“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”
― Bram Stoker,
First thing’s first. Thank you tremendously to everyone who participated in the post “What Spooky VG Music Scares You Most?” by suggesting some frightening tracks for this month’s Top 20 list. Not every track could make the cut, but I would like to recognize the following spooksters for sharing/commenting/participating in the conversation: sepultura13, D.T. Nova, The Shameful Narcissist, Matt, Mr. Panda, mh4wp, Mr. Wapojif, moresleepneeded, retr0pia75, CheapBossAttack, Krystallina, SnapperTrx, and our own Timely Mage. I’m also going to drop a mention for my friend The Angry Scholar just because I know he’d like this sort of thing.
What’s a fitting wish for each of you? Ah, of course: May you all have night terrors.
Now down to business. Freaky, disturbing business. That’s because this of course is unlike our previous musical Top 20 countdowns. Where we once discussed the song of trees and water, skies and space, and the happy tinkle of ragtime, we’ve now come to something to do with that innate fear of the dark. Horror. Terror. Fright. Dread. It goes by many names, that unforeseen, adrenaline-fueled, tingling, creeping feeling.
The songs below arrive just in time for Halloween. Some of them, all jocular verbosity aside, are actually very disturbing. The musical equivalent of the visually graphic. This is sort of a warning, you see. Some of these are actually hard to listen to. I creeped myself out putting together this list, especially getting down to the top 3.
Music has a lot of power but what exactly makes a song scary? We’re looking for sound that inspires fear in any of several ways: through a sense of foreboding, through minimalism, through the unseen or unknown, through juxtaposition, through dissonance, through confusion, through suspense, and through vocal noises that can’t really be placed as human.
The video games of the night… what music they make!
#20. “Prologue” – The X-Files Game
Growing up in the 90’s, was there anything scarier on television for a kid than The X-Files? It’s still one of the highest quality, best-written, grossest and creepiest tv shows of all time. Flukeworms, mutants, grays, shapeshifters, vampires, demons, parasites, ghosts, serial killers, alien oil, the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The X-Files had it all plus a soundtrack by Mark Snow verging on oppressive. Heck, one of the themes of the show was loneliness. So when musical anxiety and depression was translated to the world of gaming, you can be sure that even if the game itself failed to live up to the show, the music would still hit “Home”. The truth is still out there, waiting to eat your liver, suck out your fat, subject you to horrible experiments, or cover up your entire life like you never even existed.
#19. “Misty Menace” – Donkey Kong Country
Rare, how could you? One of the most successful methods of horror is when there is a marked contrast between something innocent, childlike and friendly in appearance with something supernatural and menacing. That’s one reason why we’re afraid of dolls, even when they may look friendly. Think of black-eyed children. Actually don’t. That’s horror by juxtaposition. So when we arrive at the colorful, jamming jungles of Donkey Kong Country we should hardly expect a track like “Misty Menace”, complete with alliteration, from the finglets of David Wise. The track is the anthem of a deep, dark tunnel… or the music of those horrible hallway “Once you see it…” pictures plastered all over the internet. It’s full of echoes and noises of metal, sounds which more frightening games take full advantage of. The most frightening thing here is it happens in a DK game.
#18. “Last Breath” – Heavy Rain (suggested by The Timely Mage)
This is not so bad! You may have said that to yourself during the first thirty seconds of “Last Breath”. The piano is melancholy but it’s not exactly scary. That is until the freakish noises begin. They still remain distinctly musical but there’s a new layer of dissonance that’s introduced. This sad track excels in building tension. Toward what? What’s going to happen? That’s part of the suspense. Besides, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve not had the pleasure of playing Heavy Rain. But with the words “the Origami Killer”, I can just about guess what’s coming.
#17. “The Curse” – Secret of Mana
Secret of Mana is a treasure from the Super Nintendo and a cheery, bright, cutesy action-RPG. For the most part. I can’t remember exactly when “The Curse” plays during the game, but it’s a pretty upsetting track. The slow throbbing noise, muffled cries, organic sounds… it’s like you’ve been devoured by some gigantic monster and are going to find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a… thousand years. It is hard to make out all of the sounds in this track and say what they all are with certainty. The tolling of the bell (and chanting?) is also reminiscent of dark magic and helps to captivate the heart of mystery and supernatural elements in Secret of Mana.
#16. “Trepidation” – 999 (suggested by Mr. Panda)
I have no idea what’s going on in several of the games on this list. This is one of them. 999 is a numerical value clearly derived from social superstitions surrounding a certain three-digit number of biblical origins. That’s about all I can tell you. Whatever this is, the song it’s from is horror. There’s so much tension in this song it could snap like a bowstring on a violin. The low banging notes on the piano seem like the footsteps of some approaching murderer. And then there’s that terrifying backmasking sound, the noises played backwards. I’ve never played this game and now I don’t know that I ever will.
#15. “Strains of Insanity” – Chrono Trigger
Okay so those of you that read the final entry of our 31-Day Mage Challenge know that Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all time. I thought I knew everything about it, but I didn’t know this: I always thought this track was simply called “Magus’ Castle” because it plays in Magus’ Castle, a shadowy, gothic edifice filled to the brim with magic and monsters. What I didn’t know is that this track is actually called “Strains of Insanity”. The scariest thing about it is there is no resolve, musically. The tension builds ad infinitum with that high-pitched organ noise. The choice of instruments and setting lead us to a more elegant kind of old-world, folkloric fear than what’s typically on display in contemporary games, with their reliance upon minimalism and abrasive noise. But beneath it all there’s the sound of voices laughing (crying?). There’s something distinctly human and “breathy” about it, but all the while it feels cold and empty, like the mind of an inmate sobbing in an abandoned asylum. In a game that’s otherwise known for exceptional music, Chrono Trigger’s “Strains of Insanity” stands out as a hallmark example of classic, Dracula-like horror.
#14. “Toreador March” – Five Nights at Freddy’s (suggested by retr0pia75)
Say what you want about Five Nights at Freddy’s and its franchise for all of its milking, its YouTubers and its cheap jump scares. Horror by juxtaposition. This is it. Circus music or the childlike sounds of a music box creep people out and FNAF knows it. What’s interesting about this song is the way it stands out from the other contrasting horrors we’ve looked at thus far. Those were frightening songs in otherwise cheerful games, whereas this is a cheerful song in an otherwise frightening game. Out of the context of hideous animatronics, there’s nothing particularly terrifying about the sound of this song, unless you’re already afraid of clown-music and such. But the majority of people reading this are probably at least a little familiar with Freddy’s leering face grinning in the shadows right before the jump scare.
#13. “13” – Minecraft
I have never played Minecraft because I’m not a millennial. Can’t stand it when I wear my 8-bit pixel glasses and my retro NES graphic tees and some kid comes up to me and says “nice Minecraft apparel!” All near-disingenuous kidding aside, I have a general idea of why and when this song plays. Creepers, dude. The most important thing about this song is it illustrates what minimalism does for horror. The natural noises of wind and water running spliced together with metallic dissonance and a droning sublayer of notes, throw in a couple of breathing sounds, and you’ve got something that would freak the crap out of you if you heard it when caught outside in the dark. I couldn’t help but think of the equally chaotic track “Jupiter and Beyond” from the unsettling 2001: a Space Odyssey (skip to the 12 minute mark). How’s that for a pivot? Minecraft to 2001.
#12. “Ring Around the Rosie” – Dead Space 2
This song gets so apocalyptic that you can hardly hear the lyrics. That’s a moot point, though. Most of us know at least some of the words to “Ring Around the Rosie”, anyway. Even if it’s about a plague. But this track isn’t just playing upon childhood rhymes in a game which manipulates “Twinkle twinkle little star” and “Silent night” for terror. It’s the massive tension which steadily builds as the female voice drones out those rhymes in her strange minor key. That’s what helps to sell this track and it appears here mostly because it’s an interesting way to build suspense and anxiety. Sure, a lot of trailers in recent years have used the same tactic (Suicide Squad’s “I started a joke”, Age of Ultron’s “I’ve got no strings” to lesser effect). The sum can end up falling flat and being cheesy, but I don’t know that that’s true of this song from Dead Space 2. I’m sure a lot of crap would be scary in space, but if I heard this song up there I’d pee my space suit.
#11. “Trail of Blood” – Final Fantasy VII
As The Shameful Narcissist said in commenting on this track: “following a trail of blood will never lead you to anything good”. Final Fantasy VII is a game that needs no introduction and it’s got its own fair share of the supernatural, body horror, experiments gone wrong, and aliens for spook-factor. Cloud’s own ultra-emo, hairsprayed, hero-worship is enough to give anyone the heebee jeebees (sp?). I do remember a few times being genuinely scared when playing through Final Fantasy VII as a youngster mage. When “Trail of Blood” played, it was one of those times. I can still see the crimson slick smeared across the walls and floor…. eesh. Hearing that eerie banging noise doesn’t help.
Hey you made it! Oh but there’s another 10 more songs to go. I hope you weren’t too scared, boys and ghouls. If you need to come down from the horror-high, watch something mellow like The Thing, The Ring, The Exorcist, or The Third 2016 Presidential Debate to calm your nerves after so much scary sounds. I hope you don’t hear any bumps in the night tonight. You may want to sleep with the lights on.
What songs do you think should make our terrifying Top 10? Boo knows…
Ugh. How did the Crypt Keeper keep up these puns?
–The Well-Red Mage