The ill-omened day is at hand! Or is it? In Spanish and Greek culture, Tuesday the 13th is the ill-omened day, and in Italy, it’s Friday the 17th. Well, at least we can agree that the number 13 is ill-omened? Or Friday? Although for those who live for the weekend, Friday is propitious. Some calendar years have several Friday the 13ths, but long stretches go by with none. Somehow Friday the 13th became known as a day of terror and misfortune—fairly recently, it turns out.
As Nathaniel Lachenmeyer tells us in 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition, the Friday the 13th superstition merged various pre-existing worries to become a blockbuster phenomenon in America in the early 20th century—Triskaidekaphobia is the psychologists’ name for fear of the number 13, and paraskevidekatriaphobia for the specific fear of Friday the 13th, aka friggatriskaidekaphobia. Like a snowball rolling down a slope, it picked up a lot of stuff along the way—numerological fear of 13 as an evil number just beyond the perfection of 12; the number of those present at the Last Supper supposedly being 13, and Friday the day of Jesus’ crucifixion; old Norse beliefs about Frigg’s day, the witchy goddess who gave Friday its etymological origin, and about Loki being the unlucky 13th guest at a dinner of 12 gods; darksome mentions in Chaucer; the death of superstar composer Rossini on a Friday the 13th in 1868, who had always professed that 13 was an unlucky number and Friday an unlucky day; a best-selling novel published by Thomas Lawson in 1907 which attempted to monetize the superstition to manipulate the stock market; various stuff about Tarot cards and Knights Templar, and so on. All this combined to make paraskevidekatriaphobia a surprisingly widespread and crippling fear in recent decades.
At least we can all fear the music of Friday the 13th? The wildly successful slasher franchise featuring unkillable killer Jason Voorhees of Camp Crystal Lake was conceived in 1980 to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 and wound up surpassing it with its empire of TV shows, videogames, comic books, hockey masks, and other tie-ins. You know when Halloween is coming every year, but Friday the 13th is less predictable! Jazzman Harry Manfredini composed the Friday the 13th theme, somewhat more swinging than terrifying to modern sensibilities, centered around his whispery chant of ‘ki ki ki, ma ma ma’ which he intended to convey Jason’s command to ‘kill her, mommy!’ He later complained when fans misheard it as ‘cha cha cha.’ Inspired by the Jaws theme, which only plays when the shark is present, whether you can see it or not, Manfredini’s idea was that the theme should only play when actual Jason-inspired mayhem is about to happen, not at various other unrelated scary times. Works pretty well! Marco Beltrani’s classic theme from The Omen (1976) is another very appropriate choice to set the demonic mood.
Many fear and many others love, the music of evil. Which depending on your sensibilities, could mean anything from Cradle of Filth to Chuck Mangione. Let us briefly survey some of its better-known pieces and practitioners on this special day.
Classical composers use music to tell stories, and many notorious pieces convey the presence of evil or the devil. Top of the list is the witches’ sabbath depicted in Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” (1867), better known in its later arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov and best-known for its use in the still-pretty-scary supernatural animated sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1941). Also a pretty groovy version as “Night on Disco Mountain” from Saturday Night Fever (1977). Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (1875), from his incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, is right up there. Peter Lorre’s child-killer Hans Beckert whistles it repeatedly in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), and bands from Duke Ellington’s to Electric Light Orchestra recorded it. Other well-known scary and supernatural pieces are chilling but not exactly approving—the part in Act 2 of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) where the funereal statue of Il Commendatore arrives at Don Giovanni’s dinner party to command him to repent his ways is eerie but represents the triumph of rectitude over bad behavior. Gounod’s (1859) opera of Goethe’s Faust similarly portrays dark forces as relatable but not to be embraced. The Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) text from the medieval Latin requiem mass has been set to haunting choral and orchestral arrangements by many composers including Verdi and Stravinsky. Perhaps the most desolate version is Mozart’s (1791), part of an unfinished requiem mass cut short by his own untimely death.
Hungarian composer Rezső Seress’ “Gloomy Sunday” (1933) helped create the modern version of the myth of an unlucky or ill-omened song that causes listeners to die or come to harm. Seress’ original lyrics conveyed despair over war and sin; poet Laszlo Javor added his own much more popular lyrics about love and death. Billie Holiday popularized an English-language version in 1941. The number of actual deaths caused by the admittedly morose song is difficult to verify, but the song’s jinxed reputation persists.
The tritone interval in music theory, composed of three adjacent whole tones, is traditionally considered a dissonance with an unsettling quality to be avoided, even so far as to be tarred the "Devil’s chord" or Diabolus in Musica. Modern composers such as Wagner and Debussy began adopting it for more expressive purposes than just to welcome Satan to the stage, and 20th-century composition schemes incorporated it wholesale such that it now hardly sounds verboten at all. You may be most familiar with it from druggy Beatles melodies like “Within You Without You” or “Blue Jay Way”.
There is a long and captivating tradition of celebrating death and evil in popular 20th-century music and beyond, from bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly meeting the devil at the crossroads to attain guitar mastery before suffering an early death, to morbid song-stories like Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” to John Fahey’s dark American primitive guitar masterworks. Showmen like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Screaming Lord Sutch took necromania to theatrical heights in the ‘50s and ‘60s, emerging from coffins and brandishing skulls.
Kids who grew up on this stuff wound up in bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, heavy sludge with an equally heavy occult fascination. Heavy metal (which Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne, in early interviews, would profess innocence of having created, preferring to describe their music as ‘heavy jazz’) went on to become rowdier and darker, culminating, so far, in our modern phenomenon of black metal. Taking its name from a seminal 1982 album by British rockers Venom, it wound up inspiring a corpse-painted legion of growling Norwegian misanthropes who got into burning down Christian churches and murdering one another. Their story is compellingly told in Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground; not for the faint of heart! They made a movie from the book as well.
Another offshoot of this same dark strain in popular music was goth, which more or less got started in the 1970s with dark glamsters Bauhaus (frontman Peter Murphy tends to disavow parenting the genre, much as Ozzy used to repudiate metal). Bands with dark clothing, cadaverous facepaint and synthesizers followed, like The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, 45 Grave and a whole graveyard more. Probably not much connection to the original Goths, a Germanic people who lived around what would now be the Ukraine and Romania towards the end of the Roman Empire and contributed to early medieval culture in Europe. But the name sounds cool!
Gotta close it out with the delightful theme from the vampire spoof TV show What We Do In the Shadows, “You’re Dead”, a forgotten oddball gem by Filipina-American folkie Norma Tanega, who was Dusty Springfield’s girlfriend and far ahead of her time, from her excellent 1966 record Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog.
Whatever your musical poison, happy listening this Friday the 13th!