Informant: “Do you know about ‘Gloomy Sunday?’”
Me: “No, what is it?”
Informant: “It’s a song, I think by a Hungarian or a European composer. Yeah, Hungarian, because they also call it the Hungarian Suicide Song. And the composer, there’s a story about him, that after writing it, he killed himself and it goes that if you listen to the song for too long, you’ll commit suicide too because it’s like so sad.
Billie Holiday did like a jazzier version of it; it’s not so depressing, and no one obviously is scared of killing themselves from that one.”
Me: “Where’d you hear about it?”
Informant: “I heard about it in high school. Someone just like, played that song for us and a bunch of people freaked out But there’s been a lot of reports about people dying when they hear that song, or they’ll die like holding the sheet music or something like that. And I think the composer himself did jump or a building, I think because um, he had never achieved any greatness after that one hit he had with ‘Gloomy Sunday.’”
Me: “Were you ever scared of the song’s legend?”
Informant: “Not really. Like, I believed that people would maybe commit suicide after listening to it, but I think they felt like that before and they just sort of got pushed over the edge after listening to this sad song over and over again on repeat.”
The fact that song with Hungarian origins managed to travel all the way to a Chinese school playground proves that children love to scare each other. There is something tantalizing about hearing a legend such as this one, and it naturally creates a environment in which students would dare each other to listen to the song. Competitions could arise perhaps, to see who can withstand listening to the sad song for the longest period of time, or as was the case with my informant, students would just play “Gloomy Sunday” to others in order to frighten them.
If the background of the song was only that the composer had committed suicide, then perhaps its folklore would not be so scary. But as it spread around the world, “Gloomy Sunday” naturally accumulated urban legends that either existed before and became tied to it, or were invented along with the song. Once a person hears that many people have committed suicide directly because one eerie song, then it’s certainly terrifying. When my informant was telling me about it, she herself seemed to mystify the song, almost revering its power in a way. She may have been putting on a show to scare me, in which case it certainly worked, or she herself had some lingering fears from when she first heard about it. Either way, I became too nervous to play the song even though I had originally wanted to hear what exactly made it so depressing.
This Hungarian song isn’t the only song or object that has been claimed to have the power to make people suicidal. There have been pictures that supposedly have a influence on people similar to “Gloomy Sunday,” and even a whole forest, the Aokigahara forest inJapan, has that sort of sway. The forest is one of the most popular places for suicides, and this leads to many urban and ghost stories about the place. Yet one must wonder, does the forest, or the picture, or song actually force people to kill themselves, or are suicidal people drawn to these objects regardless? Most likely, as “Gloomy Sunday” and the Aokigahara forest draw more attention, they will be credited for more deaths, and the cycle will continue.
The way to break this seemingly endless sequence is indeed by lightening the mood. Either the song can be used as a playground game or it can be rewritten into a more cheery melody, the way my informant says Billie Holiday did. No one will link Billie Holiday’s adaptation to mysterious deaths, and that will limit the legends, and potentially, if they really are true, the suicides themselves.