From the same horror nerds who brought you “A Friendly #Tuskussion” comes this compilation of songs ideal for your hungry Halloween spirit. Some are more overt in their creepiness than others—nonetheless, Dan and Kevin find them all just autumnal, sinister, and/or nostalgic enough to organize into your new favorite obnoxious Internet list. Enjoy, boils and ghouls!
1. Echo and the Bunnymen — “The Killing Moon” (Kevin Redding)
As my colleague Dan Poorman pointed out to me when we were compiling this list, there is something so unnerving and dark about ’80s New Wave songs. Is it that all New Wave singers sound alike, their tortured British voices belting out their sorrows? The black, stringy Tim Burton-esque hair that always seems to cover up some part of their face? Or is it just that style of production, leaning on thumping bass and mystifying, super-produced (or in some cases, electric) drum kits to drive the songs? Whatever the case, the bands from this era make for good fodder in awakening the Halloween spirit that’s begging to be unleashed from inside all of us this season. And there’s no song to do the unleashing better than 1985’s “The Killing Moon,” from British rockers Echo and the Bunnymen. From the get-go, the slow, lingering guitar notes set the mood for a macabre journey into a nightmare set in 1985. The song’s lyrics read like that of a nighttime serial killer or some sort of wolfman stepping out after dark, and literally waiting for its prey to come out. I can’t help but think of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers’s dynamic in the original Halloween series when hearing this song…and, I’m of course reminded of the opening to Donnie Darko.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “He will wait until you give yourself to him.” (The famous tagline from the first Halloween  is “The Night He Came Home,” thus lending some weight to my observation).
2. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — “Red Right Hand” (Dan Poorman)
Is it appropriate that the first two artists on this list use the “Such-and-Such and the So-and-Sos” pastiche, one that to me suggests a group led by some tortured, mic-humping frontman crooning in some eerie (maybe empty) concert hall? Yes. And when it comes to Nick Cave, it’s safe to always assume the creepy and bizarre. This classic song’s got a winking eye. It’s up-front with the spook factor, with its use of a second-person narrative that feels especially like an unsettling choose-your-own-adventure book: “Take a little walk to the edge of town / and go across the tracks…” And of course, there’s the horrifying “He” character, who seems to be equal parts mafioso, equal parts Freddy Krueger, giving us money and a car if we need it while maintaining status as “a ghost,” “a god,” “a man,” and “a guru,” occupying the dream world. Yet, in “Red Right Hand,” there is definitely a comic quality to Cave’s dramatic baritone, to the song’s reverby bell hits, its trademarked-by-Halloween organ work. It is over the top, but so are most of our favorite horror stories, right? When I hear the song, I think first of its feature in Scream (1996), a film iconic for its tongue-in-cheek, trope-unpacking nature—and so my assessment of this ditty is totally fitting, guys. (Also, for more Halloween fun, check out Cave’s side-project Grinderman and their song “Heathen Child”).
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan / Designed and directed by his red right hand.” (Thanks for the heads up, Nick).
3. Arctic Monkeys — “Pretty Visitors”(Kevin Redding)
Arctic Monkeys are one of my all-time favorite bands. With every new album, they transform and grow and attach themselves to a brand new sound. On their debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the band steers towards a blend of alternative garage with dabs of punk and reggae—a sound truly all their own. Their second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, maintains the alty-punkness but also shows signs of a heavier, more sinister sound brewing. Singer-songwriter Alex Turner’s growth as an artist is easily seen; he’s really gifted, painting pictures with words. In 2009, with the release of Humbug, the band made its most profound step, one into a completely different direction, initially polarizing for fans of their old stuff. The album is dark and creepy, laced with lyrics that summon imagery of carnivals and acrobats and “ice cream men on rainy afternoons.” Track 9, “Pretty Visitors,” sounds like a wobbly rollercoaster ride through a deranged circus. It opens with archaic, Bram Stoker-approved organ, and bursts into a raucous, badass and angry sort of warning to all entering this world. There are also chanting gang vocals, which, alone, makes this a Halloween must.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “Cruelly with the base of the scales / And fucking fiddles with the feet on a balancing act / You were gagged, bound and craft in a tale / Trailing wrapped in a gasp” (This song should be included in American Horror Story: Freak Show).
4. Ben Folds Five — “Erase Me”(Dan Poorman)
So this song is not a real Halloween song, per se. But bear with me. Ben Folds Five reunited in 2012 to record The Sound of the Life of the Mind after thirteen years of not being a band. True to Folds’s songwriting prowess, and to the three-piece adult alternative/jazz-punk group’s signature strangeness, opening track “Erase Me” holds its own as a precious sort of BFF fossil, unearthed and dressed in even cooler clothes. As always, Robert Sledge’s distorted bass is jarring enough to work, against Ben’s piano and nerdy-but-lilting vocals and Darren Jessee’s careful percussion. Actually, the fuzz bass at the opening of “Erase Me” (topped by Folds’s aggressive key-slamming and Jessee, doing some tom-heavy arena thing) is what initially allows for the song to read as particularly Halloween-y. It’s growly, menacing, cartoonish; it sounds like a more sophisticated soundtrack to your company Halloween party. The verses slow down to showcase Folds’s vocals and, particularly, his intricately phrased lyrics: the subject is a recent, tender breakup. But the choruses bring it back to scary—the fuzz is back, the progression’s unnerving, the trio’s vocal harmonies are playfully operatic in a way that might make Danny Elfman smile. It’s not so much a sad song anymore; it’s a work of theatre. As with many of Ben Folds songs, the speaker is aggravated to the point of delusional fantasies and ironic bouts of F-bombs. That’s not a bad quality to dress up in a figurative Halloween costume—I picture a particularly intellectual teenage dirtbag (think: future philosophy major) in glow-in-the-dark skeleton garb, kicking leaves down the street after a post-Trick ‘r Treat breakup.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “Erase me / So you don’t have to face me / Put me in the ground and mow the daisies” (This is really the darkest lyric in the whole damn thing; the rest are typical of Folds: witty, and characteristic of my imaginary Folds-vehicle, teen-philosopher guy. Pour out some of your cider for my man).
5. Dead Man’s Bones— “Lose Your Soul” (Kevin Redding)
In October 2009, actor Ryan Gosling (of Are You Afraid of the Dark?: “The Tale of Station 109.1” fame) and his best friend Zach Shields released Dead Man’s Bones, their self-titled debut as a band. The album features the sometimes angelic, sometimes downright unsettling voices of the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir, and the seasonal sound of organ, old piano, claps, barbaric toms, and songs with titles like “My Body’s a Zombie For You,” “Werewolf Heart,” and “In The Room Where You Sleep.” The album is a complete love letter to the Halloween season and every song is so oddly and wonderfully old-fashioned and atmospheric, almost creating its own distinct genre that I’d call “Halloween-folk-and-gospel.” If I had to pick the ultimate Dead Man’s Bones song, and in many ways the ultimate Halloween song in general, my go-to would and will always be “Lose Your Soul.” The song is slow-moving, moody, at times full of impending doom—and at others, full of beautiful melody, much thanks to the children’s choir (especially at the song’s end). The vibe of the song, for me, is going out on Halloween night dressed up in the costume of your choosing, all while a voice (that sounds a lot like a sulky Gosling) in your head, letting you know that an invisible danger lurks ahead. And what’s Halloween night without lurking danger?!
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “Oh, you’re gonna lose your soul tonight, you’re gonna lose your soul, you’re gonna lose your soul tonight, tonight / Oh, you’re gonna lose control tonight, you’re gonna lose control, you’re gonna lose control tonight, tonight” (He’s not warning us to be careful not to lose our souls. He’s TELLING us that we’re going to lose our souls).
6. Elvis Costello – “Watching the Detectives” (Kevin Redding)
Speaking of lurking danger, there’s something evil huddled below the surface of this 1977 single by Elvis Costello. It’s disguised as a tasty reggae-influenced pop song—yeah, that’s its mask—but underneath this mask is the face of something horrifying (much like Sam in Trick ‘R Treat). The song is full of dark chords and low, descending piano notes, and a narrator that sounds scared: scared to continue telling the listener about what’s happening. I can almost picture this guy’s eyes surveying his surroundings as he sings, paranoid that something awful might happen at any moment. The song also evokes imagery from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, with the lines about scratching at the window (yikes). It’s a great song to dance to, but it can still unsettle you—especially when you watch the above 1978 live performance in Germany. Costello perfectly plays up the paranoia already evident in his voice, with a face full of sweat and dangling fingers. Also, check out that keyboardist! So spooky.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “You think you’re alone until you realize you’re in it / Now fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit / They call it instant justice when it’s past the legal limit / Someone’s scratching at the window. I wonder who is it?” (Definitely a vampire).
7. Larry and His Flask – “Cruel Twist of Fate” (Dan Poorman)
Oregon’s Larry and His Flask are a truly unique group. Their sound is “alternative” to the tee: a cocktail of bluegrass, punk rock, swing, and Dixieland styles; each tune bearing its own wild identity at these crossroads. I found them on Bandcamp back in 2011 while they were promoting their first full-length album since trading in their electric instruments for acoustic ones, All That We Know. I was lucky enough to get a new Flask album, By the Lamplight, in (what felt like less than) two years later. This record’s a total sucker punch, and it’s a testament to the band as showmen as much as it’s a celebration of their musicianship. There are up-tempo songs with intricate horn and vocal arrangements, guitar-heavy rockers, numbers that feature finger-pickin’-good banjo and mandolin and upright bass against frontman Ian Cook’s raspy but soaring, soulful vocal persona—it’s beautifully hectic. But, much like an immersive study in bipolar disorder, when the Flask gets down, they’re down real low (and the effect, while startling in contrast, works). An especially macabre track is the ballad “Cruel Twist of Fate,” which tells the story of a man who has just received word of his lover’s death—and now he must bury her himself. It’s all very sad, but Cook’s lyrics (namely, what obstacles our protagonist must face while trying to lay this poor woman to rest), paired with a funereal horn line and a menacingly riffy guitar, make it seem quite evil; a real cruel twist of fate. I can’t help but picture Louis Creed carrying Gage to the Pet Sematary when I listen.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “From fetching the shovel to digging her tomb / Our unborn child still lies in the womb / I’ve carried her body across forsaken land / And laid her in the earth with my own two hands” (Real bad day).
8. Rob Zombie – “What?” (Kevin Redding)
This song is ridiculous, nonsensical, random; I don’t think it’s trying to mean anything in the slightest, but I can never listen to it just once and move on to another song. Rob Zombie seems to just pour every word and visual related to horror into a blender and the result is this concoction. Its title is extremely fitting, because at the end of every line of every verse, the listener feels compelled to ask “What?!” out loud and, in doing so, sings along with Zombie, who seems to be asking himself: “What did I just say?” (I mean, one of his lyrics is “or something or other”). The song opens with the crumbling cackle of thunder and audio from what sounds like a B-movie from the ’50s. “I wanna know who you’re meeting in the cemetery,” demands a stern-sounding authoritative figure. The recipient of this demand is a small boy, who retorts with “I don’t have to tell you anything!” Here the sloppy, driving guitar is cued, and the band busts into a hard-rocking number, led by Zombie’s garbled singing on matters such as Jack the Ripper, marriage to a monster, vampire lovers, and cannibals. You know, just your run-of-the-mill song content. This is a must for Halloween parties. Or to throw on a mix for the drive to a Halloween store. The song just reeks of cakey makeup, fake blood, mask rubber, and dangling spider decor.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “Midnight offerings in a mini skirt and Mr. Rock N Roll / Satan’s cheerleaders, bouncing pom poms, bouncing pom poms” (I really want to see a Rob Zombie movie called Satan’s Cheerleaders).
9. Tiger Army – “In the Orchard” (Dan Poorman)
Here’s another loophole. While there are no monsters or demons or ghouls hiding in this one, and while there is no universal indication that the “orchard” in question is a fall-friendly apple orchard, this song is still a great one to crank in the car during a mid-afternoon October drive. Psychobilly trio Tiger Army are known for their Gothic antics, what with their “Ghost Tiger” insignia (literally, a tiger with bat wings, which translates well as a fan tattoo) and faster, more traditionally psychobilly, not-for-everybody songs that reference Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (the song shares titles with the poem) and punk anthems declaring “Fuck the world!” (“F.T.W.”). But on “In the Orchard,” singer-songwriter/guitarist Nick 13 shows his more vulnerable, sentimental side as he recounts the progression of a romantic relationship in parallel to the changing of the seasons in, you guessed it, “the orchard.” This song, to me—what with its atmospheric steel guitar and its chuggy, train-like nature—evokes a rural, autumnal paradise. If you close your eyes and slip into this nostalgic little number, you might know what I mean.
Scariest (edit: Sweetest) Lyrical Moment: “My car is parked down, side of the road / Over the mountain, a red moon glows / Soon the summer will be over, in the orchard” (See? Not everything that gets you in the fall spirit is “pumpkin-spiced”).
10. Daniel Romano – “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)” (Dan Poorman)
So continues my fixation on alt-country songs about the passage of time. I just stumbled across Daniel Romano this year, though he’s been active as a recording artist since what appears to be 2010. “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)” opens the 2011 album, Sleep Beneath the Willow, which, if it weren’t a country record, could definitely be a poetry chap book—just by title alone. What I like about Romano is similar to what I like about Nick Cave: he’s got a characteristic baritone vocal, one more rightfully aligned with retro country than the Top 40 stuff you hear on the radio today. With this vintage folksiness also comes a darkness, though—one steeped in the more sorrowful, Faustian corners of the American blues. The form and chord progression of this song alone are basely creepy; the narrative only enhances the spook. Romano’s character is a down-on-his-luck guy who has just been dumped and replaced by his lady, who, of course, is pregnant with what should be his child. He’s an all-out pessimist—dismissing what “They” say about time, how it takes away the pain and changes everything, with the title as his rebuttal, “Well, time forgot to change my heart!” Naturally (and much like his terrifying, Darwinian phases in the absolutely brilliant music video for this song—think 2001 meets the original Planet of the Apes) this guy goes on a trek to seemingly confront his former lover and her new beau, and to deliver a sardonic message to his baby girl. What ensues is the creepiest, most lurky alternative imaginable. Another one for an October drive, folks—only this time, make it at night.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “Outside their window, I was creeping / Wicked thoughts, they filled my mind / And as my old friends laid there sleeping / I snuck in from behind” (I picture a dark silhouette on the window, somewhere in the Midwest).
11. The Who – “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (Kevin Redding)
Those who know me well are aware of the fact that I think The Who is the greatest band in the world. I’ve seen and dissected nearly every piece of concert footage of the band between the Keith Moon years of 1964 and 1978, I’ve watched hours of interviews with the band and guitarist-songwriter-visionary Pete Townshend, and I even have a tattoo of a cartoon Moon from the 1975 Who By Numbers album art on my arm. Thinking I knew every song the band recorded and feeling as though I’d never be able to hear anything for the first time anymore, I was giddy and surprised when I stumbled across a whole new batch of rarer, B-side and C-side recordings a few years back. The one rarity that struck me as especially jumping-up-and-down-worthy was a song written by bassist John Entwistle and recorded as a B-side to a Who deep track, “Call Me Lightning.” The B-side in question is “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” and it’s an exciting, odd, and eerie ode to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of dueling personalities. Entwistle, The Who’s resident lover of everything macabre—writer of such dark compositions as “Boris the Spider,” “Heaven and Hell,” and “My Wife”—went full-Halloween with this 1968 goldmine. The recording is cheap-sounding and adds to its spooky vibe, there are haunting backing vocals a plenty, buzzy and sinister bass, manic drums, and even more manic sounds of laughter and growls.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “When I drink my potion, my character changes / My whole mind and body rearranges / This strange transformation takes place in me / Instead of myself everybody can see… Mister Hyde” (The song took on sadder and more poignant tones after I read that Entwistle wrote this song about Keith Moon’s personality changes as a result of drinking).
12. Dwight Twilley Band – “Looking for the Magic” (Dan Poorman)
This psychedelic classic rock song seems harmless, until you see You’re Next (2011/released 2013). I saw the film last year while still riding the high of the 2013 horror season: it was V/H/S, The Conjuring, and You’re Next that really brought mainstream horror to new, actually original heights. What was remarkably fresh was to hear an otherwise upbeat song such as “Looking for the Magic” really succeed in a scene of terror and suspense. Juxtaposition and dissonance actually tend to succeed in a lot of horror narratives (especially movies)—how do you think we got Pennywise the Clown and Chucky? Something happy goes bad. That’s everyone’s worst nightmare. It’s indisputable. In the opening sequence of You’re Next, the Dwight Twilley Band single plays when there’s an intruder in the home, and it’s here that, in the absence of a physical antagonist, we start to pay more attention to what otherwise could be deemed “background music.” What’s immediately creepy about this song? What makes the song, in itself, the sly enemy while the enemy is idle? Well, immediately, after someone on the track utters, “Oh, mercy,” we hear a long, smoky exhale. Then the groove kicks in, and the vocals are tainted by delay. We don’t hear the lyrics so coherently apart from the key word, “Magic,” giving the whole damn thing a ghoulish defect. And when the song opens up and sounds more like your typical rock number from 1977, BOOM! there’s the kill. And it doesn’t quite work, psychologically. And it throws us off. At least, it certainly threw me off. And now this song’s a go-to Halloween jam for me.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “All my life I’m looking for the magic” (A phrase so vague that it will only creep you out the more you think about it as the siren song of a group of masked killers).
13. blink-182 – “I Miss You” (Kevin Redding)
The music video for this song freaked me out and I couldn’t look away when it debuted in 2003. Hairless cats. Hairy women. Tarantulas. And Tom DeLonge’s visual pronunciation of “head” as “yed.” It’s a wonderfully creepy video and a must-watch for the season, but even without the video, the song is incredibly pretty, spooky, and referential to Halloween. The atmosphere of the song is created by Travis Barker’s rolling brushes, Mark Hoppus’s brooding bass, gentle piano, majestic strings and, of course, the shout-out to The Nightmare Before Christmas, mention of cobwebs, and “darkness in the valley.” The whole song feels like a glimpse into the more sympathetic parts of monsters. I could see Frankenstein’s Creature belting this song from his slab, calling for his Bride to come home. Or the sadness of Dracula, perched on the edge of his castle, searching for someone to love and to love him back completely, even with his affinity for sinking fangs into necks. And what about the Phantom up beyond the balcony of the Opera? Monsters need love too, people. I think this song serves as a good anthem for these poor horrifying creatures. Maybe we should think twice before we scream and run away from them…maybe they’re just looking for conversation…for “somebody and always.” Yappy Yalloween.
Scariest Lyrical Moment: “This sick strange darkness / Comes creeping on so haunting every time / And as I stared I counted webs from all the spiders / Catching things and eating their insides” (Awwww, how sweet).
Listen to the playlist on Spotify here:
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