Music is an essential component of a horror film’s atmosphere. Without Bernard Herrmann’s atonal orchestra, PSYCHO wouldn’t be half the masterpiece that it is. But sometimes a great scary movie will drag other music into its orbit of terror besides the work of a composer. Occasionally, a pre-written song will become the soundtrack to some of cinema’s most harrowing scenes, infecting the real world in an insidious way.
These songs might be great, but when they come on the radio again, you feel yourself transported to that moment of horror, no longer able to appreciate the joy that song had previously brought you. That’s the most horrifying thing of all. Here are seven of those songs; great tunes that have been ruined for me forever by the dastardly genre that I love so much.
“American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Ruined by: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Is there any rock song more iconic than “American Girl?” Who among us is strong enough to resist belting out “MAKE IT LAST ALL NITE!” during the chorus? Catherine Martin certainly isn’t. We see her rocking along to her car radio, blissfully unaware as she crosses paths with the man who will kidnap her and trap her in a pit for weeks, with his eye toward obtaining her beautiful skin. I can no longer put this jam on in my car without side-eying every passing van.
“Singin’ in the Rain”
Ruined by: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
This jolly tune might make you want to swing around on the nearest lamppost, but after viewing A CLOCKWORK ORANGE you might just want to flip off the radio instead. The lead character Alex mockingly performs this song during the film’s most grotesque bit of ultraviolence, something that has forever tainted the song in my mind. Rainy days will never be the same.
“Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes
Ruined by: HALLOWEEN II (1981)
Repurposing oldies songs in a creepy context has become a huge trope in modern horror, but one of the first films to start that trend was the sequel to one of the genre’s most iconic entries: HALLOWEEN. Opening and closing with this peppy song by The Chordettes (who also brought us the soda shop classic “Lollipop”), HALLOWEEN II forces us to consider that the mysterious stranger in the lyrics might not be as kind and angelic as they were hoping he’d be.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
Ruined by: POLTERGEIST (1982)
TV stations don’t sign off anymore, and it’s a good thing too. For starters, if you want to watch HONEY BOO BOO at 4 AM, you can. But this also means we’ll never again have to hear the sleepy strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” heralding the hours of static that will surely allow ghosts into our home to steal our children.
“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim
Ruined by: INSIDIOUS (2010)
It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time that people didn’t find Tiny Tim creepy, but you must remember that the vast majority of people used to like clowns back in the day. It was a weird time. A relentlessly cheerful tune, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” had the dark, creepy side drawn out of it by its repeated use in INSIDIOUS, reminding us that things that seem perfectly lovely on the outside might jut hide sinister secrets, whether it’s a suburban home or an oldies pop tune.
“Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver
Ruined by: FINAL DESTINATION (2000)
The FINAL DESTINATION franchise has always made great soundtrack choices (I’m particularly partial to “Turn Around, Look at Me” from FD3), but you can’t beat the original. “Rocky Mountain High” was the song that heralded Death’s arrival at a character’s doorstep, morbidly evoking Denver’s tragic death with the plane crash this film’s set of victims narrowly avoided.
“Hip to be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News
Ruined by: AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
The pitch-black satire AMERICAN PSYCHO has a terrific array of 80’s tunes permeating its wicked atmosphere, but the scene that uses its soundtrack in the most deliciously haunting way is the one where Patrick Bateman gives a manic speech about the talents of Huey Lewis before brutally murdering Jared Leto to the strains of “Hip to be Square.” It’s funny and engrossing, but also deeply disturbing, and this song is inextricably tangled up in all of that.