Recently, Jenny Hval released the video for the first track from her awaited upcoming LP, Blood Bitch. The video — for first single “Female Vampire” — was a feat, in that it was a new enough way of presenting imagery we’ve seen so repeatedly in music videos that it risks being entirely hackneyed. But it’s Jenny Hval, who’s great, and whose video was thematically substantial and self-consciously rooted in past traditions — and lo and behold, it wasn’t hackneyed! But the release of “Female Vampire” did serve as a reminder of just how many videos feature artists — or whatever characters, figurines, blobs, etc. represent them in these clips — partaking in vaguely mystical rituals. Put together, it’s almost comical thinking about the rainbow of often desperately surrealist occult rituals that exist across the spectrum of musical dramas.
Because music videos are obviously too short to get particularly in-depth as far as plots go, and because they often are highly aestheticized in order to grab people’s attention over the course of four-or-so-minutes, musicians and directors seem to almost default to the easy bizarrerie of occult rituals as an immediate way of hitting three important music video notes: a) people who’re strikingly dressed, b) people who are doing something physically, and c) a requisite overwrought weirdness. But there may be some other reasons for the trend other than mere convenience: subconscious — or, let’s give people credit — conscious reincorporation of religious ritual into the artform that was once a byproduct of it.
Any shallow dive into music history or the Pope’s recent prog rock album Wake Up will tell you, the ties between music and religious ritual run deep and long and probably other penis words. Despite the bulk of popular music now existing as secular art/entertainment, though, religious ritualism still plays a huge part in the imagery surrounding music, perhaps because of this historic formal entwinement. Particularly for women artists, the incorporation of ritual often seems a feminist gesture — playing into and then twisting age-old patriarchal myths of deviant femininity to find agency, camaraderie and power in the present.
Below is a list of videos that’ve imagined occult rituals to match their music — to ends beautiful, haunting, and occasionally utterly stupid.
Jenny Hval — “Female Vampire”
Jenny Hval’s just-released “Female Vampire” video is the most recent example of occultist motifs being used in a music video. Shot on an iPhone and bearing an expressly contemporary low-budget flatness, the video addresses tropes of ’70s sexploitation films, in which the emphasis on the femininity of these hyperbolized rituals was used for purely salacious value. “Female Vampire” features Hval and her friends wandering around Oslo, and then banding together to perform what looks to be a skin-picking ritual, in which they drool, smear goop on each other’s faces, remove the goop and perhaps some skin along with it, in a frenzied reappropriation of fantasies of magical, sexualized femininity.
Fever Ray — “When I Grow Up”
Almost all of Fever Ray’s — and many of The Knife’s — videos lean towards the occult. “If I Had a Heart,” for example, looks to be the detritus of an occult ritual that ended in mass-death, but since whatever that ritual may have been isn’t shown, “When I Grow Up” seems more apt here. Magic, mystery, and mischief here are pulled from burgeoning female sexuality, with a teenage girl sneaking out of her house, enshrouded in bizarre garb to do an incantatory dance by her pool, churning the water with her movement, as a father looks on with a sense of foreboding and even, unsettlingly, desire.
Sharon Van Etten — “Magic Chords”
When asked in Pitchfork if there were any “outside influences” for her stark, unforgettable Rick Alverson-directed video for “Magic Chords,” the musician said, “I think of those old witch hunt paintings that you saw in history books, the old Winston, Salem artwork. I used to love going there and seeing where the witch trials took place.” Though the video might not explicitly depict any conjuring acts, or explicitly cast Van Etten as a Puritan witch, the undertones of the ways in which Puritanical stifling of sexuality created a society that, despite itself, was entirely sexually charged — and the ways in which the attempted ideological stifling and shaming of sexuality helped fuel a misogynist culture that used the idea of deviant women as their easy scapegoats. Here, Van Etten actually engages more of a cleansing ritual — taking herself and her bonnet down to the river and floating in it — but then she finds that, floating along with her, are the naked, corpselike bodies of numerous men and women.
Daddy — “Love in the Old Days”
In case you forgot, or wanted to forget, that on top of everything else, James Franco is also a founding member of a band called Daddy, and they, much like everyone else, also released a genericized occult music video. It sees a group of cheap animal-masked people (you’ll find them in almost all of these videos, as cults — or at least our imagined versions of them — love emulating ancient religious norms like zoolatry) bearing candles and crowding into what looks like an empty strip club (intercut with a flashing image of a pentagram!) and paying homage to one particular couple, as the repetitive chorus chants “Let’s fall in love like they did in the old days” and while the couple enters a slobbering lip-lock.
Tool — “Schism”
The alt-metal/prog rock group Tool’s inclusion on this list should come as little surprise — during their Grammy acceptance speech for the 7 minute+ song for Best Metal performance, drummer Danny Carey thanked Satan for the award, and frontman Maynard James Keenan allegedly had business cards that said “Jesus H. Christ.” Drawing so much influence as they did from metal, the band’s sound naturally connotes an air the genre’s most discussed religious practices: Satanism. For the “Schism” video, two impish figures float and dance possessedly around a small windowless chamber, until one yanks a cube of the other’s head out from its ear, and then some veins out from his neck, and from those veins another smaller imp with a mouth for a head is born, and wreaks all kinds of havoc. It is quite hard to tell exactly what the ritual is doing, or why it’s being performed — but that’s probably just because we’re not blanched claymation imps in a 2001 music video.
Little Mix — “Black Magic”
X-Factor-derived British girl group Little Mix made a The Craft/Sabrina the Teenage Witch-referencing music video for their song “Black Magic” — which also feels like a five-minute encapsulation of every other high school movie you’ve ever seen, plus some very glittery witchcraft (that’s aestheticized as less sinister than most of the videos you’ll find on the list.) The Little Mix members sit holding hands around a book as a geometric pattern on the page shoots streams of some product you might find at Claire’s around the girls, leading them to levitate and eventually attract high school boys, make professors do silly dances, and, yeah, that’s about it. Pairs well with Tool’s “Schism.”
Massive Attack and Young Fathers — Voodoo in My Blood
Ringan Ledwidge’s video for Massive Attack’s “Voodoo in My Blood” is an homage to Andrzej Żuławski’s Isabelle Adjani-starring horror movie, Possession, based particularly on that film’s famed scene of, well, possession in a subway. But Ledwidge adapted it to the times, applying the song’s voodoo theme to technology, and seeing a manipulative orb meet up with Rosamund Pike, ensnare her interest, then embarked on a stunningly choreographed ritual of possession.
Skrillex, Diplo and Justin Bieber — “Where Are Ü Now”
The video for “Where Are Ü Now” seems a very innocent exercise — Jack Ü invited fans to graffiti images of Justin Bieber, and then ultimately animated them together, to display frenetic figures and text skittering and flashing around and all over Justin Bieber’s form. However, some conspiracy theorists spent quite a bit of time looking at some of the individual graffitis in freeze-frame, and noted (probably to the delight of whomever did the graffitis) various Satanic and Illuminati images. Alas: is “Where Are Ü Now” a cute, populist gesture, or a Satanic indoctrination ritual for the Biebs? (I personally think the Satanic ritual happened earlier, and had to do with all those peeing incidents (the mop, the snow) a while back. Was that really a mop bucket, or a hole to hell?)
David Bowie — “Blackstar”
There’s so much to parse in David Bowie’s “Blackstar” video, particularly once it became clear that the video also comprised the musician’s contemplations of his much-more-pressing-than-thought mortality. But central to its, er, “plot,” is a tailed woman discovering the corpse of an astronaut, removing his inexplicably bejeweled skull and bringing it back to village for a ritualistic gathering; here, Bowie invokes a vision of the legacies both of humans and religions, contemplating, through the group’s usage of the astronaut’s body as a centerpiece for their ritual, the control, and lack thereof, that we may have over what we’ve left behind us.
Mellowhype — “64”
Odd Future duo Mellowhype (Hodgy Beats and Left Brain) mines the church for horror, seeing a funeral scene, presided over by a preacher with sinister enthusiasm (Left Brain), become the locale for some standard but nicely rendered Christianity-scare tropes: snakes slither across a creepy-contact-lensed rapping corpse (Hodgy Beats), funeral-goers sport animal masks, there are close-ups of the bible and some requisite creepy children.
Adanowsky — “Would You Be Mine” [NSFW]
Now here’s something that only the less-talented (but perhaps also just a little residually traumatized after having participated in Santa Sangre at age 6) spawn of The Holy Mountain director Alejandro Jodorowsky could make — and so he has. Adanowsky (or Adán Jodorowsky, when he’s feeling fun) is a musician who, in this self-directed video, has taken it upon himself to do a lot of sex-stuff — with inexplicable occult flourishes. For example, after kissing someone’s breasts, he lunges toward the floor and eats some raw meat off of it, then proceeds to perform cunnilingus on a woman holding an egg; once she’s cracked the egg from clutching too hard due to his sheer skill, he proceeds to a dose of analingus, which transforms him into a cat. His clothing is cut off, and he starts having sex with another cat woman, who gags up a crystal, while the Virgin Mary looks on. He holds a cross; the sex acts continue.
Antony and the Johnsons — “Epilspsy Is Dancing”
Antony and the Johnsons’ odd, painterly, somewhat comical (in a way that’s ambiguous in its intentions to be thus) “Epilepsy is Dancing” video (seeing Joanna Constantine as a woman who …has an epileptic fit, and then dances) plunges from an urban street scene into a sylvan, Ren-fair paganistic wonderland, with people dressed as flamboyant woodland creatures and dancing in orgiastic liberation.
Kanye West — Power
Kanye West’s moving painting (it’s one long, altered shot of Kanye that lasts 1:42) of a music video for “Power” — directed by Marco Brambilla — harnesses various images of ancient religious power, while the singer pretty much stands still, as if to suggest that the only ritual he needs to perform to self-deify is simply existing. Here, Kanye wears a massive Horus (both the sky god and a god of war) pendant, which dangles from a gold chain as the camera pulls back from the rapper, revealing a squad of Sistine Chapel-esque figures, angels, horned deities, and people pouring water upwards.
Björk — “Pagan Poetry”
Björk’s “Pagan Poetry” — about “a woman preparing herself for marriage and for her lover” — takes the idea of ritualism and sacrifice to a whole new level, with the video first showing a series of explicit sex acts, digitally altered in somewhat indiscernible squiggles, but all originating from images taken by Björk with a personal camera director Nick Knight gave her. From there, we get into the meat of the song (the “darkest pit in [Björk]”), and the video switches to an image of the singer with pearls pierced into her naked body, and a striking/frightening half-dress, while what must have been a very large fan blows her hair frantically and she chants her song of “pagan poetry” and needles are shown piercing more parts that may be ears of may be clitorises or who knows. Perhaps divorce rates would be lower if all marriages were prepared for with numerous piercings, half-dresses, strong fans and squiggled-out sex presumably with Matthew Barney.
Beyoncé — “Formation”
This one’s really a no-brainer. As Billboard noted, across many images from Lemonade, Beyoncé “modeled herself into a witch — of the healing variety — during a time when black women are in need of positive reinforcement, deep healing and transformation.” One of the most iconic images from the project (or, well, the precursor to the project, the “Formation” video, directed by Melina Matsoukas) is Beyoncé standing at the entrance to an old, dilapidated southern mansion, fashioned to look like a Creole witch, holding up two middle fingers — one of many varied, striking visualizations of black feminism seen across “Formation” and Lemonade. If considering this alongside so many of these other feminist videos about rituals, Beyoncé’s “coven,” really, is shown in the subsequent, less witch-oriented images, wherein a group of other black women have banded together, forming a line of resistance against racialized police violence.
Radiohead — “Burn the Witch”
Radiohead’s recent video applies the aesthetic of the British claymation kids’ series Trumpton to the story of The Wicker Man; the video, in which a police inspector comes into a town to investigate potentially occult oddities, only to find out that he’s actually been invited into the town to be the part of a ritual sacrifice, seems particularly pointed towards Brexit era England, and at the fallacies of nationalist ideas of British culture. In the quaint, friendly, old-world-normative British habitat in which these characters live (as opposed to the more outwardly eccentric, free-loving, celtic/Pagan-God worshipping island community of The Wicker Man), there’s a brewing, vicious desire to burn the outsider at the stake (or, you know, within a large wicker man-shaped cage). Similar to the film, the detective is given hints that it’s a young woman who’s to be sacrificed — and even observes a scene where (and here comes the first ritual) men sporting deer-skulls dance in circles with swords around a bound young woman. The other ritual, of course, is the murder of the detective inside the man made of the most unpleasant material for chairs.
Lykke Li — “Get Some”
Lykke Li’s “Get Some”‘s syllabically clunky lyrics “I’m your prostitute/ You gon’ get some” made the alt-pop single a strange and somewhat leaden listen. (“I Follow Rivers” was definitely Wounded Rhymes better single). But its video is paired with more fluid found imagery, of assorted voodoo rituals; Li said that she based the song on the mental power-play in Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and particularly the character Creta Kano — a “prostitute of the mind,” who mentally controls men’s fantasies. The video, similarly, sees Li engaging in a ritual (well, performing her song in a fanged bikini, then concocting a potion within a triangle of candles, in front of a backdrop of footage of old Hollywood exoticized tribalist notions of ritual) that’s clearly its own version of exerting spiritual control.
fka Twigs — “Glass and Patron”
In “Glass and Patron,” fka Twigs (who directed the video, as part of the film for her EP, M3LL155X) equates the power of voguing with a sort of witchery: deep in a fogged woods, where you’d expect to encounter, well, the central witch in The Witch, we’re instead shown a runway, on which Tahlia Barnett (Twigs) and a series of voguing masters (whose dance style inspired the whole EP) bedazzled in ornate futurist garb, engage in the ritual of self-presentation — which had of course been used by another pop-star with far less veneration to the form and the people who pioneered it. The video sees the powers of the ballroom-born dance manifested in comparison to the other mysterious forces one may find in portraits of the alluring, daunting mysteries of the woods.
Of Monsters and Men — “Crystals”
In Of Monsters and Men’s “Crystals” video (for a song oddly also featured in the trailer for The Good Dinosaur), lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir sports drooping beaded eyelashes; with the help of her band, she performs an earthy Frankenstein-esque ritual, wherein placing colorful shit in a machine, playing folk-pop, and lovingly tending to a patch of dirt in a warehouse leads to the birth of a lady-creature with crystal eyes.
Beyoncé — Haunted
Beating Lady Gaga at her own game, Beyoncé’s “Haunted” video latched on to the central, early 2010s trend of the salacious and attractive popified grotesque with elegance and poise. As she wanders through a haunted house (whose many chambers themselves are metaphoric for the “haunting” romance described in the song). Beyoncé mostly wanders through the video, an outsider glimpsing the strange anatomies of the space and its residents, until she herself becomes one, taking up a throne atop a bed and performing a vaguely occult, Sleep-No-More-ish seduction, with backup dancers relegated to the floor to writhe in possessed seduction, while occasionally a creepy old woman or a hoofed, masked man cuts into view.
Madonna — “Frozen”
Madonna’s “Frozen” video (actually directed by revered video artist Chris Cunningham, despite the video not being all that great0 was an outlet for the singer to present the personification of the vibe she was going for with her Ray of Light album: another version of the chameleonic pop-star, this Madonna was suddenly not the conically-breasted future Madonna, the Marilyn Monroe Madonna, or the lapsed Catholic Madonna, but rather a sort of genericized gothic Earth Goddess. (In the rather simple video, in which the singer waves her Mehndi-covered hands around in the Mojave Desert, then becomes multiple Madonnas, and some birds, and a dog.)
Grimes — “Dream Fortress”
Most of Grimes’ videos see an ensemble of ornately dressed characters (in her most recent videos for Art Angels tracks, Grimes herself plays many such characters) casually doing something abnormal, and most of said somethings seem to verge on glamorized, organized witchcraft. But her Halfaxa track “Dream Fortress” is perhaps the strongest example of this, seeing a group of women holding a chicken, a ferret (an animal that has a bit of a history in witch-lore), mystically hula hooping, raining chicken feathers on aforementioned ferret, and dancing with fire and snakes.
Joy Division — “Atmosphere”
Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” video shows a gaggle of cloaked, hooded figures congregating purposefully in a barren landscape — you know, the type of landscape that makes stuff that’s supposed to seem weird in music videos seem weird in music videos. It’s noteworthy that the ones not wearing black are sporting white burial shrouds: We see them beginning to carry a large silhouetted conic object and a large silhouetted rectangular object across a sparse beach, as though they’re doing reenactments of The Missing Piece; all of this is intercut with random still photos of Ian Curtis. The geometric objects being carried by the cloaked figures become larger until they reveal that they’re actually just gargantuan images of Curtis – seemingly meant as a memorial gesture. Indeed, the song, on which Curtis sings, was made just before his death in 1980, and the music video was actually made to accompany the single’s re-release in 1988.
Stepdad — “Got the Bite”
The pitch for this video — by someone named Titanic Sinclair — was allegedly “Eyes Wide Shut on the beach.” So, yeah.
Kate Bush — “The Dreaming”
The titular song from Kate Bush’s fourth album — much of which pretty much sounded like it was written by a possessed version of the singer (the album’s last track, “Get Out of My House,” was directly influenced by The Shining) — is stuffed with the sounds we think of as denoting ’80s horror: crudely manipulated vocals, alienating drum machines, unsettling animal noises, and even the hum of a didgeridoo. (The latter instrument ties into the song’s theme of the destruction of Aboriginal-owned land by non-native Australians in the search for uranium). In the video, Bush performs in tribal-futurist garb (this all now seems more uncomfortably essentialist than it must have to a likely predominantly white, 80s audience) with backup dancers, doing an 80s-dance ritual around a Stonehenge-like rock formation.
Beach House — “Wishes”
Beach House’s gorgeously Lynchian video (actually directed by Tim and Eric‘s Eric Warheim) for “Wishes” fittingly stars Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise. (He played [25-year-old SPOILER] Leland Palmer — the horrifying, possessed all-American-daddy figure on the series). This clip subverts music videos’ general penchant for including the occult — and general images of the fringes of society — by invoking the same atmosphere of mystery, darkness and worship (here, of the coach, played by Wise, who happens to ride a horse) to depict American high school athletics. (Beach House member Victoria Legrand had asked for three things from Wareheim: “Ray Wise, a horse, and a sports thing”). The thing that ties it to so many of the other videos on this list: the damn animal masks.
Florence and the Machine — “Drumming Song”
Firstly, this video looks like a Dan Brown novel decided to break into song. As something of a pop-song standard, Florence and the Machine’s “Drumming Song” is one big hyperbole about chemistry between a person and a lover, that’s “louder than sirens/louder than bells/sweeter than heaven/and hotter than hell,” and from these somewhat basic oppositional fundamental Christian comparisons comes a video that takes the oft-used polar afterlife locales quite literally: the reverence given to that spark in the song is visualized as an odd, old ecclesiastic ritual reimagined to include flaily dances and gold onesies.
Katy Perry — “Dark Horse”
Katy Perry’s irksomely casual culture-hopping antics saw her taking the form of an Egyptian priestess in her “Dark Horse” video, in which she plays “Katy Pätra,” a witch of Memphis, Egypt, who is courted by a series of Pharaoh suiters, each presenting their own gifts, which she rejects by turning the ineligible bachelors objects. (Yes, she even rejects the guy who offers her Hot Cheetos, albeit not after first eating some). Juicy J pops out of a sarcophagus to perform his verse, a suitor finally brings her a worthy gift — a pyramid, which she climbs, before sprouting wings and summoning a hot-pink “perfect storm.”
Tori Amos — “God”
Tori Amos trans-religious music video for her Under the Pink song “God,” directed by Melodie McDaniel, saw the musician singing with a candle, and sometimes rats, and sometimes snakes, against clips of various religious rituals — Orthodox Jewish women donning sheitels, an evangelist preacher being over-the-top at his pulpit, Hindu people at a temple filled with rats (if not the Karni Mata Temple — “Temple of Rats” — it seems meant to look like it). Amos, whose father is a Christian minister, juxtaposes these spiritual rituals with everyday ritualism: a woman shaving, a woman getting her hair done, a man shooting heroin.
Lana Del Rey — “Freak”
It was only a matter of time before Lana Del Rey made a music video about a cult; her vintage Los Angeles fetishism, coupled with her sometimes tragic lyrics about submission, would seem incomplete without a tale of midcentury Southern California culture’s odd ripeness for free-love-mind-body-hempy-granoly-tyrannical-cults. “Freak,” in which Del Rey lethargically (as though drugged by a cult leader!) sings the chorus, “Come to California/Be a freak like me too” filled that glaring void. As a generalized version of anything you might find on this list of L.A. cult leaders, Father John Misty appeared in the video (directed by Del Rey) playing a bearded cult leader in the video that also happens to include many minutes not set to Lana Del Rey, but rather, Debussy. There is kool-aid drinking, there is flower power, and then everyone floats in a body of water (as they also did in “Music to Watch Boys To”) for a few minutes as they deify Father John Misty.