The morbid metaphysics of the mind occasionally decide to take a little detour. This weird brain wiring, buried somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious, can be triggered by watching a dog chasing its own tail. It could be an image you come across online on Tumblr of Audrey Hepburn’s birdcage costume for the Rothschilds’ Surrealist Masquerade party or even an accidental spilling of ketchup on the kitchen floor. Thus, it enters the metaphysics of the mind. When you absorb these events as they’re unfolding, your aural senses collaborate with your subconscious and recall or relate them to something that you have heard before.
This is usually caused by a previous musical injection. Our senses are accustomed to triggering memories, and in this particular case, music can remind the horror fanatic (or even the casual admirer) of the “lashings of the old ultraviolence.” Films, and particularly certain sequences or scenes, can be identified based on particular injections, the temporal structure of a certain tempo and rhythm that adds hot sauce to the pastiche of mockery, which makes the mise-en-scene so fucking good. The aural anti-realism of the violent, graphic, blood-splattering phenomena is more than just another form or structure of a horror film. This is a form of cultural expression. How? It combines the visual and the aural and plays a role in the cognitive psychology of the collective breed. Humanity was founded on violence. When was the last time one or another country was not at war?
Audrey Hepburn’s ‘Surrealist’ Costume- Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball 1972
The morphological preconditions it summons, a group of dysfunctional disgruntled elements, leads the audience to a detailed exploration of music and violence in its own dance of death. In the space belonging to the psyche of a lunatic or the traits and tropes of abject vileness, where there is no place for language, music adds to the aesthetic and stylistic concept concealed in the belly of the lens, leaving the viewers cringing, terrified, disgusted, and shocked. However, for some strange reason, its mannerist representation and theatrics take the instability of the viewers’ racing heart and nausea and purify the scene with the holy water of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. To mirror the audience’s emotions to what is on the screen is supposed to be positive, but some disrespect is, in fact, respected in this case. Sometimes the disgruntled elements of a particular tune might even distort the mise-en-scene’s act of violence and add a little aural trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye). Maybe what we are seeing is as brutal as we are imagining.
“The totality of a culture produces an individual unconscious, a collective unconscious, and […] ‘an unconscious of the work.’”—Calabrese
Rob Zombie’s 2005 film The Devil’s Rejects showcases Zombie’s auteurship of both horror and music. He chose the elements of this movie’s chilling soundtrack (and to those of all his other movies). The film follows a psychopathic family on the run from the law, who kill people (or let them live) at a whim. In a sequence that starts off with the family taking a band of musicians hostage in a motel room, we witness the resulting ruptures of Zombie’s clever music selection. This sequence, which combines rape, death, and pure repulsive mockery, cross-cuts between blues music and the theme of the entire film—the family’s relationship with the devil.
Otis (played by Bill Moseley) takes two of the hostages with him to find the family’s buried weapons. The hostages fight back, but to no avail; one has his face cut off, and the other is bludgeoned to death. While this is happening, one of the hostages recites Bible verses, to which Otis replies, “I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work.” The track playing throughout this scene is Otis Rush’s 1969 blues number “I Can’t Quit You, Baby.” The film then cuts back to the motel where the TV was playing the song. It’s a perfect transition, highlighting that blues music was once referred to as the “devil’s music.” Blues were often connected to sexual innuendo, heavy drinking, and violence in lyricism, and the falsehood of religion and Christian values, Blues have long highlighted the clash between sinners and saints. Hell, even the glass harmonica was supposedly a sort of trance-like instrument that hypnotized men and drove them to insanity, while turning women on to the point of overstimulated lust.
“I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work.”
Although the movie itself has its absurd moments, one can certainly agree that the family was a product of the devil. How the hell did they survive that shootout at the end of the movie if they did not sell their souls to the devil? But Zombie did give the audience a ‘go-out-with-a-bang ending, especially by throwing in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s brilliant 1973 tune “Free Bird.”
The Pixies’ 1987 track “Where Is My Mind?” plays during the last scene of the 1999 film Fight Club (dir. David Fincher), a perfect example of the aural trompe l’oeil technique. The use of the song fits perfectly with what is unfolding in the final scene—out-and-out utter destruction—with the song becoming the main objective of the “aural” optical illusion of depth. With the buildings around them being destroyed, The Narrator (played by Edward Norton) and Marla (played by the magnificent Helena Bonham Carter) stand there holding hands, watching everything around them unravel (I don’t really want to spoil this one). The last line of the film, in which The Narrator turns to Marla and says that “You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life” fits in perfectly with Tyler’s own state-of-mind, schizophrenia, see-you-later Tyler (sorry guys, again, the first rule about Fight Club is that we do not talk about Fight Club) apogee. The track selected for these two films might even exist in their own mental and perceptual insecurity when they are produced.
Before we discuss the main films, we should briefly look at what the meaning behind “Where Is My Mind?” was about? It was actually inspired by a snorkeling trip, when the lead singer, Frank Black, was chased by a small fish. That is where the fashioned abstract comes in, or to put it in Black’s own words, “manic thinking,” which is the leitmotif of the following films.
A Clockwork Orange (1971), dir. Stanley Kubrick
Another example, from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), involves the song “Singing in the Rain” in a combination of aural and visual cinematic vividness that is nauseating. If you have not seen the movie, I suggest you stop reading and go watch it. A Clockwork Orange was adapted from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name. Like James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2005), it is set in the future, in a dystopian England. But the similarities end there, for this world is all about hooligans, rape, and rebellion. After Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of “Droogs” get their junkie’s fix down at the Korova Milkbar, the film takes us on a baroque tour of dancing, fighting, fucking, and music. Alex and his Droogs run around town engaging in what Alex calls “a bit of ultra-violence” in the diegetic space of typical Kubrick scenery and décor. Kubrick’s most important achievement is making a film that balances its grotesqueness with the most important cinematic element of the entire film, classical music. Alex’s personality and madness are found in the musical notes of Beethoven, a.k.a. “Ludwig van.” After committing murder, rape, and other violence, Alex returns to his bedroom to enjoy an aural encore of the night’s Ultraviolence by listening to Beethoven’s symphonies, even while engaging in a threesome. The trajectory of Alex’s love for “Ludwig van” eventually collapses after Alex and his Droogs pay a late-night visit to a random house for a bit of fun. This leads to one of the most disturbing scenes of the entire film, as well as one of the most twisted juxtapositions in cinema between a song and a film scene.
The happiest songs are usually played in the background of the most horrific, violent, brutal scenes in order to add to the audience’s discomfort and shock. Alex and his Droogs break into a random house, where they brutally beat up a wheelchair-bound author and rape his wife. If this is not unsettling enough, Alex does this while singing and dancing to the tune of “Singing in the Rain.” However, it must be noted that “Singing in the Rain” was not planned to be in the scene. Kubrick told McDowell to sing a song, and the first one that came to McDowell’s mind (and the only song he knew all the lyrics to) was Gene Kelly’s happy-sappy tune (Gene was not very pleased about it).
The context of the importance of Beethoven’s musical relevance in this film is evidently attached to the “ultraviolent” fantasies that Alex experiences, whether consciously or unconsciously. Kubrick’s conditioning allows fantasies to transpire within Alex’s psyche that contains seeds of theoretical notions suggesting that these illusions and desires may belong to someone else. During treatment, Alex’s consciousness goes through a journey. His brain absorbs externalized “media” taming, an assortment of ideas based on oneiric (dream state) visuals he must watch over and over again, as his eyes are clamped open and he is pumped full of a variety of experimental drugs. This ultraviolenza waltz playing in Alex’s head has no core model. In this case, his fantasies might not even be real; for it to be real, Alex must exist, to begin with. Hence, when being “classically conditioned” under treatment, Alex’s instinctive retreat to hearing Beethoven’s music induces agonizing nausea in him. Beethoven, then, becomes the ultraviolenza waltz that has been damaging his thoughts this entire time. Hearing just one symphony becomes so unbearable to him that the line between fantasy and reality ceases to exist. However, Ludwig’s symphonies continue to play.
American Psycho (2000), dir. Mary Harron
I mean, come on, you like Huey Lewis and the News? Right?
It’s New York City in 1987. Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) is a wealthy Wall Street yuppie, although he is not even close to normal. Bateman lives a double life. By day, he engages in dinner conversations about ending apartheid, stopping terrorism, and promoting civil rights and women’s rights. By night, he stabs a homeless person (and stomps on his dog), blows up police cars, and chops up Jared Leto. The film leaves you with lots of questions (I highly recommend reading the novel too) (no spoilers here, sorry).
American Psycho is pure schizophrenia, which is what makes it such a great movie to watch and, of course, a great book to read. Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 satirical novel, which describes the 1980s yuppie scene of New York City through incisive social commentary, was so controversial when it was first published that it was banned and stayed that way in most countries around the world until Mary Harron’s adaptation was released in 2000. The film prompts an entirely different discussion on realism. What makes American Psycho brilliant (setting aside the misogynistic elements and tones for a moment) is its equivocal nature. Did he actually commit the crimes? Or was it all in his head? Was the ATM really craving pussy? Perhaps it was a mix of both. This schizophrenic and psychotic film is like an anti-psychiatry commercial that plays after a midnight movie on TV. A commercial showing a prostitute being chased down the stairs of the condo by a chainsaw-wielding, half-naked Christian Bale, who finally just throws the damn thing from the top of the stairs, hitting the girl. All courtesy of and sponsored by the folks of the Resident’s Association.
Most horror fans/enthusiasts, or really, anyone who has seen the movie, will always remember one particular scene: Paul Allen (played by “Jesus” Jared Leto) reaching his expiration date. Patrick Bateman’s ax-wielding, helve-handling, chop-and-mail savagery is true to the psychotic discourse accompanied by the track playing in the midst of the bloodbath, Huey Lewis and the News’s hit “Hip To Be Square.”
It’s bloody (no pun intended) hard not to listen to that track now without thinking about Paul Allen getting butchered. The track becomes utilized through the conventional, rhetorical, and stylistic language of music’s inherent rhythm exposed beyond the manic psyche of Patrick Bateman’s unconscious desires. The motion of the ax and the dismemberment of Paul Allen to the swinging tune of “Hip To Be Square” gives the audience some empirical knowledge. The viewer knows that Bateman’s character is a pill-popper, and right before the murder, as he explains the origins of Huey Lewis and the News’s discography, he goes ahead and medicates himself. However, the kind of pills he is taking is up for debate. Given his hysterical mental disorder, it could be some sort of prescribed antipsychotic. But based on his borderline, psychotic, and narcissistic yuppie appearance, I would wager that it is some sort of upper (uppers were the drugs of choice for yuppies in the 1980s Wall Street club scene). Perhaps Adderall? It would make perfect sense since, throughout the movie, the director portrays Bateman’s obsessive-compulsive personality, right up to the point of spreading newspaper on his floor and wearing a raincoat to avoid staining his $600+ Armani suit.
The external dialogue in this scene belongs to the background music, and “Hip to Be Square” fits perfectly in the mise-en-scene. Bateman’s split personality and all the reversals and transformations of his choice of music validates Bateman’s inability to function without the right song. Hence his obsession with Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis. Can music be his cure? As Bateman’s manifestation of escape from a superficial world, a world he himself believes he does not belong to, he rants about Huey Lewis in the monologue just before the murder, confirming that he enjoys the song because it explores and comprehends “the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends.” The structural unconscious of his neuroses and the superficiality of the musicians he listens to all leads us down the rabbit hole of him just wanting “to fit in.”
Patrick Bateman’s “metaphor of distortion” through the glossy, poppy music he listens to explains a lot about his inner trauma and confusion. Our anti-hero shall not be excluded from the physical and material comforts that he wishes to seek or not seek. On the outside, Bateman’s taste in music is confined to whatever “popular culture” evokes his state of mind. He is not a Beethoven- or Mozart-type psychopath like Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Under the surface of this musical embodiment is emptiness, the perfect soundtrack for the echo of Bateman. What Bateman and pop music share is the same abstract concept of society fabricated by the yuppies: the underlying emptiness and nothingness of someone who is not a materialist but a psychopath. The outward characteristics are unworldly, discernable, and one-dimensional, inasmuch as this has been contrived for the purpose of mass appeal, devoid of gradations and intricacies that are under analysis. Patrick Bateman’s musical embodiment is supposed to appear normal, as it can justify the manifestation of nothingness, combined with his violent urges that occasionally seep through the cracks and eventually rupture his entire persona.
Frank Black’s notion of “manic thinking” collaborates with the tunes of the scene in cinema, which can then function and serve as a distraction or perhaps even shape itself into a cathartic layer of the medium. The depicted act of violence coalesces with the energy provided by the song, whether from its lyrics or its beat. Thus the structuralism implied in the mise-en-scene and overall sequence is the genesis of a creative moment where the paradoxical emotional response of the audience leads us to a digression: neither good nor bad, just lost in limbo. Thus, the question to be asked is: “How do certain tracks from horror films, such as those in A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho, try to communicate or negotiate with the audience?” The audience can be turned off from a certain song because of its association with a certain vulgar or violent scene, but my love for Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” will never die, even after the way it was used in David Fincher’s 2011 remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
What these films have in common is their expression of mental disorders, and the soundtracks played throughout these films serve as a mental asylum to which the audience temporarily commits itself. However—let’s face it—I have yet to step into one of those tanning beds after watching Final Destination 3.