1. Owl City, “Dental Care”
Everyone from The Beatles (on “Savoy Truffle”) to Death Cab For Cutie (on “Crooked Teeth”) has used dental malaise as subject matter for their songs. But on “Dental Care”—a track by Owl City, an indie-pop band strongly influenced by Death Cab side-project The Postal Service—that malaise gets refocused on those who are meant to fix bad teeth: dentists. Over a bouncy keyboard vamp, Owl City mastermind Adam Young recounts a not-so-bouncy trip to the tooth doctor: “I’ve been to the dentist a thousand times / So I know the drill,” quips Young before chirping, “But somehow I still get the chills.” It’s far from the scariest depiction of dentistry in pop culture, but the song’s melancholy subtext hints at the unease all sane people ought to feel when it comes time to take the chair.
2. Alice Cooper, “Unfinished Sweet”
Alice Cooper has long been the king of shock-rock, and his horrific songs and stage shows are legendary. But on his song “Unfinished Sweet,” the frightful frontman tackles a post-Halloween nightmare: With a head full of rotten, aching, candy-coated teeth, he heads to the dentist. Rather than being a kindly doctor, though, “He looks in my mouth, and then he starts to gloat / He says my teeth are okay, but my gums gotta go.” It also appears that the dentist’s practices go from bad straight to the root of sadism: “De Sade’s gonna live in my mouth tonight,” Cooper snarls. He then injects a dentist-drill sound effect into the song, just to drive the point home.
3. Cranium, “Dentist Of Death”
The sound of a drill is a common device in scary-dentist songs. That goes double for Cranium’s speed-metal anthem “Dentist Of Death.” Like a silly answer to Slayer’s “Angel Of Death”—only with Cranium’s evil dentist taking the place of Josef Mengele—the song details a visit in which “Tongue and teeth fly in the air / The drill is alive inside your head / You shit yourself, and you’re strapped in the chair / Your brain explodes with pain, and then you’re dead.” On the plus side, no more flossing!
4. Psychostick, “The Root Of All Evil”
Some bands sample a dentist’s drill, while others take it a step further: making music that’s just as grating as a dentist’s drill. The intentionally goofy nü-metal band Psychostick consummates this marriage of annoyance on “The Root Of All Evil.” Playing on the dual meaning of “root” like the clever, clever men that they are, the band’s members craft a numbingly dumb amalgam of wordplay and jackhammer riffs: After navigating a rat’s maze of insurance forms and waiting-room anxiety, the song’s protagonist enters the dentist’s office, where “smooth jazz adds to my misery (easy listening) / While they are raping my poor teeth.”
5. Circa Survive, “The Dentist”
Unlike Psychostick, Circa Survive is not a joke band by trade. But on April Fools’ Day 2009, the post-hardcore outfit decided to pull a prank—by leaking its “new single,” a track called “The Dentist.” Instead of being a serious teaser for a new album, though, the track is a dubby, disjointed jam full of singer Anthony Green’s half-assed rambling about just how sick and horrible dentists are. “Sometimes they make little kids cry,” he screeches. “Dentists, you’re not my friend / You make my gums bleed.” Green, however, refuses to let the dental terrorists win; rather than following their tyrannical advice on oral hygiene, he brags, “I ate some birthday cake for breakfast.”
6. Galahad, “Dentist Song”
Most progressive rock bands are content to sing about lofty subjects such as wizards, outer space, and wizards in outer space. Galahad had something much more earthly in mind when the veteran British band wrote “Dentist Song.” Although the music sounds as elfin, majestic, and melodic as most of Galahad’s output, “Dentist Song” jarringly crams an anti-dentistry narrative into it. As frontman Stuart Nicholson drifts into anesthetized stasis, he sings with disembodied fright, “I hear the sound of a drill edging closer / Making contact with my inner self.” Who knew getting a cavity filled could be cause for metaphysical panic?
7. Lonnie Johnson, “Toothache Blues”
At first listen, Lonnie Johnson’s “Toothache Blues”—his 1928 duet with singer Victoria Spivey—is a fairly typical tale of hurt teeth and dentistry. But there’s something vaguely sinister about the exchange between Spivey (in the role of the patient) and Johnson (in the role of the dentist). After getting Spivey in his chair, Johnson soothes her with gas, cocaine, liquor, and some salaciously insinuating advice: “When I starts to drilling, mama, don’t scream and shout,” to which the patient replies, “You are a rough old dentist / You made me moan and weep.” Oral hygiene never sounded so dirty.
8. Allan Sherman, “The Painless Dentist”
After making his indelible mark on comedy with the 1963 song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Allan Sherman had a laugh with dentistry on “The Painless Dentist.” As with many Sherman songs, it’s a parody—this time of “The Continental” from the film The Gay Divorcee. Substituting “beautiful molars” for the original song’s opening line, “beautiful music,” Sherman takes what was a romantic duet in the hands of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and turns it into a drill-in-cheek lark. “I hum while you’re bleeding,” sings Sherman, “It takes your mind off / The things I grind off.”
9. “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Cavity Search”
“Weird Al” Yankovic has been known to sing a parody or two, and his song “Cavity Search” is one of them. Swiping the backing music from U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” Yankovic’s song picks up where his earlier track “Toothless People” leaves off. “You jab at my nerve endings / It’s driving me insane,” he accuses his ham-fisted dentist. And in place of the eponymous chorus of U2’s song, Yankovic sings with the bitter aftertaste of needles and nitrous oxide, “Numb me / Drill me/ Floss me / Bill me.”
10. Little Shop Of Horrors, “Dentist!”
Few dentists in fiction are as colorfully deranged as Dr. Orin Scrivello, the gleefully sadistic dentist in Little Shop Of Horrors. Played in the 1986 film by Steve Martin, Scrivello builds on the Dr. Farb character from the 1960 original as well as the 1982 stage musical. And then he amps up the camp even more. “Son, be a dentist / People will pay you to be inhumane,” Martin croons while twisting the head of a girl’s doll in his waiting room. He’s dementedly complemented by Bill Murray, who portrays Scrivello’s pain-loving patient—which goes to show that there’s sometimes a fine line between DDS and S&M.
11. Bill Cosby: Himself
Bill Cosby’s family-friendly comedy takes a turn for the gruesome—relatively speaking—in his 1983 concert film Bill Cosby: Himself. At least, that is, when he talks about dentists. With typical Cosby wryness, and some ace microphone manipulation, he re-creates the absurdity and hypocrisy of dentists’ paradoxical advice, chair-side manner, and “needles to deaden the pain.” Not to mention a classic Cosby moment: his rubber-lipped approximation of trying to talk while swollen with Novocaine. Soon afterward, he depicted dentists in a much more positive light—via guest star Danny Kaye—on the Cosby Show episode “The Dentist.”
12. Seinfeld, “The Jimmy”
There are dentistry references galore in Seinfeld, from the “anti-dentite” thread in “The Yada Yada” to Kramer’s Cosby-like, Novocaine-fueled mush-mouthing in “The Jimmy.” But one scene in “The Jimmy” borders on terrifying: Recurring character Dr. Tim Whatley—played by Bryan Cranston—doses himself with nitrous oxide before knocking out Jerry for some dental work. Jerry is already leery about the dentist, thanks to a stack of Penthouse on his waiting-room table, but disgust dawns on him when he awakes to see Whatley and his female assistant zipping their clothes back up as he comes out from anesthesia—prompting him to later ask Elaine, “Is this guy a dentist or Caligula?” Looking back at the scene through the lens of Cranston’s subsequent role as a mild-mannered-man-gone-wrong in Breaking Bad, “The Jimmy” feels even creepier.
13. Supernatural, “You Can’t Handle The Truth”
Supernatural has a way with squirm-inducing depictions of maniacs and monsters, but the show outdoes itself in the episode “You Can’t Handle The Truth”—with a simple scene in a dentist’s office. After Veritas, the Goddess Of Truth, begins compelling people to voice their innermost (and most harmful) secrets, a middle-aged man confesses to his dentist that he slept with the dentist’s teenage daughter. Enraged at the man’s brazen remorselessness, as well as the seduction itself, the dentist crams his drill deep into his patient’s mouth. And he just keeps on going. And going. And going.
14. Metalocalypse, “DethHealth”
Pain has never been a major deterrent to the head-banging members of Dethklok, the world-dominating band at the heart of Metalocalypse. But when the group’s frontman, Nathan Explosion, begins to worry about his health, a visit to the dentist only makes things worse. Self-destructive and with nothing to lose, the dentist hands his assistant a suicide note just before working on Nathan’s teeth. Naturally, Nathan has refused anesthetic of any kind—a gesture of metallic badassery that he quickly regrets, as the drill hits a nerve, smoke begins to rise, and blood starts to spurt.
15. Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo sets a dark tone right out of the gate, when the titular young fish has to face the violent death of his mother. When his father, the hapless and cowardly Marlin, is later forced to embark on a quest to find his lost son, the mood doesn’t lighten. Against that backdrop, there’s both cathartic release and comic relief to a scene in which Nemo bears witness to a root canal in the dentist’s office where he’s trapped. His fellow piscatory detainees, however, see nothing unsettling about the dentist’s callous, near-bloodthirsty drilling; in fact, the desensitized fish simply debate which implement of dental torture is being used.
16. Horrible Bosses
Jennifer Aniston’s predatory dentist in Horrible Bosses is supposed to be played for laughs, a way to portray her preyed-upon assistant, Charlie Day, as a simpering yet fundamentally decent guy (and faithful fiancé). Aniston puts an unnerving edge to her character’s aggressive sexuality, though, in a scene where she and Day are about to work on a patient under general anesthesia. It isn’t just the sexual harassment of her employee that’s so wrong—it’s the fact that she’s criminally negligent to her patient while she’s doing the harassing, practically crawling over the prone man to get to Day while arbitrarily administering more gas to keep her patient oblivious.
17. The Dentist
Fear of dentistry in its most comically concentrated form, The Dentist doesn’t tiptoe around the audience’s apprehension about getting a filling or a cleaning. The horror film imagines just how far an otherwise upstanding member of the dental community must be pushed before turning his instruments of healing into tools of death. In this case, it’s your garden-variety infidelity, which dulls the bite of an already weak premise. That said, Corbin Bernsen—as the twisted, murderous antihero, Dr. Alan Feinstone—chews the scenery until he gets cavities.
18. Marathon Man
As over-the-top as The Dentist is, Marathon Man remains the gold standard of tooth-horror. In a series of flesh-crawling, psychologically agonizing scenes that pit Laurence Olivier against Dustin Hoffman—as a cool, cruel Nazi tooth doctor and the man he must torture for information regarding the location of a cache of diamonds—the film ruthlessly probes the primal fear at the root of odontophobia: being at the mercy of someone with sharp needles, strong pliers, debilitating drugs, and the mandate to employ them with impunity inside your skull.