K-Pop and horror is an unlikely combination, but it makes a lot of sense. K-Pop relies heavily on background details or subtle things to communicate ideas, and horror works best when it’s details that communicate a sense of tension. The issue that arises is: how do you make the bands seem cool when you are also trying to creep people out? How do you get close to the edge without crossing the line?
Most bands get around this by taking horror tropes and not actually making the video scary. Which isn’t a bad thing! I’m all for comedy videos involving zombies or vampires! And this category actually gives us some interesting examples. T-ARA’s song “Lovey Dovey” is in this nebulous area where it’s mostly a comedy video but it plays with horror and zombie tropes to give a sense of unease, especially at the beginning. It’s also meant to be a callback to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which has comedic elements as well (though I’d argue it’s mostly straight horror.)
Even so, despite the general sense of unease, “Lovey Dovey” is more funny than scary. The girls continue dancing as zombies attack, until they’re eventually overrun. Then afterwards, they still continue dancing, and they’re still pretty cute zombies with minimal decay. It’s not a very frightening video, it’s just good fun. And that’s all right too! I love “Lovey Dovey” with all my heart.
But I’m a sucker for horror, so let’s look at something legitimately creepy.
(Also, I’ve written about Dreamcatcher so much that I’m not going to cover them here. I’m sorry in advance, I have a lot of articles on them already so I wanted to cover horror in other artists’ repertoires. If you are interested in Dreamcatcher, please click here!)
The Cross Gene Conundrum
Cross Gene is a band that kind of went under everyone’s radar. And it makes sense why: they kind of never broke out of music show hell, minus that one time their dance for “Amazing Bad Lady” was banned for being too sexual. (In fact, they’re the only boy group to ever have a dance banned.) After two out of the six members left the band (one of whom was Takuya, one of the band’s leaders) I find it extremely unlikely that another comeback will happen.
That said, Cross Gene did some crazy things when they were active. They’re probably best known for doing a whole zombie movie, ZEDD, to promote one song in the last three minuets. And the zombie movie is kind of…bad, honestly. Most of the background actors are terrible and the plot makes little to no sense. (Sorry to all the high school friends I forced to watch it when I was a hardcore stan.) But the band members are the best part of it – they all do a fantastic job. The mood shifts from generally lighthearted to downright heartbreaking halfway through, and their acting sells it, making it a fun watch. The zombie design is also pretty creepy, and there are some legitimate scares. So it’s honestly worth watching all 40 minutes, just don’t expect Train to Busan.
But we’re not actually going to talk about ZEDD. We’re going to talk about Cross Gene’s video “Black or White”.
“Black or White” is actually one of my favorite K-Pop videos because it completely shook me when I first saw it. The six members of Cross Gene are trapped in various nightmare situations – a car crash, a coffin, a warehouse chase, a creepy bedroom, an abandoned hospital, and a bathroom where all water turns to blood. The members of the band are plagued by these nightmares in various ways, but things take a turn for the worst when they’re killed by mirror versions of themselves.
“Black or White” is straight up creepy. Everything is grungy and dirty, but the members themselves – particularly their mirror counterparts – are mostly pristine until they’re bloodied. The video itself is sharpened to high heaven, so all the details are uncannily crisp. The death scenes are incredibly visual and creative as well as not being overly gory (save the one with the glass shard.) The sound design is also equally creepy, as most noises are not heard under the music, just the ones that maximize the emotional impact.
And the acting.
Oh my god, the acting.
I don’t know what Shin was smoking the day of filming, but when his mirror self drowns him in a blood filled sink, you believe it. You believe both him struggling to breathe and his mirror trying to kill him. Yongseok too is also a hidden gem, getting choked out by his mirror self and his eyes rolling back as he dies. All of the members are great actors (as evidenced by how they single-handedly prevent ZEDD from being unforgivably awful) so you just can’t look away. It’s honestly fantastic.
So far we have two examples on opposite ends of the horror spectrum. We have the fun, lighthearted “Lovey Dovey” and we have the dark, intense “Black or White”. But what other videos are scattered across the spectrum? Let’s look at three different interpretations of what horror can be:
If you haven’t seen SHINee’s “Married to the Music,” now is the time to stop and just have the experience. While the video is incredibly effective no matter how many times you’ve watched it, there’s something to be said about just watching on your own. So before you keep reading, stop and enjoy the surreal experience this video is.
Okay. Let’s get started.
“Married to the Music” is a bizarre music video. I don’t know if it’s scary with a capital S, but it’s definitely creepy, unsettling, unnerving…it’s something. But it’s still fun. It has a plot thread – a girl literally stealing body parts of the SHINee members to create a perfect boyfriend. But what actually makes it scary is the…weird stuff that goes on. In no particular order:
- Minho’s head getting set on fire
- Magic drinks that make the party appear/disappear at will
- A disoriented Onew getting his nose stolen
- Taemin’s eyes getting bashed out of his head
- Key’s head sliding off a knife then getting punted into the air while he continues singing
- A kiss ripping off Jonghyun’s lips
- Color changing cookies making Jonghyun puke confetti
- People dancing in the puke confetti
What actually makes this video weird aren’t overt horror aspects, though. Instead, it’s the actual filmmaking style that’s most bizarre. The video continuously changes styles, from tracking Onew as he fumbles around drunkenly to one-point perspective on Minho (and Key’s discarded head.) Bright colors juxtapose what should be fairly horrific visuals, which, while adding humor, also serve to make you feel a lot more disturbed. There’s also the fact that you never know what time of day it is or how time is passing, which just generally disorients the viewer. You don’t even know what time period it’s in based on the incredibly inconsistent costumes.
The collection of bright colors, disturbing imagery, and lack of consistency in visual style make a consistently bizarre music video. Will it give you nightmares? Probably not, but it gives you an experience, a thrill of watching something unlike anything else. It is incredibly visceral, but that actually contributes to the charm. Nothing like watching people rush to catch puke confetti when you’re having a bad day.
It’s no question that sometimes monsters are characterized as sexy or glamorous – that’s the whole premise of Twilight. Rather than being afraid of the unknown, some people find the mystery and ambiguity intriguing. And it’s easy to see the appeal – so of course K-Pop capitalizes on this as well.
One of the best examples of this is Sunmi’s “Full Moon”. Sunmi stars in the video (along with the rapper Lena) as a cerebral vampire girl in a nightgown, who bites the neck of a man (unsurprisingly.) We learn that he is paraplegic, and through a flashback, we also see that he knew Sunmi, or at least admired her from a distance. In the final moments of the video, the man transfers and awakens as a vampire, potentially curing him of his inability to walk.
The mythos of vampires in “Full Moon” is revealed mostly indirectly, but it works. Everything takes place during nighttime, so we can infer that this isn’t a sparkly situation. Sunmi and Lena have super speed, and Lena and the backup dancers can teleport. There’s also a lot of traditional vampire iconography, like coffins, standing on rooftops, and painful transformations. Most importantly though, Sunmi seems indifferent to the pain the man is going through, even smiling as he transforms, probably because she knows what he’s turning into.
The dance also has an important function in “Full Moon.” The cutaways to Sunmi’s dance sequences do more than show off her abilities, they establish how elegant and seductive she is when she’s not around humans. Assuming the other backup dancers are vampires or otherworldly beings, this is what Vampire Sunmi is like when completely in her element. This is the seductive world that the man will eventually find himself in when he awakens as a vampire and joins Sunmi.
Another addition to this category is 4minute’s “Volume Up,” which is light on the story but heavy on the aesthetic. It’s not really clear what the concept is – though you assume vampire because of HyunA’s red eyes – but everything is so beautiful to look at that you honestly don’t care. And it doesn’t seem random, it seems meticulous – there is a concept here, but they keep it mysterious. So while indirect about the kind of supernatural they’re working with, it still works effectively.
We can’t get through an article on horror without talking about VIXX. VIXX are unabashedly the untouched kings of K-Pop horror, largely because they span the whole range from outright scary to melancholy. But one of the things they are fantastic at is subtle, subdued horror, the kind that sits with you for a long time.
The example most of you are probably thinking of is “Voodoo Doll”. (I actually have an article on that video already, where I discuss the symbolism of an abusive relationship.) But we all know that “Voodoo Doll” is a tour de force of K-Pop horror. In fact, it’s arguably the first viable horror MV in the Korean Pop industry. In the spirit of keeping things new and fresh, we’re going to talk about two other videos – “Blossom Tears” and “Eternity”.
“Blossom Tears,” a duet with VIXX’s lead vocal Leo and another singer named Lyn, is a bit more obviously creepy. The music video follows a couple comprised of Leo and Lyn that we very quickly learn is abusive. Leo’s character – a fashion designer/tailor – is prone to violent fits of rage; while Lyn’s character – his girlfriend – tries to get through to him. Through small story hints – a bottle of pills here, a mysterious box there – we get a sense that Leo’s problems have been persistent throughout his life.
The climax of the video revolves around Leo finding Lyn dead in a bathtub. His pill bottle lies empty on the floor, surrounded by rose petals, and his box sits open next to the bathtub – it implies that Lyn discovered Leo’s dark secrets and decided to kill herself. However, what makes this video deeply unsettling is that it’s not that clear. Immediately before this, there was a scene where Lyn embraced Leo, and Leo looks at the dress he was making from across the room. His eyes are blank and predatory – it’s downright creepy.
The creepiness is compounded when we find out Leo has a shelf of preserved organs and turns Lyn into his mannequin so she can wear his dress.
“Blossom Tears” gets under your skin because it spends the entire duration of the video making you feel uneasy, and it isn’t until the end you learn what Leo is doing to all of his past girlfriends. And then, when the reveal comes, you’re like “UM. HOW ABOUT NO. THANKS.” It doesn’t need to be full of jump-scares or monsters. What makes it good is the fact that it’s not trying to be scary, but unnerving. The ending, where Lyn is wearing Leo’s dress in death, is particularly uncanny, and that makes it more disturbing.
“Eternity” is very similar in how it achieves a horror experience. This time featuring all six of the VIXX members, the video seems like it’s relatively happy at first. The members are shown with their girlfriends (all played by the same girl) in various situations (painting, dancing, playing piano, drinking coffee, or just teasing.) Because of the forlorn and intense expressions of the members while they sing, you do have a sense that the video it will end badly for everyone involved but you don’t know how. The aesthetic of the video itself also contributes to the feeling of unease, with the generally muted colors and perpetual blue making seemingly happy images feel more melancholy.
Then the girl turns to dust.
We see the members looking around for their girlfriend, leaving us thinking potentially that she’s just gone, maybe a ghost. But then Ravi is dancing with the air, in blissful ignorance, while the girl is watching him from across the room. We see N interacting with the air as well, though it’s only a glimpse in reverse. And lastly, Ken’s picture of the girl disappears in the final notes of the song, showing that the girl was never real to begin with.
This definitely counts as horror because it’s unabashedly eerie. It breaks your expectations of where the story is going towards the end and casts the rest of the video in a different light. The plot itself captures the nuance of the song, specifically tonally as it has both elements of cheerfulness and gloominess. It sticks with you long after you watch it, more than I would say “Blossom Tears” does. Both are excellent, but “Eternity” is the one that makes you contemplate your own existence when you’re done.
Horror is not a genre that is built exclusively on motifs and monsters – rather, it’s built on feelings of mystery and despair. While you wouldn’t say “Married to the Music” is necessarily straight-up horror, enough elements are pulled from the genre to make an unsettling viewing. Just because “Eternity” and “Full Moon” don’t necessarily adhere to typical genre conventions of horror doesn’t mean they aren’t considered a part of the genre either. The thrill of being scared, regardless of format – that’s part of the fun. Horror is an ambience of unease, not a jumpscare.