Serial killers are responsible for less than 1% of murders in the US each year, and Scott Bonn, a sociologist at Drew University, estimates there are less than two dozen active at any given time. Yet, our fascination with this tiny, grisly asterisk to society endures, often dwarfing far larger problems, which he puts down to a “kind of cultural hysteria”.
This morbid fascination is a global phenomenon, for better or for worse, and most likely for worse, we can’t escape the psychological draw of the demimonde’s darkest characters. Songwriters are seemingly no different. The search for source material that spawns an interesting hit has led artists to the degenerate realms of everyone from Charles Manson to Jack the Ripper.
Below we’re looking at 10 incredible songs that have their roots in some of the darkest subjects to ever bedevil mankind. It’s a list that includes perhaps some more obvious contenders for the crown of a twisted storyteller but also some supreme shocks (spoiler alert: Randy Newman).
Somehow these artists have transfigured such atrocities into creative works that, like all good art, helps us to make sense of the world and offers a least some sort of deliverance from the subjects contained therein.
10 incredible songs inspired by serial killers:
‘Son of Sam’ by Elliott Smith
In the 1970s, New York City was besieged by the serial killer David Berkowitz who went by the name Son of Sam. In his derangement, he claimed that his neighbour’s dog was possessed by an ancient spirit that commanded him to shoot people. ‘Son of Sam’ killed six people.
Elliott Smith’s lyrics reference this “Couple killer each and every time”, “acting under orders from above”, “a clouded mind”, and even “Shiva” could be interpreted as the ancient bringer of death spirit that Berkowitz claimed a dog embodied.
Within the lyrics exists a twisted sense of discovery, that explores how we are capable of rationalising both good and evil to ourselves even in the extreme. This complex depth and the ever-captivating vocals of Smith make it an arresting piece of music.
‘Killing for Company’ by Swans
Part of our fascination with serial killers is due to the psychological degeneracy it takes to become so heinous. One of the most disturbing answers we find on this front is the case of Dennis Nilsen, a homosexual who claimed he strangled his 12-15 male victims out of extreme loneliness, hence the song’s title ‘Killing for Company’.
Once Nilsen had killed his victims, he would reportedly have sex with them, bath them, and then prop the cadavers up on the sofa as though they were watching TV with him. Swans capture the true darkness of Scotland’s most grisly crime chapter in a perturbing sound and even more unsettling lyrics.
‘In Germany Before the War’ by Randy Newman
Peter Kürten’s nickname of The Vampire of Düsseldorf tells you everything you need to know about his blood-lusting modus operandi. He attempted this hideous act on over 40 people, claiming the lives of at least nine between 1913 – 1929.
The master songsmith Randy Newman tells his tale as though it was a Peter Süskind novel, imbuing the darkness with poetry. “We lie beneath the autumn sky / My little golden girl and I / And she lies very still,” colour his crimes with a narrative, while the stirring melody and production flourishes add an eerie atmosphere like finely tune crime prose.
‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’ by Sufjan Stevens
There are no prizes for guessing which serial killer this one is about. The life of the infamous crown killer, who killed 33 young boys and buried them in the crawlspace under his home, has been studied intently. One of the questions that research has brought up is the extent to which a head trauma as a child could have altered his brain, which Sufjan Stevens picks up on with the lyric: “when the swing hit his head.”
Part of what makes this song so captivating is the incongruous mix of Stevens’ almost ethereally soft vocals and the abject horrors that such a sweet sound actually depicts. Never has a lyric like “Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid” sounded more inexplicably beguiling.
‘Nebraska’ by Bruce Springsteen
Once again, an almost comforting melody is coupled masterfully with a dark tale to create a complex and captivating piece of music. Charles Starkweather was 19 years old when he went on a murder spree in 1958, taking his 14-year-old girlfriend along with him. It is a tale that is also depicted masterfully by Terence Mallick in the iconic Badlands.
Both Springsteen and Mallick’s work depict the casual unspooling of horrors that Starkweather’s almost-comatose spree entailed; as the final line states, “They want to know why I did what I did / Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
‘The Revolution Blues’ by Neil Young
The paths of Charles Manson and Neil Young crossed long before this song was ever written. In a quirk of history, the two men once shared a jam session when Manson was an up-and-coming talent in the music industry before things turned horrifically sour.
The cult leader’s life has been eternalised many times over through movies, songs, books and every other medium possible, but naturally, few have the same spooky insight that Young has on the matter. In many ways, Young captures both the individual and the societal issues that led to heinous crimes that shocked Hollywood.
As Young said himself, “A few people were at this house on Sunset Boulevard, and the people were different. I didn’t know what it was; I was meeting them, and he was not a happy guy, but he seemed to have a hold on girls. It was the ugly side of the Maharishi. You know, there’s one side of the light, nice flowers and white robes and everything, and then there’s something that looks a lot like it but just isn’t it at all.”
‘Midnight Rambler’ by The Rolling Stones
Despite the fact the band have never publicly acknowledged the inspiration behind the song, it is widely speculated that the track is about the notorious serial killer known as the Boston Strangler; a criminal who besieged the Massachusetts area from 1962-64, killing at least eleven people, in a case that has recently been reopened.
The song itself nearly declares as much word for word, as Jagger yells: “Well, did you hear about the Boston…” just before ‘Strangler’ is cut off by a great surging guitar chord. From there on, the lyrics descent into ever-darkening detail as Jagger croons outlines to make your skin crawl with “jumping the garden wall” and “sticking a knife right down your throat.”
‘Heroin’ by Lana Del Rey
Although there are many songs that are inspired by serial killers directly, Lana Del Rey’s casual mention of “Manson” and “the family” shows just how strongly these figures have permeated the conscience of civilisation.
In a song about addiction and moving on, the reference colours the track with a sense of damnation and hints at the inescapability of domination either by narcotic means or otherwise. In her typical sultry stylings, Lana Del Rey illuminates the dark side of Hollywood in all its guises for which Manson has seemingly become the embodiment of.
‘Riders on the Storm’ by The Doors
While the sauntering atmospheric epic ‘Riders on the Storm’ might encapsulate so much more than just the killing spree of Billy Cook, there is no doubting that within the great doomed American tale, Cook is a prominent figure.
“There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirming like a toad,” Morrison croons out in reference to murderous hitchhiker Billy Cook who killed six people as he made his way between Missouri and California. This dark, murderous streak is not only woven into the lyrical tapestry, but it splatters the rolling journey of the melody with a damned undertone in what is one of the great counterculture tracks.
‘Fish’ by Tyler, The Creator
Rap is a genre with an inherent predilection for darkness, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the back catalogue of hip hop’s oddest little brother Tyler, The Creator. For the track ‘Fish’, he chose to use the serial killer Albert Fish to embody sexual perversions.
Albert Fish was a serial killer who was nicknamed the Moon Maniac as he claims to have killed, raped or eaten over 100 children in America before he was apprehended in 1934 and confessed to the abduction of Grace Budd and many others that subsequently came to life.
The mutilation and self-purgation reference that run throughout the manic stream of consciousness journey of Tyler’s song is not only in reference to Fish’s crimes, but the fact that the killer was riddled with needles that he had embedded within himself as some sort of unclear, sadomasochistic response.