If you’ve ever watched a horror film, you’ve probably noticed that the music can sometimes seem totally out of place. This dissonance between song and action has the power to make a scene even more poignant, emotional, or in this case, more terrifying.
Here are some of our favourite examples of soundtrack dissonance in scary movies:
“Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News in American Psycho
In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman commits an axe murder to the tune of “Hip to be Square” while commenting on the appropriateness of the music to ’80s culture. In the novel, he’s humming a tune of a TV show that he watched as a child (he can’t remember what it was), while making a sausage out of the body of a woman he just killed.
“Singing in the Rain” by Malcolm McDowell/Gene Kelly in A Clockwork Orange
Perhaps the holy grail of soundtrack dissonance, A Clockwork Orange is full of horrifying scenes set to pleasant, classical music. Most notable, however, is the home invasion and rape scene set to Alex’s performance of “Singing in the Rain”. The song was chosen simply because Malcolm McDowell knew all the words offhand. The original version by Gene Kelly plays during the end credits.
“Blue Moon” by The Marcels in An American Werewolf in London
An American Werewolf in London has notably upbeat music throughout, especially the climax, which ends somberly with the main character dead and his love crying over his dead body, then immediately jumpcuts into the credits with this ultra upbeat version of “Blue Moon”.
“We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters in 1408
The clock radio which counts down the protagonist’s supposed hour in 1408 repeatedly breaks into The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun”. This is combined with the countdown resetting itself, and new inventive tortures being pulled by the Genius Loci.
“Mr. Sandman” by Pat Bullard and The Chordettes in Halloween II (1981) and Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)
This song by Pat Bullard and The Chordettes first premiered in 1954 and was later used during the closing credits of 1981’s Halloween II. To refresh our memories, the track was used (almost) twenty years later in the opening scene of the follow-up film Halloween H20. It’s overt cheerfulness is an unnerving juxtaposition with the brutal killings it precedes.
“Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” by Enya in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” plays during the climactic torture scene in David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“I Remember You” by Slim Witman in House of 1000
Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses has Slim Whitman’s “I Remember You” playing over super slow motion scenes of graphic torture and murder.
“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim in Insidious
Insidious manages to make “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim unnerving; it’s played during two incredibly creepy, tense scenes.
“Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus and “Goldberg Variations” by Bach in The Silence of the Lambs
In The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill dances disturbingly to the tune of “Goodbye Horses” while his victim screams in the background, and Hannibal kills and cannibalises two guards while wistfully listening to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”.
“Jeepers Creepers” by Paul Whiteman And His Swing Wing in Jeepers Creepers
The 2001 monster-slasher Jeepers Creepers uses the 1938 jazz standard of the same name for unnerving, superstitious effect when it warns its young protagonists that if they hear the song playing, they’ll be one foot in the grave.
“More And More” by Webb Pierce in The Hills Have Eyes
The opening credits for The Hills Have Eyes (2006) play the song “More And More” over nuclear testings and photos of deformed children.
“Looking for the Magic” by Dwight Twilley in You’re Next
If you can hear your neighbor blasting this track on repeat like the poor bastards in You’re Next, you may wanna run for the hills.
“Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel and “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson in Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs has two stand-out uses of soundtrack dissonance – the use of “Stuck in the Middle With You” for the infamous torture scene, and the use of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” in the closing credits immediately following the bloody finale where everybody dies.
“Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen in Shaun of the Dead
Queen’s iconic 1978 hit “Don’t Stop Me Now” provides a bit of light relief in zombie comedy film Shaun of the Dead. Simon Pegg and co are stuck in a pub with hoards of the un-dead outside when suddenly this track comes on the jukebox. What follows is a shambolic attempt to kill a zombie with pool cues, darts, and other pub paraphernalia.
“Amazing Grace” in Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) has “Amazing Grace” (the bagpipe version) playing when Donald Sutherland finds the pods being loaded onto a cargo ship. “Amazing Grace” was playing just to lure humans to the ship.
“In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Grieg in M
Fritz Lang’s M uses this dissonance technique with “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. The criminally insane child murderer whistles (often slowly, and off-key) this upbeat song when he feels the urge to kill rising within him.
“Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” by Bing Crosby in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge ends with Bing Crosby’s incredibly soft, relaxing “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”