Hearing the Gothic Past

The depiction of the past as “scary” or “monstrous” is frequent, in horror. Monsters often become familiar, and lose their ability to make the viewer uncomfortable. This includes monsters from a particular time period. After the 1980s have come and gone, they are revived in media like Super 8 (2011), Beyond the Gates (2016), Summer of 84 (2018) and Stranger Things (2016). Their respective nostalgia looks back on the past, to communicate a sense of the monstrous contained within. However, the order of containment can also be rotated; a book can contain a house, or a song can tell of a book that contains a house, with all of these things inside; etc. And from a creative standpoint, none of this is really separate. 

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Music is a useful tool, in this regard. It sounds from a particular time period; its usage can belie the violent images onscreen, contradicting them through staple, Gothic paradox. Horror is heard for the sake of pleasure, or vice versa. In spatial-symbolic terms, the arrangement is like a haunted house: Something is hidden inside the audio-visual arrangement, the music denoting a cryptic, sinister element. Odd pairings like “Mister Sandman” (1954) in Halloween 2 (1981) or “Raindrop Prelude” (1858) in Prometheus (2012) lead the listener to discover what is wrong and restore order (or conveys that the climactic victory is, in fact, illusory). 

The Gothic makes this goal untenable in favor of confusion. In doing so, it hides another agenda in plain sight—not simply an attraction to the abject, but the viewer’s delight as paradoxical. The 1978 Dawn of the Dead soundtrack features original music by Goblin. Funk-infused and off-beat, this music is strange enough. However, incidental music includes Herbert Chappell’s “The Gonk” (1978) and Disney’s(?) “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (1946). Any musical arrangement will stress a vague connection between the audience and the past in front of them; sometimes that connection is felt by what is left out, or what is incorrect. There are various ways this can occur.

Imagery plays an important role with musicians, too. Dance with the Dead supplies their listeners with a single image that goes on to inform the listening experience: A common visual theme is the ancient movie poster, often featuring women and monsters in a stylized montage. This combination of menace and desire plays on the imagination of the viewer, whose personal diet of media informs the past they feel drawn towards. 

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However, as Dance with the Dead “rocks out,” it takes on a life of its own; it deviates from the established musical past (and its mythological components) to promise a fresh experience. Pertubator and Carpenter Brut take a similar approach, their own music preceded by images— older artwork featuring women, monsters and myth. Many visual specimens are borrowed from Luis Royo and other famous artists. This borrowed imagery has been repurposed to achieve something new while being connected with sounds; the signature speed and heaviness of the music is likewise tied to a particular time period. Whether old and dead, or reborn in the present, there’s a presence of age felt throughout—often infused with trauma, but also jouissance. 

The Gothic past is rooted in confusion—a sense of desire that persists in the face of danger, or vice versa. Less concerned with total death, the artist seeks undeath through a liminal vitality. The imagery and the music are viewed as archaic, but also modern. The ritual hinges on skirting the binary while preserving the polarizing elements—the damsels and the monsters—but also their liminal counterparts: the cybernetic, lycanthropic, and undead.

Dance with the Dead, Perturbator and Carpenter Brut revive this vitality by connecting the listener to a monstrous past. Think of it as a gateway accessed by emotions. Whether the onus is on music to deliver the goods, or if its role is supplemental in other media forms, the audience cannot easily imagine horror media without music to augment its effect on them. This includes books, movies, and videogames. In any of them, music is central—not simply in leading a character to their doom, but by providing the piece with a particular atmosphere. 

This aura is the audience’s emotional connection to the past. However, this connection needn’t derive from music written especially for the occasion. Howard Hansen didn’t write the “Romantic Symphony No.2” for Alien (1979); Ridley Scott still favored it over Goldsmith’s intended score. As a result, Hansen’s music has become associated with images that connect the audience with a particular form of the past: Scott and company’s “retro future.” 


Something like Kenji Kawai’s “Nightstalker” from Ghost in the Shell (1995) is a good example, too. The minor key feels apposite with the down-trodden, rain-soaked nightscape (which the YouTube video features in a single image taken from the movie). Subsequent pathos occurs through a grim emotional appeal tied to the past as envisioned by Mamoru Oshii. Oshii’s world is dark, threatening and nebulous; the music adopts these qualities when listened to in isolation from the parent work. Viewers unfamiliar with the movie may be lured to eventually watch it, hence experience the imagery and music playing in concert.

The same is true of “tech-noir” in The Terminator (1984) or “retro horror” like Stranger Things or Summer of 84. They point the viewer backwards by buffering the audience with audio-visuals that echo an older past. A principle connecting agent is music, which abides by concepts well-at-home in horror stories: Ann Radcliffe’s heroines are hypnotized by otherworldly music; Walter Gilman hears the faint pipings of Azathoth, in “Dreams in the Witch House” (1933); gamers waltz through Dracula’s “ancient” castle, its halls set to anachronistic music.


Music serves to promote and guide the listener to older things—things crafted to either sound “old,” or have since gained a reputation for it. Bach’s infamous “Toccata in d minor” (c. 1708) is a Baroque composition; its usage in the coming centuries defines how current society views it. After being used in silent films, the toccata’s actual purpose was replaced by a new one: connecting the listener to a monstrous past less ancient than the song’s innocuous origins. The toccata, for this purpose, was arguably favored over material written specifically for the same ends— infamous tone poems like “A Night on Bald Mountain” (1867) and “Danse Macabre” (1874). 

This replacement can also be inverted. Music written to horrify the listener without images can later be supplied images to augment the music’s original aim. Consider “Night of the Electric Insects” (1971) or “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” (1961): Both are threnodies that express extra-cinematic horrors; both have since been used in cinema to chill and shock the audience, and provide listeners with a new imaginary past, courtesy of the silver screen. Images of the Enola Gay birthing a mushroom cloud are replaced by Danny’s taut, horrified face, from The Shining (1980). Both are tied to the same musical track.

The same concept applies to the historical past. If a particular time and place was infamous for its own production of monsters, music synonymous with it can evoke these monsters (and their haunts). Horror media is often nostalgic, but needs to manufacture the monstrous past before sending it forward. The monsters of the 1980s were, themselves, simulacra—identical copies from older, fictitious media. Each copy has a timestamp, the legend begot as much by present concerns (serial killers, in the 1980s) when the symbol was used. 


This zeitgeist can be evoked by affiliate music. For example, Dance with the Dead, Perturbator and Carpenter Brut evoke these time periods through a combination—of disco, electronica and heavy metal married to horror scores, commercials or TV themes. They promotes monsters, which originally promoted older horror stories. Out on the dance floor, the chief aim is invigoration. Everything still echoes. This vague, tenuous connection is a prime source of pleasure and energy in Gothic media, and seems to arrive “from elsewhere.” 

Summer of 84 is a good example of this, movie-wise. In it, Le Mato’s score initially promotes a sense of comfort and fun, its nostalgia as familiar to a current audience as the monsters are to the protagonists (whose walls are plastered with monster posters). Matos’ music remains a way to warn the audience, though: A killer is near, and one much more dangerous than Dracula. By the end of the movie, the killer is not only revealed; he defeats the hero and escapes to safety. His triumph subverts our expectations. The credits roll to the ominous “gloomth” of a digital keyboard. Its nostalgia is blood-soaked, but calls out seductively to the viewer all the same.


This subversion still involves music as a convention of connecting with the past, specifically the past as heard. The past can be a collection of symbols and images, or the sounds attached to them. Through context or musical composition, our memories of the nostalgic past are freshly juxtaposed against genuine tragedy set to the same music. This music reinforces the paradox that listeners might enjoy what they hear precisely because it misleads them into “dangerous” territories. They oscillate, and this is where the energy comes from, be it in the dance hall, the theater, or the arcade.


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