It’s quite common for the same song to pop up more than once in the horror genre. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ appears in at least a couple of slasher scenes, ‘Red Right Hand’ appears in three of the Scream (1996) movies, and ‘Bad Moon Rising’ is used in more than a few werewolf movies.
But there’s one iconic rock song that has appeared in a number of equally iconic horror movies, and that is Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’. It seems like an obvious choice considering the song sings about the literal representation of Death and horror movies typically feature a lot of people dying.
And yet the song is (mostly) used in a beautifully subtle fashion to enhance the scenes it features in and leave us with a lingering dread that’s brought on by the lyrics but juxtaposed by the head-bopping ‘70s guitar.
So let’s take a journey from the ‘70s right through to the 2000s, and explore the journey the Reaper has made through the decades.
The first major use of ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ comes from John Carpenter’s (The Fog, 1980) Halloween, which makes total sense with the song being released just two years earlier. It is an absolute ‘70s bop, and so it sets the scene nicely when we hear it blasting from Annie’s car. Laurie and Annie are driving to their respective babysitting jobs on a crisp Halloween afternoon. They discuss their plans for the night and smoke a joint as they drive.
Laurie is telling Annie about an earlier incident that spooked her when she caught Michael Myers staring at her from her neighbour’s garden. As the girls chat and the lyrics of the song kick in, the camera cuts to Michael’s car swinging around the corner to drive behind Annie’s car. Michael’s car continues to hover in the rearview mirror until the girls spot Annie’s dad, who just happens to be the town sheriff, and Michael decides to pull over.
While the song is completely on-brand for a ‘70s horror movie, the song is obviously meant to signify Michael’s arrival in town and incessant stalking of Laurie. Halloween manages what a lot of other horror movies fail to do – it makes the daylight scary. Michael spends the first half of the movie creeping on Laurie from a distance in broad daylight. Even when she spots him watching her, everyone thinks it’s nothing to worry about, because when do creepy things ever happen in the daylight?
And yet, the car following the girls teamed with the foreboding lyrics tells us that something is definitely off in the town of Haddonfield, even if Annie is urging Laurie to ignore it.
Even if Michael has succeeded in spooking Laurie, she can’t possibly fathom what he has in store for her and her friends. The Grim Reaper is literally breathing down her neck, if only she’d look in the rearview mirror and spot him.
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The Stand (1994)
Stephen King is a huge fan of using song lyrics in his novels. Introductions and chapter title pages are littered with song references throughout King’s career. In his 1978 novel The Stand, a tale of most of the world’s population getting wiped out by a lethal strain of the flu, King chose to quote ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’. So when the TV miniseries came out in 1994, it’s no surprise that the opening scenes feature the Blue Öyster Cult hit.
The miniseries opens with a breach occurring at a government facility which just so happens to be working on a lethal strain of the flu to use as a biological weapon. As the staff in the facility die, security guard Charles Campion decides to alert his family so they can flee, rather than do his job of closing the gate and securing the facility. Campion’s car just scrapes the gate as the automatic close function triggers. However, the brush with the car causes the gate to malfunction, leaving the facility unsecured.
With Campion apparently free and clear, the camera pans over the monitors in his security station as ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ kicks in. It turns out everyone inside is already dead. Some were clawing at the doors trying to escape, while others were in the middle of lunch.
At this stage, we don’t really know what’s happened in the facility, but it’s clear it’s very bad. Bad enough for Campion to desert his post. Campion may have made his escape at this point, but he and his family are already infected. As the song ends, we cut back to the Campion family car, speeding off into the sunset. Campion may be a little more patient zero than the Grim Reaper here, but either way, he causes the death of thousands of people with his selfishness.
It should come as no big surprise that the Scream soundtrack shares a song with the Halloween soundtrack, considering how many references there are to Halloween in Wes Craven’s (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984) meta slasher.
Billy’s surname is Loomis, Casey’s father tells her mother to get help at the Mackenzie’s house (the same house Laurie tells Tommy and Lindsey to go to), and the teens are even watching Halloween at Stu’s party.
However, Scream features a slowed-down cover of the song by Gus, and it plays as Billy sneaks into Sidney’s room for a little late-night action. The truth is, if you didn’t know the song well, you probably wouldn’t recognise its use here. The slow version sounds like the perfect soundtrack to a love scene as the pair kiss on Sidney’s bed.
The song is mostly instrumental but we do hear snippets of the lyrics such as “Baby, I’m your man” and “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity”. It’s all very romantic until it clicks what song is actually being used in this scene. It’s an early hint that Billy isn’t all that he seems and a beautiful little touch on repeat viewings.
The Frighteners (1996)
I have to say, I’d be disappointed if The Frighteners didn’t feature ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’, considering the bad guy is a killer ghost who literally dresses up as the Grim Reaper. Perhaps feeling it was a little too on the nose to be used earlier in the movie, and maybe not appropriate during any deaths scenes, the movie saves the song for the closing moments.
We have another cover this time, but it’s slightly more indie-sounding version by The Mutton Birds. The movie ends on a happy note, as Frank starts a relationship with Lucy, and finally demolishes the half-build house he’s been hanging onto since his wife died. As the pair celebrate with a champagne picnic, Lucy reveals that she too can see ghosts now. She then drapes the picnic blanket over her head and chases Frank around as the song kicks in.
It’s perhaps in slightly bad taste, considering both their spouses were killed by the Grim Reaper ghost, but it’s a lighthearted moment all the same. It also signifies Frank’s willingness to finally let go of what happened to his wife, now that he’s defeated the ghost responsible once and for all.
While Rob Zombie’s (The Devil’s Rejects, 2003) Halloween is a very different beast to the original, he does sprinkle more than a few references to the 1978 movie throughout the runtime. And one of these was the inclusion of ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,’ even if it was used in more violent scenes this time around.
Rather than go with subtlety when using the song, Zombie decides to use it in not one, but two death sequences to really ram the point home. The Halloween remake uses the original version of the song, even though it isn’t set in the ‘70s. However, it still gives us that lovely link to the original movie.
The first use is when Michael kills his older sister Judith. Judith is lying in bed listening to the Blue Öyster Cult song on her headphones as Michael creeps in behind her. The second use is when Lynda is waiting for Bob to bring her a beer. She changes the radio station and settles on ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper. We hear slivers of the song as Bob is murdered, but it’s played in full force when Michael comes for Lynda.
Both women are post-coital and relaxing on their beds/floor mattresses when Michael ambushes them. Judith is greeted by her little brother (even if he is totally creepy and more than a little inappropriate) and Lynda believes she’s talking to Bob under that sheet. Both women think they have nothing to fear. Little do they know that something evil has snuck into their bedrooms, and they’re both a lot closer to death than they think.
Our final use of ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ comes from the horror-comedy Zombieland in the iconic sequence when the gang discover Bill Murray hiding out in his Hollywood mansion. While Columbus and Little Rock watch Ghostbusters (1984) in another room, Tallahassee and Wichita come across Mr. Murray himself.
After introducing himself to Tallahassee and Wichita, he invites the pair to smoke weed with him. The song is only used for a brief moment before it cuts to the stoned trio acting out a scene from Ghostbusters, but it’s enough.
The gang have literally been running for their lives from zombies for God knows how long, and this moment in Murray’s house is the first bit of relaxation and fun they’ve had. In other movies ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ is used to signify an unknown threat lurking in the wings, but in Zombieland, our heroes are already well aware of the threat they’re under.
This time, it seems that the song is used as literal advice. Chill out. Have some fun. Literally don’t fear the Reaper, even if it’s just for a little while.
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