In its opening episode, Swarm goes hard for the horror — though not quite in the way you’d expect. The new Amazon Prime series from Janine Nabers and Donald Glover is an unflinching look at the terrifying underbelly of stan culture. Drawing much of its inspiration from Beyoncé and her Beyhive, the series tracks how Dre’s (Dominique Fishback) participation in and devotion to fandom unravels her life and drags her into incredibly dark places.
Nonetheless, it’s Chloe Bailey’s casting that adds a layer of nuance to Glover’s flashy new series. Bailey, one of Beyoncé’s proteges alongside her sister Halle Bailey, adds a layer of realism to Ni’Jah, the fictional pop star that anchors so much of the series. Swarm is Bailey’s first acting project of 2023 — she is also set to star in The Georgetown Project, a horror thriller, and Praise This, a Black church musical comedy. Between the lyrical and visual aesthetics of her solo music (in addition to her releases as a part of Chloe x Halle) — and her pivotal turn as Marissa in Swarm, Chloe Bailey is clearly drawn to the intersection of love and horror. And she seems particularly concerned with how the extreme edges of love bleed into the aesthetics of horror. Her career choices, and her nuanced portrayal of Marissa in particular, reveal a throughline of horror-streaked explorations of love that has characterized much of her artistic output as she continues her ascent from Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing to one of the premier voices of pop and R&B.
While Dre’s story guides the series, the larger arc of Swarm, and its exploration of how parasocial relationships spill into real-life decisions and actions, finds its anchor in Marissa. Marissa’s deeply caring yet at times dysfunctional relationship with Dre, her “sister,” eventually catalyzes the twisted, visceral progression of Swarm’s storyline. Marissa is a relatively more grounded Ni’Jah (Beyoncé in the world of Swarm) stan than her sister. While Dre is constantly consumed with the buzzing of her devotion to Ni’Jah as a card-carrying member of the Swarm, Marissa is more concerned with pursuing her career as a makeup artist while working her day job at the mall. She loves and supports Dre, giving her a place to stay and bailing her out when she (regularly) finds herself in unsavory situations.
Bailey plays Marissa with the same earnest tenderness that make her feel so personable and familiar whether she’s acting in Grown-ish or granting a reporter an interview on the red carpet. But there’s a darkness there, intertwined with how selflessly she loves and trusts other people. And the way Marissa as a character blends sweetness with darkness recalls Bailey’s own melding of the two elements in her larger musical oeuvre — which is to say that love, or rather Bailey’s capacity to have faith in love and trust her heart, often drives her to periods of heightened emotion best communicated through horror aesthetics.
Swarm’s premiere on Amazon Prime comes just a week shy of the five-year anniversary of The Kids Are Alright, the debut studio album from Chloe x Halle. Released back in 2018 to critical acclaim and a pair of Grammy nominations, The Kids Are Alright kicked off the musical careers of the sister duo, and saw them riffing on manifestation imagery and Christian iconography — something they have continued to explore in their careers. On “Everywhere,” the singers display their understanding of the uselessness of prayers without work, while they thread their examination of the relationship with God later on the album with the tracks “Baptize” and “If God Spoke.” While the latter tracks the duo finding solace and security in God’s words, the former introduces their penchant for subverting Christian imagery. “Hold me in the water as you will baptize me / Dunk me underwater, I come out the same,” they sing, transforming the imagery of the Christian baptism into a larger commentary on the inefficacy of submitting to assimilation.
On their sophomore album Ungodly Hour, which Chloe and Halle executive produced (and which, not for nothing, earned them a further three Grammy Award nominations), the sister duo continued their repurposing of classic Christian imagery into a more clearly horror-adjacent lane. The artwork for Ungodly Hour features the Bailey sisters adorned with silver angel wings as they pose arm-in-arm against a hazy amber background while decked out in skin-tight black mini dresses. Both the album’s title and artwork evoke the story of fallen angels hurtling through a vacuum that connects heaven and Earth. The album opens with hypnotic harmonies, haunting synths, and come-hither vocalizations that evoke the seductive voices of sirens in Greek mythology.
Choices like that seem to offer Chloe a chance to more clearly outline how her explorations of love intersect with her flirtations with horror. Alongside her sister, she indulges in a murder fantasy spurred by the depths of her love on “Tipsy,” and asks to be loved and held in the “ungodly hour” during the title track. Ungodly Hour’s darker aesthetic made for an easy marker of progression from Chloe x Halle’s debut album, but the album’s nods to Greek mythology — their fan base’s name changed from Bailiens to Sirens during this time — and horror aesthetics presented the duo, and Chloe specifically, with a way to reconcile their seemingly disparate musical influences and their Disney-fied journey to mainstream stardom. Sure, an edgier and sexier sophomore era feels paramount, if not expected, for mainstream pop acts. But for an artist whose previous roles were explicitly tied to Christianity and the Black church, the darker parts of Ungodly Hour feel more grounded in a singular and authentic aesthetic. Chloe isn’t necessarily running away from her roots in the Christian church, she’s challenging how she can express her own maturation and sexuality as a coexisting truth (much like her mentor did on “Church Girl”).
As an artist who has been working in the industry since childhood and has a solid connection with Disney, it makes sense that Chloe leans into horror — an aesthetic that is almost completely antithetical to the glimmer of the Mouse House — to ground her maturation in the public eye. Prior to signing to Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment as the older half of Chloe x Halle, Chloe appeared in church movie musicals such as The Fighting Temptations and Joyful Noise. In 2012, she and her sister won the fifth season of Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing, the same year Chloe appeared in Let It Shine — a Disney Channel Original Movie musical based in, you guessed it, church. With her sister set to star as Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid later this year and their stints on Grown-ish not far behind them, Chloe isn’t that removed from the puritanism of the Walt Disney Company. Thus, her fascination with horror aesthetics offers her a sly way to grow and evolve as an artist and woman.
And her work — no matter what medium she’s working in — is emblematic of this: In an interview with Dazed, Chloe cited Grimes, Tune-Yards, and Missy Elliott as some of her production influences, alongside Beyoncé, who has of course inspired her and shaped her sound and performance style. The glitchy witch-pop of Grimes and the experiment loop drums of Tune-Yards don’t have many natural points of intersection with the bombastic populist gloss of Beyoncé, but Chloe bridges the two worlds with her utilization of horror aesthetics.
The merging of those two worlds is, perhaps, best executed on “Have Mercy,” Chloe’s debut solo single. A raucous ode to large derrières, “Have Mercy” blends Beyoncé’s signature rap-sung cadence with hip-shaking production courtesy of Murda Beatz. It is the song’s accompanying music video, however, that more clearly outlines Chloe’s continued penchant for horror, further exploring Ungodly Hour’s use of Greek mythology as she assumes the role of a Medusa-esque sorority president who seduces dumb jocks and frat guys with her voice, body, and general sensuality.
“Pray It Away,” the lead single from In Pieces, Chloe’s forthcoming debut solo album, continues this blend of tragedy and horror. The song marries Chloe’s explorations of the sacred and the secular as she turns to God to soothe her want for vengeance after being wronged by a lover. She blends praise dancing and gospel choirs with a firestorm of expletives (she begins the song with six of them in a row) and proclamations that her “halo is gone,” a natural progression from the fallen angel imagery of Ungodly Hour and the religious foundation of The Kids Are Alright. The music video for “Pray It Away” finds Chloe dancing in a church in search of some sort of solace from God — her devotion to the purity of love has ultimately driven her to a point where she no longer recognizes herself.
This is the same emotional arc that leads Marissa to her death; when she’s strung out on pills and calling on Dre to be an anchor for her in the midst of a gut-wrenching spiral, it’s that innate sweetness that sets in motion the serial killer sheen of Swarm. Marissa spends so much time pouring her love into both her boyfriend and Dre that it literally becomes the death of her. Once she is confronted with the unimaginable truth that the two closest people in her life cannot match her capacity and passion for love, Marissa finds herself plunged into a degree of emotional despair that is only translatable through horror aesthetic. The glassiness of her eyes, the slackness of her unconscious body, and the heart-wrenching desperation in her pleas for Dre to pick up her phone calls make Bailey’s Marissa both tragic and terrifying — this is what love can transform you into. Like so much of what Bailey does in her music, its power comes from how alternatingly sweet and terrifying it can be. Of course Marissa’s death kicks off Dre’s murderous instincts — love, and related feelings that are often misunderstood as love, makes us do crazy things.