1983 was a landmark year for music videos. MTV had just become a major cultural force and studios realized the marketing potential videos had for pushing album sales. Up until this point, videos were more or less hum-drum affairs, featuring bands lip-syncing their tunes and little else. At best, fans could hope for some exciting live footage.
But all that changed when Michael Jackson’s Thriller hit their airways. Suddenly, the true cinematic potential of music videos became apparent; these weren’t just a means of selling albums, these were works of art, as captivating and inventive as any TV show or movie. While Thriller is seen as the beginning of a movement, it was one of several big-production, high concept videos that began dropping in the early 1980.
Related Article: 10 Chilling Facts About Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”
Many musicians and video-artists were inspired by Thriller’s horror elements and sought to reproduce this chilling aesthetic, resulting in a slew of creepers. Other video directors, however, went into bizarre, experimental territory. Though not intended inspire fear, some of these offerings were nonetheless unintentionally disturbing!
Take a stroll down Memory Lane with a look at 15 bizarre and scary music videos from the 1980s. We’re excluding songs that were written specifically for horror movies, so don’t expect The Fat Boys’ Are You Ready for Freddy or Dokken’s Dream Warriors. Have a watch and let us know what you think in the Comments section! Which of these videos do you find most disturbing? Are there other bizarre music videos from the 1980s that deserve a shout-out? Let’s discuss!
Thriller by Michael Jackson (December 1983, Directed by John Landis)
We’ve covered Thriller extensively at Horror Freak News, not to mention in the intro to this article, so we’ll keep it brief. Besides, Michael Jackson’s zombie banger is one of the most well know videos ever made, so there probably isn’t much you don’t already know. Still, it has to be noted that the creative force behind this boundary-pushing masterpiece was John Landis (An American Werewolf in London).
Related Article: Synthwave Cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Brings Creepy Twist to a Halloween Classic
Dancing with Myself by Billy Idol (1983, Directed by Tobe Hooper)
Not long after the release of The Funhouse, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself. In fact, several of the animatronic creepers that populated Fun House appear in the video (around 50 seconds in). Like Thriller, Dancing with Myself also features dancing zombies, though this one takes place in a futuristic dystopia that give it a completely unique spin.
One by Metallica (1989, Directed by Bill Pope and Michael Salomon)
Metalica’s first music video remains their most chilling (with Enter Sandman and Unforgiven coming in a close 2nd and 3rd respectively). The video is intercut with clips from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun (written and directed by Dalton Trumbo); this serves as a means of explaining the song’s lyrics while creating nightmarish surrealism. You begin to feel the hopeless isolation of the song’s tragic protagonist, and the video builds in intensity to the point of inducing a panic attack.
Related Article: Sock Puppet Parody of “Master of Puppets” is Practically Perfect
Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) by Mike & the Mechanics (1985, Directed by James Yukich)
Though Silent Running by Mike & the Mechanics was chosen for the On Dangerous Ground aka Choke Canyon soundtrack (and intercuts clips from the film in the video) it tells a completely unique (and bizarre) story. It has to do with a lost astronaut attempting to telepathically warn his family of a coming war. The bright, soaring synthesizers are juxtaposed against stark lyrics promising an apocalyptic battle brewing.
Mr. Roboto by Styx (1983, Directed by Brian Gibson)
Mr. Roboto is part of a loosely assembled rock opera composed of tracks from the Styx album Kilroy Was Here. Per Wikipedia: [Killroy Was Here] tells the story of Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (ROCK), and Kilroy (as played by keyboardist Dennis DeYoung), a rock and roll performer who was placed in a futuristic prison for “rock and roll misfits” by the anti-rock-and-roll group the Majority for Musical Morality (MMM) and its founder Dr. Everett Righteous (played by guitarist James Young). The Roboto is a model of robot which does menial jobs in the prison. Kilroy escapes the prison by overpowering a Roboto prison guard and hiding inside its emptied-out metal shell.” Yes, it’s super-cheese, but the Robot costume was actually created by horror FX pioneer Stan Winston!
Lullaby by The Cure (1989, Directed by Tim Pope)
While fans debate the true meaning of Lullaby, the video is a chilling manifestation of childhood trauma while also working as a compelling metaphor for sleep paralysis. Robert Smith remains locked in bed, as though unable to move, as a sinister “Spider Man” stalks him, lurking in the darkness. It almost feels like we’ve fallen into “The Further”, the ghostly alternate dimension featured in the Insidious franchise. Smith’s voice is a trembling whisper, as though he’s too petrified to scream out loud and the video culminates in hopelessness when the singer is devoured by a gigantic, hairy insect.
Don’t Come Around Here No More by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1985, Directed by Jeff Stein)
Even as a kid, I always thought Alice and Wonderland was kind of scary. Alice’s lack of control made me nervous, as she faced down potentially fatal threats at every turn. In 1985, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tapped into the dread normally glossed over in animated versions of Alice and Wonderland, creating something truly nightmarish. And yes, that’s Bob Dylan as the hookah-smoking caterpillar with freakishly long fingernails!
Down in It by Nine Inch Nails (1989, Directed by Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes)
On the surface, the strobing cacophony of the video for Down in It seems like little more than a stream of consciousness Lynchian nightmare—but there is a story to decipher. Trent Reznor finds himself being chased through a warehouse district by a couple of thugs. As the video builds to climax, they pursue him to the roof of a building a force him to commit suicide. The resistance the band got from MTV is nothing compared to the F.B.I. investigation that was launched when someone thought the video was a snuff film. Read about it in the link below.
Related Article: Broken and the “Snuff Films” of Nine Inch Nails
Wild Boys by Duran Duran (1984, Directed by Russell Mulcahy)
While they had built their reputation as pretty-boys producing music videos that bordered on soft-core pornography, Duran Duran took a drastic turn with Wild Boys, a production that cost an (at that time) unprecedented 1M pounds to make. Filmed at Britain’s famed “007 Stage” at Pinewood Studios (which they completely flooded) each member of the band is subjected to torture in an apocalyptic dystopia.
Bark at the Moon by Ozzy Osbourne (November 1983, Directed by Carolyn Raskin)
Michael Jackson wasn’t the only music superstar transforming into a werewolf, and some even believe Ozzy Osbourne did it better in Bark at the Moon. The video combines lycanthropic tropes with Jekyll & Hyde motifs, portraying the Oz Man as a Victorian-era mad scientist. The beast within in a metaphor for personal and artistic freedoms.
Land of Confusion by Genesis (1986, Directed by John Lloyd and James Yukich)
The video for Land of Confusion is populated by puppets produced by the British television show Spitting Image. I’m certain the band intended it to be funny, but it’s a disturbing journey into the darkest pits of The Uncanny Valley!
Total Eclipse of The Heart by Bonnie Tyler (1983, Directed by Russell Mulcahy)
Most of Total Eclipse of the Heart features Bonnie Tyler running around a Gothic mansion reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, but things take a disturbing turn when the Children of the Damned emerge from The Fog to sing along. Yikes!
Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell (1984, Directed by Francis Delia)
Somebody’s Watching Me is self-consciously paranoid, so people probably expected a funny video with an obligatory nod to Psycho. But director Francis Delia actually creates a disturbing story about an undead stalker that actually packs a punch. Like Thriller and Dancing with Myself, Somebody’s Watching Me proved years ahead of its time for the inclusion of zombies—the 21st Century’s favorite creepers.
Take on Me by Aha! (1985, Directed by Steve Barron)
Yes, Take on Me is pure pop cheese, and yes, the video has a happy ending, but I can’t be the only one who was creeped out by the idea of being sucked into a comic book—can I? I still feel a palpable sense of danger every time I watch this one.
Orange Crush by R.E.M. (1988, Directed by Matt Mahurin)
R.E.M. lyrics have always been notoriously difficult to decipher, but with video makes it clear this song isn’t about soda pop. Rather, Orange Crush refers to the slang term for Agent Orange, a volatile deforesting chemical used extensively throughout the Vietnam War. The juxtaposition of a man wearing dog tags digging in the dirt with a child running down an asphalt road is a coded indictment of chemical warfare and a poignant reminder of the lingering, devastating after-effects of armed conflict.