Compared to other cultural movements or musical styles, rock & roll is just a baby; it's only a few generations old. But, in those few short decades of existence, rock music has arguably changed the world like no other art form has.
It's altered more than music, though: it's also changed occult history. In the past sixty years, rock music has produced stories of ghostly visits, tales of demonic encounters, lists of curse victims, and accounts of just about every type of paranormal phenomena in existence. One question then presents itself: Why is the rock & roll genre so haunted?
The clues to why rock is haunted, in fact, are tied to one of rock's first stars, as well as one of the first victims of its supposed occult powers. Robert Johnson (who some call the grand daddy of rock & roll) was once a so-so guitar player—and that's a generous assessment—who stalked blues clubs and juke joints along the back roads and in the depths of the Mississippi Delta. He was desperately seeking recognition as a bonafide bluesman, and therefore be entitled to the beautiful women and generously-provided booze that was usually bestowed on those blues legends (who were really an early version of today's rock stars).
But, it wasn't meant to be. The untalented Johnson was rebuffed by club owners and rejected by his fellow musicians. He just wasn't good enough—that was, however, until Johnson decided to pay a visit to the crossroads.
After a mysterious year of absence, blues historians say that Johnson returned and was soon showing off masterful guitar licks and chops to adoring, yet unbelieving audiences. Some of his contemporaries said that it wasn't masterful, it was diabolical. Word quickly spread that Johnson made a pact with the devil at the crossroads. In exchange for talent, fame and fortune, Johnson gave the devil his soul. When Johnson was about 27, the devil came to collect on the Faustian bargain. The bluesman died after a violent illness. Several rock occult themes began with his death.
For starters, Johnson was one of the first modern musicians to claim to have swapped his soul for talent and fame, but other rock musicians soon claimed to have made their own visit to the crossroads. Rumors have swirled that rock stars such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon made similar deals.
Johnson may have also been the founding member of the "27 Club." Throughout rock history, an unusual number of rock stars take their final curtain call at age 27. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison are three who died at that young age. Most recently, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse carried on the morbid tradition.
Finally, based on the testimony from several witnesses who have scoured the scene of some of Johnson's famous shows and explored the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi (where he's alleged to had his confab with the devil), Johnson is certainly one of the first, but definitely not the last, rock & roll ghost. The bluesman's ghost and other spirits still walk the dusty Delta roads, believers say.
Johnson was a pioneer. As his blues merged with country music and gospel to create rock & roll, other artists stepped onto the stage—and into the paranormal. Lubbock, Texas-born Buddy Holly may be the first rock and roller to become a true rock artist. While the entertainment business quickly trotted out idols to be adored by millions of teeny-boppers, Holly saw rock as an art form and considered songwriting as a craft. He wrote, produced, and performed his own songs. On Feb. 3, 1959—"The Day the Music Died"—Holly, along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The world of rock music was thrown into a period of grieving—and mediocrity—that would take years and the infectious melodies of a Liverpool, England band before it would fully recover.
There are those who say that the field where Holly died, as well as some of the venues he used to play, are still haunted by his presence. Other rock occult theorists suggest that several other musicians who were close to Holly also died in mysterious circumstances, an effect now referred to as "The Buddy Holly Curse."
By the mid-1960s, rock recovered and then blossomed under the guidance of The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and other musical innovators who took the stage during this tumultuous decade. These rock stars lived a lot like their songs: fast and hard. By the end of the decade, many had left the stage—permanently. But their spirits remained. Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison (the lead singer for The Doors) both became new members of rock's "27 Club" when they died in the early 1970s, and also are subjects of several ghost stories. Joplin supposedly haunts a hotel in California, not far from her former studio, and Morrison haunts both his childhood home and—as weird as it sounds—the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant.
While most dismiss these stories about haunted bathrooms and supernatural studios as modern spins on old folk tales or just hoaxes, the stories about the home once owned by "Mama" Cass Elliot, a member of the smash 1960s group The Mamas and The Papas, seem to be more difficult to discount. People who have lived in her former Beverly Hills mansion (including stars like comedian Dan Aykroyd and actress Beverly D'Angelo) have encountered strange activity when they lived in the home. Jewelry moves across furniture on its own, according to a few reports, and a presence has even been known to pop into bed with stunned current owners.
These bizarre tales of rock ghosts and curses aren't stuck in the Sixties. In fact, these accounts of the paranormal continue. The ghosts of two of recent rock & roll's biggest and most volatile stars are reportedly still haunting their homes and hangouts. Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, who both not-so coincidentally died at age 27, have left their paranormal mark on the after world, just as they did the real world. People attribute strange lights and orbs around a park that is mere feet away from the site of Cobain's suicide to the singer's presence. The ghost of Winehouse has been so unnerving to friends and family that it allegedly chased her former lover from the residence.
Those stories are only the tip of rock and roll's supernatural legacy. But again we come back to the question of why: why is rock & roll so haunted? There are several theories. One is that these stories are a new type of myth and folklore. Rock & roll is unique because it's an amalgamation of cultures and spiritual beliefs— both African and European. It carries on pieces of those rich cultural legacies. Most folk tales in these cultures revolve around strong personalities: think Davy Crockett and Casey Jones. Maybe rock stars have the same character and the same public visibility as the subjects of tall tales. Ghost stories and legends of evil curses, then, are simply a phenomena of popular culture.
Another theory is that these stories are a reflection of the love that fans have for their "idols." Ghost stories mean that people we love haven't really left for good, which may give fans a chance to believe that their beloved musicians live again.
Finally, it could be that these stories reveal that rock musicians are more than just "strong" personalities; they are magical personalities. You only have to see the medicine man antics of Jim Morrison, or hear the wizardry of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to recognize that rock stars are the modern equivalent of shamans who managed to travel between the veil that separates our world from other dimensions.
Whether it's actual paranormal activity, or just folklore, that's for you to decide. But, as long as fans maintain the music's rich heritage of ghost stories and remain fascinated by its tales of curses and hexes, one thing is certain: rock & roll will never die.
Matthew L. Swayne (State College, PA) is a journalist who currently works as a research writer at Penn State. He has also worked on writing projects with Paranormal State's Eilfie Music. Matthew is the author of five books, ...