Everybody knows that Thriller, Ghostbusters, and Spooky Scary Skeletons are great for a party, sure, but they’re not likely a fixture on the Devil’s DJ decks. We’ll help you dig beneath your dead and buried Halloween playlists to discover tracks that make The Monster Mash seem about as spooky as mashed potatoes.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put a Spell on You
Jalacy J. Hawkins, better known as “Screamin’ Jay”, could well be the godfather of Halloween songs. His operatic snarl, and macabre imagery, set the bluesman apart from his 1950’s contemporaries, bringing an unmatched theatricality to rock and roll performances. His style has sunk its ghoulish talons into metal, goth and psychobilly. 1956’s ‘I Put a Spell on You’, a drunken, voodoo-tinged lust ballad, remains a delightfully sinister listen all these years later.
Tom Waits – What’s He Building?
With a curious spoken word narrative, this cut from 1999’s Mule Variations turns up the chills with Tom Waits’ masterful storytelling and unsettling experimental noise. Similar to the horrific (and, unfortunately, justified) paranoia experienced by Glenda Cleveland in Netflix’s recent Dahmer: Monster, it ponders a sinister neighbor who “never waves when he goes by” and “has no friends but gets a lot of mail”. Waits has stated that the song is actually a comment on nosiness, and we’re meant to sympathize with the mysterious stranger, who’s simply minding his own business. ‘What’s He Building’ may resonate with anybody who’s ever suffered the nuisance of living beside noisy tenants.
Misfits – Skulls
Horror punk t-shirt icons, the Misfits have a whole catalog of shock rock cuts that could be included on this list. However, ‘Skulls’ perfectly encapsulates their frightful formula. Frantic power chords and ramshackle punk production are combined with Glenn Danzig’s wilfully insensitive lyrics on this 1982 number, from the album Walk Among Us. Even a folksy cover from The Lemonheads can’t sweeten the refrain of “collect the heads of little girls and put them on my wall”.
Slint – Good Morning, Captain
A good backstory can lend a song a powerful potency that serves to ingrain it even further into the nightmares of listeners. ‘Good Morning, Captain’ – an anxious, discordant retelling of Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – is scary enough in its own right, but the story behind its recording lends it an extra fright factor. Vocalist Brian McMahon checked himself into a psychiatric hospital following 1991’s Spiderland, the album that this song closes. The track ends with bloodcurdling screams of “I MISS YOU”. After the recording, McMahon was allegedly violently sick and was out of the band, then institutionalized a day later.
Slint has come back into the collective musical consciousness recently, with bands like Black Country, New Road charting a clear line of influence back to the spindly post-rock of Spiderland. Still, ‘Good Morning, Captain’ stands above as a work of tragic brilliance.
Swans – Mother’s Milk
Track 12 from The Great Annihilator, Michael Gira and co.’s ninth studio album, ‘Mother’s Milk’, is helmed by the enchanting vocal of Jarboe Devereaux. Swans are famed for their brutal volume and harsh dynamics, but this deep cut is subdued and melodic. There may well be more obvious and in-your-face misanthropy and danger in their earlier work, but you won’t find a more sinister, heart-wrenching moment on any of their records than when Jarboe questions “who was the dead man my body made love to last night?”.
Aphex Twin – Come To Daddy
Michael Jackson’s Thriller might usually get the plaudits for best horror music video, but Richard D. James AKA Aphex Twin threw his hat in the ring with style in his 1997 video for ‘Come To Daddy’. Directed by Chris Cunningham (who has also worked with Bjork, Autreche and Squarepusher, amongst others), ‘Come To Daddy”s video features a gang of kids, led by a grotesquely thin Richard D. James, harassing an old lady and causing nightmare-inducing havoc. If that wasn’t enough, the kids all have James’ grinning face too. The song itself, a slice of hideous, death metal-influenced breakbeat and drum ‘n’ bass with distorted screams of “I want your soul, I will eat your soul”, isn’t a quiet walk in the park either.
The Cure – The Figurehead
Though the band themselves may resent the term, The Cure’s Pornography is the most goth album of all time, so shatteringly bleak that it inspired an entire generation of black-clad mopers. Heartbreak, depression, self-loathing, and drug addiction are more base than any notion of Halloween cheer and B-movie cheese. But what’s more terrifying than the abyss that was Robert Smith’s mind in 1982? ‘The Figurehead’ was inspired by a skull sculpture that Smith found in an asylum the band used to film the video for ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ a year prior. With references to painted dolls and “freshly squashed flies”, we’re a far sight from ‘Friday I’m In Love’.
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
There are few songs in pop culture history with a more Halloween-ready background than ‘Black Sabbath’, by the band Black Sabbath, from the album Black Sabbath. So the story goes, bass player and lyricist Geezer Butler, who had been cultivating a keen interest in the occult, was given a black book written in Latin and covered in Satanic images. He read the book one fateful night before placing it on a shelf, only to awake suddenly to see a tall, dark figure standing at the end of his bed. Staring down at him. it vanished into thin air with the book in tow. A bone-chilling tale indeed, but Black Sabbath’s fondness for psychedelic drugs is well documented, so the jury is out on that one.
The iconic guitar riff makes use of an interval known as diabolus in musica or “the devil in music”, an inverted tritone that has long held Satanic connotations in Western music and has become a staple of metal riffs.
Throbbing Gristle – Hamburger Lady
Industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle aren’t known for their accessibility. Most of their work is equal part influential, equal part unlistenable. ‘Hamburger Lady’ is actually one of the band’s most coherent songs in that it has a semblance of rhythm and a repeated motif, albeit one played on a battered foxhunt horn that the late frontperson Genesis P. Orridge found in a London antique shop, in the 1970s. The subject matter lends this song its real scare factor. The graphic lyrics are based on a letter by American artist Blaster Al Ackerman that describes a woman who was badly burned in a car accident and given the unfortunate titular nickname of the ‘Hamburger Lady’ by hospital staff for reasons that are better left to the imagination of the audience.
Suicide – Frankie Teardrop
Rolling Stone called it “the most terrifying song ever”. In the book 31 Songs, Nick Hornby called it something you should listen to “only once”. It even spawned a short-lived challenge on a New Jersey radio station that promised a reward for anyone who could make it through the 10 minutes and 26 seconds running time, with headphones at full blast, in the dark.
Suicide’s ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is a breathless trip into madness that follows Frankie, a 20-year-old factory worker and young father fighting to survive in a climate of destitute poverty. Struggling to make ends meet, starving, and facing eviction, Frankie begins to think the unthinkable. As his life spirals into desperation, Frankie shoots his wife and child, then turns the gun on himself. The sparse and repetitive instrumentation, consisting of only a simple keyboard riff, drum machine, and machine buzz, brings singer Alan Vega’s urgent and anxious segue between nonchalance, sobbing, and guttural screams to the forefront.
Perhaps ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is so terrifying because it deviates from the paranormal entirely and instead tells a story that is viscerally political and very real. As the hopeless killer descends to hell, Vega delivers the kicker – “we’re all Frankies”.