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The riff, a great swaggering beast of a thing, came to Metallica’s guitarist Kirk Hammett while he was jamming in a hotel room in the early hours. It was 3am, the spookiest time of the night, when suicides peak and the spirit world is at its most restless. “Devil’s hour” occultists call it: for 3am is the opposite of 3pm, supposed time of Christ’s death.

Hammett’s inspired, or possessed, moment of insomnia was the foundation for one of the most famous songs in heavy metal. It is “Enter Sandman”, the lead single of Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album. Also known as The Black Album, this was the LP that marked the California band’s ascension to superstar status, selling 16m copies in the US alone and spending more than 300 weeks in the charts.

“Enter Sandman” is about a boy suffering nightmares after being visited by a macabre Sandman, bringer of dreams in European folklore. The song opens with an ominous acoustic guitar melody, a dark lullaby summoning sleep. Then Lars Ulrich’s drums and Hammett’s chugging riff rise up like roiling monsters from the deep. Singer James Hetfield’s roar comes next, building to a chorus as bleak as any Samuel Beckett stage direction: “Exit light/ Enter night”.

Despite its witching-hour theme, “Enter Sandman” marked a move towards a crisper, more streamlined sound for the thrash metal pioneers. It was produced by seasoned producer Bob Rock, starting a long and, to diehard fans, controversial partnership with the band. He persuaded Hetfield to simplify his lyrics and made Ulrich improve his drumming. Taken with Hammett’s riff, the result is a juggernaut of a song, like the huge runaway truck that tries to mow down the sleeping boy in the song’s video.

Kirk Hammett of Metallica

“Enter Sandman” has entered US popular culture as surely as any American Songbook standard. It has been covered repeatedly — by acts from Motörhead to Björn Again — is regularly played at sports events and was even blasted out as intro music to a 2013 speech by Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul.

It might seem odd that a song about night terrors should be clasped so close to the American bosom — until you realise that “Enter Sandman” is actually not at all scary. I defy even the most timid reader to flee for the hills as Hetfield growls about “heavy thoughts tonight/ And they aren’t about Snow White”. Hammett’s guitar solo at the bridge is pure metal peacockery, not a desperate wail of anguish. The song is a display of power, not an exercise in tension.

Truly chilling music is different. It is higher pitched, highly strung, full of anxiety. Think of the slashing chords of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho or the shrieking strings in Krzysztof Penderecki’s masterpiece of dread, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”. The violin is the prime generator of fear here. Celebrated as the musical instrument closest to the human voice, its screeching tones evoke the scariest sound of all, the scream.

The gap between “Enter Sandman’s” ostensible scariness and its actual non-scariness has been ably exploited by parody songs, such as a twinkle-toed big-band version by veteran smoothie Pat Boone. But there is a sinister twist to the tale.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, “Enter Sandman” was among a perverse playlist of songs used by the US military to torture prisoners, blasted at excruciating volume with strobe lighting for 24 hours at a time. It was America’s very own 3am moment, the dark side of the “war on terror”. Hetfield’s indifferent response to the nightmarish misuse of his song is far scarier than his cartoonish lyrics. “It’s just a thing,” Metallica’s singer said. “It’s not good or bad.”

Photograph: Getty Images

For a podcast with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/culturecast

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