The Music of Fear

spookyMusic is a funny thing and, usually, not something you think of in terms of horror. Even at it’s darkest, I don’t know that it’s ever scary.

There are some kinds of music — particularly the harder, harsher speed metal or even some of the more artsy experimental composers — which set my teeth on edge and kickstart the flight-or-fight impulse in me. But I don’t know that I’d classify that response as fear. The stories about Stravinsky and the premiere of his The Rite of Spring, that’s a pretty incredible tale of the visceral power of music. The best exploration I know of on that subject is this excellent RadioLab episode.

But, from time to time, music has actually frightened me — and not because it was cacophonous or atonal/experimental. There was something genuinely frightening about the circumstances surrounding it and it’s stayed with me ever since. Here’s the top three…

When my brother was in high school, he’d listen to music late at night in his room. He had a battery-powered cassette player and the music would keep pace with the amount of charge left in the batteries. The longer they’d gone, the slower the music would become — producing some genuinely creepy effects. I can remember the batteries going dead one night while he was listening to “Radio Clash” and the music just started grinding down, slower and slower> I was asleep in my room and I could hear, faintly, “Thiis . . . isss . . . the Raaaadiooo . . . Classsshhhh…” drifting across the hallways, just barely audible.

And then he rewound the tape and listened to it again. Joe Strummer’s laugh at the beginning was chilling and I drifted off into half-waking dreams of a demon band, moping their way through the slow-motion tune. Creepy.

And then there was the night, years later, when I was up late writing. I’d recently discovered the music of Glenn Gould and it was just about the only thing I would listen to. As I said, it was late and I was alone in the apartment, working on a particularly difficult segment for a play that I’d been commissioned to write. It was quiet and I had Glenn Gould on, very low and repeating the album over and over again.

A few hours into writing, I realized that I could hear a voice, low and measured, just on the edge of consciousness. I got up and checked around the apartment — nothing. A while later, the voice edged its way back into my consciousness again. Once again, I got up and checked around, looked outside — nothing.

I stood there, listening.

There. The voice rose and fell again, very low.

I switched off the music to hear better. Nothing.

Turning the music back on, the voice began again and I realized that the voice was on the music, on the recording. I did not know it at the time, but Gould had a tendency to sing or hum along with himself as he played. And, because he had passed away years before, I was more or less listening to the voice of a ghost.

But the creepiest music I have ever heard is the times, late at night, when I would be shocked out of a deep sleep by the sound of the cat walking across the open piano. That strange, discordant jumble of notes was so startling, so strange in an otherwise quiet house.

Worst of all was the time when, hearing the piano, I sat up to go down and close the lid on the keys . . . only to find that the cat was sleeping at the foot of the bed. It was a difficult task to work up the nerve to go downstairs anyway and check on the otherwise quiet house. I found nothing, of course — leaving me with no other explanation for what (or who) might have been playing in the night.

I will say, however, that the theme from the Haunted Mansion — aka Grim Grinning Ghosts — is a genuinely spooky little tune. And I love it. But this is coming from a guy who has Tubular Bells as his ringtone. So.