These days, a lot of mainstream horror entertainment emphasizes jump scares and grotesque imagery over something arguably more impactful: overwhelming creepiness.
Sure, violence, gore and overall shock value can be great (as Loudwire acknowledged in a prior list). However, the bigger reward comes in crafting subtler visuals and atmospheres that are extraordinarily unnerving.
Luckily, the 10 entries on this list illustrate how that’s done, as they use a variety of techniques – such as distasteful makeup, horrible situations and off-putting directing and editing styles – to truly get under your skin.
As the tagline to 1972’s The Last House on the Left put it, just keep repeating: “It’s only a music video. It’s only a music video. It’s only . . .”
Taken from 2019’s Big Blue, “Step Out” is a characteristic catchy and accessible song from Canadian indie/punk rockers Dead Soft.
Therefore, you’d expect Lester Lyons-Hookham’s accompanying music video to be similarly welcoming — and you’d be dead wrong. Instead, the early ‘90s vibe and pastoral setting contradict its troubling narrative about a couple being abducted and murdered in the woods of an odd town.
There’s blood by the end, yet the spookiness lies in its fragmented snapshots of nefariousness and misfortune. As with Blue Velvet, Eden Lake and The Vanishing, there’s a sinisterness beneath the idyllic surface that’s impossible to forget.
It’s an obvious inclusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not justified. On the contrary, Japanese avant-garde troupe Dir En Grey fill every moment with chillingly bizarre and brutal depictions.
It begins by showing Geishas moving irregularly and goes on to portray various examples of body horror, ritualistic ceremonies, taboo sexual acts, malevolent clowns and much more. Plus, vocalist Kyo moves robotically and looks like a possessed zombie, so his presence alone makes “Obscure” an essential pick.
If the band were aiming for a terrifying tribute to the cyberpunk horror of Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto and Shozin Fukui, they totally succeeded.
Rammstein, "Mein Herz Brennt"
Part of the reason why people love Rammstein is that they can be both playful and petrifying.
With “Mein Herz Bernnt” (“My Heart Burns”), they definitely lean into the latter camp. Lifted from 2001’s seminal Mutter, its lyrical exploration of nightmares is fully realized in Zoran Bihać’s video.
In addition to other harrowing situations, it sees frontman Till Lindemann kidnapping — and subsequently experimenting on — a classroom of orphans. He also becomes a bug-like creature, and the prevailing combination of otherworldly masks and white and red lighting enhances the anxiety.
Fittingly, Bihać gave the piano version a somewhat less scary interpretation.
Chelsea Wolfe, "Feral Love"
Singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe is no stranger to the macabre, as she frequently dabbles in the looks and sounds of gothic rock and doom metal. Even so, her clip for the introductory track of 2013’s Pain is Beauty is surprisingly eerie.
An excerpt from her film collaboration with director Mark Pellington, Lone, its first shot — a white-faced Wolfe adorning black eyes — instantly disturbs. Then, her performance by the ruins of a building is interrupted by a collage of strange images (bloody fabrics, people wearing animal heads, ghostly twin girls and inscrutable home movies among them). It's artfully experimental and wholly dreadful.
Mr. Bungle, "Quote Unquote" aka "Travolta"
Few metal acts are as delightfully zany as Mr. Bungle, and although “Quote Unquote” — or “Travolta” — certainly taps into that wackiness, it also provides plenty of disconcerting segments.
In a nutshell, it brings the song’s menacingly carnivalistic essence to life by relishing skewed camera angles and forebodingly psychedelic sights. There are dead-eyed baby dolls, a deranged costume dance party, allusions to sadomasochism and the band themselves hanging lifelessly from meat hooks. All the while, flashing lights and weird filters increase the discomfort.
Upon release, it was banned by MTV due to its troubling nature. We can’t say we blame them.
Today, Danny Elfman is heralded as a top-tier movie composer, yet his work with Oingo Boingo warrants equal recognition. In fact, 1994’s farewell LP (Boingo) may be their greatest work, and a big reason why is its ingeniously spooky opener, “Insanity,” and even spookier visual adaptation.
Undoubtedly, Fred Stuhr’s stop-motion monkeys, devils and dolls are inherently dismaying; however, we can see what they’re up to. In contrast, it’s Elfman himself (singing with gleeful malice in a darkened lair) who remains puzzlingly mischievous. What’s he doing down there, and how are those little girls involved?
Actually, we don’t want to know.
Cradle of Filth, "Babalon A.D. (So Glad for the Madness)"
Aside from exuding the group’s alarming brand of extreme metal, the video for “Babalon A.D. (So Glad for the Madness)” is an overt homage to one of the most upsetting films ever: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Taking that into consideration, the central plot (Cradle of Filth abusing several young men and women in a mansion while dressed as aristocrats) makes a lot more sense. Of course, it’s still creepy as hell, especially since the narrative framing device — a maid watching the aged footage on a discarded camcorder — adds a layer of authenticity and plausibility.
Let’s face it: just about every Tool music video is fascinatingly unsavory. That said, none match the sheer chilling strangeness of “Parabola” from Lateralus.
Helmed by the band’s resident guitarist and graphic artist, Adam Jones, it kicks off with hideous businessmen eating (and then regurgitating) fruit in an otherwise distressingly empty location. Afterward, a series of animated and live action people and shapes (including a tentacle-riddled Tricky) run rampant around other deserted blue rooms and forests. Its onslaught of abject abstractions can’t help but leave viewers agitated, and it’s that grisly ambiguity that gives it the edge over its brethren.
Pop Will Eat Itself, "Ich Bin Ein Auslander"
Like Danny Elfman, Clint Mansell fronted a unique rock band (Pop Will Eat Itself) before penning successful film scores (namely, Requiem for a Dream’s “Lux Aeterna”). The group often conveyed a colorfully approachable vibe, which is why “Ich Bin Ein Auslander” (“I Am a Foreigner”) is so atypically horrifying.
Granted, anything shot in negative is terrifying, but what drives it home is all of Mansell’s fiendish smirking. He stares at the camera with demonic pleasure, capitalizing on the inherent freakiness of the ghostly music and oversized instruments.
It surely kept many children – myself included – up at night during the mid-90s.
Aphex Twin, "Come to Daddy" (Director's Cut)
When it comes to choosing the creepiest music video of all time, there can only be one answer: Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy.”
Made in collaboration with Chris Cunningham long before they unleashed “Rubber Johnny,” its initial set-up (an elderly woman walking her dog in a deserted area) is quite eerie.
Moments later, the pair are chased by a bunch of kids wearing identical masks of Aphex Twin (Richard D. James). If that weren’t enough, the woman ends up encountering a screaming monster who becomes the children’s leader.
Clearly, “Come to Daddy” is pure nightmare fuel from start to finish.