Rock music and horror bear so much in common, it can sometimes be tough to tell them apart. Both beloved, incendiary art forms get pulses pounding, hearts pumping, hairs raising, heads banging and, above all, the vivid, visceral goal of each is to get us to scream. If we faint, all the better.
Fright fare even bubbled deep in the primordial ooze from which rock-and-roll initially arose, as blues singers wailed about devilish downfalls and hellhounds on their trails, while country and hillbilly players conjured ever increasingly demonic abandon and occasionally rhapsodized about spooky doings on back roads and in deep woods.
Once rock proper hit in the ’50s, an elite breed of merrily malevolent musicians consciously incorporated horror tropes into their recordings and live performances. From those scare-raisers came entire genres steeped in the traditions of terror: shock rock, heavy metal, goth, industrial, and numerous subgenres of punk.
Put them all together, and Horror Rock is very much its own untameable creature, particularly during Halloween season. What follows is an alphabetical guide to 26 antic artists who embody this ferocious music—and all the scares that come with it.
Alice Cooper—the band that was fronted by the face-painted, leather-clad, chicken-killing, all-time overlord of shock rock who happened to also be named Alice Cooper—initially levitated up out of the same late-1960s Detroit proto-punk/metal scene that further begat the Stooges, the MC5, and Ted Nugent.
After a series of classic albums and concerts that hurled elaborate blood-and-guts theatrics to impossible new heights, Alice Cooper ruled the early ’70s as every parent’s worst nightmare, and every young, horror-hungry rock fan’s simultaneously sweetest and most disgusting dream.
The band split up in ’74, and Alice has continued on solo as rock’s supreme monstrous anti-hero ever since.
In the late 1960s, Geezer Butler, bassist for a heavy (really heavy) British blues band called Earth, noticed a crowd of thrill-seekers crowding around a theater showing a Boris Karloff horror epic. “Isn’t it something how people line up to get scared?” he pointed out to his bandmates.
Geezer and his fellow Earth-lings then proposed that they should do for rock-and-roll what horror had done for cinema: terrify fans into loving every shriek and shiver, and always leave them trembling for more. Hence, Earth adopted the name of that Karloff flick and thus was begotten Black Sabbath.
“Black Sabbath,” the band’s first song on their self-titled, metal-inventing 1970 debut, opens with atmospheric rain sounds and a distant church bell before guitarist Tony Iommi erupts in a “devil’s tri-tone” riff—so named for reportedly being banned in the middle ages for invoking Satan—and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne wails in terror of a “figure in black” that stands before him.
And from there, stunningly, Black Sabbath only continued to get scarier.
Fronted by frequently nude skeletal freak-dervish Lux Interior and power-pumped by blood-maned bikini-girl-with-machine-gun Poison Ivy Rorschach on guitar, the Cramps concocted “psychobilly” out of ’50s rock-and-roll madness, ’70s punk abandon, crazed monster drive-in movies, EC horror comics, and a joyfully malevolent mayhem of a making all their own.
DANZIG, GLENN (MISFITS, SAMHAIN, DANZIG)
Glenn Danzig has scorched a cloven-hoofed path through rock history as master of the hardcore horror-punk all-time greatest, the Misfits, the sultan of blues-metal beasts Samhain, and the diabolical overlord of the still-raging hard-rick wrecking-ball-of-evil outfit that bears his own name, Danzig.
Upon their boot-stomping early-’80s arrival, avant-garde German industrial agonizers Einsterzende Neubaten (“New Buildings Falling Down”) turned goth music from frowny clowning by the likes of the Cure into toweringly terrifying Teutonic beat-downs.
The group’s black-leather-and-fire live shows, totalitarian aesthetics, and relentless pursuit of the most frightening noise capable of being manufactured by man and/or machine not only conjures up the demonic, it set a template for their similarly happy-to-be-horrific fellow countrymen, Rammstein.
FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM
British goth lords Fields of the Nephilim imbued their gloom tunes with frighteningly effective cinematic flourishes and a rugged spin on their genre’s erstwhile delicate take on bloodletting and vampirism. They also dressed like undead gunfighters straight out of Spaghetti Western where actual disembodied spirits populate the ghost town.
Blood! Guts! Piss! Puke! Monsters! Mayhem! Mutilation! Metal! PUPPETS! Everything about the legendary Gwar screams over-the-top horror, as the band members blast out brain-splattering riffs while bedecked in massive, manically complex costumes, most of which come equipped with ever-evolving new ways to spray the audience with each and every imaginable body fluid. Every Gwar show is an all-out horror rock classic.
HAWKINS, SCREAMIN’ JAY
As the founding freak-father of shock rock, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins popped out of a coffin on stage, brandished a bone through his nose, and cursed his crowds by waving a skull-topped voodoo stick over them—in the early 1950s!
Screamin’ Jay scored his career defining, genre inventing hit “I Put a Spell on You” in 1956, and while many have risen to his ghoulish heights, none can surpass the original master for sheer eye-bulging, spine-rattling freak-out power.
Power-metal marauders Iced Earth so love fright films that their 2001 album The Horror Show is an eleven-song tribute to nothing but their favorite scary movies. Odes abound to classics such as The Mummy (“Im-Ho-Tep [Pharaoh’s Curse]),” The Omen (“Damien”), and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (“Dragon’s Child”), not to mention the self-explanatory “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”
Jerry Only not only played bass alongside his guitarist brother Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein in the original, Glenn-Danzig-fronted Misfits, he invented the “devilock” hairstyle that has come to instantly identify horror-punk.
A dozen years after the initial Misfits broke up in 1983, Only successfully won rights to the group’s name. He reformed the band (sans Danzig) and has kept them an active, continually mutating hardcore fright force ever since.
While not as explicitly steeped in horror tropes such as serial killers of the supernatural, to kids who first caught them back in the ’70s, Kiss were completely terrifying.
The face-paint, the leather, the flames, the seven-foot-tall bass-player in dragon boots calling himself The Demon and spitting blood—it was, and remains, as hair-raising as it was head-banging.
And just as generation after generation of budding horror enthusiasts falls in love with fright icons such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy, so too burgeoning rockers go ghoulishly ga-ga for Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter.
Costumed Finnish metal mayhem-makers Lordi look and play not unlike Gwar, but their more melody-friendly music actually scored them a local pop radio hit in 2002 with “Would You Love a Monsterman?” After Lodi won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006, the entire world answered that musical question with a resounding yes, as their triumphant composition, “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” caught-on as a smash worldwide.
Alice Cooper may commune with killer reptiles and sing about “Dead Babies,” but off-stage, he’s as sweet, gentle, and friendly a soul as rock has ever produced. Marilyn Manson, who copped so much of his most direct forerunner’s schtick (the female name, the face paint, the outrageous theatrics), actively set out to be something of an “anti-Alice. “
Aside from flashy moves like getting ordained a priest in the Church of Satan, Marilyn Manson actively preached hatred and despair in interviews and his music reflected levels of rage and real-life horror far beyond where previous shock rockers probably even had any interest in exploring.
Still, lest anyone get too concerned, it’s goofily comforting to know that Marilyn’s first band and his subsequent devotees go by the silly fright-fan moniker, “The Spooky Kids.”
Nosferatu, the British goth band, are named after Nosferatu, silent cinema’s original vampire classic. Their music sounds just as such a moniker would suggest, along with the names of the group’s founding members: Damien DeVille (guitar), Vlad Janicek (bass), and Sapphire Aurora (vocals and poetess).
Death metal, as one might glean from the name of the genre, is obsessed with gore, terror, pain, demons, hellfire, and damnation. On top of that, death metal vocalists typically roar in the fashion of bone-gargling monsters.
As one of death metal’s earliest template-setters, Obituary first erupted in 1989 with the zomboid-titled Slowly We Rot, a pummeling blast of uncut horror of every conceivable stripe, from the sanguine (“Internal Bleeding”) to the supernatural (“Gates to Hell”).
PICKETT, BOBBY “BORIS”
Does the name Bobby “Boris” Pickett seem unfamiliar? The reason he’s on this list, rest assured, is not. In 1962, Pickett scored a hit by imitating horror icon Boris Karloff and spoofing contemporary dance craze songs such as “The Twist” by singing about mad scientists, zombies, Wolfman, and Dracula (and his son) doing “The Monster Mash.” It’s been the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” of Halloween season ever since.
By founding the Swedish band Bathory, Tomas “Ace” Börje Forsberg aka Quorthon largely invented the single most extreme, most dedicated to horror (conceptual and otherwise) genre in all of rock: black metal.
Not only was Bathory named for the notorious blood-bathing Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the band donned barbarian leather get-ups and pushed old-school black-and-white face makeup a la Alice Cooper and Kiss into a terrifying new art from know as “corpse paint.”
Quorthon angrily dismissed his public image as “the baby-eating, blood-drinking God of the bat-cave”—but it stuck.
Texas visionary Roky Erickson piloted the 13th Floor Elevators to the trippiest peaks of psychedelic brilliance in the ’60s. Then he got busted for two joints and did time in a state mental institution where, in a tragic fit of irony, he actually did go insane.
When Roky recorded again in the early ’80s, his songs were even more vibrant and vital, and they reflected the haunted hell-storm that raged inside his head. Roky sings of demons, vampires, aliens, a two-headed dog, a bloody hammer, and walking with a zombie and to hear him is to believe him.
SCREAMING LORD SUTCH
UK pop prankster and political gadfly Screaming Lord Sutch beat fright rockers on the order of Arthur Brown and Alice Cooper to the face paint by a solid few years in 1964. That’s when the mad Lord dressed like a Victorian ghoul and racked up a novelty hit in honor of England’s favorite ladykiller, “Jack the Ripper.”
TYPE O NEGATIVE
Brooklyn bruiser Peter Steele went banging head to bedding the dead to when he transitioned from the thrash of his hardcore-spawned band Carnivore to the slow, pulsating, sex doom of his even more successful goth metal outfit, Type O Negative.
Florida’s gothic folk metal mood-shifters Urn weave such spooky spells with so light a touch that it’s stunning to discover that the group started as death metal rampagers and/or that leader Dominic Charles was one a full-blown member of industrial metal orgiasts, the Electric Hellfire Club. Alas, horror runs deep on each of Urn’s levels.
Cronos (bass and vocals), Mantas (guitar), and Abaddon (drums) wrought forth Venom in the early ’80s to be the singularly most pro-Satan force in the entire history of what, since its onset, naysayers had decried as “the devil’s music.” How cool is it, then, that they actually pulled it off?
Beyond being just satanic, Venom dress like bikers from a fright film and they radiate such potent fearsomeness that, in large part, from them raged for thrash, speed metal, black metal, and death metal—all of which are just soaked in horror.
Wednesday 13 (real name: Joseph Poole) soared to horror-punk dominance as the villainous vocalist of the Murderdolls alongside Joey Jordison on Slipknot. Previously, Mr. 13 had fronted the groups Psycho Opera, Maniac Spider Trash, and Frankenstein Drag Queens From Planet 13. Since Murderdolls disbanded in 2011, Wednesday has been wowing black-lipsticked boosters as a popular solo artist.
X-WARD, DR. CHUD’S
Drummer David Calabrese, better known by his medical title Dr. Chud, is a traveling titan of horror rock, having played in the Misfits and their various offshoots. including Kryst the Conqueror, and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein’s recent project, Gorgeous Frankenstein).
The mad doctor presently slams his spiked drum kit for his own endeavor, the punked-up horror metal hellraisers known as Dr. Chud’s X-Ward.
Philadelphia deviants the Young Werewolves howl, indeed, as they blast out bestial horror-punk that’s fueled by surf guitar and rockabilly insanity.
Rob Zombie loves horror movies so much, he named his first band after a 1932 Bela Lugosi voodoo spooker: White Zombie.
From those initial, noisy cult records on to his present and enduring heavy metal superstardom, it’s tough to imagine any Rob Zombie song, performance, or, really, anything that isn’t directly connected to the cinema of terror.
Of course, Rob Zombie also loves horror movies so much that he’s become one of modern frightdom’s most prominent, top-ticket filmmaker by way of his cult classics, House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and Lords of Salem.
Not even Bela Lugosi himself ever pulled off such a feat.