Need a spooky soundtrack to set off your Halloween party this year?
Here’s a look at 30 classics guaranteed to put you in the mood for the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll holiday. A few of these choices are painfully obvious Halloween staples. “Monster Mash,” for instance.
But that song is child’s play compared to a lot of these choices. And I don’t mean “Child’s Play,” the movie with Chucky, the murdering doll. That was actually scary. I mean child’s play as in sticky kids’ stuff, as opposed to Alice Cooper staring longingly into cadaver eyes or Bauhaus paying tribute to film legend Bela Lugosi of “Dracula” fame.
We’re just doing our part to keep Halloween frightfully on point here.
Alice Cooper, ‘I Love the Dead’
I could have filled the list with Alice Cooper songs. In fact, I did a separate list called the Ultimate Alice Cooper Halloween playlist if you want to dig a little deeper. It seemed more fair for the sake of this list to limit each artist to a single track. And this one is a ghoul-tide gem, from the opening verse, “I love the dead before they’re cold. Their bluing flesh for me to hold. Cadaver eyes upon me see … ” Pause. “Nothing.” Other lines that make this song the greatest Halloween track ever? “I never even knew your now-rotting face.” “While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave, I have other uses for you, darling.” And the sing-along chorus is genius. The only thing missing is a children’s choir. Ahh, restraint ….
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The Who, ‘Boris the Spider’
John Entwistle’s demented genius fueled a number of the Who’s most offbeat early tracks, including this — a creepy, creepy, crawly, crawly ode to a spider named Boris. The dark, descending bass line makes it sound like horror-movie soundtrack fare, and Entwistle’s voice on the chorus is particularly creepy. By the final verse, he’s gone from merely observing the spider to fearing the spider to beating the spider to death with a book. As the late, great bassist puts it, “He’s come to a sticky end.”
Bauhaus, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’
A Hungarian film star best remembered for his starring role in “Dracula,” Lugosi made an ideal subject for a Bauhaus single. And these goth-rock pioneers delivered with a haunting post-punk tapestry of strange guitar effects, a dark, descending bass line and lead singer Peter Murphy eventually making his way to the mike to deliver the eulogy several minutes in: “The bats have left the bell tower. The victims have been bled. Red velvet lines the black box. Bela Lugosi’s dead.”
David Bowie, ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’
The title track to David Bowie’s 1980 classic “Scary Monsters” finds the former Ziggy Stardust observing a woman’s descent into madness and, as such, those super creeps and scary monsters may be nothing more than figments of a mind gone mad. Or are they?
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, ‘I Put a Spell on You’
Long before Alice had met his untimely demise in a guillotine, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was making the world safe for spooky rock-and roll-theatrics in the ’50s. Carried onstage in a flaming coffin, Hawkins would rise from the box wearing a black satin vampire cape and serenade a skull named Henry, which Hawkins would carry around on a stick, with songs like this. Hawkins has said he was drunk the day he cut “I Put a Spell on You” and that explains a lot, but his performance still brings chills with maniacal laughter punctuating what sounds like the ranting of a half-mad stalker. “I put a spell on you because you’re mine,” Hawkins sneers in the opening verse. And it gets creepier from there.
AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell’
From AC/DC’s final album with Bon Scott on vocals, “Highway to Hell” finds Scott romanticizing hell as the ultimate rock-and-roll promised land. “My friends are gonna be there, too,” the singer gleefully proclaims. Or course, he didn’t know he was about to die. But chances are, he would’ve sung that bit about a “season ticket on a one-way ride” regardless. The guitar riff is among the finest AC/DC ever hammered home, while the solo does more with the raunchier side of the Chuck Berry template than any lead guitar break since the early Kinks.
Roky Erickson, ‘I Walked With a Zombie’
The former leader of psychedelic garage-rock legends the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erickson recorded this wholly believable account of his walk with a zombie at the helm of a new band, the Aliens, in 1981. It shares a title with a classic zombie film from 1943, and lyrically there’s not much too it, with Erickson repeating “I walked with a zombie, I walked with a zombie, I walked with a zombie last night” until it’s clear the zombies hypnotized his fractured mind and sent him back to share his haunted visions with the world.
The Minus 5, ‘Lies of the Living Dead’
This garage-punk classic from the desk of Scott McCaughey finds the Minus 5 leaning into yet another less-than-subtle variation on the three-chord stomp of “Gloria” as McCaughey calls the living dead out on the lies they’ve been feeding him, all that talk of elevator clouds and bugs that braid your hair. The singalong chorus is priceless (the “lie, lie, lies of the living dead”), and thankfully someone thought to add an organ sound straight out of 1966. It’s one of three songs on this list you can find on a CD called “Little Steven’s Underground Garage Presents Halloween a Go-Go.”
Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’
Church bells tolling in a thunderstorm? They’ve got the horror-movie vibe established long before the band itself emerges from the sludge with the scariest, most devilicious riff the world had ever known. And this is all before the singing kicks in. “What is this that stands before me,” Ozzy Osbourne wonders. “Figure in black, which points at me?” Turns out it’s Satan, and despite his unearned reputation as a longhaired friend of Satan, Ozzy’s running scared and begging God for help before the track is out. A truly terrifying epic.
Ozzy Osbourne, ‘Bark at the Moon’
In which the voice that wondered “What is this that stands before me?” years earlier regales us with the tale of an unspecified yet clearly undead creature barking at the moon. “Years spent in torment buried in a nameless grave,” he sings. “Now he has risen / Miracles would have to save / Those that the beast is looking for / Listen in awe and you’ll hear him.” Guitar enthusiasts, of course, were just as likely to listen in awe to Jake E. Lee tearing it up on the neck of his guitar.
Motley Crue, ‘Shout at the Devil’
In which the men of Motley Crue tell you to shout at the devil, portrayed here variously as “the wolf screaming lonely in the nigh,” “the blood stain on the stage,” “the tear in your eye,” “the knife in your back” and “rage.” And that’s just the opening verse. It takes a damn sight more than that to scare Vince Neil, though. “We’ll stand and deliver, be strong and laugh,” he sings going into the chorus. “And shout at the devil.”
Donovan, ‘Season of the Witch’
It’s hard to say what witches have to do with knitting, really, but it’s Donovan. You’ll have that. If he thinks “You’ve got to pick up every stitch” is a perfectly natural lead-in to “Must be the season of the witch,” well, chances are, he had his reasons. And this is the Season of the Witch, you know. What better time to re-explore this underrated folk-rock gem from one of rock’s great unsung heroes?
Talking Heads, ‘Psycho Killer’
An agitated David Byrne twitches his way through a fairly convincing portrait of a psycho killer, backed by an ominous bass groove and jittery funk guitar. “I can’t seem to face up to the facts,” he sings. “I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax / I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire / Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire.” In the liner notes to “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne notes, “When I started writing this (I got help later), 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.”
The Dead Weather, ‘Hang You From the Heavens’
That may be Jack White on the beat, but Alison Mosshart of the Kills takes center stage on this first-album highlight, following “I like to grab you up by the hair and hang you up from the heavens” with “I like to grab you by the hair and drag you to the devil” in one of her sexier vocal performances yet, which is saying a lot. The groove is a monster, but Alison’s scarier.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
Most grown-ups at the time were already positioning Mick Jagger as the devil anyway. So why not play him in the greatest Rolling Stones song ever? The lyrics are genius, placing Jagger’s Satan at the scene of several key historical events. He’s there when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain. He’s in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, killing the Czar and his ministers. He’s in a tank with a general’s rank when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank. He’s even there to shout “Who killed the Kennedys?” which sets up Jagger’s finest hour as a lyricist: “when after all, it was you and me.” There is no Satan, Jagger’s saying, only people doing truly evil things and then blaming a sinister god they created.
Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’
Vincent Price was put to better use by Alice Cooper in a very similar scenario on “Welcome to My Nightmare.” But Price is really good here, too. And while it may work better as a soundtrack to a classic music video than an actual song, it’s still a good song. And the beat is undeniable. I know a lot of people like this single more than I do. But what can I say? I’m not like other guys. I mean, I’m different.
Blue Oyster Cult, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’
But wait, isn’t Halloween all about fearing the reaper? Yes, it is. But what could be more chilling than coming to terms with the thought of our own impending doom? In the opening verse, Blue Oyster Cult reminds us that “seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” Cut to the backing vocals chiming in with “We can be like they are.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, really. The scariest beautiful sentiment I’ve ever heard.
The Misfits, ‘Skulls’
The Misfits are, without a doubt, the greatest Halloween band in the history of punk. They even have a song called “Halloween.” But “Skulls” remains their morbid masterpiece. In the opening verse, Glenn Danzig sets the scene with corpses hanging limp and headless on his wall, blood draining down like devil’s rain. And it somehow gets sicker from there, like a really good “Criminal Minds” as written by Ramones fans with a twisted sense of humor.
Danny Elfman, ‘This is Halloween’
You can’t go wrong with Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” as performed by the citizens of Halloween Town in Tim Burton’s yuletide classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but it’s creepier when Marilyn Manson does it. And his vocal treatment is, surprisingly, the more cartoonish of the two.
Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Halloween’
Halloween is something of a metaphor is this shadowy post-punk treat from Siouxsie and the Banshees. She wears her silence like a mask and her memories like a shroud and murmurs like a ghost as guitar accents stab at the darkness like a member of the Manson Family, or maybe the Jam. She does sing “trick or treat,” though, so it sounds like a straight Halloween song to anyone half-listening.
The Ramones, ‘Pet Sematary’
The Ramones cut this song for the soundtrack to the Stephen King film of the same name. And Joey Ramone’s puts a bittersweet spin on the thought of being brought back to life. “I don’t want to be buried in a Pet Sematary,” he sings over chugging guitars on the wistful chorus hook. “I don’t want to live my life again.”