Unlike Christmas songs, the popular music of the Halloween season isn’t necessarily tied to the season. Halloween is naturally the time when we think of the unnatural, and although not every Halloween costume is frightening or ghoulish, and can range from the absurd to the adorable, musically, we still gravitate to the scary and spooky (or the parody thereof). Perhaps this is the fault of John Carpenter for introducing us to Michael Meyers in the Halloween series, or perhaps started long before with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. Either way, Halloween remains synonymous with the macabre, and though the songs on this list might evoke fear on any day of any month – particularly late at night in a cabin in the woods, or precisely placed in a horror film’s soundtrack – they tie in quite nicely with the nefarious Hallows Eve.
“Thriller” by Michael Jackson
As the title track off the biggest selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” combines a monologue by the iconically eerie Vincent Price with “killer, thriller” lyrics. A fourteen minute music video with everything from the broken down car on the deserted road to choreographed dancing zombies was released in 1983, in an age when Mtv actually played music videos (all music, all the time). For those of us who remember its premier, Jackson’s epic music video changed everything. Three decades later, Michael Jackson’s opus remains a standard scare, and a Halloween classic. It is interesting to note that “Thriller” borrows its opening crypt-squeaking sound effect from “The Monster Mash”, which preceded it by just over twenty years… As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t oil it”.
“The Monster Mash” by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett
More of a novelty song than something truly frightening, “The Monster Mash” was released in 1962, and reached #1 on the Billboard charts in October of that year (no surprise there). “The Monster Mash” gives a nod to the Monster film genre of the 1950’s and 1960’s, with Pickett singing in an impression of Boris Karloff, and giving “shout-outs” to the iconic monsters of the era like The Wolfman and Dracula, while dropping phrases like “get a jolt from my electrodes” and “it was a graveyard smash”. Although “The Monster Mash” is the oldest song on this list, it continues to be a Halloween party standard while retaining a timeless and festive charm.
“Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr.
Who you gonna call? Well, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson of course. More Sci-fi comedy then horror genre, Ghostbusters (the song and the movie) is a cult classic where the protagonists recruit the help of fictional character like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to real life icons like The Statue of Liberty in their ongoing battle to rid New York City of evil. It comes as no surprise that the Ghostbuster uniform and Proto Packs remain a popular Halloween costume, and the movie franchise continues to thrill audiences decades later.
“Spooky” by The Classics IV
Originally an instrumental Saxophone number by Mike Sharpe, The Classics IV authored and added the lyrics in 1967. It’s easily arguable that this song – of all the songs on this list – has little or nothing to do with Halloween other than perhaps the title, which itself is even a stretch because it’s in reference to a girl. At closer listen, the song beckons it’s subject – a girl with apparently creepy mood swings – to change her ways so that he might propose… “On Halloween”. Although calling the subject of ones affection “Spooky” may not be the most complimentary term of endearment, there could be worse.
“Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon
Complete with howls in the chorus, “Werewolves of London” hearkens back in a humorous tone to the Werewolf legend, it’s lyrics going from “Werewolves drinking Piña Colada’s” to referencing Lon Chaney Jr., the Icon of all Werewolf actors (although not the first). While Werewolves have hailed from just about everywhere, it seems the London variety are the most common and familiar, popularized in cinema with the 1935 film Werewolf of London and later in 1981 with Dr. Pepper’s David Naughton (“I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper”) as An American Werewolf in London. Zevon’s lyrics are chilling, fun and rocking at the same time, and this tune evokes a humorous yet macabre look at the lycanthrope.
“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Of all the Moons, the bad one is the most ominous. The boys in C.C.R. warn “Don’t go round tonight, cause it’s bound to take your life”, clearly suggesting an evil connotation to the “Bad Moon”. Legend lends to the full moon an eerie and mysterious connection, and a direct connection to the Werewolf, and although the song never says full moon, the listener can imagine that to be its true meaning. “Bad Moon Rising” has been used in a number of horror genre films like An American Werewolf In London, Twilight Zone, Blade and Shaun of the Dead, and remains a popular Halloween classic.
“Don’t Fear The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult
Cowbell jokes aside, The Grim Reaper – the personification of death in European folklore – is no laughing matter. The lyrics suggest that we not fear The Reaper, but they evoke images of the macabre while romanticizing death itself with a literary reference to Romeo and Juliet. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was used in the opening sequence of the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, the story of a post-apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Reaper character remains a timeless Halloween character/costume, and the song eerily reminds us of the inevitability of death… and the need for more cowbell.
“Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads
Written by David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads, who had this to say about the tune “When I started writing this, I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad. Both The Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies”. Perhaps this sums up not only our fascination with slashers like Jason, Freddie Krueger and Michael Meyers, but with the whole horror genre and Halloween in general. The “psycho killer”, or serial killer, is perhaps the scariest of all, because unlike the myth or legend of monsters and vampires and the like, it is real.
After compiling this list and authoring this blog post, I found myself wondering, “What is societies fascination with Halloween, and all the fright and horror that goes along with it?”. I found my answer, or at least part of it, in an essay written by a master of the macabre, author Stephen King titled “Why We Crave Horror Movies”, in which he says: “The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized… and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark.”