Rock music has carried associations of the demonic and the theatrical ever since the genre was spawned from the Blues and its heartbroken cross roads devil — Robert Johnson (King of the Delta Blues Singers) was the legendary bluesman who sang of his dealings with the Devil. Associations such as these were eventually capitalized on and marketed to a very lucrative end. Rock and roll acts that embraced the darker side of their art, and borrowed dark imagery from horror films and literature can be traced back at least as far as the fifties. The images of Ozzy biting the heads off of various winged creatures and Alice Cooper dancing with a top hat and cane while wearing Zombie make up are seared into the cultural consciousness. But all that these performers share with the genre is a theatrical exploration of taboo subject matter. And since the things that people hold to be taboo, as well as things they secretly desire, usually transmute into their fears, it is no surprise that a myriad of horror movies has featured rock and roll as a major theme. Additionally, many rock musicians have gone on to have careers in the horror film business. Rock and roll and horror films have been dominating the stage in tandem for many decades.
One of the most prominent figures in both the rock world as well as the horror genre is Alice Cooper. His music is now classic, with songs like “School’s Out” appearing in almost every coming of age comedy about high school kids who smoke too much pot and just want to find love. But when he was center stage as a rocker, he put on many unforgettable performances. His music videos, particularly for songs like “Poison” are a highly stylized, carefully tousled expression of sexual and violent taboo, but without the grittiness that makes it real. His origins as a musician prior to the release of the Poison album may have been more provocative, but post-Poison performances have proven to be thick with melodrama. The song could have been a rock ballad about the tragedy and horror of trying to remain human in a world of intravenous drugs, unprotected sex, and HIV. But instead it’s more like Edgar Allen Poe putting on eyeliner and learning a few power chords.
His melodramatic expression of the gothic is seen again in a movie called Monster Dog wherein he stars as the protagonist. His character Vince Raven (an obvious amalgam of Vincent Price and Poe’s “The Raven”) — a rock star who returns home to shoot a music video with his entourage. His childhood house is a quintessentially gothic house: marble pillars, black leather furniture and, a candelabra, a fireplace that is burning all the time, and a creepy portrait of his family. We find out that his father was killed years before for suspicion of being a werewolf, and when Vince returns, the old curse returns. The film offers little to redeem itself; everyone, especially Cooper, is a poor actor, and the story is about as developed as a two week old fetus. But the movie could be interpreted as being about the making of a gothic rock music video. There are numerous scenes of Cooper putting on his make up, his videographer finding the places in his mansion with the best light (a paradoxical quest to be sure), and, of course, the premise is about making a horror production. The premise is about Vince Raven’s life becoming a horror music video, with all the melodrama and bad acting that such a premise entails.
The theatrical elements of his music are a marketing tactic as well as is his image as a performer. This is not to say that all musical or cinematic expressions of the horrific or the gothic are purely commercially motivated. But in the same way that any genre can be used to fill the places where true expression and art should exist, musicians like Alice Cooper use the horror genre for their built-in collection of fiercely loyal fans. That being said, the product that he does create should not be written off by horror enthusiasts. The music compliments the rhythm of a horror story well through tension and violent release and has been the soundtrack for many cult classics, such as John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Tom McLoughlin’s Friday the 13th Part VI.
Something about rock music evokes the atmosphere of a killer — specifically the obscured psychological force behind the mask of the killer. The killers of the eighties horror movies are silent, mask-wearing monstrosities that slice and dice to the whammy bar punctuated riffs of Cooper’s “Teenage Frankenstein”. The rock music fills the void inside the killers — where a soul might have once resided — and supercharges the spectacle of their mayhem. This pairing of rock music and psycho killer is front and center in Rob Zombie’s remake of the classic movie Halloween. Zombie’s previous film, House of 1000 Corpses showed that the rock star turned horror director was a true fan of the seventies/eighties slasher movies. But his remake of Halloween does more that over-dose it with bare breasted teens and bloody death.
Unlike Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Zombie’s music runs on a higher octane and in a time when subtext is no longer a necessity in the rock world. With blatantly sexual song titles like “Pussy Liquor,” Zombie uses a heavy industrial musical palate reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails in its early years. Any moments of silence in these songs are filled with not only our tension, but also all of our violent and dominating impulses. Indeed, something within this style of music seems to stimulate us on a primal level.
Psychologically, perhaps this is where the marriage (and desire for horror movies, in general) has its roots. Most people, especially teenagers, feel at odds to some degree with their surroundings and with the people in those surroundings. Freud, borrowing his vocabulary from the Ancient Greeks, calls this tension Thanatos, or the death impulse. The only way to relieve the tension of being alive is through death and violence. This impulse is usually countered by Eros, or the love impulse, as seen in Virgil’s Aeneid. This convenient human dichotomy works well when creating a horror monster that was once human, or at least appeared so. You take away the Eros through psychology, deals with the devil, or other supernatural mechanisms, and you are left with pure killing with spooky vestiges of human characteristics. Rock music, when in the context of slasher horror movies, is an expression of pure Thanatos.