Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Not every song used in a horror movie is inherently scary. Sometimes, a song is used to set the time period, the setting, or just to remind us that once there were good times for these characters. But then... there are some songs that, when placed in a scary scene in a film, become changed forever. You may never hear it the same again because now your brain associates it with a scary moment from a horror movie. Soundscapes and soundtracks used in horror are what help films create an eerie and tense atmosphere. When a spooky scene is paired with just the right song, it can take that tension from a 4 to an 11. Can you think of such a song?
There are so many “normal” and "happy" songs that horror movies have forever changed for me. Even if it comes on shuffle outside of the movie setting, I still think of the scene and shudder.
So, this list is a collection of songs that were totally normal, sometimes even happy, songs until they were inserted into scary movies.
“Tip Toe Through the Tulips” - Tiny Tim
Appears in: Insidious
Insidious has been on dozens of lists of one of the scariest horror movies to come out of the 2010s. As it should because there are still scenes from this movie that freak me out despite seeing the film many times. The story follows parents (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne) as they take drastic measures when it seems their new home is haunted, and their comatose son (Ty Simpkins) is possessed by a malevolent entity.
When we see that entity for the first time, we get a slow pan over to its lair, taken through a gramophone into the heart of where the entity is listening to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” while sharpening its nails surrounded by a variety of toys, including some eerie looking puppets. We also hear the song again when the record player the mother is using while working in the house skips to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” This demon really loves the song and knowing that makes it all creepier.
The Scene With the Mother
“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” is not a scary song (although given the high-pitched singing, perhaps some would argue it was always a creepy song). At the very least, the song isn’t intended to be creepy. In fact, before Tiny Tim (the singer of this version I’m referring to), the original version was intended to be a feel-good, romantic song, written for the 1929 movie “Gold Diggers of Broadway.” Maybe it’s the way that Tiny Tim sings it, in a way that’s so untraditional, overly happy, that gives it a freaky feeling. So even though some found this song unsettling before, I think putting it in Insidious truly took it over the edge and made it forever creepy.
“Goodbye Horses” - Q Lazzarus
Appears in: Silence of the Lambs
I bet when Q Lazzarus showed her demo to Jonathan Demme while she was driving him in her taxi in the 80s, she didn’t have any idea that someday, one of her songs would be used for such a creepy scene. The director Jonathan Demme loved her music and used it in multiple productions including Silence of the Lambs. The film stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee who is hunting a serial killer by the name of "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Levine), who skins his female victims. To catch him, she seeks the advice of the imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a psychiatrist and a cannibalistic serial killer.
“Goodbye Horses” is playing in the iconic scene from Silence of the Lambs when serial killer Buffalo Bill is applying makeup and talking to their reflection in the mirror all while the woman that they’ve captured can be heard screaming offscreen. It’s been said that the director chose this song because of the softer, androgynous qualities that this song possesses. He felt it would be a perfect contrast with the unsettling scene happening on screen. Here you have a serial killer who is completely unbothered by any wrongdoing and is instead focusing on a beauty routine while the captured woman is terrified at the bottom of a pit. It’s a song that is nearly impossible to separate from Silence of the Lambs. But it wasn’t meant to be scary. Melancholy perhaps, but not creepy. That’s thanks to this movie and man, does it give you chills.
There isn’t a true clip of its use in the movie, but given how disturbing it is, it’s probably for the best. There are some edits out there with bits of the scene if you feel so inclined.
“Mr. Sandman” - Chordettes
Appears in: Halloween II, Halloween H2O
There’s just something about these older songs that seem creepier as they age. “Mr. Sandman” wasn’t meant to be unsettling. In fact, the song was written by Pat Ballard and first recorded by The Chordettes in the 1950s. The group was known for its good-girl image and “Mr. Sandman” sat at #1 for seven weeks in 1954. The song’s original meaning was basically asking for the man of their dreams rather than simply good dreams. Of course, since then the song has been used in eerie instances. I think this is similar to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in that the song is so sugar-sweet sounding that it feels false, thus making it unsettling when paired with the right scary setting.
Both Halloween II and Halloween H2O make use of this classic song, but when it’s included in a story about a masked killer who stalks his victims often in the night, it adds an extra layer of creepy crawlies. Putting it at the beginning of both movies is meant to be a little ironic. It’s a reminder to the viewers of the old times when Laurie Strode and her friends talked of boys and dating before they were faced with the nightmarish Michael Myers. Having this at the beginning feels like it’s lulling the audience into a false sense of security and knowing what’s to come makes the song even eerier. It’s almost a reminder that we are about to see another nightmare where Michael Myers terrorizes Laurie and others in the hospital.
This is a song that despite being about dreams (and would go amazingly in Nightmare on Elm Street. I can’t believe they’ve never done this), it’s really associated with the nightmarish boogeyman Michael Myers or as some call him, The Shape.
Appears in: Jeepers Creepers
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but when I watched this movie as a teenager, I thought “Jeepers Creepers” was a song created specifically for this movie. It has the same title as the movie, so I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch. Imagine my surprise when I learned that not only was it not created for Jeepers Creepers the movie, but it is a popular jazz standard originating in the 1930s. It has been sung by greats such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra. The version used in the movie is by Paul Whiteman and His Swing Wing.
Jeepers Creepers is a movie from the 2000s about siblings who were on a road trip home when they made a horrific discovery in the basement of an abandoned church and find themselves the chosen prey of an indestructible force that relentlessly pursues them. The creature that pursues them is named The Creeper, and you hear this song used throughout the movie to serve as a warning to victims that he is coming. It’s also used when we see the fate of victims after The Creeper gets them.
Given that this has been a beloved jazz standard for decades, the original intention wasn’t for it to be scary or unsettling. The song is more about being enchanted by someone. The phrase “jeepers creepers” was also an exclamation used in surprise, exasperation, or fear, a basic censored version of saying “Jesus Christ.” But this movie took the song’s lyrics and built an eerie story around it. It added a whole new meaning to the lyrics, “jeepers creepers, where’d you get those eyes?”
I’ll never forget the character Jezelle’s first warning to the siblings as she sings the song.
“Hip to be Square” - Huey Lewis and the News
Appears in: American Psycho
Very few would look at Huey Lewis and the News and think of the world scary. In fact, the band was seen as rather conservative and boys next door types at their height, vastly different from the way other bands turned to rebellion when they blew up in popularity. “Hip to Be Square” is a song about the band not conforming to what was trending at the time. Not a scary concept really. But when it becomes a background song to a murder, it can never be heard the same again.
American Psycho is a movie about a rich New York investment banking executive who hides his alternate psychopathic tendencies from his co-workers and friends as he escalates deeper into madness. The song is used as more than just casual background for a scene. While having a fellow businessman Paul Allen (Jared Leto) over to this place, the main character Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) puts on a tape and monologues about Huey Lewis & the News. While talking about how “Hip to Be Square” is an “undisputed masterpiece”, he brandishes an axe and hacks into Paul. After the kill, the song continues to play as you see blood all over Bateman and he sits down to light up a cigar. The movie toes the line between horrific and comedic, but this is an undeniably chilling scene from American Psycho. I’d argue it’s scarier with Huey Lewis & the News. That dichotomy works really well. You can check out the iconic clip from the film below.
“You Are My Sunshine” - Charles McDonald
Appears in: Annabelle: Creation
Yes, one of the happiest-sounding songs was made scary thanks to its use in a horror movie. The song sung to children for decades was used to unsettle audiences in the 2017 film Annabelle: Creation. The earliest recording of “You Are My Sunshine” can be traced back to 1939 with The Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey). The song is so beloved that in 1977, the Louisiana Legislature decreed that "You Are My Sunshine" would share honors as the state song with "Give Me Louisiana" by Doralice Fontane. It has been covered by many artists over the years including Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin.
In Annabelle: Creation, a spirit loved this song while they were still alive, so it’s played, oftentimes in the dead of night to signal their presence. And let me tell you, it is chilling. Charles McDonald doesn’t sing it in any sort of eerie way, but it’s another example of using an old song in the right context, and that’s what makes it scary. Although it’s known as a happy song, if you look at the lyrics, it’s actually about unrequited love. Knowing this and hearing the line, “if you leave me and love another, you’ll regret it all someday” adds a chilling extra layer once you see it in the context of the movie.
I can’t share the scene it’s used in, but I can share the version used in the movie.
Appears in: Candyman
Take a song made famous and beloved by families for decades, especially for its use in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and plop it into a movie about a serial killer known to lure children in by offering candy...I mean, do I even have to explain?
While the song isn’t used in any particular movie scene, the 2021 remake of the beloved classic Candyman from 1992 opens the film with this song. And not some morphed creepy version. Just a classic version by Sammy Davis Jr that was released in 1972. But adding it in at the beginning of this movie adds an extra layer that is chef’s kiss perfect. It’s a surprise to me that the original didn’t even think of doing this. Perhaps they worried it would be too on the nose? I didn’t think so. I remember the way my face lit up when I saw Candyman in the theater because of course it was the perfect song to open with, to bring about a false sense of security and in the context of a horror film about to start, it’s just the ultimate use of it. So creepy, so fitting, especially put with credits running inverted like a mirror, adding an extra eerie layer.
Check out the opening credits below:
“Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In)”
Appears in: The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Man, was this song made scary thanks to its use in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Originally released in the 1950s, the version used in the film comes from The McGuire Sisters who recorded it in 1955. You might also know it from the time Pebbles and Bamm Bamm sang it in The Flintstones. A religious song about not letting the devil into your life already has the perfect makings for sinister use. There also seems to be a pattern here of older songs being used to add an eerie feeling to scenes. Perhaps it’s because of what I mentioned earlier that it seems almost faux-happy, that something isn’t right. The song implores people to keep smiling because unhappiness is what the devil wants. This could also have a new context in the modern day, that if you show any negative emotion, you’re somehow open to evil, a toxic way of thinking for those who struggle with mental health. That’s why I think the use of this song in The Autopsy of Jane Doe is genius. Hearing it today adds extra layers that may not have been as interpreted as such upon its release.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s title might already give you an idea of what the movie is about. A coroner and his son conduct an autopsy on a beautiful “Jane Doe” murder victim whom they have no identification for. As the autopsy continues, they find increasingly bizarre clues, and strange things begin to occur in the morgue.
The song is used a couple of times in the movie with one being the radio clicking on while the autopsy is underway with, you guessed it, “Open Up Your Heart (Let the Light Shine In)” playing through the speakers. But the most chilling moment comes later in the movie when suddenly from behind a locked door, the sheriff seems to change into something else as he begins to sing “Open Up Your Heart (Let the Light Shine In).” The way it’s sung is just so eerie and knowing what it means makes it even scarier. Watch this scene below and tell me you don’t get at least a little chill from it. I’ll never hear the song the same again.
“Good Vibrations” - Beach Boys
Appears in: Us
Jordan Peele has become one of the most prolific horror directors of the decade due to the strong horror visuals his horror films are able to produce while also bringing out clever social commentary. One other thing that you can count on in a Jordan Peele film is a great soundtrack. Every song is carefully chosen, and none are accidental in placement. This is especially true for his 2019 film Us.
Us is about Adelaide Wilson who returns to the beachfront home where she grew up as a child with her husband, son, and daughter. Haunted by a traumatic experience from the past, Adelaide senses something is wrong at this place. Her worst fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers arrive at the house, and they look just like them.
In the movie, we have a husband ask their Alexa-type device (called Ophelia in the film) to play “Good Vibrations” to try to keep the party going despite it being late and his wife is visibly shaken by rustling outside. As his daughters come out to see what’s going on, chaos ensues as the family’s doppelgangers invade the home and begin attacking them. The upbeat attitude of the song playing against the brutal visual is as mesmerizing as it is disturbing. There were clearly very deliberate intentions from Jordan Peele to put these two contradictory things together for that sequence.
Did you ever think a song where a “good vibration” means the same as a good feeling could be made creepy? Well, Jordan Peele did it. You can see the iconic scene for yourself. And the fun part where the Ophelia device mishears a character’s plea to call the police and plays an N.W.A song instead 😉
“Run Rabbit Run”
Appears in: Get Out
It should come as no surprise that another Jordan Peele movie came up on this list. As I said in the Us entry, Peele just knows how to pick the perfect song that juxtaposes a disturbing moment. In Get Out the best example of this comes from the use of “Run Rabbit Run.”
Get Out is a film about Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) who have reached the meet-the-parents stage, and Rose is bringing him home for the weekend. Once they arrive, there are nervous attempts to deal with their daughter's interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries leads him to a truth that he never could have imagined. There’s a lot more to this than the synopsis gives away of course, especially relating to social commentary. One of those themes is hunter vs hunted or, who have the upper hand in society, and who are exploited to maintain that status quo.
We hear “Run Rabbit Run” while Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) is stalked and forcefully kidnapped by a vehicle that had been following him. The song, in context, is about how for some, life is about survival (the rabbit), and for others, it’s about fun (the farmer, who doesn’t need a rabbit pie, but wants one for the pleasure of hunting and eating it). The context makes much more sense if you’ve watched the movie, but this is another instance of an older song used for an extra creep factor. The double meaning also makes it even more unsettling in the film.
You can watch the scene below.
“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield
Appears in: The Exorcist
Despite its very eerie quality, this song’s original intention wasn’t to be scary. Mike Oldfield released his debut album in May 1973. He was 19 years old when it was recorded, and played almost all the instruments on the mostly instrumental album. At first, he wasn’t gaining much traction, but then the album and song gained worldwide attention in December 1973 when “Tubular Bells” was used for the horror film, The Exorcist.
There isn’t much more to say. It’s a product of taking an already kind of eerie song and putting it in the context of what is considered one of the scariest movies of all time, and it will never be heard the same again. At least, in this case, it propelled Oldfield’s song into the spotlight, helping him find success. My favorite scene that the song is used is when the mother Chris MacNeil is walking home. It’s a fall day, and you can just feel the chill and the wind as she walks home, “Tubular Bells” her soundtrack. It’s so eerie, making you wonder what’s to come.
You can watch the scene I’m referring to below
This list could go on and on as there are decades of horror films using music as a tool to scare audiences beyond the use of sound effects. If you have interest in reading about the science behind scary noises, you can check out Savage Content’s other blog post about that here.
Here are a few other honorable mentions I want to list out briefly if you’re still itching for more creepy examples.
“Making Love Out of Nothing at All” - Air Supply
Appears in: Strangers: Prey at Night
“Season of the Witch” - Lana Del Ray
Appears in: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
“I Think We’re Alone Now”
Used in: Scream Queens (TV), 1980 slasher Mother’s Day, 10 Cloverfield Lane trailer, makes it slow and creepy.
“Fingertips” - Stevie Wonder
Used in: NOPE trailer
There are some songs that were always scary and some that only became scary because of the context. Either way, many of these songs can’t ever be heard the same once you see them used in these horror movies. I think the scariest for me is “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I simply cannot hear that song without the scene from Insidious popping into my head. I will never feel that way about it, and that’s all thanks to Insidious. But as a person who loves things that are scary and macabre, I love it. I love to be scared. And that’s why even though these songs are forever changed, I think what they have done, at least for me, is give them a new context, a new reason to return to them. And there are songs on here I might have never listened to without their use in horror. And that, I believe, is a beautiful thing.
Is there a song on this list that has done the same to you? Do you get a chill down your spine from even a stray few seconds of these songs? What song has been ruined for you forevermore?
Let me know in the comments! And for those out there like me, who love horror movies that “ruin” songs, I hope you found a new creepy use of a song out from this list.
Written by Kristen Petronio
A special thanks to the following source that helped me write this blog post.
The feature image includes a single cover of The Chordettes, sourced from Spotify.