By now you’ve realized that violence and gore are not inherently scary. Only one in every million horror movies made is actually scary. Blood and brain matter no longer make the average viewer blink. The same can be said for violence in music, which has become less and less alarming to the listener.
For proof, look no further than Eminem. He is one of the most successful hip-hop artists to top the charts, with songs that mix strong hooks and unexpected amounts of violence. Case in point: “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” from 1999’s Slim Shady LP. In it, Eminem (or the narrator if we’re to take the tale as complete fiction) is driving with his young daughter in the passenger seat, explaining why he has killed her mother, who’s been stuffed in the trunk and is about to be tossed in the lake. He turns gruesome acts into a palatable yarn with the use of candy-coated descriptors. For example, mom’s shirt is covered in ketchup from dinner, not blood from her sliced throat. All this happens over a slick beat and a chorus that recalls Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us”.
Fast forward to 2001 when Tori Amos released Strange Little Girls, an album covering songs written and performed by men from a woman’s perspective. Her take on “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” was easily the album’s high point. Changing nary a word, Amos turned a father’s tale of revenge into a mother’s posthumous pep talk to her young daughter. In an interview, Amos said, “so half the world is dancing to this, oblivious, with blood on their sneakers …[The mother] had to have a voice.” A lofty goal, sure, but in the end she succeeded, making the scariest song to ever feature a beautiful string arrangement.
The song opens with Amos cooing intimately over a sleepy, water-drop beat. As she says, “I love you,” you can hear the saliva in her mouth. Perhaps, it’s too intimate. Nonetheless, an ominous and repetitive string section kicks, calling to mind John Williams’ Jaws score. Odd piano notes trickle throughout the verses, disrupting the orchestra’s wave-like rhythm. As the lyrics remain the same as Eminem’s and “Mom” is spoken about in the third person, the explanation of her own murder acts as a nursery rhyme for her daughter. The moral of the story is that Mom’s going to be around long after this night and that Dad’s not really a monster (anything to allay her daughter’s anxiety). As much as it’s heartbreaking, it’s even more chilling.
The pace quickens as Amos tells her daughter to help Dad push her off the dock. The combination of the intense music and her softening whisper implies a sense of impending freedom. At long last, the horror will be over and her daughter can move on. It’s the climax in those rare, great scary films when you’re on the edge of your seat, not because of the bogeyman, but because you want the protagonist to survive. In the final seconds of the song, the strings swell until they reach a breaking point and the music ends with a jarring thud.
It also gets to the core of what makes something scary: a personal connection. Sure, the Saw series is gross, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that makes you afraid to walk down the street. Decades after its release, Psycho still makes viewers shower with their eyes open because they can’t get Janet Leigh’s demise out of their minds. Eminem’s original was, and still is, a well-crafted song that somehow made a homicide catchy. However, Amos’ rendition is a ghost story with a maternal bent that forever changes the song. Once you hear it, you’ll have difficulty listening to Eminem’s version without thinking about the woman in the trunk and the daughter riding shotgun. Forget about the gender politics and the blood on our shoes. This mother now has a voice, and it’s scary as hell.