Like any art form, music videos were bound to take a turn for the dark. When first conceived, the point of a video was to show off the band and maybe display how many models they could get in one place; by the early ’90s, music videos were short films all their own, packed with special effects, celebrity guests, and interesting subplots. However, not everyone can be Cyndi Lauper and Van Halen, and as art got darker and grittier, so did videos.
By 2020, some of the most disturbing and unsettling footage ever created has been for music videos. While most bands are content to throw a little fake blood and some feathers in there, others have definitely sought to go dark and weird with their visual art, in part because it will alienate most audiences — and attract the weirdos they want on their side.
Here are 13 of the most disturbing short films ever created to accompany a song…
The hominid dwells in the boiler room of a disused factory, a filthy curtain for his blanket. He cannot bear to look in the box, and yet finds himself opening it again and again. Stumbling uneasily past the exhibits, he discovers the Others, and eventually unveils the meat tunnel. If that sounds like a picnic to you, then the unnerving stop-motion video for Tool’s “Sober” is right up your alley. Just a warning that if you show this to your kids, they become it, so, you know, watch out.
Marilyn Manson, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
Imagine being loaded up with painkillers and shoved into a haunted house, only the ghosts are visions of How Your Kids Could Turn Out. This is how most of the world was first introduced to Marilyn Manson on TV — via this dreamy, disgusting, shit-smeared vision of America’s derelict future. With the God of Fuck traipsing around a feather-filled squat in a tutu, the video did an admirable job of alienating most of polite society — and drawing in all of those living below its surface, who felt suddenly understood.
Dir En Grey, “Obscure”
Let’s be honest: in the world of disturbing art, all other nations come in second to Japan. Dir En Grey keep up the time-honored of making the rest of us look like amateurs via the video for “Obscure,” which manages to surpass horror and move into pure psychological nightmare territory. To lock down one horrible thing is impossible here — is it the yokai courtesans worshipping the demonic penis? The not-quite-sewn-together Frankenstein girl dancing nude? Or just the raw trypophobia of watching tadpoles writhe in much? Whatever makes you cringe, this video has it, and stands as an eternal reminder that while dark shit may be cool here, it’s huge in Japan.
Tyler, the Creator, “Who Dat Boy”
Tyler, the Creator may not be The Pit’s normal fare, but the video for his track “Who Dat Boy” is disturbing enough that he earns a spot on this list. The vignette opens with Tyler blowing a portion of his face off; fortunately, A$AP Rocky is there to sew a new one on. Problem is, it’s the face of a white dude with a red beard, so suddenly you have Tyler lurching around his bougie neighborhood literally wearing a different-colored face. The imagery is the kind of disconcerting thing you see in your worst dreams, somewhere between Get Out and Re-Animator.
Primitive Man, “Loathe”
All of the videos by Denver’s Primitive Man are ugly and off-putting, but there’s a uniquely human side to “Loathe” that takes the cake. The story, if you want to call it that, follows a series of junkies desperately preying on one another in an abandoned building. Throughout the process, they flip off God, smoke crystal meth out of lightbulbs, cut out one another’s tongues, and generally watch life get worse. Sometimes, you don’t need blood and vomit to make a video upsetting — just other people.
Aphex Twin, “Come To Daddy”
The true horror of “Come to Daddy” is that you feel like you might have had this dream already. The footage from Aphex Twin‘s video — of victimized old women in ruined projects, of twisted creatures emerging from the TV set, of children with grown men’s faces — has a subliminal quality that taps into the depths of the human subconscious usually only explored during sleep. Even without the lyrics that reference Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, this would be a terrifying short horror film. Watch out for the screamer!
Igorrr, “Very Noise”
Rarely does a video throw the viewer so quickly from laughing their asses off to hunching their shoulders in disgust and confusion. But experimental artists Igorrr are all about challenging your expectations, and they do that pretty damn well with “Very Noise.” Is the thrusting flesh-thing a kickboxer? Why does the everyman chitter like that at the end? Are there people on that plane? And what about that hairless creature with the nose? If this collection of sentences has you intrigued, it’s time you watched the video and wonder what the fuck you just saw.
Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”
The beauty — and the terror — of Pearl Jam‘s “Jeremy” video is how it uses psychological imagery to get across a very disturbing, very real psychological state. Opening with the title cards ‘an affluent suburb. 3:30 in the afternoon. 64 degrees and cloudy,’ the video goes inside the mind of King Jeremy the Wicked, a little boy whose heart and mind are slowly cracking under the weight of the world. With freeze-frame shots of Jeremy’s classmates laughing (not for long) and Eddie Vedder’s demonic smile during the chorus, the footage takes viewers on a journey they’ll never forget — until it happens again somewhere in America.
Cattle Decapitation, “Forced Gender Reassignment”
If the title of the song didn’t already tip you off, this one gets fucked up. Liberal death squad Cattle Decapitation play out a political fantasy by portraying a crew of Westboro Baptist Church-esque homophobic protestors being subjected to their worst nightmare. As horrific as any ‘70s Italian cannibal movie, the video should not be viewed by people who can’t stomach blood, blasphemy, or on-camera genital mutilation. We’re not kidding — don’t fuck around with this video.
Imperial Triumphant, “Crushing The Idol”
On its face, Imperial Triumphant’s 2013 video is about some New York City prep school kids having the night of their life. But anyone who’s ever known NYC prep school kids knows just how unspeakable such a night can become, and over the course of a day this fun hangout quickly becomes a scene straight out of A Clockwork Orange. We’ll spare you the details, but just remember that four young boys with money left to their own devices is perhaps the scariest thing any human being has ever seen.
Dead Soft, “Step Out”
At first, Dead Soft’s video for “Step Out” isn’t all that upsetting, more a tribute to classic horror movies than anything else. But as the choruses ring out, things begin to build, until suddenly the viewer is subjected to flickering images of spasming phantoms by headlight and human mouths gushing blood. By the end, even the hypnotic indie rock tune around which the video is set begins to take on an unsettling edge, making one realize that every genre of music has a dark side.
Mr. Bungle, “Quote Unquote”
If you suffer from coulrophobia, chances are you already know to stay away from Mr. Bungle. Thankfully, the “Quote Unquote” video is ready to exploit any other fears and anxieties you might have, from an aversion to priests to a fear of dead bodies to the simple terror of thinking you’re about to get butchered with a bonesaw. Of course, the song is also a hymn to the undying power of John Travolta, so take this murder ride with a certain grain of salt.
The Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up”
No music video will ever have a reveal quite like The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” This video has an M. Night Shyamalan-level slap in the face at its end, the kind of thing that makes you both laugh out loud and yell, “Oh, fuck!” Most importantly, it makes you want to watch the video’s stampede of debauchery again and again, experiencing it through new eyes once you’ve witnessed that final shot. Masterful work, even if — or especially because — it leaves you questioning some of your values as you walk away from it.
Words by Chris Krovatin