At this time of year, Halloween parties are as popular as the Salt Flats are to the Wicked Witch of the West.
Whomever is deejaying the party always spins the usual suspects:
Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.”
Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers’ “The Monster Mash.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince ‘s “Nightmare On My Street.”
Those songs present themes that are not exactly scary. Not even a little bit.
But do you remember that song about a guy who killed a man in Reno just to watch him die? That’s some scary stuff.
So when you consider that many people believe that Halloween is descended from festivals of the dead by pagans, it makes sense that at least one deejay out there will spin a playlist of songs that are truly scary — songs that are not novelty scary, or gimmicky scary, but evil scary.
Songs about murder.
Songs about stalking.
Songs about big, horrific things that go bump in the night.
Songs that are scary, like how the Great Salt Lake is scary to the Wicked Witch of the West.
This is the playlist I will be playing on Halloween night, alone in the dark, as I dress up as a person who doesn’t give candy to children ringing the bell to my condo.
1. “Country Death Song” by Violent Femmes. In this spare song, the nasal narrator loses his mind and decides to kill his family. He tells his little daughter before he takes her out to kill her, “Kiss your mother Good night and remember that God saves.” Later, he tells her, “You know your Papa loves you, good children go to heaven.”
2. “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The spooky baritone sings about a man encountering the devil (with a red right hand) somewhere in the darkness on the edge of town. “He’ll wrap you in his arms, tell you that you’ve been a good boy. He’ll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy. He’ll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul. Hey buddy, you know you’re never ever coming back.” The devil figures prominently in many of these songs. Go figure.
3. “Ellis Unit One” by Steve Earle. The narrator, a prison guard, is transferred to Death Row. The acoustic, folk-inspired song is a creepy voyereustic depiction of life as death sentences are carried out — appropriately enough the song is on the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack — but the song grabs you at the end to chill you to the bone. The guard says, “Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest, and something cold and black pullin’ through my lungs. Even Jesus couldn’t save me though I know He did his best, but He don’t live on Ellis Unit One.”
4. “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen. The Boss’ “Nebraska” album is chock full of characters you wouldn’t ever want to cross paths with, especially the stoic mass murderer in the title song who kills 10 innocent people and nonchalantly explains to the judge he did it because “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
5. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. Like R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” the message of the song is different from what you think. In this case, the narrator is a stalker. “Every bond you break ... Every game you play ... Every vow you break ... Every smile you fake ... I’ll be watching you.”
6. “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde” by Eminem. It’s a toss-up between this song, from “The Slim Shady LP,” and “Kim,” from “The Marshall Mathers LP.” Kim was Eminem’s wife and the mother of his child. In the former song he raps about taking a drive with his daughter to dump Kim’s body in a lake after he slit her wife’s throat. “Oh where’s mama? She’s takin’ a little nap in the trunk. Oh that smell? Whew! Da-da musta runned over a skunk.”
7. “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” by Pink Floyd. This brooding, largely instrumental song from the late 1960s is volcanic in its structure, with repeated whispers of the title punctuated with screams from Roger Waters. Heavy breathing never sounded so anguished.
8. “Halloween” by the Misfits. The horror-punk band sings of “dead cats hanging from poles,” which sounds bad enough, until Glenn Danzigs start singing about “burning bodies hanging from poles.” Not to mention the “little dead are out in droves,” eventually becoming “little dead ... soon in graves.”
9. “Dead Souls” by Joy Division. This song, first released in 1981, was later recorded by Nine Inch Nails on the soundtrack for “The Crow,” but Ian Curis’ living nightmare is haunted by the persistent voices he can’t get away from, including “Conquistadors who took their share.” A bass line adds to the menace. He continues: “Someone take these dreams away ... That keep calling me ... They keep calling me ... Keep on calling me ...They keep calling me.” For an added dose, pair this with the band’s “I Remember Nothing,” with the sounds of shattered glass keeping the song company.
10. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus. Considered by many to be the first gothic rock single ever recorded, this 1979, nine-minute-plus single features creepy, out-of-tune instrumentation, dub-influenced guitar, and Peter Murphy murmuring, “The bats have left the bell tower, The victims have been bled.” (Lugosi, the Hungarian actor best known for playing the character “Dracula” in the 1931 film, died more than two decades before this song was recorded.)
11. “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide. Believed to have been the first band to use the phrase “punk music” to describe itself, the New York duo created this claustrophobic song about a Vietnam war veteran, Frankie, who returns home to murder both his wife and newborn child. He then turns the gun on himself. After that, he burns in hell. “We’re all Frankies!” chillingly screams singer Alan Vega. In the 10-minute song, the drum machine sounds like a throbbing heartbeat.
12. “Hellhound on My Trail” by Robert Johnson. The most important blues singer that ever lived, sold his soul to his devil at a crossroads, and the devil claimed his life at the young age of 27 (according to legend). Whether he did or not, the devil and his minions dog Johnson throughout his songs, with the scariest imagery coming from this song: “I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving, Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail, Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail, And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail, Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.”
13. “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles. Who knows if this song would be as scary if Charles Manson didn’t steal the phrase? Regardless, the song is raucous, raw and McCartney —the cute one — sounds possessed and not at all like the guy who wrote “Michelle.” In the game Seven Degrees of Satan, Guns n’ Roses wrote a song called “My Michelle,” and also later recorded Charles Manson’s song “Look at Your Game, Girl.” Full circle.