14 of the most terrifying songs that aren’t metal
Metal likes to be scary. At its core, metal in all its forms is about primal reaction and the drama of the truth; the power of fear lies behind both of these principles. As such, metal musicians sometimes feel like the performers at a haunted house, leaping out in masks of history’s horrors, society’s underbelly, or the ills of the world, for the sheer excitement of watching the hot lice gasp in fright. The extremes to which this has been taken are predictable if at times alarming, with death and black metal artists confronting the most horrific crimes imaginable in the hopes of getting a gut reaction from their audiences.
But perhaps even more eerie and unpleasant is when music we don’t consider immediately ‘scary’ strikes a terrifying chord. With metal, reeling back in fear is par for the course; in folk, pop, hip-hop or lounge music, making one’s skin crawl is unexpected, and therefore all the more effective. And while it’s one thing to sound evil outside of metal, it’s another thing entirely to sound scary – evil can be empowering in its separation from societal norms, but fear is always awful.
Here, then, are 14 non-metal songs that’ll give you nightmares…
Tom Waits – What’s He Building In There? (1999)
Is there anything scarier than other people? Master of discomfort Tom Waits captures this bowel-deep terror with this track from 1999’s Mule Variations. On the one hand, Tom’s soft rumblings about his strange neighbor definitely make the subject sound menacing. On the other, one slowly begins to feel that it’s the narrator, not the song’s subject, who is more worrisome – the kind of man who ends an angry thought with, ‘We have a right to know.’ A truly harrowing track.
Lingua Ignota – If The Poison Won’t Take You My Dogs Will (2019)
The entirety of Lingua Ignota’s 2019 album Caligula is pretty unnerving, but If The Poison Doesn’t Take You My Dogs Will is especially frightening. The lyrics being sung over the creeping ambient track are certainly powerful, with lines like, ‘Will you join me? Make worthless your body so no man can break it.’ But it’s much more Kristin Hayter’s delivery, swinging between falsetto trills and lunatic shrieks, that makes this one feel like a dream you woke up from with tears on your cheeks.
The Aquabats – Chemical Bomb (1999)
The beauty of Chemical Bomb, as with a lot of The Aquabats’ music, is how it’s presented. The song is a lounge track that starts in the supermarket and ends with people being decapitated in the parking lot. The chorus sounds like Martin Denny-era exotica, but has lyrics like, ‘Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead.’ The casual vibe of the track only drives home the idea that the sort of societal degradation it describes could happen during even the sunniest moments. Like Threads, but with a rum drink.
Death Grips – Bubbles Buried In This Jungle (2016)
Is Bubbles a person? This buzzing, all-knuckles track by California hip-hop crew Death Grips certainly seems to suggest that. The song’s brutal, nihilistic atmosphere definitely feels as though it goes hand in hand with digging a shallow grave for a former friend. That sense of distance and despondency is a large part of Death Grips’ MO – the trio bailed on Lollapalooza in 2013, instead putting on a playlist of pre-recorded tracks with a backdrop featuring a fan’s suicide note. These guys aren’t fucking around.
The Beatles – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (1969)
This is a song a medical student who likes to beat women to death with a hammer. Sure, it’s performed in the style of a sea shanty on a children’s show. And it’s performed by the most beloved rock band of all time, eternal purveyors of unity and love. But those things only add to the twisted horror of the fact that this is a song a medical student who likes to beat women to death with a hammer.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
When 19-year-old Charles Starkweather killed 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming with his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, the media presented them as without-a-cause teens on a high-flying spree. But on his 1982 solo album on down-and-out American lives, The Boss’ song about the tale invokes all the hopelessness, nihilism, and broken American dreams that led Charles Starkweather to commit his terrible crimes. Sometimes, the ugly truth is an overwhelmingly quiet one.
JPEGMAFIA – Real Nega (2018)
More than anything, it’s the beat of this track by Baltimore’s JPEGMAFIA that makes it terrifying. Obviously the verses spat here are harsh and intense, and the child’s voice reciting the chorus will put hackles up. But it’s the croak leading into the steady ululating noise and frantic pitter-patter drums behind it that will really make the listener’s skin crawl. Feels like you’re listening to the soundtrack of some truly awful, unholy shit being done to another human being…
Espectrostatic – The Weeping Willows (2018)
So much of synthwave act Espectrostatic’s music is spooky, to be sure – the project’s MO seems to be horror soundtrack music. But it’s The Weeping Willows from 2018’s Silhouette that is truly terrifying. While Espectrostatic’s other tracks focus on witch cities and doll factories, this string-heavy song is the score to backwoods depravity. Quivering with rustic shadow and peeled-paint dread, the track feels like struggling against rope knots in the back of a truck as you pull into the driveway of the house where it all happens.
Sarah McLachlan – Possession (1993)
‘Nothing stands between us here, and I won’t be denied…’ Sarah McLachlan’s 1993 hit may sound like it’s about vampires, but it’s about something far scarier: an entitled stalker. The song’s romanticized lyrics become deeply grim as the listener realizes they’re from the point of view of someone who can’t understand why he can’t have her. In the modern day of unlimited digital access and Incels murdering people in their rage, this concept is all the more real, and all the more petrifying.
Xiu Xiu – House Sparrow (2010)
The scariest music in the world is that which sounds like it’s playing in your own head. This track from the 2010 album Dear God, I Hate Myself by American experimental music collective Xiu Xiu sounds like the kind of music one hears in the background of their more private, psychotic moments. The fact that it references the blood-drinking serial killer Richard Chase only adds an extra, hackles-up vibe to the song. One of those tracks you’ll find yourself thinking of when you least want to.
Sufjan Stevens – John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (2005)
It’s easy to focus on serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s part-time job as a clown, casting him as the real-life Pennywise. But on his 2005 album Illinois, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens approaches the murderer with haunting grace. Instead of focusing on killer’s horrific circus antics, he looks at the dulcet, human side of this broken soul and his terrible deed. The track is all the more frightening because it can make the listener cry, and reminds them that for all the cult of personality that surrounds them, serial killers are – God help us – people.
Shabazz Palaces – An echo from the hosts that profess infinitium (2011)
Sometimes a song makes you wonder if you’re awake or asleep. This track from the 2011 debut by Seattle hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces sounds like someone whispering into your ear during a bad drug trip. The combination of the echoing vocal production and the nerve-flicking beat make this track feel hallucinatory and subliminal, with the final chant of ‘Who do you think you are?’ acting as a question that the listener isn’t sure they can answer. That this team are labelmates with Hot Snakes and Sleater-Kinney makes an odd, awesome sort of sense.
The Who – Cousin Kevin (1969)
So much of the titular character’s childhood is fucked up in The Who’s concept album Tommy. Especially bad is the song Cousin Kevin, about Tommy’s playmate who’s all too excited to be paired up with a deaf, mute, and blind boy so he can torture and terrorize him without reprisal. ‘There’s so much I can do with a freak,’ muses Kevin before weighing the options of leaving Tommy out in the rain or burning him with a cigarette. We’ve all been children – it was always a nightmare.
Pharmakon – Nakedness In Need (2017)
For noise project Pharmakon, the definition of ‘song’ is a loose one. Nakedness In Need doesn’t have the usual trappings of song structure – a chorus, a melody, any semblance traditional structure… Instead, what the listener gets is a landscape of harsh, raking distortion and the occasional unhinged shriek. The effect this produces is deeply off-putting, invoking concepts like the agony of birth. Don’t play it at a party.
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