🚨WARNING: For Halloween, KEXP is exploring the horrifying true stories behind some of the creepiest songs we play. Please note, this post contains highly disturbing and graphic content. Please continue at your own risk. 🚨
We are awakened with the axe
Night of the Living Dead at last
They have begun to shake the dirt
Wiping their shoulders from the earth
With a song title like "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!" (a title so long it wouldn't fit as a headline), you can kinda expect what you're getting into. Appearing on his 2005 concept album Illinois*, Sufjan Stevens celebrates the Land of Lincoln with over twenty songs inspired by people, places, and things in the great Midwest state. With the eerie chanting of "I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S!" and the soaring strings over a funky bass line, you can close your eyes and almost imagine the "Thriller"-esque dance choreography, making it an excellent track for Halloween.
(•sometimes appearing as Illinoise or Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE)
Corn and farms and tombs in Lemmon
Sailor Springs and all things feminine
Centerville and Old Metropolis
Shawneetown, you trade and topple us
But it turns out the living dead in this song are actually just the small cities throughout Illinois who suffered economic decline. Ghost towns. In an interview with Dusted Magazine, he explains:
Yeah, you know I have a feeling that some of these things — the average listener is probably not going to pick up on any of this stuff. That is really a litany of ghost towns. It's basically kind of dramatization of ghosts from old ghost towns being exhumed and coming to life and chanting their names. I think it's relevant because it's a quick summary of all these towns that were old industrial or mining towns. Some of them were urban centers and were really important, but then once the resources in the area were depleted, or the industry moved to major cities, then people would leave and abandon everything. The towns would collapse and then get plowed over and become farms. I'm interested in the cycle of civilizations, because where we live, it's city upon city, and civilization upon civilization. Even the apartment you live in, there were residents there before you, and they had maybe their own language, their own habits and culture, and before them, the previous generation. I feel like we're constantly compounding culture upon culture and society upon society; sometimes societies don't last, or they move on or get wiped out.
But then you take a song like "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." off the same album. There are no dramatic strikes of the violin and the word "Ahhhh!" doesn't appear in the title, but in its own quiet way, it's truly the scariest song on Illinois.
Even more, they were boys,
with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer who raped, tortured, and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Twenty-six of his victims were buried under the floorboards of his Norwood Park ranch house, while others were buried elsewhere on his property or discarded in the Des Plaines River.
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a slight of his hand, running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth
Against a delicately plucked acoustic guitar, Stevens starts off giving the listener a look at Gacy's childhood ("His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed") before beginning to detail the murders. One of the eeriest things about this song is the way Stevens tries to humanize a monster like Gacy. In a 2005 interview with Gapers Block, Stevens explains what he aimed to achieve with his lyrics:
I made a concerted effort to scrupulously evoke the series of events which led to his crime, and, considering the circumstances, that was not a pleasant task. In all the crime novels I'd skimmed and in all the news clippings I read, there was a deliberate obsession with finding the source of his depravity. What went wrong, everyone asked. What made him this way? Was it his abusive father? Was it a head injury? A doting mother?
I'm less interested in cause and effect, in terms of human iniquity. I believe we all have the capacity for murder. We are ruthless creatures. I felt insurmountable empathy not with his behavior, but with his nature, and there was nothing I could do to get around confessing that, however horrifying it sounds.
Looking back, I see another thing going on here. It's no mistake that the song follows a 9-minute diatribe against the pretenses of commerce, advertisement, and bad art [namely, "Come on! Feel the Illinoise!"]. John Wayne Gacy embodies the crime of disguise in the most human way possible.
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid
The song closes with Sufjan singing this troubling confession. Did this beloved songwriter really just compare himself to a serial killer? In an interview with Magnet Magazine, he confirms:
We all have the capacity to do what John Wayne Gacy did, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. I’m recognizing that and empathizing not with his behavior but with his nature. He had such social pretense. He was loved by his community; he was really socially and politically active. He was so well-liked that it was horrifying to find out about the stuff that he’d done. For me, that’s the American identity: how we talk about the advancement of civilization and progress and how we buttress it with advertising and promotion, but there’s a huge discrepancy between that and the actual America.
KEXP shares the story behind what is often called "the scariest song of all time."