Updated: Oct 20
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.