I know when I started this blog, I had some complaints about Universal’s launch of a live horror musical based on Creature from the Black La...

Horrifying Horror Musicals

I know when I started this blog, I had some complaints about Universal’s launch of a live horror musical based on Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The Broadway song and dance routine seemed like the ultimate indignity for Universal’s Creature, reminiscent of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) which pounded the final nail into the coffin of the classic monsters.

But looking at my iPod playlists, I am guilty of having in my possession the full soundtrack to Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Little Shop of Horrors, and Repo! The Genetic Opera. I’m a fan of non-horror musicals (The Producers, West Side Story etc.) and with my love of horror films it seems like a natural enough combination, but it got me thinking what is the appeal of the horror musical?

The musical/horror hybrid is tricky formula that, without the proper balance of elements can backfire. One example can be found with Sweeney Todd (2007), as horror fans flocked to theaters expecting the usual fare of blood, guts and gore. The designation of Todd as a “Demon Barber” and the blood-drenched teaser trailers added to the appeal, but as soon as Johnny Depp opened his mouth to sing it had some horror buffs in the audience asking “WTF?”

Conversely, die hard fans of the Stephen Sondheim musical found Tim Burton’s rendition to be too bloody despite efforts to stylize the gore and violence. Horror musicals usually have limited appeal in the theater and only become cult classics when they hit DVD and VHS. Sweeney Todd grossed only $9,300,805 in its opening weekend with a number 5 ranking while the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) bombed in theaters before hitting it big with midnight showings at small movie houses.

Once a horror musical develops a cult following, there is no stopping it. Repo! the Genetic Opera (2008) only premiered on seven screens in the US and Canada, but made $3,250 per screen it’s opening night. The success of the film in theaters prompted multiple Repo! Road Tours where cast and director Darren Lynn Bousman showed the film and did Q&A afterwards. Fan support has fueled rumors of a second and third film as Repo! Shadow Casts popped up across the United States and Canada, providing a live pantomime to the action taking place on the screen. The phenomenon is similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with some theaters selling participation bags so audiences can play along with the action of the film.

The result of the marriage between horror and the musical is often comedy. This can be seen in RHPS with Tim Curry’s "Sweet Transvestite" or in Repo! where audiences chuckle out loud to the Repo Man's rendition of “Thankless Job” as he guts a client with past due organs. These songs highlight that fear and laughter go hand in hand, a principle obvious to anyone who’s seen camp-fests like Sleepaway Camp (1983) or any of the Friday the 13th (1980) films.

As a result, the horror musical can be said to take its cue from cartoons like Disney’s Mickey Mouse in Haunted House (1929). In the cartoon, we watch as Mickey is forced by a figure resembling death to play the organ as a bevy of skeletons dance and tap out percussion on their bones. What would normally be a horrific experience, as evidenced by a similar scene in House on Haunted Hill, is transformed into a kid-friendly, musical extravaganza. The horror-musical ultimately capitalizes on the idea that laughter can be a coping mechanism for dealing with the horrors we see on the screen, whether it’s dancing skeletons, organ repossession or a demon barber.

Stay Tuned: Soon to follow, in-depth articles on Repo! The Genetic Opera * Sweeney Todd * Phantom of the Paradise*Phantom of the Opera*Little Shop of Horrors*Rocky Horror Picture Show*Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and shockingly more horror musicals!


  1. I love the combo of music and horror, Little Shop is one of my faves...a while back I posted this fake bit on my blog about a musical called, "Chainsaw". Mark my words, would it comes to fruition, it will be a big hit!

    Here's the piece on Chainsaw!-The Musical


  2. Good horror is very intricate, as are good musicals, so they fit well together when done right. I love me a good horror musical!

    But I'm not sure where you did your research because every friend of mine and any Sondheim/Sweeney Todd fans I've spoken to all approved of and enjoyed Burton's take, myself included. I was actually one of many that stood up for the gore. We recognized it as an expression and not ... well, your typical gore. The way blood spilled out of every victim was very important.

  3. I went and saw Sweeney Todd for my 30th and had an awesome time, I loved the stylised gore and of course Johnny! I have Repo and keep meaning to watch it, your post has spurred me on, must watch for my holidays.


  4. Pax,
    You are sneaky! It would have definitely fooled me. Are you a fan of Evil Dead the Musical? The two concepts kind of overlap. Chainsaw + music = fun

    I'm pulling those assertions from personal experience. I have a fair amount of friends who, as fans of the musical thought the gore was too much and some hardcore horror buffs who weren't feeling the music. I was trying to make the point that the horror musical fan needs to have a love of both for it to be an enjoyable experience.

    Ms Harker,
    Watch it immediately! You won't be sorry! The music is so addictive. "I'm infected by your genetics..."