Horror themes are a big part of modern pop culture. We enjoy classic horror movies such as The Thing and Silence of the Lambs, and newer offerings, like 28 Days Later. Stephen King and other modern horror authors follow in the proud tradition of masters such as Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. But songs with a horror theme aren’t nearly so prominent. There are plenty of songs dealing with occult and horror themes in heavy metal, but not so much in classic rock, pop and country. And many popular tunes featuring spooky titles, such as Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London, Boris Pickett’s Monster Mash and Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters, are more tongue-in-cheek humor than horror. That said, here are five pop songs with dark themes that are worth another listen.
5. Gravedigger, Dave Matthews
Matthews won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for Gravedigger. Despite the spooky title, there’s nothing supernatural about the song; Matthews said the inspiration for the lyrics came as he thought about old gravestones and wondered what kind of lives those long-dead individuals had lived. Whatever Matthews’ intent, these are haunting lyrics, delivered in a haunting tone. And any song that repeats the words “grave” and “gravedigger” in the refrain over and over — a song that first appeared on a CD entitled Some Devil, no less — belongs on a list of songs with dark themes.
4. The Legend of the Wooley Swamp, Charlie Daniels Band
This is basically a ghost story punctuated by hard rock power chords. Country rocker Charlie Daniels had several hits in the 1970s and early ’80s, most notably The Devil Went Down To Georgia and The South’s Gonna Do It Again. As with many of his other songs, Daniels spins a story in The Legend of the Wooley Swamp. It’s a disturbing tale of three losers who set out to rob an old recluse who lives back in the swamp. But things go horribly wrong. As Daniels sings it, even 50 years later, “On certain nights when the Moon is right, down by that dark footpath, you can hear three young men screaming (and) you can hear one old man laugh.”
3. Devil Woman, Cliff Richard
Sir Cliff Richard has often been referred to as the “Elvis of Great Britain,” and he sold an incredible 250 million albums worldwide. But he never caught on in the United States; his biggest hit in the U.S., Devil Woman, peaked at No. 6 on the charts in 1976. With lyrics warning of evil cats, dark spells, poison potions and fortunetellers, it’s got spooky vibes. Plus, the lead guitar line during the chorus just sounds evil.
2. Don’t Fear the Reaper, Blue Oyster Cult
Just as a Saturday Night Live skit effectively killed Sarah Palin’s political career, an SNL skit starring Christopher Walken (“More Cowbell!”) regrettably turned this song from a classic tale of death and the Grim Reaper into the punch line of a joke. This song really hammers home the inevitability of death, with lyrics like “40,000 men and women every day, 40,000 men and women every day, another 40,000 coming every day …”
1. Thriller, Michael Jackson
Whatever your thoughts about Jackson as a person, you can’t deny the creepiness of this song and video, which spooked an entire generation when it was released in late 1983.
One More: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, I Put A Spell on You
Wielding all manner of voodoo props on stage, including a coffin and a skull smoking a cigarette, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the original shock rocker, predating Alice Cooper by more than a decade. He recorded I Put a Spell on You in 1956. As you can imagine, it was especially disturbing for that relatively tame era and was banned by many radio stations. For that matter, this much more modern video is disturbing enough for today.