Ethel Cain’s knack for telling horror stories

todayNovember 2, 2023 46 1

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Michael Ybarra

Music Journalist

TW: Mentions of cannibalism and murder

Trick or treat is perhaps one of the best phrases to be invented, for Halloween is filled with both. In fact, young adults’ obsession with horror melds trick and treat into one. Humanity has developed a taste for feeling scared, and it is impressive when creatives toe the line between terrible terror and artful expression.

Hayden Anhedonia is the perfect example of crafting a deliciously rich story with spooky undertones. Ethel Cain is the character Anhedonia chooses to embody when making music, a costume of sorts. Cain’s story, born from intricate lore, takes place in the 1990s when she meets an untimely demise, eaten by the lover she ran away with.

Inherently, Cain’s story is tragic and terrifying, making this piece of art perfect for the consumption of horror-hungry listeners.

Two tracks Anhedonia has released, one from Preacher’s Daughter and the other a single unrelated to her debut album, are particularly frightening in their own ways. These tracks show Anhedonia’s prowess when conceptualizing and translating chilling stories, and they are likely to leave listeners salivating for more.


Named after the third section of the ninth layer of hell, the section designed for the traitorous, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ptolemaea is the climax of Cain’s story in Preacher’s Daughter. After being repeatedly put on narcotics by her lover, doubling as her pimp, Cain seems to wake up in a haze, hearing strange voices and flies buzzing, alluding to her near death.

The voice seems to be her lover, now driven by bloodlust, and he invades the listener’s ears. From the beginning, Anhedonia’s production choices (eerie knocks, muted, miscellaneous clicks and elongated, low-pitched moans) characterize the song as something plucked from a nightmare.

When Cain begins to sing, she sounds like a quiet, innocent, helpless animal before a lush electric guitar launches the song into a dirge. After Cain loses her strength to lament her situation, her lover’s voice returns, backed by the same moans. Cain begins a mostly one-sided conversation with herself while her lover interjects, giving her various instructions.

Becoming afraid, Cain begins telling her lover to stop looking at her and stop whatever he is about to do. Sparse drum beats and high-pitched plucked guitar foreshadow her lover’s betrayal, moments away. Cain begins obsessively begging her lover to stop over and over again as he approaches. Finally, Cain utters one last protestation in the form of a bloodcurdling scream, and guitars return with full force while her lover says, “I am the face of love’s rage.”

A chaotic instrumental section follows, rendering the listener useless in any attempt to help Cain and their imagination is allowed to conceptualize what is happening to her, however horrific it may be. 

The drum strikes suddenly slow. Then, a cacophony of guitars strums and sustains before stopping in between the lover’s final remarks to Cain, revealing himself as a twisted monster, almost as if possessed by death himself.

Guitar feedback abruptly stops, and the listener can hear a TV faintly in the background, confirming Cain’s attempt to protest her downfall has failed, a silent end to this treacherous deed.

This is not the end of Cain’s story, but Anhedonia sure knows how to craft a musical atmosphere, particularly one that sends goosebumps across the listener’s skin. Cain’s story continues in the afterlife, as a ghost. 

For the full lore behind Preacher’s Daughter, click here.

Famous Last Words

Anhedonia’s most recent release was inspired by the film Bones and All, which depicts a bizarre coming of age through the lens of a girl, Taylor Russel, who runs away from home and falls in love with another “eater,” played by Thimothée Chalamet.

Full of trials and tribulations, Russel’s journey involves learning more about her hungry urges, and it ends with her boyfriend being stabbed. Unable to call the police in this precarious situation, Lee, Chalamet’s character, urges Marren to eat him, for he wants to be with her always. 

It is an unconventional tragedy, but the love story in Bones and All is the subject of Anhedonia’s three-minute opus, and it represents a tame and mundane spookiness as the minimalistic instrumentation puts the listener in a trance. A rolling motor runs in the background, reminiscent of a film reel clicking, and Anhedonia’s vocals perfectly match the nostalgic feel of the movie. 

Lyrically, the song is a ballad to Marren, told from Lee’s perspective. Their intimate connection becomes palpable as Cain sings how Lee would starve to death if it meant they could be together forever. The last verse even replicates their final conversation where he asks his girlfriend to eat him. Here, Anhedonia subverts the ballad genre and adapts it to a unique, more macabre subject.

Marren’s story is much like Cain’s, running away from home, finding a lover, tragedy striking, and Cain seems to recognize their similarities while she sings. Anhedonia is the perfect mouthpiece for these complex, ethically gray characters, and, through Cain, she walks the line between the living and the dead with ease.

Ethel Cain is a ghost, one of the oldest supernatural entities, and she exists as a way for Anhedonia to explore themes of religious trauma, familial relations and cyclical tragedy. A lover of horror herself, it is no wonder Anhedonia incorporates frightening themes into her music. The experience is distinctive and all-encompassing.

Ethel Cain awaits to tell her story and others like it. Listeners need only to steel themselves and press play.

Written by: Danielle De Lucia

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