The tradition of the folk song is one of the longest-running and most enduring aspects of human societies. A vessel used to convey not only community stories, but emotions, values, experiences, and traditions. These songs are glimpses into the cultures and communities from which they originate in a real and personal way. While some folk songs go back hundreds of years, others are more recent. However, they all have one certain thing in common; they all tell a story.
Due to the narrative nature of the folk song, it’s a natural fit for a lot of filmmakers. Utilizing the structure and purpose of a folk song can add not only atmosphere and style to a film, but in some cases actual plot and back story. While the musical lines, instrumentation and melodies may fluctuate over time and geography, this narrative thread runs through them all. This flexibility allows folk songs to be used in a wide variety of film, including of course horror. Here are some of the best uses of folk music in the world of horror cinema.
10. NOSFERATU -“MORNING SUN”
It’s hard to choose just one Popol Vuh track to feature from Werner Herzog’s 1979 classic film Nosferatu. Florian Fricke and his bandmates were lifelong learners who continuously searched out and learned from other cultures and their music. Many of their worldly influences can be found on the Nosferatu soundtrack, including the lovely “Morning Sun.” A sunny, cheery and pleasant instrumental melody accompanied by mild percussive tambourines. While lyrics are absent, the folk style of the song exudes a rural atmosphere rich with texture.
9. MY BLOODY VALENTINE – “THE BALLAD OF HARRY WARDEN”
One of the many purposes of a typical folk song is to pass on cultural stories through song. Composer Paul Zaza utilized the medium of folk song to flush out and define the story of the infamous Harry Warden. Despite it playing over the end credits, “The Ballad of Harry Warden” becomes an integral part of the film’s storyline. Transporting the entire film to another (fictional) level, the events that surround Valentine’s Day become a part of the town’s cultural identity, and the song helps emphasize that point.
8. FRIDAY THE 13TH – “SAIL AWAY, TINY SPARROW”
While the filmmakers initially hoped to have a Dolly Parton song playing in the background, they soon found out that licensing a Dolly song does not come cheap. So instead, they turned to the film’s composer Harry Manfredini to come up with a new and original tune. That song that he came up with was “Sail Away, Tiny Sparrow.” Sung by Angela Rotella, the equally sweet and sappy tune, complete with twangy guitars, fits in perfectly among the trees at Camp Crystal Lake.
7. INSIDIOUS – “TIPTOE THROUGH THE TULIPS”
Much like the ghosts in Insidious, the song “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” has inhabited several different singers over the years. Originally written by Al Dubin and Joe Burke in 1929, it found a true home with ukulele player Tiny Tim in 1968. The song landed at #17 on the charts and would go on to become Tiny Tim’s signature song. His unique voice and interpretation of the song only adds to the creepiness of this particular Insidious scene. Because of this, it becomes a prime example of how a seemingly unrelated song can infuse a special kind of tension if utilized correctly.
6. ZODIAC – “HURDY GURDY MAN”
A song that has been used over a dozen times in film, Donovan’s 1968 song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” imbued a surprising amount of creep-factor in David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. Not a folk song you say? By this point, I’m here to argue that it has become one. Originally written while Donovan was in India studying transcendental meditation, the narrative structure and style of the song is ripe for a full and long life. Lyrics like ‘Histories of ages past/Unenlightened shadows cast/Down through all eternity/The crying of humanity’ give the song a depth and purpose. Supposedly information passed on to Donovan from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, this was his way of sharing his newfound knowledge via song. Despite its seemingly nonsense chorus words, there has obviously been something about this song that resonates with us as much now as it did then. Seemingly simple on the surface, but with a full, timeless story beneath.
5. A FIELD IN ENGLAND – “BALOO, MY BOY”
Ben Wheatley’s 2013 historical horror film was the perfect home for a song like “Baloo, My Boy.” A true folk song through and through, this song has been around since the mid 16th century. Also known as “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament, ” it’s a mother’s song for her child. This incarnation of the song is by Jim Williams and features Richard Glover. Despite it’s simple and sweet melody, the sadness and darkness of the lyrics is prominent. No matter the decade, no matter the century even, the sentiments present here will remain timeless and enduring.
4. THE SECT – “THE HEIGHTS OF ALMA”
Donovan strikes again with this catchy, narrative tune. The song is a traditional Irish dance tune that Donovan merely covered and brought to light once again. The jaunty rhythms and historical lyrics not only educate, they fit in well with this 1991 Michele Soavi film. The movie features Kelly Curtis (sister to Jamie Lee) as a young teacher who loves rabbits, finds a secret hidden well in her basement and becomes the target for a murderous Satanic cult. If you haven’t seen this film…you should probably check it out.
3. THE WICKER MAN – “WILLOW’S SONG”
Written specifically for the 1973 folk horror classic by Paul Giovanni, the song was sung in the film by Rachel Verney. An alternate version was also recorded and sung by Lesley Mackie who played Daisy in the film. Both versions are hauntingly beautiful and feature lyrics that Giovanni found to be appropriate for a pagan festival. Traditional instruments and rhythms combine with the lovely vocals to create an atmosphere that fully embodies the movie it’s representing.
2. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT – “WAIT FOR THE RAIN/ROAD LEADS TO NOWHERE”
Not only did David Hess compose and perform the soundtrack for Wes Craven’s 1972 classic The Last House on the Left, he also played the role of Krug Stillo. With his beautiful melodies and lyrics, an atmosphere of rural simplicity is established. A far cry from what is about to unfold over the course of the film, these songs are crucial to help balance out the intense emotional journey that the audience is about to embark on. The song also made a guest appearance, this time performed by Hess’ children, in Drew Goddard’s 2011 film Cabin in the Woods.
1. MANDY – “AMULET OF THE WEEPING MAZE”
Lest you think that Jeremiah Sand‘s song was merely a gimmick for the film, “Amulet of the Weeping Maze” is a full-length song that truly does exist. There’s even an official video which you can check out above. A perfect blend of drug-induced lyrics and period-correct instrumentation, “Amulet” is a new folk classic. Not only does it hit all the correct folk song notes, it also adds depth to Jeremiah‘s story in a real way. Broken by his failure and rejection in the music industry (much like real-life Charles Manson), Jeremiah turned his efforts to a much darker purpose. “Amulet” was produced, recorded, and mixed by Randall Dunn with music by Milky Burgess. Oh and those lyrics? Officially written by none other than Jeremiah Sand.