It all began in 1933 when a Hungarian composer named Reszo Servess first wrote the melancholy classic, Gloomy Sunday. Born in Hungary in 1899, Servess was a largely self-taught musician with little to show for his career as a songwriter. One of the legends surrounding the song is that it was written in thirty minutes on a gloomy Sunday afternoon after Servess broke up with a girlfriend. The bleak lyrics that he had originally written for the song were later replaced with lyrics by his friend, Ladislas Javor. Even in its revised form, the lyrics “Gloomy is Sunday/With shadows I spend it all/My heart and I/Have decided to end it all” conveyed the underlying feeling of hopelessness and despair all too clearly.
While Gloomy Sunday attracted little notice at first, most sources agree that the first rash of suicides related to the song occurred in Hungary three years after it was written. A magazine article published in Time Magazine in 1936 described seventeen suicides that had been linked to the song including a shoemaker named Joseph Keller who had left a suicide note quoting the lyrics. Hungarian authorities later banned what international record companies would call the “Hungarian Suicide Song”.
The aggressive marketing campaign designed for the song's release played up its “spooky” reputation. While there were 79 subsequent recordings by American and British artists over the years, it was the Billie Holiday recording in 1941 that made Gloomy Sunday an international hit. To combat the song’s deadly reputation, the Holiday version was rewritten with an extra verse to provide a less despairing ending. Despite the changes, the urban legends surrounding the song and its legacy of death lingered for decades afterward. Not only did the song continue to be banned in Hungary but the British Broadcasting Corporation’s policy against playing the song in the U.K. was only lifted in 2002.
Given the urban legends that sprang up around the song, separating fact from fiction tends to be difficult. In a recent review of the Gloomy Sunday controversy, the rash of suicides in Hungary appear to be the most well-documented of the song-related deaths. Possible reasons for the song's association with suicide include the political and economic turmoil in Hungary during the 1930s and the elevated suicide rate among Hungarians compared to the rest of Europe. The song may well have helped reinforce preexisting feelings of hopelessness and despair in listeners.
On January 13, 1968, Reszo Servess, the composer who had started it all, committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his his apartment at the age of 67. His obituary noted that Servess had complained of the success of his song and despaired of ever writing another hit. The fact that the composer of the song committed suicide himself helped to strengthen its fatal reputation (just about every Internet page dedicated to the Gloomy Sunday “suicide epidemic” refers to Servess’ suicide).
While Gloomy Sunday is not the only song that has been linked to suicides, it is by far the most well-known and has even been made into a movie. Other examples of suicide related song include Metallica’s Fade to Black, Blink 182’s Adam’s Song, and Ozzy Ozbourne’s Suicide Solution (Ozbourne was sued by the parents of a teenager who had committed suicide while listening to the song). Copycat suicides have also been sparked by celebrity suicides such as Kurt Cobain and Yukiko Okada (the term Yukko syndrome was coined in Japan due to the rash of deaths that followed Okada’s suicide).
Music continues to have a powerful effect on listeners and the possible role of certain songs in shaping human behaviour needs to be recognized. While Gloomy Sunday 's deadly legacy is largely urban legend, there is enough substance to warn of the potential dangers of cultural influences on the suicidally depressed.
*A hat tip to Dr. Steven Stack of Michigan's Wayne State University for providing me with a reprint of his research.