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Haunted House of Balloons: Analyzing the Weeknd's Horror Obsession Through His Videos

Suspiria, The Shining, Jeepers Creepers, Oh my!

by Noisey Canada Staff
Oct 28 2016, 2:00pm

The influence of horror films has always played a crucial core to the figure known as The Weeknd. Since House of Balloons, callous references to the Nightmare on Elm Street were used to colour nightmarish stories of sex, drugs, and hedonism throughout his music, which has also lent itself in his videos. And by no coincidence either according to New York Times' Popcast who when talking about Abel's origins stated that "he and [Lamar Taylor, co-creator of XO's creative team] would make DIY "druggie horror films." The Weeknd himself has spoke on the influence of landmark horror and sci-fi auteurs such as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott on his work and those influences in tandem with more obscure films, shots have worked their way in everything from "Starboy" to "The Zone."

The result being short-form cinematic pieces that allow Weeknd to explore a variety of different moods and concepts. Most noticeably, a visual obsession with the graphic depiction of self-destruction through burial, car accidents, suicide, asphyxiation amongst a backdrop of macabre and nightmarish scenarios. But to quote him once again: "I usually don't like to 'spoon feed' my audience because I grew up idolizing story tellers who tell stories using symbolism, so it was in my nature to do the same" and in the spirit of the Halloween season we picked the videos that fit best visually and thematically under the umbrella of horror and examined the possible influences and symbolism throughout.

Wicked Games

Even on his debut mixtape, The Weeknd seemed obsessed with building a scary, sorta-mysterious mythology around himself, and his music. Of all his videos, "Wicked Games" may be most obviously indebted to horror cinema, at least in terms of straight-up, "spot the reference" type-stuff. The scantily-clad lady gyrating throughout sports a trench coat reminiscent of Tippi Hedren's jacket in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, and a hairdo styled after Gary Oldman's hopelessly romantic count in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The use of high-contrast light and shadow—chiaroscuro lighting, is what this is called in movies—is a hallmark of the early German Expressionist horror films of the 1920s, with the grab around 1:06 recalling F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. For more contemporary stuff, the shot of Tesfaye's head between a set of car headlights evokes John Carpenter's haunted automobile thriller Christine, while the empty industrial park at the end is sort of similar to the one used in the climax of Robocop. Granted, Robocop isn't technically a horror movie. Well, unless you consider how terrifying the thought of an unstoppable automated policeman is.

The Zone

Well, those eyes at the beginning certainly seem creepy. The nearest reference that comes to mind is the introductory scene of Paul Schrader's 1982 remake of Cat People , in which a woman is fucking a panther and their eyes look back at each other, then it cross-fades into the woman's descendant, many, many years later, while that David Bowie song about putting out fire with gasoliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine plays.

Twenty Eight

The "Twenty Eight" video starts off pretty strong by advising viewers that it contains graphic imagery. Scary stuff! From there, it opens on one of the most recognizable motifs of horror cinema: the spooky hallway. From Rosemary's Baby to Halloween,Suspiria, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and of course The Shining (whose influence seems to hang over the "Twenty Eight" video), long, narrow, empty halls have spiked all kinds of prickly tension. Who knows what horror lurks around some blind corner, or rattles behind a locked door?!

The interview sequence that makes of the video's centrepiece recalls David Cronenberg's Videodrome, especially with the stacks of monitors reflecting Tesfaye's image again and again. The image of a ghostly woman seemingly lit up by the reflection of a television set evokes similar scenes in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, or even the scene of the ghostly Samara crawling through a TV in the J-horror classic Ringu.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to see topless women gyrating to strobe lights without thinking, once again, of David Lynch. And especially the Bang Bang bar sequence in Fire Walk With Me. And in a similarly art-house-y register, the empty streets at the end conjure up memories of the manicured, sound-stage streets of New York City in Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Cant Feel My Face

The video accompanying the mega-single off of 2015's Beauty Behind the Madness feels suffused with a sustained ambiance of creepiness. It also makes a few (presumably) deliberate nods to various horror movies. When the Weeknd approaches the mic near the beginning of the video, it scene calls to mind the unforgettable "Club Silencio" sequence in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which some people count as a horror film.

The cheapo prom night backdrop reminds us of the infamous--spoiler forthcoming--pig's blood scene in Brian De Palma's 1976 film Carrie. And the sequence of Tesfaye dancing while on fire, which launched 100,000 "literally explosive performance!" jokes, can be considered a reference to Ghost Rider, the spookiest, badass-iest Marvel Comics hero. Sure. Why not, right?

Tell Your Friends

"Tell Your Friends" is another video that trades more generic tropes of horror than specific references. The setting feels close to sun-drenched "desert" horror movies like Near Dark , The Hills Have Eyes , Tremors and the Jeepers Creepers films. Likewise, the idea of burying someone alive is another common idea in horror films—or just cinema, writ large. See: Buried , Kill Bill Vol. 2 , or Casino . But it's deployed in the classic Dutch horror film The Vanishing , and the not-so-classic segment of the George Romero/Stephen King anthology horror movie Creepshow where Leslie Nielsen buries his cheating wife and her lover (Ted Danson) on the beach.

Oh and the pale guy pacing around in this video sort of looks like a generic "cool vampire" of the Blade variety. And the ending cops the dark-road-at-night motif, used prominently in David Lynch's Lost Highway, which while certainly more of a horror film than Mulholland Drive is still not really a horror film. Who decides what counts as a horror movie anyway? Is it us? If so, we say: who cares?!

Starboy


The Weeknd's collaboration with French electro doyens Daft Punk has some heavy horror vibes. And it makes sense. On their own, Daft Punk draw plenty of influences from the genre: from the Phantom of the Paradise-inspired headgear to their collaborations with spooky-disco godfather Giorgio Moroder, to the old Spike Jonze video for "Da Funk ," which is a better portrait of urban alienation than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

The "Starboy" track itself—especially the screechy intro—recalls Wendy Carlos' wonky, menacing soundtrack to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. But the video itself feels closer to the 1970's and 80's Italian 'giallo horror films of someone like 'Dario Argento. There's the shots of a killer wearing black gloves, long a hallmark of the 'giallo ' subgenre, as well as the appearance of an ominous black cat—like something out of, let's say, Lucio Fulci's 1981 film The Black Cat. There's also the classic "person being suffocated in a bag" gag, which evokes a similar scene in the 1973 Spanish horror film Sexy Cat.

Oh and Tesfaye dancing in an empty, well-appointed condo can't help but remind us of good ol' Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.


John Semley is a journalist who lectures about horror films at U of T. Follow him on Twitter.

Jabbari Weekes is the Noisey Canada Editor and just likes Park Chan-wook films. Follow him on Twitter.