If you’ve seen Us, you’ve had Luniz’s “I’ve Got 5 on It” stuck in your head ever since. Though it’s initially framed in a lighthearted context, the song becomes a crucial component in the movie’s escalating dread. Using an upbeat song to craft a creepy mood in a horror movie is not a new technique—but it rarely fails to freak us out. Here are seven songs we avoid listening to in the dark.
1. “Rocky Mountain High”
The choice of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” to signal doom in Final Destination is a clever, if macabre choice, since it plays just prior to a plane crash, echoing how Denver himself left this mortal coil. Of course, most of the characters who heed this supposedly lifesaving warning don’t end up surviving anyway, since the whole point of the movie is that there’s no point in trying to cheat death when your eternal number is up. The “you hear this song, you die” concept continued through the Final Destination series, but it’s never put to more eerie effect than whenever Denver’s song begins to play in the first film, putting a gentle, folksy spin on the sound of a death knell.
2. “Mr. Sandman”
John Carpenter’s use of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in the first Halloween made sense; the song would’ve been just a couple of years old when the 1978 film was released, and would definitely still be in radio rotation (while also dovetailing with the plot, acting as an eerie signpost for the slaughter to come). But Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II makes use of an anachronistic song to hammer home the mood as it plays over the end credits: “Mr. Sandman,” a huge 1954 hit for all-girl a capella group the Chordettes. It’s a savvy choice; the song is already bit spooky on its own, mixing wholesome vocals with lyrics begging the folklore-derived title figure to “turn on your magic beam...and bring me a dream.” Or, as the case may be in the Halloween series—a nightmare that none of the characters, especially the “I’m so alone” Laurie Strode, can ever shake.
3. “Hip to Be Square”
Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 satirical yuppie slaughter-fest, holds up alarmingly well in 2019. Christian Bale’s portrayal of a guy who may (or may not?) be a vicious serial killer is excellently unhinged from start to finish, but his Patrick Bateman makes a particular impact in the scene where he rhapsodizes about Huey Lewis’ musical genius as “Hip to Be Square” blasts in the background—sample lyric: “You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t even care”—while preparing to send Jared Leto’s oblivious character to a very splattery early grave.
4. “American Girl”
The ultimate sing-along song becomes the ultimate “you in danger, girl” moment, as Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs cuts directly from Hannibal Lecter’s prediction that serial killer Buffalo Bill is on the hunt for “that next special lady” to the blissfully unaware Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). In an instant, we like her—jamming out to Tom Petty, having a blast, pretty much perfectly embodying the subject of the song—and we’re rightfully worried for what’s about to happen. And even now, nearly 30 years later, “American Girl” is still forever linked with that scene. Oh yeah, all right, take it easy baby, don’t help that guy with the van!
Everyone remembers the Ramones’ end-credits theme for Pet Sematary, but the real murder ballad in the 1989 movie is the band’s legitimately bouncy-as-hell jam, which is playing in the massive truck that accidentally flattens wandering toddler Gage Creed. The driver’s not an evil dude—he’s just trying to get from point A to B perhaps a little too quickly, but everyone speeds on that damn country Maine road. The truck flips, the kid dies, and while we never see what happens to the punk fan behind the wheel, presumably nobody decides to bury him in a cursed cemetery and hope for a best-case-scenario resurrection.
Tiny Tim’s 1968 novelty ukelele-and-falsetto ditty already sounds like it was recorded in another dimension, so its inclusion in James Wan’s Insidious—a movie about a family menaced by entities lurking in purgatory—is kind of perfect. Chased from their new house by what appear to be malevolent ghosts after their young son falls into a mysterious coma, the Lambert family moves into a new new house, only to discover that whatever evil spirits that’ve taken an interest in them have followed right along. They aren’t even done re-unpacking when “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” blares uninvitingly from their record player—a song that repeats to even more stomach-turning effect when Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) ventures into a garish red lair within the astral plane to rescue his son. Forget Slayer—some demons prefer sharpening their claws to the tremulously sweet sounds of Tiny Tim.
The Dwight Twilley Band—whose members also included Phil Seymour, who sang backup on Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” as it happens—had a handful of power pop hits in its mid-1970s heyday. The groovy “Looking for the Magic” was not one of them, but it achieved its own moment in the spotlight after it was used in a pivotal scene during Adam Wingard’s 2011 home-invasion bloodbath You’re Next. Actually, it’s a series of scenes, since the song is set to “repeat” on a CD player at the start of the film: the opening double murder, a later gruesome attack, and finally, chug-chugging onto the soundtrack after the final kill, like a triumphant exhale for the audience as the end credits roll.
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