Functions of Commercial Music in Horror Media

Anna Wilmoth and Marc Santa, Texas Tech University

One pervasive trope in horror movies is the use of commercially licensed music in the movie as well as in the marketing of the trailers and teasers. This trope serves many functions, juxtaposing innocence with the evil as well as supporting the sense of unease, often serving the narrative of the film lyrically, melodically, and harmonically. This use of licensed music in horror has exploded in the last several decades and can be found in a significant amount of horror films and television shows.

Our paper will address the various functions of commercial music in horror from the 1980s through the 2020s, as they are used in the films themselves as well as in the marketing of trailers and teasers. These trends will be analyzed by mapping certain aspects of the licensed music such as the genres utilized, common chord sequences, timbres relative to the film score, diegetic and non-diegetic uses, as well as how culturally relevant the commercial music is compared to the time of the movie's release, in which a more dated song can evoke a corrupted sense of nostalgia.

One example of a corrupted sense of nostalgia appears in Zach Cregger's Barbarian (2022). The final scene of the film is accompanied by The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (1963). This is a prime example of the corruption of innocence found in this film and throughout the horror genre. "Be My Baby", lyrically is an optimistic love song, twisted into a more literal context as the protagonist has defeated the misunderstood "monster"; a decrepit elderly woman who is given adults by her captor, to literally "be her baby". If the victim refuses her care, such as breast feeding, bottle feeding, and hugs and cuddles, she reacts violently, and often murderously, like when she smashes Bill Skarsgård's head into a wall.