On Christmas morning in the year 2009, my dad got an unexpected gift. My older sister had brought her partner to the festivities, and they handed my dad a flat rectangle covered in red wrapping paper. When he tore it open, he saw a rotting body staring back at him.
It was the cover of Tomb of the Mutilated, a 1992 release from seminal death metal band Cannibal Corpse. The CD, intended as a gag gift, was ostensibly supposed to elicit one of two responses: outright shock or gleefully immature giggles. Instead, an uncomfortable silence filled the room.
Something became clear to me at that moment: music just isn’t as horrifying as other mediums. I knew death metal was supposed to make all parents shake in their britches, but my dad seemed unfazed. And who could blame him? Sure, Hammer Smashed Face is nasty, but a culture of the Internet and Saw films had desensitized everyone at that time. Even my father.
It would take years – and multiple forays into power electronics and funeral doom metal – for me to come across anything musical that truly unsettled me. And it came from a different source than I would have expected: the world of pop.
While plenty of pop musicians have flirted with edginess, it was none other than Kate Bush that showed me that pop could be terrifying. From the collection of Kate Bush music videos that draw from gothic horror to her supernatural lyrics, her catalog is one that builds upon the horror tradition while presenting it in an entirely new way.
I’m So Cold, Let Me in Your Window
Most fans of Kate Bush come to her music through what is arguably her magnum opus, 1985’s Hounds of Love.
However, plenty of others stumble upon her by way of her biggest hit, Wuthering Heights. Written when Bush was only 18, Wuthering Heights may very well be one of the most celebrated debut singles of all time. It even has a day dedicated to celebrating its brilliance.
Part of what makes the song so successful is that it feels completely detached from any and all musical trends and rules. Sure, it’s pop, but it feels otherworldly to this day. Everything about the song is designed to make it feel as ghostly as possible, with Bush’s vocals in particular reaching into an alien register that feels like it can’t belong to the living.
The paranormal aura of the track directly derives from its source material. It’s not a coincidence that it shares a name with Emily Bronte’s landmark novel. The song is sung from the perspective of Catherine Earnshaw as she visits Heathcliff in spirit form. Many of the lines of Bush’s track are drawn directly from the book, including the iconically spooky “bad dreams in the night.”
It’s no stretch to call Bronte’s Wuthering Heights an early work of horror fiction, and Bush’s take maintains many of the aspects of the Gothic that make the original so compelling. A dark undercurrent belies the glittering and rapturous instrumental, mirroring the interplay of romance and tragedy in the novel. And, of course, the image of a ghostly lover begging to be let in the window and demanding to “grab your soul” remains stirring in musical form.
But no discussion of Bush’s Wuthering Heights is complete without including the visual end of things. The video for the track, like many other Kate Bush music videos, elevates the concept of the song. In the case of Wuthering Heights, Bush evokes the sublime with a video of uninterrupted dance.
Two versions exist, though my favorite is definitely the “white dress” version. It’s a simple visual: Kate stands in a white dress on a black background and dances. But her unique movements transform something basic into something captivating. She spins and contorts atop a thin layer of smoke, truly looking like an apparition drifting in during the night.
The beauty is undeniable, but the chills come from Bush’s commitment to the role. Around the three minute mark, the camera zooms in on her face as she sings the lines, “I’m so cold, let me in your window.” Her eyes widen, and for a brief moment, it’s believable that she is none other than Cathy staring in through the window, grabbing at your soul. It’s unsettling… and brilliant.
There’s a Door in the House
Bush enjoyed a great deal of commercial and critical success after Wuthering Heights and her accompanying debut record, The Kick Inside. Following that, things started to get weirder. By 1980, her songwriting was taking even darker turns. 1980’s Never for Ever had The Infant Kiss, a disturbing ballad based on The Innocents.
But in 1982, Kate Bush released The Dreaming, an album full of songs that were stranger and more frightening than ever before. Her vocal performances in particular started to become lower and more grisly; songs like Pull Out the Pin and Houdini featured her nearly growling to set tense scenes about war, love, and (of course) ghosts.
It’s an exhausting album, and the finisher acts as the ultimate climax of the entire ordeal. Get Out of My House is, in many ways, solely a work of horror. While it still maintains certain aspects of pop songwriting, all of the brightness is gone.
For the most part, the song follows a narrative that most horror fans should be quite familiar with. At its simplest, it’s the story of a woman who has locked herself in her house while some unknown force tries to fight its way in. Often pegged as being inspired by The Shining, it’s unclear whether the protagonist has gone mad from some sort of cabin fever or if they are truly being haunted by some malevolent presence. Like all great scary stories, that uncertainty is what keeps you up at night.
And make no mistake: this is a truly terrifying song. Musically, it’s characterized by a pounding drum beat that lies somewhere between an uneven heartbeat and a violent knocking upon the door of a house.
Dissonance rules here, and Kate’s vocals reach a fever pitch unheard in any of her other work. Throughout the entire song is Bush screaming, “Get out of my house!” It’s built into the skeleton of the song as if the entire house is shaking back and forth and bellowing for the stranger to leave.
Indeed, Bush swaps between narrating from the perspective of someone clearly in the house (“This house knows all I have done!”) and the house itself (“No stranger’s feet shall enter me”). This ambiguity further links the house with a feeling of insanity. Just like in The Shining, it feels like whatever violence inhabits the structure has leaked into those inhabiting it.
But it’s the peak of the song that leaves listeners wide-eyed. About halfway through, Kate’s screams break into a subtle guitar riff that sounds like a twisted lullaby. After crazily pleading for the force to get out of her house, a male voice begins to speak. The narrator (or perhaps the house itself) begins to speak back, and the two enter a conversation.
— FOUNDATIONS OF HORROR —
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It’s a negotiation of sorts, with the force outside the house threatening to “bring in the Devil dreams” while the narrator fights back by changing into other forms. She first changes into a bird, and when that doesn’t work, she turns into a mule. Bush then gives one of the most unique vocal performances of her career: she begins braying like a donkey before her voice fades out, overtaken by the outside force.
There are many ways to interpret this song, but I personally like to simply listen to it as a horror story. While Kate’s friends (and undoubtedly many modern listeners) supposedly found her donkey noises to be humorous, I can’t help but feel truly frightened every time I hear them. In the context of the narrative, it feels like a moment of true madness and transformation. The energy with which this moment is portrayed only heightens it.
Much of Bush’s music since The Dreaming has been quite unsettling as well. The second half of Hounds of Love is uniquely dark, and even her latest album features the disturbing Misty, a song about a woman who creates a snowman and then makes love to it. It certainly makes for an interesting example of a Kate Bush music video.
Her oeuvre, whether it’s her music or the idiosyncratic Kate Bush music videos, shows someone committed to exploring pop beyond what is comfortable. That discomfort is a defining feature of her work, and she remains one of the only musical artists so deeply connected to horror.
Additional Reading About Kate Bush
The Enduring, Incandescent Power of Kate Bush
Kate Bush Hammer Horror and Her Supernatural Music
Additional Kate Bush Music Videos
Last Updated on December 22, 2021.
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