Some of my earliest musical memories involve music that filled me with a sense of wonder, gave me joy or soothed me in some fashion.
Less often, but just as memorably, certain songs and albums scared me half to death when I was first exposed to them.
In some instances, those songs that initially terrified me came to number among my favorites as I got deeper into music and understood what was happening in terms of their construction. Others just plain stayed creepy and continued to freak me out.
Certain harmonic intervals can create a sense of dread in the listener, perhaps most notably, the flat IV – I movement, also known as “the devil’s interval.” Heavy metal loves this sound, but then again, so does a lot of jazz, most of which ends up sounding more exotic than terrifying. But the first time you hear it played, particularly if it’s loud and distorted and heavily amplified? Yep. It’s completely sinister-sounding.
Sometimes, it’s the lyrics that do the scary work, either explicitly or through the power of suggestion. Instrumentation, production values and general manipulation of sonic qualities in the recording studio can aid in the crafting of a sense of impending doom as well.
The best scary songs tend to do all of these at once. Here are 10 of my … well, I guess “favorite” isn’t the right word. Let’s just call them the Top 10 anthems of existential dread.
Black Sabbath, “Black Sabbath”: That’s the “devil’s interval,” made into a masterpiece of gloom and unavoidable doom. It’s also quite likely the recording that signals the true birth of heavy metal.
The Cure, “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”: I find such perfectly stated and brilliantly produced statements of absolute desolation and deep despair particularly terrifying. This is some darkly beautiful stuff.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”: Like Ennio Morricone after indulging in a dose of bad acid. Creepy.
Tom Waits, “The Earth Died Screaming”: A demented carnival barker urges you to “step right up” to claim a good seat for the end of the world.
Iron Maiden, “The Number of the Beast”: Devilishly good progressive metal delineating a particularly spooky nightmare.
The Doors, “The End”: This is just plain twisted. Time’s passage has done nothing to dim the impact of this Oedipal, gothic Freudian-Nietzschean nightmare.
Pink Floyd, “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”: Creepy minimalism punctuated by anguished screams. Pretty diabolical, actually.
Radiohead, “There There”: I’ve listened to this one on headphones in the dark while home alone. Can’t say I’d recommend it.
Cheap Trick, “Heaven Tonight”: It’s like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” set to a gorgeous minor key dirge.
Alice in Chains, “Dirt”: It’s the sense of hopelessness that really freaks me out.