Words by Jeff Nale (@JeffNale)
There are two schools of thought when it comes to music that pairs with Halloween: shtick or horror. Shtick is palatable, but far and away safe, and categorically not scary (see: Bobby Pickett). The other end of the spectrum is less accessible, but only a Google search away are troves of abject darkness and noise which is plenty frightening, but often unlistenable (see: Gorgoroth, Suicide, et. al). Songs that fall into the middle have all but been played into an early grave (see: “Thriller”). Are there songs that can be scary and listenable? Here are 13 songs that are both.
13. “Mistaken for Strangers” – The National (The Boxer, 2007)
“You wouldn’t want an angel watching over you/They wouldn’t want to watch”
This may seem a strange pick from a band that, while certainly familiar with the darkness of the human soul, could hardly be accused of giving anyone the creeps. This his song’s forlorn clanging, its nervous beat, and foreboding tone, however, force the listener to look at the world through a dark aperture while somehow managing to sound simultaneously dense and hollow.
12. “Haunted” – Beyoncé (Beyoncé, 2013)
“I know if I’m haunting you/you must be haunting me”
This stark, paranoid track – at over six minutes it’s an opus by pop standards – was reportedly inspired by the music of Aphex Twin (more on him later), and comes in two movements. The first is equal parts menacing mantra and layered noise, the beat stutter-stepping while Queen Bey chants about staying alive; the second movement is spare, and even a little cold, but opens its wings and enters a more danceable state, with a rhythm not unlike ominous knocking.
11. “Murder Spree” – Ghostface Killah, feat. U-God, Killa Sin, Masta Killa, & Inspectah Deck (Twelve Reasons to Die, 2013)
“First things first, I chop your head to your fingertips/butcher knife your torso, chop up your ligaments”
Wu-Tang & Co. have never hesitated from spitting grizzly and gory, but “Murder Spree” is a treasure trove of wall-to-wall horror imagery, including suffocation, mutilation, punctured lungs, a chainsaw, a Cuban necktie, and a medication switcheroo. All of that along with tightrope tension and a mood that makes Tony Montana seem soft.
10. “The Curse of Millhaven” – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (Murder Ballads, 1996)
La la la la La la la lie/The young ones, the old ones, they all gotta die”
It should be no surprise to see Nick Cave on any list of anything chilling, frightening, or otherwise ominous. The singer/songwriter has been crafting tales of madness, murder, and mayhem since 1983 and he hits every damn time. This one is a tale of a small-town murder spree with a twist, and has hoodlum energy. It’s naughty and disturbing, which is exactly the kind of reason Cave is so revered in the first place.
9. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” – David Bowie (1. Outside, 1995)
“What a fantastic death abyss…”
This appears on Bowie’s highly underrated 1995 album 1. Outside, back when Trent Reznor served as his muse and occasional collaborator. The album was a bit of a flop at the time, which is too bad since it contains some twisted fun, with this filthy lesson being the best of them. Eerie vocals and a serpentine rhythm make this a twisted piece of pop-art, and a perfect storm for director David Fincher, who used it behind the closing credits of Seven (1995).
8. “London Dungeon” – The Misfits (The Misfits, 1986)
“Ain’t no mystery why I’m in misery in Hell/Here’s hoping you’re swell!
With The Misfits’ legacy of horror-punk, any of their songs could find a place on this list (Runner-up: “Die, Die My Darling“). But I find “London Dungeon” to be one of their most accomplished songs, complete with a haunting lead, some cutting sarcasm, and a cavernous production that invokes prison itself.
7. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Black Sabbath (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973)
“The people who have crippled you/You want to see them burn/The gates of life have closed on you/And now there’s just no return”
Black Sabbath acted as a harbinger of doom in the 70s, bringing darkness into suburbs and cities alike, if for no other reason than to frighten parents and other authority figures. Even without all of their legend and influence, it’s easy to appreciate Black Sabbath’s singular brand of ghostly blues-rock (which all but created the Metal genre out of thin air). Within “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is a tone of revenge, and a savage riff as heavy as anything they over recorded, which finds Ozzie in the grip of rage (“You bastards!”). Nothing of its era rocks or sounds more threatening than this.
6. “The Ghost Who Walks” – Karen Elson (The Ghost Who Walks, 2010)
“In the tall grass/He kissed her cheek/But with a knife in his hand/He plunged it in deep”
If Dusty Springfield ever got together with Lux Interior, their progeny might’ve grown up to be Karen Elson, a sultry crooner not unlike Springfield herself. The chord progression on “The Ghost Who Walks” swings like a pendulum and Elson’s vocals cut through the night like a spooky slice of moonlight.
5. “Psycho” – Eddie Noack (Psycho, 1968)
“I woke up in Johnny’s room, Mama/Standing right by the bed/With my hands near his throat, Mama/Wishing both of us were dead”
Eddie Noack’s 1968 single is a tale about a serial killer piling his secrets atop the breakfast table and warning his mother to do something before he hurts anyone else. Produced with the echoed effects of the era, its classic country twang makes for stark lyrics like “Seems I was holding a wrench mama/Then my mind walked away”. Surprisingly, “Pyscho” is remarkably breezy and easy to listen to, especially in the form of Elvis Costello’s cover.
4. “Come to Daddy [Pappy Mix]” – Aphex Twin (Come to Daddy EP, 1997)
“Come to Daddy” is an astonishing combination of breakbeats and sound effects that buzz, bounce, and sizzle like they were sitting in a searing frying pan. Add to that an arrangement that isn’t far removed from death metal, complete with otherworldly screaming, and you’ve got a song disturbing enough that it’s the one for which Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) will probably be most remembered. It is a cacophonous, teeming cauldron of chaos that is still somehow listenable, which makes it all the more astounding.
3. “We Know Where You Sleep” – The Paper Chase (Now You Are One of Us, 2006)
“I’ve got you now, I’ll show you all/I’ll kick out the chair, let you dangle slow”
The most distrubing thing to come out of Texas since the George W. Bush administration, The Paper Chase do nothing if not set an ominous tone with each and every recorded moment. “We Know Where You Sleep” is everything wonderful and disturbing about this experimental band. All at once it’s a threat, an overture, a celebration, and one of the most oddly-addictive songs you’ll ever encounter this Halloween.
2. “Black Sabbath (from the Satanic Perspective)” – Type O Negative (Nativity in Black: A Tribute to Black Sabbath, 1994)
“My victims turning, running scared/You people better go and beware/Your weak god cannot help you now”
The scariest song in popular music to this day remains Black Sabbath’s eponymous track one. Written in 1969 about a frightening experience reported by bassist Geezer Butler, it makes use of the Devil’s Triad – a trio of notes that was dubbed Diabolus in Musica (“Devil in Music”) by medieval writers. Black Sabbath’s song tells the story of a protagonist who is confronted by a “figure in black” with eyes of fire. If that weren’t enough, enter Brooklyn goth-metal outfit Type O Negative to record a tribute 25 years later, adding chants of Ave Satanas (“Hail Satan”) in between verses, making it infinitely darker (if not a little unintentionally campy). Type O’s version is opaque and weighty, largely due to late singer Peter Steele, who sings like he’s still shaking off coffin dust. The track culminates much like Sabbath’s original does – in a pulsing coda (“Could this be the end, my friend?”), making it catchy while still being downright fearsome.
- “Mr. Krinkle” – Primus (Pork Soda, 1993)
“Say there, Mr. Krinkle, let’s cruise the bastard boat/Damn them sonsabitches with their gill-nets set afloat”
In the 1932 MGM film Freaks, a carnival barker proclaims, “They didn’t ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came!” The same could be said for Les Claypool, who’s been doing weird-for-weird-sake his entire career. “Mr. Krinkle” is a bizarre specimen, even for Primus, and at the center of its dirty soul is Claypool’s bow-dragged bass, which is as unsettling as it is entertaining. Pro tip: “Mr. Krinkle” is best paired with its accompanying video.
Listen to all 13 tracks at our Spotify playlist here.