Classical Music and Killer Psyches in Horror Settings

    Implementing otherwise calming orchestral music in a horror setting is an ingenious technique used to instill uneasiness. While playing with the viewer’s expectations, using classical music in this way simultaneously provides a depth to characters that would normally be written off as simply psychopaths. Characters such as Alex DeLarge from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, Patrick Bateman from Mary Herron’s 2000 film American Psycho, and Sander Cohen from 2k Games’ 2007 video game Bioshock are perfect examples of where this technique has achieved an affecting sense of uneasiness not otherwise associated with classical music.Thomas Fahy, in his article “Killer Culture: Classical Music and the Art of Killing in Silence of the Lambs and Se7en”, suggests that when classical music is used in horror settings it is “like an appreciation for literature and fine cuisine”, which all three of these characters have, which fits the persona of what Fahy calls the “Gentleman Killer”, one who “Having appropriated the pose of aristocratic or elite culture…feel empowered to judge and destroy those who fail to be ‘civilized’” (Fahy, 2003). The use of orchestral music is a way to provide an unspoken insight into these aforementioned characters’ psyche; their crimes are intricate, which lends to the idea that these characters are indeed intelligent. The idea that a killer is smarter than his victims is quite unsettling indeed. They could prey upon anyone and they are out there among us; they like the same things, attend the same concerts, and even have similar philosophies as the general public. Facetiously using classical music, which is usually associated with high class, in disturbing scenes is a tool used in games and movies that highlights antagonistic characters’ intelligence (and therefore their capabilities) and perspectives while exuding an anxious atmosphere not otherwise associated with the genre.

    Alex DeLarge, the main character of A Clockwork Orange, is a teen with a thirst for “ultra-violence” (as he calls it), who thinks very highly of himself. While a narcissistic character, using pieces such as Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” highlights the fact that Alex is well-read, smart and educated enough to blend in. He can hold a normal conversation, and is in fact highly gifted and imaginative with words; for example, Alex narrates while listening to the score, “…. Oh, it was gorgeousness…. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship…. I knew such lovely pictures!” ( Obviously inventive and literate, a disturbed Alex uses his cultural knowledge to incite terror on others. In the scene where one of his “droogs”, Georgie, decides to mutiny, Alex exacts his revenge when he is inspired by music coming from a stereo, “It was lovely music that came to my aid” (; it is prudent to point out that the “Overture” to “La Gazza Ladra” by Gioacchino Rossini is playing over this following scene, possibly meant as the song that inspires him. One can guess that the scene unfolds as a fight instigated by Alex assaulting Georgie. Interestingly, within the mechanics of the film, in Alex’s infamous punishment scenes, the “Ninth Symphony” is turned against him; he is forced to watch violent scenes while the music is played over them. Classical music is unusually used here as a torture device as he can not listen to Beethoven (his favorite composer) after his release. The uncharacteristic use of classical music in such ways influences the viewer to think that something terrible can happen in their own lives and it could come from a person one doesn’t expect, a gentleman who has inserted himself into an “elite culture” who could have a civilized conversation about elevated topics, but is really judging his companion. Regrets to those who do not, for they become prey.

    The use of classical music in American Psycho, is used to accentuate main character Patrick Bateman and his ideals. However, it should be briefly noted that modern music (like Huey Lewis and the News) is used during Bateman’s murder scenes, employing the same technique only with a different genre of music. Classical music is used in this film during the opening credits scene and Bateman’s personal introduction to the viewer. The opening scene has the capability of immediately instilling the level of uneasiness that the viewer feels for the entirety of the movie. Playing with the viewer’s expectations from the start, with an upbeat and playful score, there are drops and streams of red that the viewer can only assume (upon first viewing) is blood. However, it quickly becomes clear that it is an elegant dish being prepared (the red being some kind of sauce used as a garnish), not a build up to a crime scene. Yet, the viewer does not feel at ease upon this realization. This ambiguous title sequence combines beauty with crime, which is certainly how Bateman sees it: There is an art to murder; everything must be organized, pristine, and perfect (much like a classical music score). Though it should be said that this way of thinking is Bateman’s whole life, not just where murder is concerned; he has a very rigorous and detailed daily regime so he physically looks his best in order to avoid detection that he is different from his social circle. One of the tropes normally associated with a psychopath (in films anyway) is a need to feel normal, to “fit in” as Patrick puts it at one point.

    In the daily routine scene, classical piano music is played over his voiceover while the viewer witnesses this glimpse into Patrick Bateman’s life. Image and perfection are very important to him; it is imperative that he looks the best and has the best. The use of classical music here highlights the simultaneous paradox occurring: During an otherwise (somewhat) normal routine in a normal setting, the carefully planned regime is straight from the mind of a sociopath (who is usually very precise). Everything has its place in his life, even murder, and the balance must not be disturbed. In the final shot of this scene, Patrick says “There is no real me, only an entity”. This lends insight into his character, as he does not see himself as a person (another trope of the psychopath); yet, he is smart enough to not to draw attention to himself and uses his physical appearance as a way to fit in with everyone else. An unsettling reminder that he is a killer among us, indeed. However, his prey are the dregs of society; people, he thinks, that are expendable, and in fact should be destroyed. Bateman’s victims are mainly bums and prostitutes, two demographics he feels don’t have a place in society; in fact he feels the need to purge society of them. Combined with the fact that Patrick is dressed to the nines when committing these crimes and has a dialogue with his victims about the importance of being an elevated member of society, Fahy’s claim that a “Gentleman Killer” feels empowered to “judge” seems to hold true within Bateman and his ideals.

    Sander Cohen in Bioshock, is one of Rapture’s demented artist types who thinks himself as having an elevated status because of his passion concerning music and art. Similar to Bateman, he sees himself as high class, above everyone else. He forces the main character, Jack, to help him complete his masterpiece by killing other people and placing photos of their corpses into a collage (careful to not get his creative hands dirty). To Sander, people are expendable when it comes to making art; in Cohen’s audio diary “The Doubters”, he says “I suppose the Doubters think you can paint a picture without soiling your smock”( Indeed, there are instances in the modern art world that depict scenes of suffering; there is a beauty in death, but not when one is responsible for the killing(s). In Bioshock, as stated, Cohen forces Jack’s hand in completing his masterpiece collage so he doesn’t actually commit the murders. It seems, through the audio diary of one Anna Culpepper (a citizen of Rapture), that Cohen has often made art out of murder without doing the actual killing. She claims in a diary (titled “Ryan’s Stableboy”) that can be found in Fort Frolic that “Cohen tidies with a catchy melody and a clever turn of phrase” ( after Andrew Ryan (Rapture’s creator) has doled out deadly punishment. Even before the downfall of Rapture, he was creating art in the monstrous; however, he was creating it in such a smart way that he could always deny he was part of the event, only documenting the aftermath; “The burden of the artist is to capture”, Cohen claims. After Rapture falls, however, Cohen becomes more openly demented. As a way to get revenge on the ones who “doubted” and “betrayed” him, he doles out punishments of his own, becoming a dictator like Ryan, for the sake of his art.

    Before Cohen allows Jack to enter Fort Frolic, he sends splicers (psychopathic goons) after Jack to test his worthiness of meeting the great Sander Cohen. It should be noted that Cohen often refers to himself in the third person, as if he is the finale of an act, as a way to distinguish himself from anyone else; his artistic knowledge and creativity, he believes, allows him to be put on a pedestal. Upon beating the splicers and entering Fort Frolic, Jack is met with Kyle Fitzpatrick, a former disciple of Cohen’s, who is vigorously playing Cohen’s Scherzo. Upon closer examination, we can see that this is not out of leisure; Fitzpatrick is plastered to the piano, which is rigged with explosives. Upon this realization, the player is immediately uneasy; it’s quite apparent that something awful is about to happen. Classical music is again being uncharacteristically used as a torture device, like in A Clockwork Orange; it is the last thing Fitzpatrick will ever hear, and it is the tune of his enemy. Sadistic Sander knows Kyle will stop playing in defiance, which causes the piano (and Fitzpatrick) to explode. His death is always part of Cohen’s intricate plan, no doubt meant to highlight his intelligence. A further atypical use of classical music comes when Cohen irrationally believes that Jack is judging him upon placing the third picture in the collage. In a rage, Sander sends more splicers after Jack who battles the hoard while Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker plays. Usually a song reserved for the beauty and magic of the Nutcracker’s kingdom, the score is used here as Jack fights for his life with Cohen baiting him over the radio to “Smile! Smile!” as if Jack’s fighting were a performance. Cohen fits the bill almost perfectly for being a “Gentleman Killer”, though Fahy also says “By relying on ‘art’…. these crimes transform high culture into a tool for expressing violence” (Fahy, 2003). Similarly to Patrick Bateman, there is a parallel beauty to art and killing for Cohen.

    Albeit all mentally disturbed, there is an intelligence associated with these killers which is highlighted using an otherwise pacifying genre of music. When little attention is given to these characters, it is easy to write them off as simply the antagonist. This is a shame as a killer’s psyche is not so one-dimensional. Using classical music subtly and facetiously brings attention not otherwise paid to antagonists as a way to add depth to their characters. Upon a close reading of these texts, the subtle references to these characters’ complicated personalities is highlighted using orchestral music. A genre that is usually reserved for the high class, it is partly used to point out the fact that these “high class” characters could be the very people one walks by on the street everyday; all three of them look normal (for Cohen, based off his audio diary picture) and arguably act normal in public because they strive and know how to fit in. They have elevated likes (aka: an appreciation for music and art) and dislikes like everyone else, yet their mentality is extremely different from a normal citizen.

    In the cases mentioned, these characters are educated and have a public demeanor that alludes to an elevated status in society, all fitting Fahy’s description of a “Gentleman Killer”, which makes them hard to spot in a crowd of the same people. This is certainly an unsettling fact that breaks the fourth wall; it exhibits these killers’ intelligence at being able to blend in, which instills a sense of uneasiness for the viewer, not only within the film’s universe, but in the real world. A further aim of implementing classical music (in settings it normally wouldn’t be in) is to play with the viewer’s expectations, like with the American Psycho opening, and adds to the general uneasiness one is meant to feel when dealing with these characters, like when “Waltz of the Flowers”, a song usually associated with beauty, is played while Jack (aka: the player) fights for his life in Bioshock. Uncharacteristically using this otherwise soothing music genre in a horrific setting is an affecting, yet subtle, way to bring an awareness to these complex characters’ psyches.

Works Cited

  1. Fahy, Thomas. “Killer Culture: Classical Music and the Art of Killing in Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 27 June 2003. Web.

  2. Bioshock Wiki. 2015, web.

  3. IMDB. 2015, web.

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