a potent distillation of many trends and tropes in horror that I love. With that said, I’ve had time to think about the subject since then, and I believe that the intersection of horror and “heavy” music – a phenomenon I call “the heavy horror sound from underground” – is a subject much broader than can be fairly summed up in one post. Therefore, this post is the second in what will be an ongoing series about heavy music and horror culture.
We can in no small measure thank horror movies for giving us the serial killer. Not the serial murdering human itself, of course, but the cultural phenomenon of the serial killer, the idea of the serial killer, the references – from Psycho to The Silence of the Lambs to Halloween – that act as hooks upon which we hang our social construct of “serial killer.” It is inevitable that these murderers would become antiheroes, as outlaws, rogues, and villains have since time immemorial. (There is some overlap here with the fine art of the “murder ballad,” which I have also discussed in a previous post, if you’re curious). The celebration of the antihero in music is nothing new: the term and idea “serial killer” are, on the other hand, fairly recent innovations. One big, specific contributor to the idea in popular culture was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho whose antagonist, Norman Bates, was the first of many horror villains to be based on Wisconsin serial killer, grave robber, and all-around bon vivant Ed Gein.
Psycho, in turn, spawned 1968’s “Psycho,” which is the creepiest country song you’re going to hear this week*. Performed by chicken-fried weirdo Eddie Noack, it received almost no play on country radio due to its content, but has since gone on to become a cult hit and was favorably cited by none other than Bob Dylan. Given my previous post’s emphasis on blues, rock, and metal, I figured I should at least acknowledge that country music has obviously also explored the darker corners of the human heart. However, the serial killer looms largest in heavy music, where a truly awe-inspiring number of artists have recorded songs memorializing the misdeeds of various murderous lunatics. Wikipedia has compiled a helpful and dynamic index of songs about serial killers. If you’re looking for a short list, by far the best-curated one I have found comes from Kerrang! and has many of my favorites.
Famously, a fellow named Brian Warner took the first name of Marilyn Monroe and the last name of Charles Manson to become Marilyn Manson. His original band, initially called the Spooky Kids, was made up of members who each took the first name of a female sex symbol and the surname of a serial killer. Members have included Olivia Newton Bundy, Twiggy Ramirez, Madonna Wayne Gacy, Sara Lee Lucas, Gidget Gein, and Daisy Berkowitz. Manson’s music deals with death, addiction, murder, madness, and other themes explored in heavy metal, but from the band and performer names and general aesthetic, it’s clear that Marilyn Manson was deeply influenced by serial killers: more specifically, he shared the 1990s’ fascination with the media’s fascination with serial killers, an idea explored (at the time) in everything from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers to Greg Araki’s The Doom Generation.
About three decades have elapsed since Marilyn Manson first took up the mantle, and music has evolved a great deal since then. While heavy metal is still a vibrant, flourishing art form, and while Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie are still releasing excellent new music, a new generation of morbid, death-obsessed weirdos has risen to answer the musical call of horror. Raised on and steeped in musical styles like rap and pop as much as metal and industrial, these new heavy horror-music acts cross and blend genres in exciting ways and engage with material at least as dark as anything explored by Manson or Zombie, including the mythic figure of the serial killer.
Next week, I will take an in-depth look at the legacy of 90s metal and examine two of my new favorite artists, Ghostemane and SKYND.
*: I say the most disturbing this week because in a future post I will be dealing with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1964 splatter film Two Thousand Maniacs, which introduced me to the single worst song that I’ve ever heard. Stay tuned!
American Cult Anthology
A collection of 6 stories of alternative history and distinctly American horror.