Christmas corners the market when it comes to holidays that have a whole genre of music dedicated to them. Many others (e.g., Memorial Day, Labor Day, Earth Day) understandably don’t receive the same amount of musical hoopla. Halloween, however, is on par with Christmas as one of the most celebrated US holidays, and we’re left to fend for ourselves almost entirely on “Thriller,” “This Is Halloween” and “The Monster Mash” alone.
These are all fine songs, of course (“Thriller” is a classic and a masterpiece), but no 3-song playlist will sufficiently get you into the spirit for anything, much less a spooky October mindset. Plus, there are plenty of other great songs that may not carry an outright seasonal affiliation, but do have a distinct spook factor that makes them perfect for this eerie occasion.
Old gems like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Season of the Witch,” “People Are Strange” and “Witchy Woman” are a great start for this list; they’re all classics, and people generally know them but may not think to play them with spooky intent. They all rely on different kinds of scary, as well, presenting us with enough witchcraft, allusions to Satan and hallucination via isolation to start a frightening playlist of this nature in the right way.
Other oldies “Gold Dust Woman” and “Tusk” are also fantastic additions, both straight from Fleetwood Mac. Where “Rhiannon” is an overtly witch-themed song (that would be an ideal selection for this grouping, if only it weren’t oddly uplifting), “Gold Dust Woman” is about an ordinary gal in a bad relationship, but the song itself feels in some way witchy; the twangs of the guitar make the sound reminiscent of the deadly and desolate nature of a Western, whereas the ominous lyrics of the chorus and Stevie Nicks’ wails later make way for the instrumentals to devour each other over various cries. “Tusk” counterbalances the heavy focus on witchery with a percussion-driven beat that sets the stage for what can only be described as the soundtrack for a tribal sacrifice (made truer by the primal vocals of the chorus). The result, a bit unsettling, is a great fit for the season.
In the way of relatively current music, there are several artists that reliably produce spooky music. The best example is Florence + The Machine, having given us such songs as “Seven Devils,” “Howl,” “Leave My Body” and “Girl with One Eye.” While “Howl” is comparable to a fright-filled trot through a graveyard (with savage, almost cannibalistic lyrics), “Seven Devils” is like the preface to a live exorcism. They’re both startling in their own right, and spooky enough to make the cut here.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs is another of these groups that has consistently put out tracks ready to scare us stupid just in time for the holidays. “Heads Will Roll” is their gold standard of these songs (and one of the most highly regarded of all their music), seeing dramatic synths lead into singer Karen O’s executive order to behead whomever she had in mind at the time. The song’s music video even includes a cameo by the Wolfman (or just a miscellaneous werewolf impersonator), which should get most of us into the Halloween spirit by itself.
If you’re still unmoved, however, “Under the Earth” is a departure from the more traditional gothic frights of “Heads Will Roll” and every song listed thus far for that matter. Pulling from roots reggae, “Under the Earth” revolves around a descending guitar riff that’s embellished with pointed percussion and reverberating vocals. After the first verse comes an instrumental break that accomplishes the feat of sonically replicating a choir of the dead that has risen from the grave to be conducted by the band in song. Similarly, “These Paths” assumes an unimposing yet ghostly tone with a rustling throughout, which gives the song a sense of urgency that will thusly quicken the listener’s heart rate.
MGMT’s second album, “Congratulations,” is a goldmine for this brand of spook. “Brian Eno” is what might be played if Dracula had a Bar Mitzvah, as the instrumental portion connecting the chorus to the following verse is similar in sound to Jewish folk music, while balancing a haunted twist to it. (And depending on how seriously you take your Halloween, “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” a song parody from “30 Rock,” would be a solid addition as well).
“Song for Dan Treacy” is on the softer end of the scary spectrum, but delivers nonetheless. The highest point of spookiness comes when the lead singer states that he “can see the car outside, but he’s listening.” This line is followed by a backup vocalist oohing eerily like a ghost might, and then by a subsequent exchange between these vocals, reminding us that “he’s” listening. While this isn’t horrifying in any capacity, it’s enough to leave you a little off-balance and wary as to whether or not you’re alone.
Another group that’s made their mark when it comes to creepy songs is Delta Rae with their production of “I Will Never Die” and “Bottom of the River.” The former enlists a set of descriptive, vivacious, almost vengeful lyrics along with unhinged vocal delivery to get across its immortal declaration. The latter comes with a video nodding to the Salem Witch Trials—portending spook in the form of witchcraft, paranoia and sacrifice—while musically attaining a level of fierce passion that will leave you a bit uneasy about the fate of the speaker.
There are also a number of individual spooky songs from other artists that come not as a part of a package set. Both “Revival” by Deerhunter and “Dear God” by XTC deal with religion in topic, but take opposing positions on criticizing and praising God. “Revival” embodies the sound of organized chaos, resembling parts of a whole clanging and clashing against one another on beat. The whole thing is disorienting, and singer Bradford Cox doubles the confusion by singing “I’m saved” in a cynical, bored-sounding tone. This happens to be the pro-God song of the two, believe it or not; whereas “Dear God” can be accusatory, is always sincere, but mixes in a sinister tone just the same. Both of these songs may not be traditionally associated with Halloween, but both can as they contribute to a greater mood of unease (and, thus, spookiness) in the air.
A bit of a shift in genres here, as Childish Gambino’s recently released “Zombies” commands an impressive level of creepiness for modern funk. Donald Glover sings in a bit of a mocking voice, under which various zombified noises creak, crackle and slither, contributing to that same portrait of unease here as well.
You may know “Tear You Apart” by She Wants Revenge from the scene in “American Horror Story: Hotel” where Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer kill that poor couple they met in the park. The song features a monotone vocalist singing about the honeymoon stage of a love affair in which the attraction turns deadly. This should, without a doubt, fit your October perfectly, bringing a fatal edge to what was once merely spooky. A stark contrast with this tame, serial killer-esque savagery is Sia’s “Free the Animal,” a loud romp that shows the singer’s range and lyrically extends the element of a primitive lack of inhibition.
All songs to this point would work nicely on a playlist in the background at a Halloween party. The next two should probably be omitted from that playlist, but are perfect if you want a somber commute to better fit your pre-Halloween. “Pet Sematary” is one of The Tiny’s more haunting songs as it features a set of contemplative keys keeping tempo, mournful strings at the chorus and a voice in anguish, claiming its owner doesn’t “want to live [their] life again.” It doesn’t come close to the criteria for a banger, but it’s an oddly peaceful but chilling song you may find enjoyable for yourself.
In a similar vein, CocoRosie’s “Tears for Animals” would be a surefire way to bring the room down in the middle of your function; it’s a deeply unsettling song that’s simultaneously sweet, and may be a good fit for that uneventful car ride. The first voice, persistently imploring whether the listeners “have love for humankind,” harkens back to Sylvester in its androgynous, gender-neutral sound and beauty. It’s then met with a second, more infantile voice and a kind of noise that just churns along with the same endurance of the singular lyric. It’s a reflective song that’s appropriate for this time of year due to its unknown, experimental and foreign nature to the ears of most.
And, finally—this may seem odd, but bear with me—the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life” should round out this list as a final throwback, and a creepy one at that. This may be in the eye of the beholder, but this saucy salsa track sounds like our dear, quintessential ‘90s girl group (purveyors of and martyrs for girl power) executed the human sacrifice that Fleetwood Mac might have given up on midway through “Tusk.”
Of course I love this song as much as anyone else, but it should give anyone the creeps—unless you’re content with a bloodthirsty Posh shouting “Arriba” at you and Baby cackling uncontrollably, followed closely by sadistic, high-pitched cries likely sealing a blood oath. This is a great and unobjectionable song year-round, but has a special, spooky place during the month of Halloween.
Hopefully now you’ve expanded your playlist to include more than 3 songs. And more than just the monsters and thrills found in your everyday Halloween songs, it’ll assume many angles of spookiness, including everything from witchcraft, ghosts and zombies, all the way to human sacrifice, murder, death and all that’s in between. By this time next year, you’ll recognize the capacity for spookiness in any music, from what’s given as tradition and what you may have never thought twice of.