“Life Isn’t A Musical” But Death Certainly Is: How Hazbin Hotel (2019) and Helluva Boss (2019) Make Music In Hell

Many of the horror musicals I have highlighted in recent weeks were either critically reviled or forgotten by contemporary culture. It seems that horror musicals, except for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, are generally ignored, but that cannot be said of these creations. Since October last year, Hazbin Hotel has garnered 44 million views (as of writing this piece in September of 2020), while the later Helluva Boss gained 23 million. Two shows, created outside of the traditional network system, have succeeded to unprecedented levels. This success demonstrates that our very concept of television and distribution is changing at a remarkable pace.

The internet has revolutionized the interface between creator and audience, making it more personal and less corporate. It used to be that creators had to negotiate with a monopolized industry which immediately put them at a disadvantage. They had no means of distribution without a relationship with that industrial middleman. The systems constructed by that industry, for creators to leap through, is becoming increasingly outdated. Hazbin Hotel is not the first series to illustrate this, it’s not even the first horror musical to do so. During the writers’ strike of 2008, Joss Whedon (the famous abusive bully) created Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and released it for free (with a few conditions) online. It became immensely popular, and remains so today, and that is largely because Whedon didn’t dismiss online distribution as a secondary form to TV. Of course, today we have Netflix and other streaming services, but these are membership only, which is opposite of what Whedon’s project and Hazbin Hotel represent. It’s true, Hazbin Hotel has since been picked up by A24, but it’s sister series Helluva Boss remains popular and free online.

“Consider It an Investment in Ongoing Entertainment”

Both Hazbin and Helluva were created by Vivienne ‘Vivziepop’ Medrano, an independent artist who funded the projects through crowdfunding. She has since signed a deal with A24 to produce a series of Hazbin episodes. What I find so impressive about all of this is that the number one mandate of the series is inclusivity, which is found in the very way the series was distributed. The half hour pilot episode is available for free on YouTube, and they have several dubbed versions if English isn’t your first language. The creators have made it very clear that they want their work to be enjoyed by whomever and wherever a person comes from. While parts of this might change after the series is in full production, it is still inspiring to see a new and exciting creation come to life because of an audience, not a company.

Most fandoms are born after a project is released, not before. However, Medrano has involved her fans from the beginning. Hazbin was crowd-funded, created by an audience and for and audience who were already familiar with the characters and basic plot. This means that the audience feels involved with the project, and so the success of the pilot episode, and the later Helluva pilot, feels like a collective win. It’s why these first pilot episodes remain so popular, and why the fandom remains so dedicated.

Although it has been almost a year since the first episode of Hazbin was uploaded, and nine months since Helluva, Medrano’s production remains topical due to its online presence, particularly on Instagram. Each of the characters have an Instagram account where they consistently post and update the fans on their daily lives. Characters even comment on each other’s pages and create secondary storylines. For instance, Blitzo was recently kidnapped, and many of the Instagram accounts started posting about their search. Blitzo has also posted a lot about his horse, which other characters have gone on to reference on their pages.  It is such an interesting idea, especially when they show two versions of the same event but from different accounts and characters. It makes the series feel alive, as though the show is just capturing part of an ongoing story. Likewise, it gives devoted fans the opportunity to learn more about their favourite characters while also establishing the world, tone, and relationships between these characters. This online format keeps people invested in the series, even in times where there is no new video content.

By creating this participatory environment, the show demonstrates two forms of inclusivity: subject and form. Inclusive representation is important to the show runners, both in subject matter and the creative team. However, this platform interaction is another form of inclusivity, as fans can interact with the characters in an almost Disneyland sort of fashion, albeit digitally. It is marketing, yet it feels more sincere than that, especially on a platform like Instagram. By regularly updating these pages, their posts blend in with people’s feeds. It’s not like following an art account, because the art has a life. It’s more like following an influencer, which gives the characters more dimension for the fans.

Creating the show’s universe doesn’t stop with the program itself, it extends and multiplies across the fandom, from those who only know the videos, to those who produce fanart and fanfiction, and those who have been with Medrano since the beginning.

“Do Not Talk to My Receptionist That Way, She’s Sensitive”

There are moments in both Hazbin and Helluva, which are intentionally controversial. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as both pilots take place in Hell, so such things should be expected. As an example, there is a quick shot in Hazbin of a poster advertising for Jeffery Dahmer’s cooking show, with a small sticky note overtop asking “Who approved this show?”. It a meta moment which illustrates that yes, the show has made a terrible and inappropriate joke, but that it is also aware of how terrible that joke is. This is a common trend in both projects, as they make a joke but immediately acknowledge that it is upsetting, or R rated. In Helluva there’s a scene where the characters shoot a child instead of their target. The characters then take the child to a hospital, but eventually have to take him to hell when its revealed that they have no insurance. The kid survives the encounter until he ‘wakes up’ from his coma and starts brutally insulting the demons, calling them pathetic. This is enough justification to properly murder the child, especially when they find out he was the intended target. What follows is a hilarious, dark, and horrifying sequence where they cartoonishly dismember and deliver the child to his mother. I’ll admit, I have a problem even writing these events down, but in the context of the show, it’s played for laughs. The only reason this works is because none of the characters, including the child, are good people. The extreme violence, swearing, and just overall R subject creates a specific environment which is intentionally dark, and where nothing is taken at face value.

 The characters know that they are bad and seemingly unredeemable, which makes the plot of Hazbin all the more interesting. Hazbin is about a hotel in Hell dedicated to rehabilitating sinners and getting them into heaven, which most demons think is ridiculous. Helluva concerns a group of hitmen (Imps? Demons? Other?) who track down and murder people on earth on behalf of their clients in Hell. Just by their premise, it seems like Hazbin and Helluva are working in different directions, as although both focus on plains other than Hell- Hazbin on heaven and Helluva on earth- their intentions with these spaces are different. The goal in Hazbin is the challenge the structure of the divine realms, and to re-examine what it means to sin, to judge, and to forgive, both other people and yourself. At least that is what it seems like from the pilot. Helluva seems less preoccupied with literal redemption, as we already like the characters despite their horrendous behaviour. I am not that familiar with the pre-established lore around either of these projects, but I would guess that Helluva will continue to examine these characters in a positive way by suggesting that both demons and humans are ultimately terrible in some ways, but that its makeshift family is relatable and sympathetic.

“Are you gonna crush my musical theatre dreams just like my dad did?”

Hazbin and Helluva are equally effective because they utilize recognizable horror musical conventions. I have already discussed a few of these in recent weeks, particularly in films like Stage Fright (2014) and Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), but Medrano’s works intensify these points. Horror musicals implement a switch, a moment where what we expect to happen doesn’t. This can be as simple as a tonal shift, where what we thought was a bright and happy place turns out to be a sinister kind. Or it can be when a character begins singing while dismembering a person. These switching moments are entertaining because they challenge the viewer and ask them to reconsider what gave them these expectations. We have a certain understanding of the horror genre and of the musical theatre genre, so mixing the two has interesting results. They can horrify and confuse us, or they can make us laugh. It all depends on how the switch occurs, and if you are already conscious of the genre conventions.

Let’s say you hate horror films, and you assume that what you are about to watch is a classic musical. My grandmother experienced this once, as she and some friends attended a screening of Sweeny Todd (2007) without knowing anything about the plot. They hated it, to the extent where my grandmother forbade me from watching the film because she assumed it would be too traumatizing. It wasn’t, but that was because I was already familiar with both the horror and musical genres. The opposite can also be true. Maybe you love horror films but hate singing, especially musical theater. That is sad, sad for you, and you would probably hate most horror musicals because they aren’t just a horror film.

Hazbin and Helluva include multiple musical numbers which sound bright and even optimistic. The songs are still about dark subjects, they are just not told in a dark way. That said, they are usually interrupted by something even more violent or dark, like an explosion or something demonic. For instance, the murder jingle in Helluva ends with the death of a child, and Charlie’s number at the television studio in Hazbin ends just after she shows her demonic smile and horns. In both cases, the shows remind us that although we are hearing a catchy tune, we can’t escape from the darker subject matter of the shows. These numbers are intentionally jarring, just like so many other horror musicals.

The horror musical genre is perfectly suited for Medrano’s projects because she is already dealing with two genres: horror and comedy. Hazbin and Helluva switch between horror and comedy, and so adding a further switch, to musical, is highly effective. It also explains why so many of the musical moments in the shows have a sense of humour, as the show is shifting between multiple genres.  There are exceptions, like the newest song “Addict”, performed by Angel Dust of Hazbin fame. The song is catchy, but also deals with trauma and abuse in a very direct way. It takes these issues very seriously, and treats them with respect, yet it is not so separate from the other more entertaining songs in the Hazbin world. It still deals with a switch, this time between the catchiness of the song and the abuse to which it refers.

“Now…Stay Tuned”

I mention Hazbin and Helluva because I am excited to see contemporary horror musicals, especially ones which have cultivated an immense fandom while operating outside of a traditional network industry. And I am excited that they are still producing work, and that more independent artists are finding a place to create! These are just pilot episodes, there is more to come both from Medrano and other creators. It gives me hope that more producers will create incredible content and continue to revolutionize the relationship between fan and artist.

If you are interested in learning more about horror musicals, check out some of my recent posts on projects like Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and “Once More, With Feeling” (2001).