Halloween may be technically over, but it’s never a bad time to celebrate spookiness. If your goal for this past weekend was to come down (Sylvan Esso pun intended) from all the campy scariness of Oct., hopefully these spooky songs can help ease you into the next stage of fall.
The playlist kicks off with Vince Staples’s “Fire,” which situates a crackling background around a chorus of: “I’m probably finna go to Hell anyway.” Many of the songs on this list, including “Fire,” are creepy mainly for how they sound. Lana Del Rey’s “Salvatore” is a definitive portrait of dread due to Del Rey’s beautifully hollow, ghostly voice, which paints a vivid soundscape in which things like limousines and soft ice cream feel inexplicably dark. Another example is The Rolling Stones’s “Time Is On My Side” which, with its twangy guitars and lulling, insistent vocals, sounds like the sort of thing that would start drifting suddenly out of a record player in a haunted house.
Some are even more subtle. Songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday or “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” by Bob Dylan only really sound creepy if you imagine that it’s somebody creepy singing them. And then there’s Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You,” which has a romantic underlying message but will always sound unnerving due to its role in “The Shining.” If you’ve seen the film, it’s hard to hear the line, “I surrender all my love to you,” and not picture the smiling, black-and-white face of Jack Torrance in the closing shot.
A lot of the songs on this playlist have to do with love — often doomed love or twisted love, but love nonetheless — which indicates something interesting about how love dovetails with fear. We love scariness, but our associations with it are often strangely romantic. When we talk about love and when we talk about horror, we use the same language without realizing it: devotion, connection, permanence. “I put a spell on you” can mean something romantic; “Tonight you belong to me” can mean something sinister. This is why I chose to end the playlist with Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” (recently covered to perfection by Soccer Mommy), and its calmly desperate, enduring lines: “I got a bad desire.”
Subtle spookiness is all well and good, but this playlist wouldn’t be complete without a few outright murder songs. While many of these tracks are subdued in their scariness, many are unabashedly and outwardly dark. Bob Dylan’s “House Carpenter” tells the story of a woman who abandons her family and sails away with a mysterious figure, likely a ghost or a devil, only to realize they are bound for “the hills of hellfire” as their ship goes down in a storm. Another one, Okkervil River’s “Knoxville Girl,” is a cover of an old Appalachian murder ballad (the fact that this a genre might tell you something), based on similar Irish and English ballads reaching as far back in time as the 1600s. Eerie with its bare vocals and stripped-down guitar, the song tells of a man murdering a woman and getting arrested for it before reaching a darkly poetic conclusion: “So now I’m down in Knoxville, I am locked in this dirty old cell / But they can only kill me, I don’t believe in Hell.”
The best murder song, though, is unquestionably “Pirate Jenny.” Nina Simone’s cover of the song from “The Threepenny Opera” is vivid and chilling. Simone channels Jenny’s voice impeccably, delivering a forceful tale of a woman who, after enduring years of disrespect and mistreatment from townspeople at the hotel where she works, violently kills them all with the help of an undead pirate army. Simone’s voice climbs at the climax (“And the ship / The Black Freighter / Runs a flag up its masthead / And a cheer rings the air”), and dives into a whisper for the intense lines that follow.
So whether you’re here for something only tangentially creepy or for something that will grab you by the throat, this playlist ought to have something that will work. It’s full of folksy vibes, stretching back to the seminal “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” by Lead Belly, and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” by The Carter Family. There are artists you can’t leave off of a spooky playlist (Soccer Mommy, Hozier), and a few others you might not expect. Check it out the next time you’re walking around campus in awe of the fact that it’s Nov., and the trees still look fiery and livid and beautiful. Spooky season might be technically over, but I’m feeling it as long as the trees are.