“The Hills Are Alive [!]”: Singing, Mayhem, and Horror Musicals

I think horror films don’t include enough singing. I’m a sucker for a horror musical, and I truly believe that the two genres are almost identical in the way they ask audiences to suspend belief. As enchanting as a musical can be, they are completely unrealistic in nearly every way. If you stop to think about it, there are terrible consequences about a musical universe, and they have so many troubling implications. Does everyone in this world sing or is it just the people we see? What do the people in this universe think about all the singing? Are the characters aware that they are singing, or is that just so the audience knows what they are thinking about? Is this some sort of hive mind situation?

I’ve always felt that musical numbers in movies constitute a form of possession, especially group numbers where everyone inadvertently knows the choreography and then goes about their business once the song ends. The whole thing is a bit frightening, which is why horror goes so well with musical conventions.

Horror musicals typically focus on exaggerated subject matter, both musically and literally. They usually play with the expectations around traditional horror film and musical film, while suggesting that the union of these genres constitutes a form of monstrosity. In other words, musical horror films imply that their very format and conventions are a perversion of typical genre. This goes along with the film’s frightening subject matter, and so both the form and content in these movies are horrifying.

Horror films already have a foundational relationship with score, so its unsurprising that extending the soundtrack into the characters works so well. Scores act like a secondary character in horror, as they contribute to the film’s suspenseful tone while also informing the audience about the environment and character’s emotional state. Horror musicals simply reorganize this dynamic by having the characters sing about their thoughts. Sometimes this is extremely corny, other times it is absolutely terrifying. It depends on how the songs perfectly match or contrast the dark subject matter, as both can be terrifying. Having a character sing heavy metal while torturing someone is frightening, but so is a person dancing and singing a cheery Broadway tune while torturing. It all relies on context, or how the filmmakers position the relationship between song and subject.

I am spending the next two weeks unpacking some of my favourite horror and/or alternative musicals. Not all of these are extremely gory or frightening, but each revisits the expectations around horror and musical, and are self-aware of that relationship. Many of these films were either critically reviled or financial failures but have since cultivated devoted fanbases. As with anything I discuss on this blog, I would highly recommend any and all of these films, especially to those who love horror and have not explored the musical genre. You might need a strong stomach for their singsong murder routines, but they are worth a watch.

For those interested in this topic, I additionally recommend the StarKid production “The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals”. It is the most self-aware horror musical I have come across, but I am limiting my discussion to film and TV in the coming weeks. That said, the entire staged production is on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrxKX44qBJ0).