For much of my life, Halloween playlists have been disappointing. Every Halloween party in an elementary school had the same handful of songs on repeat: “Monster Mash,” “Thriller,” “Ghostbusters,” “Purple People Eater,” “Werewolves of London,” “Superstition,” maybe “Psycho Killer,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” or any of the other vaguely related ’70s rock songs. Over time, however, I’ve collected a number of songs in a Halloween-themed playlist — songs with just enough creepy edge that they give me the feelings of October and Halloween. I’ve always liked listening to music that helps set the season — Christmas songs in December, beach jams in July — and there’s something so lovely about listening to Halloween songs as the leaves change and the wind rolls in.
Halloween isn’t going to be the same this year. The coronavirus pandemic has ensured that people shouldn’t (even though we know that some of them will) go out trick-or-treating or go to parties. I was looking forward to this year’s Halloween — on a Saturday, no less — but for the past few months I’ve seen the writing on the wall: A real Halloween isn’t in the cards this year. That means that there are two valid options: I could sit on my bed, wallowing in the costume I was planning on wearing, or I could try to make the most of it. For me, that means eating candy, watching movies and listening to my Halloween music.
Halloween music is a very specific brand of sound. From what I’ve found, there are three general categories of widely-used Halloween songs: classic rock songs with minor chords and Halloween-adjacent lyrics, gothic rock songs that use monsters as props and metaphors, and, most rarely, songs that were actually intended as Halloween songs. There isn’t as much of a market in the music industry for Halloween as there is for Christmas, but the songs are there — hidden gems with minor synth riffs and the occasional scream, just for fun. With this list, I tried to stick to the most palatable, with artists or songs that are recognizable, but there’s plenty more if you want to branch out into other things (the children’s songs, the heavy metal, the songs that they sang during Halloween episodes of “Glee,” etc.).
So whether you’ll be spending this Halloween watching movies, carving pumpkins or dreaming of the dance floor, here are 13 Halloween songs to listen to this week to get yourself in the spirit.
1. “Dead Man’s Party” — Oingo Boingo
This song is the kind of big hair ’80s rock that I can get behind, with lyrics fit for a haunted mansion party and a beat fit for a dance floor. Not to mention that Oingo Boingo’s frontman, Danny Elfman, is Tim Burton’s go-to guy for composing his movie scores: He’s done “Beetlejuice,” “Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Alice in Wonderland” and more. “Dead Man’s Party” isn’t “creepy” per se, but it’s a good dance tune with a strong backbeat and killer horn licks. Like the song says, “It’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more?”
2. “I Put a Spell On You” — Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
The history of this song is fascinating: It has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Annie Lennox, though I know it mostly from Bette Midler’s rendition in “Hocus Pocus.” The lyrics in “I Put a Spell On You” speak to witchcraft and possession — nice and creepy for Halloween, with an ominous waltz feel and some saxophone to accompany it. But just a warning that they did call him “screamin’” for a reason: There’s a lot of screams and grunts that might catch you off guard if you aren’t paying attention.
3. “Howlin’ for You” — The Black Keys
Of all of the songs on this list, “Howlin’ for You” is probably one of the most recognizable, both as a rock song and occasionally as a Halloween song. Beyond the main lyric, it’s not particularly October-focused. Still, it’s got that signature catchy lick, plus a subtle synth that is reminiscent of a horror movie soundtrack.
4. “Vampire” — John & Jehn
I stumbled randomly upon this song in a generated YouTube playlist of ’80s hits — which is weird because the song is from 2010. So maybe the YouTube algorithm isn’t perfect, but I’m glad it gave me this song: Its ever-present beat of steady minor chords and lyrics always feel pertinent to the season. “Vampire” is the right level of creepy — not something you would listen to normally, but not something you’re uncomfortable listening to either.
5. “The Boogie Monster” — Gnarls Barkley
Did you know that Gnarls Barkley wrote a Halloween song? Because I sure didn’t until a few years ago. “The Boogie Monster” checks all of the boxes — a solid bass line, the right amount of minor organ, some recitative speaking, plus it ends with a creepy laugh — and it’s a pretty solid tune.
6. “Ghost Town ” — The Specials
“Ghost Town” is what’s called two-tone — a British genre in the early ’80s that combined reggae with punk rock. By adding organ, horns and a haunting vocal lick, it creates a sound that reminds me of a dark Halloween night. Plus the lyrics — “This town is coming like a ghost town” — feel apt in a quarantining world.
7. “Spooky” — Classics IV
“Riverdale” definitely did a cover of this song and almost ruined it for me, but I’m willing to look past that. That said, I can understand why they chose it — it’s got a solid guitar groove and the lyrics are Halloween-focused, but subtle (“Love is kind of crazy with a spooky little girl like you”). Overall, the song is more palatable for pop or rock audiences than, say, a song like “Monster Mash,” which is so blatantly Halloween that you can only play it in that context; “Spooky” could start playing in a playlist of ’60s rock and you probably wouldn’t realize.
8. “Red Right Hand” — Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Nick Cave is known for singing about dark topics with mumbled lyrics and emotional intensity, and “Red Right Hand” fits this bill. The subtle rhythmic guitar, sustained organ riffs and the occasional ring of a bell give this song a “standing in a graveyard under the full moon” feel, and the song has been featured in movies and TV shows — including the “Scream” film series — for this very reason.
9. “Witchy Woman” — Eagles
This song falls very solidly in the “classic rock songs with minor chords and Halloween-adjacent lyrics” category of Halloween music. The lyrics, which describe a raven-haired woman with “magical” powers, were allegedly written while Don Henley was semi-delirious with a high fever from a bad case of the flu. Paired with minor guitar riffs, this fever dream song holds up in an October context.
10. “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” — David Bowie
“Scary Monsters,” the title track off of Bowie’s 1980 album, follows a woman’s descent into madness. The song itself sounds like most Bowie songs — upbeat classic rock overlaid with Bowie’s Cockney accent — but vocal effects paired with the lyrics give the song an eerier feel than some of Bowie’s other dance hits.
11. “Season of the Witch” — Donovan
Somewhere in the folk-rock era of the ’60s, Donovan came up with “Season of the Witch,” a foreboding rock tune reminiscent of staring out the window and expecting to see something sinister. Because of this, “Season of the Witch” has been featured in a number of spooky films and TV shows, lending its haunting sound to Halloween ambiance for decades.
12. “Evil Eye” — Franz Ferdinand
Right off the bat, “Evil Eye” hits us with a long scream and a toe-tapping, blood-curdling groove. Its funk feel, which is reminiscent of the band’s hit “Take Me Out,” is transplanted into a Halloween context. With creepy background vocals, a killer baseline and cheeky guitar riffs, this song is great to dance, sing or scream to.
13. “The Killing Moon” — Echo & the Bunnymen
Maybe this song isn’t quite the same kind of Halloween song as some of these others, but it’s quietly eerie and musically rich. “The Killing Moon” is beautifully evocative of clear nights with skies full of stars or full moons reflected over the ocean. It’s not a song to dance to at a Halloween party, but it’s a song to listen to after you’ve gotten back home, ready to fall asleep. Within a cluster of sustained guitar lines, “The Killing Moon” creates a mood that is haunting but beautiful all the same.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.