Remember when music videos could scare the (parachute) pants off ya? I do. I remember having recurring nightmares about a dark, gloomy gothic church filled with spooky wedding guests, a shrouded groom and cobweb-covered coffins. An ominous sense of vague terror hung in the stale, dusty air and stayed with me after I woke up. Even as a kid, it wasn’t difficult for me to decipher the inspiration for my terrifying dreams: Billy Idol’s WHITE WEDDING video! I hadn’t been watching scary movies before bed, I had been watching MTV.
In the 1980s, it was not uncommon for music videos to contain enough macabre images to rival the latest horror film, or at least to feature a few disturbingly eerie scenes. Naturally (or supernaturally?), Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking, much-acclaimed THRILLER clip is the hands-down scary music video chef d'oeuvre, but there were quite a few other creepy videos haunting MTV in its heyday. Here are my top 10 picks:
10. MISLED by Kool & the Gang (1985)
This one isn’t exactly horrifying, but it features a midnight danse macabre with a ghostly (and very sparkly) woman in a disturbing nightmare. It ends with the cloaked and hooded band members turning slowly toward the camera to reveal their death masks. Rebbie Jackson’s CENTIPEDE clip and a few others used this type of scary trick ending, obviously influenced by the shock ending of THRILLER.
Kool & The Gang - Misled
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9. SELF CONTROL by Laura Branigan (1984)
I’m pretty sure Exorcist director William Friedkin intended this video to be sexy, mysterious and/or theatrical in that Andrew Lloyd Webber way, but the haunting music and seriously disturbing masks make it into “good old-fashioned nightmare fuel,” to borrow a line from MST3K. There’s something unnerving about the little porcelain doll watching as Laura is mauled by a shirtless brute in a Michael Myers-ish mask. A great example of sexy going awry and becoming scary.
Laura Branigan - Self Control
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8. JEOPARDY by Greg Kihn Band (1983)
This video terrified me when I was a kid, but later I realized it was intended to be funny. Highlights include the most unrealistic looking monster ever to be captured on videotape since Sigmund and the Seamonsters was cancelled, a screaming purple skull and truly frightening shag mullets on both our hero Greg (the Tim Allen of 80s rock) and the jilted bride he picks up in his sweet ride.
7. TWILIGHT ZONE by Golden Earring (1982)
Though the song is actually more drug-trip-scary than Halloween-scary, the video’s grainy, surreal imagery would have made Rod Serling proud. Complete with drug-induced paranoia, burlesque dominatrix dancing girls and the obligatory creepy little kid, TWILIGHT ZONE is dated but can still send a shiver up my spine.
Golden Earring - Twilight Zone (X)
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6. ROCKIT by Herbie Hancock (1983)
There’s something about this video that’s so bizarre it’s almost macabre. Mannequins are always good for a scare (remember Anne Francis turning back into a mannequin in that episode of The Twilight Zone? Talk about creepy!), and ROCKIT is so chock-full of severed, grotesquely mechanized mannequin parts I honestly don’t think I could watch it alone at night to this day. The most frightening thing about this video, though, might be that fact that Herbie Hancock’s face was only shown for a few seconds to make it more palatable to white America … but that’s another story.
Herbie Hancock, Rockit, 1983
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5. DON'T PAY THE FERRYMAN by Chris DeBurgh (1982)
One of the few pre-THRILLER videos to employ horror film tactics, FERRYMAN was inspired more by the subtle chills of British horror than the guts and gore of American slasher flicks. Chris dons a Christopher Lee vampire cape as fog swirls around lanterns, skeletons and a mysterious figure falsely rumored to be British actor Tom Baker of Doctor Who fame.
4. OWNER OF A LONELY HEART by Yes (1983)
The flashes of spiders and snakes in this one really disturbed me when I was a kid. There just aren’t many “psychological thriller” music videos out there, much less well-executed ones, so OWNER OF A LONELY HEART really stands out as exceptional. Directors Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell’s schizophrenic visuals are synchronized perfectly with the song, making for a seamlessly freaky little film about paranoia.
3. DANCING WITH MYSELF by Billy Idol (1983)
Ah, the fun of electrocuting zombies, catapulting them off the roof of a building and watching them dance! It just never gets old. Horror hero Tobe Hooper directed this video, and I personally like it better than the movie Poltergeist. (Maybe that Spielberg guy cramps Hooper’s style?) Sure, Poltergeist has real skeletons and evil clowns, but DANCING WITH MYSELF has hordes of funky ghouls, laughing funhouse dolls, and most importantly it has Billy Idol, an infinitely more dazzling screen presence than Craig T. Nelson.
Billy Idol - Dancing With Myself
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2. SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME by Rockwell (1984)
Okay, so it’s a silly one hit wonder, and the video features badly acted cheap tricks like red Kool-Aid “blood” flowing from Rockwell’s shower. It’s still creepy as hell, admit it! Some moments (like an obviously fake pig trotting down the hall) are laughable, but the graveyard vignettes, the gruesome undead heads and the Shining-esque snatch of a grisly bathtub massacre during the lyrics “Maybe showers remind me of Psycho too much” are still shriek-inducing. This one’s perfect for viewing at Halloween parties.
Rockwell - Somebody's Watching Me
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1. WHITE WEDDING by Billy Idol (1982)
Come to think of it, most of Billy Idol’s early videos were on the macabre side, but this one literally gave me nightmares so it takes the cake – the moth-eaten, musty Miss Havisham wedding cake, that is. The scene where Billy grabs his bride and rips the flesh from her finger with a barbed wedding ring is more enduring than the visuals of many horror movies made today, and was actually edited out of some versions because it was considered too violent. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the edited version as a child and my psyche has suffered for it ever since.
Billy Idol - White Wedding Pt 1
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Note: I originally published this article on the website CinCity2000 in 2007.