Imagine a darkened bedroom. Black candles flickering, burning low the oil of angst and the first hard throbs of libido. A record player is the conduit of this black acetate cosmos, playing Black Sabbath. A hand stops the record from turning, the distorted harmonies slowing with an unearthly moan. Then, they begin moving backwards, faster and faster. New sounds, capering barks and cheers, fill the shadows of the bedroom and settle in the corners, waiting. Listen hard. What do you hear? Is it gibberish? Or is there something evil hiding in the sonic disruption — a voice with a secret message?
The most classic association between rock music and horror is the idea of demonic influence. This was a very popular notion in the eighties and resulted in a score of films cashing in on the hysteria. One of these films was the 1986 film Trick or Treat by Charles Martin Smith. This film, starring Marc Price, also featured Gene Simmons as a Radio DJ and Ozzy Osbourne as a reverend who is very outspoken against the suggestive content of rock music. Price’s character, Eddie Weinbauer, is a high school outcast and hard core rocker whose best friend is a trigonometry nerd. Weinbauer’s idol, rock star Sammi Curr, is an alumnus from Eddie’s high school which gives him hope that there may be a future beyond being bullied by jocks. When Sammi Curr mysteriously dies in a hotel fire, his old friend and now Radio DJ gives Eddie his latest, unreleased, record, which happens to contain the deceased rocker’s spirit. And that spirit is pissed off!
Trick or Treat is an overlooked gem of eighties cinema. The story is straightforward but well told, and the acting, especially that of Gene Simmons, is surprisingly good. The film showed awareness of the issues surrounding rock music and censorship, and it made references to the 1985 senate hearing wherein the Parents’ Music Resource Center wanted to implement a parental warning label and in effect legally declare a lot of rock music to be dangerous trash. The plan was headed by Al Gore and his wife, Tipper (Mr. Gore later decided that he could get more attention by being a fear-mongering poster boy for the environment). The parental labeling was fought by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and other musicians such as John Denver and Frank Zappa. In the movie, we see a clip of Sammi Curr threatening senate members before his mysterious death.
This reference touches on the idea of marketing in the industry of horror and more specifically rock. When Eddie begins to believe that there are real hidden messages from Sammi Curr in his record, his friend Roger tells him, “You have fallen for the biggest gimmick in the record industry. Some Ad exec somewhere thought up the idea of hidden lyrics so that pinheads like Edwardo Weinbauer would fuck up their records playing them backwards. And then they’d have to go buy more. Dude, wake up.” This same argument can be made of Alice Cooper’s theatrics on stage, of KISS’s costumes, and of the marriage between horror and rock in general. The marriage of the dark arts in music and in film is a natural evolution; they are each niche markets, and since many of the fans of each one are also fans of the other, combining the two is a smart marketing move. But something is always lost in a marriage of convenience. Perhaps the better perspective is that the happy accident (of a marriage like this) produced a wonderful mythology of rock’s demonic power and inspired many wonderful tales of horror — despite the fact that it resulted in movies like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and songs like Cooper’s “Poison.”
Rock and roll will always have a place in horror movies, whether to make them more marketable to angsty and outcast teens, to accentuate a slasher’s chopping motions, or to reflect a fight against those pesky parental boards. Speaking of which, the next time your parents take out the old record player and spin Twisted Sister, place your fingers on the vinyl album, turn the disc counterclockwise, and pay close attention. You might be surprised at what you hear.