10 Essential Scary Story Songs

There’s nothing better this time of year than a good scary story to tell around the campfire. But what if that scary story comes in the form of a playlist? Some of our favorite creepy tales to tell in the dark (lit ominously by flashlight, of course) come in the form of pop songs. Or something resembling a pop song, at least. Some of them include frightening apparitions. Some of them are revenge tales. Some of them are true-crime grisly, and some of them are more about what you imagine could be happening, rather than what’s actually unfolding in front of you. So, our Halloween treat to you—actually one of many this week, since we’re so generous—is a roundup of 10 essential scary story songs. Queue them up and watch out for things that go bump in the night.


scary story songs Nina SimoneNina Simone – “Pirate Jenny”
from Nina Simone in Concert (1964; Philips)

This is the other “hit” to come from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera besides “Mack the Knife.” It’s a revenge fantasy, where invading pirates offer a long-suffering chambermaid escape to a new life as well as a chance to get back at the patrons who looked at her with disdain and malice. Many theatrical pop artists have performed it independent of the show—among them Lotte Lenya, Marianne Faithfull and Marc Almond—but Nina Simone kinda blows them all away. By changing just a few words in the Bertolt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein lyrics she shifts the setting to the racially charged South. She eliminates the song’s stage-music oompah and pacing in favor of minor-key dread and clattering piano-and-drum voodoo. Her shaking vocals suggest ageless, limitless anger; this is her Screamin’ Jay Hawkins moment. Simone was reluctant to perform “Pirate Jenny” regularly, claiming its intensity took years off her life, yet this recording from New York’s Carnegie Hall cemented it as a fan favorite. – AB


scary story Songs Black SabbathBlack Sabbath – “Black Sabbath”
from Black Sabbath (1970; Warner Bros.)

Black Sabbath got considerably less scary after their first album, which is in itself a great pioneering metal album that’s mostly great fun. The title track, though, that’s something else entirely. Supposedly inspired by a vision that bassist Geezer Butler had about a dark figure foretelling him of his own death, “Black Sabbath” is all about the slow payoff. Most of the band’s songs are heavy on riffs, which this is on a smaller scale, Tony Iommi’s recurring three-note sequence a slow and ominous backing for Ozzy Osborne’s dark narrative. “What is this that stands before me?” he asks. “Big black shape with eyes of fire,” he answers one verse later. It’s a fucked up hallucination, or perhaps a night terror. Or maybe it’s a visitation from the Grim Reaper himself? No, no, please no… – JT


suicideSuicide – “Frankie Teardrop”
from Suicide (1977; Red Star)

Purportedly based on a newspaper account read by Suicide frontman Alan Vega, “Frankie Teardrop” is perhaps the most truly frightening song on this list because its darkness is so mundane, and so…plausible. “Depressed unemployed man kills his family, then himself” is something you can find multiple reports of with a brief Google. The grand finale of Suicide’s eponymous debut album, “Frankie Teardrop” supplies a brief summary of his hard times before plunging you into a second-by-second account of his crimes—first the infant, then the wife, then Frankie blowing his own head apart, each atrocity punctuated by blood-chilling screams from Vega and help up throughout by Martin Rev’s repetitive cheap synth line and relentless drum-machine throb. Few things in horror cinema or fiction are as viscerally terrifying as the way Vega’s longest screech turns into an almost-laugh and then a quick, wryly amused declarative statement: “Frankie’s deeeead.” This, folks, is the one you be sure to keep the lights on for. Let’s hear it for Frankie, indeed. – LG


scary story songs Throbbing GristleThrobbing Gristle – “Slug Bait
from The Second Annual Report (1977; Industrial)

“Slug Bait” is a story-song in the same way that Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a movie. It’s more like a loaded-bomb provocation, one that’ll make you question your appetite for extreme music. The events described—a home invasion turned sexual torture/murder of an entire family—aren’t more violent than the corpsepaint-splattered tryhard bullshit of Cannibal Corpse and that ilk. But I’m convinced that vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Genesis P-Orridge and TG weren’t trying to shock suburban middle-school moms and giggle about it later. They aimed to terrify, their primitive synths and found sounds mirroring the bleak atmosphere of late-’70s England. This was the time and place of the Yorkshire Ripper, and people really believed that men like the mutilating, cannibal monster of “Slug Bait” could be lurking right around the corner. – LG


Nick Cave from her to eternityNick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “From Her to Eternity”
from From Her to Eternity (1984; Mute)

You could pick one of literally dozens of Nick Cave songs to fill this spot. He has an album that’s actually called Murder Ballads, so he’s fairly well versed in the tradition of musical menace. And there was some internal debate over which song to fill this spot (“The Carny” came close, though the story itself is more a gothic tragedy about a murdered horse). Ah, but this song, a vicious and manic first-person account of obsession turned to homicidal insanity—this is real terror. “Ah wanna tell you ’bout a girl,” says Cave at the beginning of the song, in what might be the most understated opening line for a masterpiece of horror. What follows is line after line of horrific fixation on the narrator’s upstairs neighbor, who he lusts for (“This desire to possess her is a wound“), a desire that grows increasingly intense and ultimately so unbearable he comes to an extreme solution: “That li’l girl would just have to go!” The tale itself is a fright in itself, but the jarring, cacophonous percussion, metallic piano chords and incessant bass drum stomp turn it into a nightmarish symphony. – JT


scary story songs The CureThe Cure – “Lullaby”
from Disintegration (1989; Fiction)

What’s Halloween without The Cure? And sure, the band’s music often comes off more as a sleek, sexy dream than a nightmare, but dig deeper into Robert Smith’s lyrics and you’ll often find something much darker. On “Lullaby,” Smiths soft whispers detail the exploits of a sinister, boogie-man type called The Spiderman. Smith and associates have explained the inspiration in several different accounts, with some accounts suggesting the dark story was inspired by an actual dream with others insisting it’s an allegory for Smith’s well documented history with drug abuse. But one thing’s for sure, the verses on “Lullaby” are chilling as hell. – ATB


scary story songs Geto BoysGeto Boys – “Mind of a Lunatic”
from Grip It! On That Other Level (1989; Rap-A-Lot)

This is by far the most infamous Geto Boys song, and it is horrific enough to almost, almost make me understand trigger warnings. Scarface’s multiple-murder stabbing and shooting rampage is probably the least shocking portion of the track, as it ends up being an asylum inmate’s hallucination; Willie D’s bilious rage at 100 decibels resembles an insane Chuck D. And then there’s Bushwick Bill’s verse, which goes beyond shocking all the way to truly, morally reprehensible in a way that the worst Tyler, The Creator song couldn’t ever approach. But if you hear it and, perhaps justifiably, wish you could beat him to a pulp for rapping that, consider that he paid dearly in life for the ability to vent his hideous pain in drunken rages on record. – LG


Gravediggaz scary story songsGravediggaz – “Diary Of A Madman”
from 6 Feet Deep (1994; Gee Street)

Though the RZA side project Gravediggaz is nominally horrorcore, “Diary Of A Madman” is reasonably tongue-in-cheek. You’re not meant to be genuinely scared by this music. That doesn’t mean it isn’t somewhat disturbing, perhaps most so in RZA’s verse with its descriptions of eyes being sewed open and other tortures, as he tries to explain to a judge how he and the Gravediggaz have become murderous psychopaths. Soon enough, it reaches him escaping said torment by chewing his arm off to get out of his restraints, returning us to a more absurd realm. As the centerpiece of the finest Gravediggaz album, 6 Feet Deep, it’s a minor classic of hip-hop’s golden age, with outstandingly haunting minor-key production by RZA and Prince Paul. – LG


scary story songs Tom WaitsTom Waits – “What’s He Building In There?”
from Mule Variations (1999; Anti-)

This one is barely a song—it’s honestly more like a spoken word narrative accompanied by creeping noises. But Waits more than delivers the creep factor, taking on the role of a narrator observing his neighbor’s mysterious activities. But we never really get an answer to Waits’ titular question. No, we’re just left with a whole bunch of speculation and dark, wry humor, leading up to a eerie whistle before the track closes out. But the lack of a conclusion makes the narrative all the more creepier, leaving the listener with a very real sense of fear and curiosity. – ATB


scary story songs Immortal TechniqueImmortal Technique – “Dance with the Devil”
from Revolutionary Vol. 1 (2001; Viper)

Part horrorcore rap, part cautionary tale, NYC rapper Immortal Technique’s most infamous track tells the sobering (and supposedly true story) of a young gang initiate (Billy) who participates in unspeakable activities to gain the respect of his peers. At the story’s climax, Billy joins the gang in beating and raping a woman, before killing her at gunpoint. But, to his horror, Billy unmasks the victim to discover it was his own mother. Depending on who you ask, “Dance with the Devil” can be interpreted as everything from a statement on the treatment of women in hip-hop culture to a fucked up piece of fantasy fulfillment. But no matter what vantage point one takes, the song features some truly terrifying storytelling. – ATB

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