I’ve been writing an awful lot about horror movies this month, and all my emphasis on cinematic frights makes it easy to forget that horror permeates all media. So, to diversify our coverage, here’s a list of about 10 very scary, Halloween-appropriate songs. Plus, they’re interspersed with bonus songs so you can dig deeper and make the ultimate Halloween party playlist! What’s not to love? (For more Halloweeny songs, check out the spookylicious Kindertrauma Jukebox! Also: YouTube videos come and go. If any of the links below are dead ends, please comment so I can update them.)
10. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus
Back when “goth” meant something more than a high school fashion statement, Bauhaus released this tribute to Lugosi, who reached the title state in 1956. Long and atmospheric, the song was featured in the opening scene of The Hunger (1983), where it helped set the mood better most of the confusingly edited, noisy scenes to follow. Its eerie simplicity was an example that director Tony Scott would’ve been wise to follow. Sample lyrics: “The virginal brides file past his tomb / Strewn with time’s dead flowers…”
Also… “Late Night Creature Feature” by The Bewitched is an ode to watching scary movies late at night. The Bewitched is a very cool Minneapolis dark cabaret outfit, and they have my highest recommendation. [Like them on Facebook!]
9. “Pet Sematary” by The Ramones
Written for Mary Lambert’s 1987 film of the same name, it was the song that finally brought together punk rock and Stephen King. In their typically repetitive fashion, The Ramones beg not to be interred in the titular burying ground. The band had a history with the horror genre – see the Freaks references in “Pinhead” – so they were a pretty natural fit for this material. But once you’ve heard the Ramones’ rendition, you should listen to the even creepier cover by the Swedish band The Tiny. Sample lyrics: “And the night, when the moon is bright, / Someone cries, something ain’t right…”
Also… “Zombie” by The Cranberries may technically be about internecine strife in Ireland, but it makes a few important points about actual zombies, like that they’re not you and they’re not you’re family. “Monster” by Lady Gaga has some downright ghoulish imagery. “He ate my heart.” He ate ate ate her heart!
8. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson could be a pretty creepy guy, and I’m not talking about his appearance or personal life. I’m referring to his frequent use of monsters and the supernatural in his music. And with the assistance of John Landis and a rapping Vincent Price, “Thriller” is not only one of the best scary songs; it’s also a truly great horror movie. Werewolves and zombies and meta-commentary, oh my! Sample lyrics: “It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark…”
Also… “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads speaks to the frustration of being a serial killer who can’t seem to face up to the facts; it earned its place in horror cinema by playing over the closing credits of Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2001). Q: Whose voice is more off-putting, Christian Bale or David Byrne?
7. “Transylvanian Concubine” by Rasputina
Much of Rasputina’s music reveals a morbid sensibility at work (see “Christian Soldiers“), and frontwoman Melora Creager sure has a knack for blending idiosyncratic humor, wordplay, and gruesome imagery. In this song from Thanks for the Ether, she invites the listener to a vampiric community of sexual abandon. The song also introduced Rasputina to the world through its inclusion on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sample lyrics: “You can never be too rich or too / Thin. The blood has run out…”
Also… “Dead Is the New Alive” by Emilie Autumn is just one example of Autumn’s macabre, steampunk-influenced style, spinning bitter, florid lyrics with her Victorian-girl-gone-to-hell persona.
6. “In Heaven” by Peter Ivers
In Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., David Lynch gave disturbing implications to Roy Orbison (“In Dreams,” “Llorando”) and Bobby Vinton (“Blue Velvet,” duh), but Eraserhead‘s “In Heaven” is probably the most aggressively surreal use of music in the whole Lynch canon. From the gurgling ambient noise in the background to Ivers’ twangy delivery and the shaky organ accompaniment, every aspect of the song contributes to the deranged vision of “heaven” that Eraserhead‘s hero Henry pines for. Sample lyrics: “In heaven, everything is fine. / In heaven, everything is fine…”
Also… “Science Fiction/Double Feature” by Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show may technically be about sci-fi, but plenty of its verses make unforgettable reference to horror classics as well. E.g., “Claude Rains was the invisible man.”
5. “Gloomy Sunday” by anyone
Rezső Seress’s infamously depressing song carries decades’ worth of depressing rumors, including ones about its composer’s own suicide. But that hasn’t stopped generations of musicians from covering it! Some of the best include Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Lydia Lunch, Portishead, and Sinéad O’Connor, each of whom gives it a unique (and always depressing) spin. It’s not called the Hungarian suicide song for nothing. Sample lyrics: “My heart and I / Have decided to end it all.”
Also… “Season of the Witch” by Donovan proves that the hippie songster of “Mellow Yellow” knew the power of fear. As he points out, “It’s strange, sure is strange.” Another Donovan classic, “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” has been forever tainted (for me, at least) by its inclusion in the opening scene of David Fincher’s Zodiac, and now reminds me of serial killers.
4. “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield
Maybe this wouldn’t be considered “scary” if it hadn’t been used in The Exorcist. But hey, it was, and now it’s impossible to hear those bells a-ringing without conjuring up thoughts of danger, darkness, and Pazuzu. They just sound so redolent of both the 1970s and the unexplained. This also makes great mood music for frightening trick-or-treaters.
Also… The “Halloween Theme” by John Carpenter is similarly iconic, and showcases Carpenter’s considerable strength for adding moody, effective music to his own films. Sometimes his synthesizer scores can get a little overbearing (see Prince of Darkness), but they’re yet another part of his auteur signature.
3. “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” by Krzysztof Penderecki
I don’t know nearly enough about musical technique to say why “Threnody” is so chilling, but its feral, anarchic sound – and the use of Penderecki’s other music in movies like The Shining and Shutter Island – confirm its status as scary music. Blame pop culture for putting this commemoration of a national tragedy into such vulgar contexts, but it’s now impossible to hear it now without thinking of long, narrow hallways and something lurking around the corner.
Also… “Marche Funèbre” by Frédéric Chopin is a piece of classical music that everybody recognizes, and it has a fittingly funereal vibe. It’s especially effective if you pair it with the lyrics “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you… if they have nothing better to do…”
2. “This Is Halloween” by Danny Elfman
Well, of course! One of the best songs from Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s a paean to everything good and scary about the season, from “the one hiding under your bed” to “the clown with the tear-away face.” It’s also informed by the subtle undertones of poignancy, regret, and tradition that fill Nightmare. The whole segment is a triumph of beautifully grotesque animation meeting catchy songwriting – and it’s only the first of the film’s many musical treats. Others include “Sally’s Song” and “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” or you can try Marilyn Manson’s not-for-all-tastes rendition of “This Is Halloween.” Sample lyrics: “Trick or treat till the neighbors gonna die of fright /It’s our town, everybody scream…”
Also… “Hey There Cthulhu” by Eben Brooks is a note-perfect parody of the Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah,” replacing the T’s’ poppy wistfulness with the worship of everyone’s favorite Great Old One. You’ll never hear “Delilah” in quite the same way again. “Creepy Doll” by Jonathan Coulton manages to out-creepy The Twilight Zone‘s Talky Tina; it’s got “a ruined eye… that’s always open.”
1. “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett
Pickett’s one-hit wonder is really the beginning and the end of popular Halloween-themed music. It’s harmlessly tongue-in-cheek, but contains a deep and infectious reverence for the Universal horror films of the 1930s. Incorporating Karloff, Lugosi, and the rest into the musical fads of early ’60s, the “Monster Mash” is a reflection of just how ingrained in American pop culture these monsters were. It’s also the quintessential song for radio airplay on October 31 – and the same should go for your iTunes! Sample lyrics: “The scene was rockin’, all were digging the sounds / Igor on chains, backed by his baying hounds…”
Also… Just about everything by goth rocker Voltaire is Halloween-ready, including “The Man Upstairs” (a song about creepy neighbors), “When You’re Evil,” the necrophiliac’s lament “Dead Girls,” “Vampire Club,” “Zombie Prostitute,” and more. Equipped with a sharp tongue and a dark sense of humor, Voltaire is the perfect eye of newt for your playlist stew. Happy October!