Written by Brittany Vincent
It’s easy to escape disturbing imagery. You just close your eyes. In an instant, the offending blight on your vision disappears. Traces may well remain in the shelter of your eyelids, but for the moment you’re in the clear. A haunting melody, however, lingers with you long after you scramble to turn down the volume. Like a bright, cheery pop song on the radio that worms its way into your psyche, so too do the unsettling notes wafting from your speakers. Dissonant chords that seep into your very being and hallucinatory auditory effects play important roles in horror, as you’re no doubt already aware. After all, aren’t the things you hear much scarier than the things you’re seeing in the dark?
It’s easier to explain away bizarre visuals, but much harder to explain away what you’ve heard. That’s why music is such a powerful tool when it comes to setting an appropriate mood, in horror and otherwise. Even when you think you’re safe from the chills that run down your spine after being forced to listen to some painfully atmospheric soundtrack cuts, a few key notes arise in the back of your mind to plague you once again. But some are definitely a little worse than others. Here are ten genuinely disturbing cuts from various games, horror and otherwise, that you might want to listen to with the lights on, or chase with some Carly Rae Jepsen.
1. Saya no Uta – “Schizophrenia”
Saya no Uta, a uniquely Lovecraftian visual novel is bizarre in many ways, and grotesque to the point of revulsion. That’s why it’s fantastic. And from the first few grinding notes of “Schizophrenia,” it quickly becomes obvious as to what kind of protagonist you’re dealing with – a young man, permanently mentally disfigured after experimental surgery, now feels a certain disconnect from the human world as all of his surroundings now resemble that of disgusting, tentacled monsters and veiny, meaty environments. Beautiful women now spout foul syllables vaguely resembling the English language through appendages they call their mouths. Language is garbled, sweet smells are now rancid, and all that was once human is now something decidedly more sinister. “Schizophrenia” perfectly embodies the creeping frustration and self-loathing the protagonist must now be experiencing, as he is now a prisoner in his own mind. You can practically feel the gradual descent into madness. It’s a comfortable, familiar madness, and one that grips you tightly without letting go.
2. Pokémon Red and Blue – “Lavender Town”
Pokémon is a whirlwind franchise and appeals to players of all ages, but it’s never been particularly “normal.” Something about the muted greys of the original games, the murky translations, and eerie phenomena within has a way of creeping under your skin, especially once you hit Lavender Town and uncover the secrets inside. The deceptively calm town’s tune ranks highly on most gamers’ lists of terrifying childhood memories, and for good reason: it’s plinking chiptune introduction conjuring a spirit nearing your back, and then a cavalcade of jarring chords crop up, perhaps mirroring the bad juju that seems to have settled over the town like some kind of uneasy fog. And while orchestral arrangements of the familiar tune only seek to amplify the creep factor, the original’s uneasy melody is enough nightmare fuel to power an especially malevolent terror machine. Try not to picture the spirits of all the deceased Pokémon of the past when passing through this town.
3. Super Paper Mario – “River Twygz Bed”
Demonic chanting, distorted words, and uneasy chord changes? Surely we’re not in a Mario game! Actually, we are. Super Paper Mario, to be precise. Of course, it makes sense – the River Twygz (like a certain River Styx you may already have heard of) is found in the Underwhere in game, where the dead congregate. The River Twygz is filled to the brim with tears of the enemies who fell in battle (that’s why it’s purple) and near the bottom of the river bed madness comes to claim those who fall in. Luigi fell victim once before, and Mario as usual has to do all the saving. There’s something about this particular track that feels devilishly out of place, though, and even more foreboding than “Looping Stairs” as heard in Super Mario 64. If ever playing through Super Paper Mario, it might be a good idea to throw on some headphones and blot all of this out.
4. Pokémon Platinum – “Distortion World”
We return to Pokémon for another dosage of mind-altering, pitch-bending goodness, with the theme “Distortion World” (known in Japan as “Torn World”) from a particular dungeon where the player must traverse inky black darkness and shift dimensions in order to face the legendary Giratina – part of the “creation trio” of Sinnoh. This temporal Pokémon with its obviously mythical origins is a challenge in battle, and “Distortion World” does a perfect job of capturing how bewildering and unsettling journeying to the monster’s lair must be, with melodies invoking that of vertigo, confusion, and sickness, as though one is stuck on a malfunctioning carnival ride. If you thought “Lavender Town” was a challenging listen, you know where your volume switch is on the DS.
5. Final Fantasy VII – “Who Are You”
Accompanying a major turning point in-game, “Who Are You” is a light yet menacing fever dream, with alternating melodies – two chances to invoke painful memories, force you to face your inner demons, or run screaming in the other direction. If you’re familiar with the Final Fantasy VII mythos and the imagery associated with this particular moment (specifically, a headless entity I won’t mention here for the five of you who haven’t played the game yet) you should know this particular track quite well. While specific instances of the song are close to melting away into some sort of inviting, warm place, the rest is absolute cold like medical equipment – a stethoscope on your back. Nobuo Uematsu’s steely “Who Are You” doubles as the perfect soundtrack for wandering down a dark alleyway…should you ever choose to do so.
6. Silent Hill 3 – “Prayer”
Nothing about these gravelly, other-worldly voices chanting in an unknown language will comfort you. Who are they? What are they saying? Who are they praying to? Perhaps these are all questions you don’t really want the answers to. A psychotic chant rife with darkness, made to a series of demonic gods? Or are we really the demons here? A final question to leave you with as you ponder this particularly disturbing track: what will the results of this haunting psalm be? Death? Dismemberment? You decide.
7. Silent Hill 4 – “Silent Circus”
This track expertly captures the feeling of wandering around aimlessly in a surrealistic circus setting, and its trip-hop feel what with the backing drum beat and casual air disarm and catch you off guard. As if Silent Hill 4 weren’t trippy enough, “Silent Circus” enhances the feeling of normalcy that can permeate your being while playing through, but steps aside just long enough for you to realize there’s absolutely nothing familiar or safe about your environment. Don’t believe me? Ask Cynthia.
8. EarthBound (Mother 2) – “Giygas”
The various stages of the showdown against Giygas come with their own respective tracks, but the final battle’s theme takes the cake as far as being downright horrifying goes. If you subscribe to the theory regarding Giygas as a fetus (look it up, we’re serious) then the “lullaby” portion and what sounds like a hundred computers crashing to a screeching halt with error messages abound should make plenty more sense. But you can’t grasp the true form of Giygas’ attack, so settle for having a go at the battle theme and having a pleasant sleep.
9. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – “Song of Healing”
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time showcased some of the most memorable snippets of music we’ll remember throughout our lives – especially “Bolero of Fire,” if you’re a fan. The great vibes from Ocarina of Time were turned on their head in Majora’s Mask, starting with the visuals and then the darker themes, but the “Song of Healing” is decidedly more sinister than the previous themes Link may learn for his ocarina. Especially if you listen to it reversed.
10. Super Mario 64 – “Looping Stairs”
Laugh if you must, but Super Mario 64 is its own brand of scary. And as you ascend these particular stairs the Shepard tone-infused “Looping Stairs” theme that follows you on the way up is simultaneously disconcerting and hopeful – if you’re on this particular staircase without enough stars, you’re not going anywhere. The constant rising, never reaching a climax is particularly unsettling, especially when listened to for prolonged periods, not to mention frustrating.
And there you have it – ten disturbing pieces of music in video games. But there’s a wide world of content out there and it’s a certainty you’ve heard something even creepier. Let us know what we missed, and keep an ear out for more. You never know where you’re going to find another viable gem.