There’s no holiday quite like Halloween. You get to dress up in costumes, ask strangers for candy, throw parties, watch scary movies and generally revel in mirth and mayhem. If you’re the misanthropic type, you might also throw some eggs or toilet paper houses, but we’re not advocating that. We are, however, all about this strangest of evenings. Its celebration of all things spooky is a one-of-a-kind event, and will soon be eclipsed by turkey, mashed potatoes, eggnog and candy canes. For this one night, however, we will revel in all things ghoulish and ghastly.
In honor of Halloween, we have compiled a playlist of genuinely spooky music. We could have gone with sillier Halloween songs, such as “Monster Mash” or “Thriller,” and that would have been all well and good. But that just didn’t seem sufficient. Rather, we put together the scariest songs around. As much as a scary movie can give you a restless night, a scary song can be even more troubling, as the sound alone can make your imagination run amok, making you picture the ghastliest or most disturbing things. We wanted to find songs that actually haunted, that had ghosts of their own. Some of them are subtle, and let the eeriness seep in over time. Some of them might require you to stop in the middle due to their sheer audible terror. We certainly wouldn’t blame you if you came down with a case of the heebie jeebies.
That said, these songs are quite good, and making something actually frightening out of sound alone is a rare talent. We wish you a good scare. Happy Halloween!
Normally, Matt Johnson, the central figure of The The, wrote some fairly pretty songs such as “Kingdom of Rain” or “Love is Stronger than Death,” but with “Good Morning Beautiful,” he depicted a world torn between good and evil and headed for apocalypse. Mind Bomb is one of my favorite, most underrated albums of all time. Johnny Marr, the guest guitarist on the album, has stated that it’s one only a handful of albums he’s worked on that he considers genius (the others including The Queen is Dead and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank). Johnson uses vocal distortion to go between the voice of good and the voice of evil, and that evil voice is bone chilling. Ultimately, Johnson’s message seems to be that religion is the true evil, as he questions whose influence causes such evil within the human heart. He wraps up his sermon by letting us know ‘the only path to heaven is via hell.’ – Terrance Terich
Though Wire’s debut Pink Flag was all snot and art school sneer, the legendary British punk band eventually penned a number of complex and creepy songs that found them abandoning their overtly “punk” attitudes and descending into abstraction. The more obvious examples of this trend make up about a fifth or so of their third album, 154, but even that album’s oblique and icy sound couldn’t compare with the post-punk horror of Chairs Missing opener “Practice Makes Perfect.” Drums and guitar chords plod like a limp, slow climb up a creaky staircase, as Colin Newman plays the demented guide toward macabre curiosity, notably the severed hand of an actress: “please dress in your best things/ this course was unplanned/ ’cause you see up in my bedroom/ I’ve got Sarah Bernhardt’s hand.” As the long and nervous trudge nears the top of the staircase, the song gets louder and thicker, the insane laughter begins and Newman grows madder and madder, insisting that “Sarah’s waiting…waiting, waiting, waiting for us…” – Jeff Terich
It’s not easy to fully understand Joy Division’s early, more overt flirtations with fascist imagery and Nazi terminology, with the exception of the band name itself, it all disappeared just as quickly. One of the remnants of this early era was this Pinterization of the ’77 punk anthem structure and presentation. The band’s flawless rhythm section was not yet the lucid core it would come to be, so, in classic punk fashion, all depended on the guitarist and frontman. Bernard “Albrecht” Sumner’s guitar epitomizes the tension and iciness that would be replicated by countless post-punk bands thereafter. Ian Curtis’ vocals are more frantic and nasal as opposed to his ghost-of-Jim Morrison death drone. The lyrics themselves are as dismal as ever, but it’s Curtis’ cryptic numeral chants that make for a great deal of eeriness. Apparently 31G and 350125 were part of Rudolph Hess’ prisoner ID number. While the song is no less manic than most of what was being played at that time, the bombast is stifled significantly to what seems like a series of nervous ticks, teeth gnashing and the kind claustrophobic dizziness that would likely come from within the overcrowding of the song’s namesake. – Chris Morgan
The first song off of Elliott Smith’s first effort sounds like the sweetest, but is also the most aggressive and tense. With only his lightly strummed acoustic to back him up, Elliott both literally and metaphorically loses his cool in the face of certain oppression. Despite the fact that his lyrics are filled with allusions to overt violence, it’s Smith’s gentle, angelic voice that is the most unnerving part. Whereas someone like Chris Carrabba could sing a song based on a scene from Goodfellas and his audience would be too busy swaying to the melodies to pay attention, every time Smith’s vocals crack or faintly whimper they convey a certain reality in the emotion and that he, or the person he’s singing about could unhinge at any moment. – Chris Morgan
Somewhere in the dark heart of Austin, Texas, the hypnotic menace and sinister apprehension of The Black Angels lurks, waiting to strike the unsuspecting. Drummer Stephanie Bailey’s tribal wallops invoke a trance-like state broken only by Alex Maas’ nocturnal monotone and sporadic shouting. With guitars dipped in leftover sunshine acid from Haight-Ashbury, “The Sniper At The Gates Of Heaven” is one unsettling trip indeed. Jennifer Raines and her “drone machine” antics may recall ’60s psychedelic staples like 13th Floor Elevators and The Velvet Underground, briefly, but any comparisons are soon submersed in humming tones that undulate beneath bruising guitars. “What is it like when hell surrounds you?” Maas calls out, his damning finger extended from the pulpit. But just as the flames seem to lick at our feet, he is quick to include himself in the lake of fire, “How hot does it get/ I think I’ve already felt it.” It’s comforting to know that at least we’ll have company for our eternal damnation. – Mars Simpson
Inside the sweaty construct of Before The Dawn Heals Us, which smeared mechanized phobia across a Batman sky, “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” is no particular revelation. It’s tightly-wound yet off-the-rails, sinister but cool, slotting perfectly with all the other recently-orphaned tracks about losing it. By itself, somehow it becomes like nothing you’ve heard-unless you’ve been fortunate (unfortunate?) enough to emerge from a crashed car relatively intact, then it’s like something you’ve heard. Crunched metallics and starring windshields aren’t pretty in your ears and are scary enough without a theme song, but this is it. Frantic drums hurl themselves to their deaths. Skittering synths burn like spilled fuel. Voices ramble, skid, and form cacophonies. “A piece of brain in my hair” is the second line and it’s delivered so calmly it’s almost a comedown, a stunned survivor marveling at the suddenness of things. Ultimately “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” rotates inside that sort of adrenalized aftermath, but there are moments when it’s so terrifying you can feel yourself crumpling in your little metal shell. – Anthony Strain
One of the advantages of not closely following Radiohead is that the release of a new album takes me by surprise as If it materialized from some variation of logical consciousness. Do I think Thom Yorke is that magical/insane? Not really, but he is, to me, the most cherubic-and therefore the most dire-downer I’ve ever had the honor of hearing. “Idioteque,” combines serene electronic ambiance with chilling undercurrent of disaster as it approaches. Classic utterances of “women and children first” with screeches of “Ice Age coming!” accentuate sheer panic and disaster in the hypnotic way that only Radiohead can produce. – Chris Morgan
Concrete Blonde wrote and recorded the first song that I ever personally remember mentioning New Orleans. “Bloodletting” is the song that brings to life what the city is like during Halloween. New Orleans has a Southern Gothic spirit that comes alive during this time of the year. Just walk down the streets near Jackson Square and you will hear the opening chords to this powerful sound playing this soundtrack in your ears. When I finally saw Concrete Blonde in concert at The House of Blues in New Orleans, as they played this song, the whole place sang along, in honor of the city that we knew and loved so dearly. – Adrian Cepeda
The melody of Brainiac’s “Strung” is subtle and nearly serene, yet its arrangement is anything but. A diversion from the band’s trademark robotic spazz punk, this track is almost ballad material, drums curiously absent and frontman Timmy Taylor oddly unaffected. Ah, but surrounding that too-subtle sound is a choir of screams. And suddenly one is pulled into the devil’s waiting room, the muffled shrieks and cries of pain coming from the next room over while pleasant, if distorted, melodies pipe through the PA. It’s a harrowingly long two minutes, but it’s best to enjoy them. Your number could be next. – Jeff Terich
Sixteen Horsepower – “Phyllis Ruth”
from Low Estate (1998; A&M)
Buy at iTunes
No band better captured Southern Gothic ambience as perfectly and as darkly as Sixteen Horsepower, fronted by David Eugene Edwards, who now records as Woven Hand to a similar but more subdued degree. “Phyllis Ruth” isn’t as intensely mired in religion as many of their other songs, but its titular character carries a strange weight of her own: “what my little girl sees from the sill/ nobody knows/ as one with the spirit yeah/ she goes where it goes.” Both in subject matter and in melody, “Phyllis Ruth” houses many ghosts, which unsettlingly seep in during the chorus’ lonely, icy piano lead. – Jeff Terich
This one can easily be criticized as a little too ‘nail on the head,’ but if there were any band in existence that exemplified the creepy nature of Halloween, it’s Bauhaus. And when we’re talking about Bauhaus, the first song that comes to mind is “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Lugosi is the most well known portrayer of Dracula in the history of film and Bauhaus capture like no other band the slow, creaky, forbidding nature of those old dark films. The best and creepiest moment is probably frontman Peter Murphy’s repeated chant of “Undead.” Recently, with Bauhaus reuniting, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was performed with Murphy hanging upside down above the stage like a bat. I’ve heard of getting into your work, but that’s ridiculous. – Terrance Terich
There is no question that Shara Worden has a gorgeous voice, but there is also a haunting aspect to it that gives her songs a gothic edge. It also helps that many of her songs are brooding and obsessed with the ephemeral. When I first heard “Gone Away,” I was immediately taken with it. There is something so romantic, so dramatic and haunting that made me think of the gothic romances of the Bronte sisters. If there was ever a song to imagine Heathcliff pining over the moors with, it was this. – Jackie Im