Halloween is a tough one with regard to music. I mean, obviously, you're going to hear "Monster Mash," and how you feel about that is really a private matter. You may also hear "It's Halloween" from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and plenty of other Danny Elfman compositions besides. And that's fine. But they aren't actually scary in the sense of unnerving, unsettling, checking-under-the-bed one more time before you turn the lights off. But in keeping with the idea that the times we live in are so constantly terrifying that horror films are the only art form that can really keep up, I've made a short list of songs that I have found properly scary at one time or another, along with brief reasons why.
One thing that has always been true is that fear tends to be subjective, and half the time I have told people (parents, friends, therapists) about the things that turn my blood into mercury and make me tremble with physical and psychic dread, they tend to laugh derisively, point their fingers, and tell me I'm utterly without merit as a human being.
I'm not arguing. I'm just saying these songs freak me out:
The Cure: "Subway Song" from Three Imaginary Boys
The first Cure song anyone ever played me had me convinced they were a horror film in human form—a bias I never fully shook. That loping bass and spidery guitar figure really do evoke the terror of being the only one on the train platform after hours when you hear what you think are footsteps. Because I grew up during the American kidnapping scare of the early '80s, this song was a perfect portrait of my inner life every time I used a public restroom or found myself alone anywhere, and it still rings that bell—enough that I really can't listen to it.
Sebadoh: "As the World Dies, the Eyes of God Grow Bigger" from Sebadoh III
Normally, I don't go for songs with really monstery scream, but the first time I took mushrooms, this two-headed hellscape of off-the-grid psychosis (key lyric: "i'm dead serious, do just you wait/ the Manson clan will look like saints") opened a door in my brain about the nature of harmony and chaos, family and cultishness, love and violence that some severed foot has prevented me from ever closing again.
Dinosaur Jr: "Don't" from Bug
Otherwise known as a transcription of my teenage psyche.
Laurel Near & Peter Ives: "In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)" from Eraserhead
Everything about this supposed moment of respite is unsettling—right down to the eternal quandary about whether those things on either side of her face are hair or flesh.
Tom Tom Club: "Genius of Love" from Tom Tom Club
Those harmonies coming out of the radio in my bedroom late at night were unusual enough to make me assume that the words I couldn't make out were alien and menacing. And also about being in heaven and therefore dead.
Throbbing Gristle: "Hamburger Lady" from D.O.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle
Every list of scary songs has this song on it, and rightfully so. Like so much of Throbbing Gristle's work, it's utterly mortifying, in the almost-literal sense. It's all the more creepy when heard in the context of a party you don't want to be at with a group of people you only barely know and thought you'd take a chance on because you're all in college and you want to be the kind of person who says yes to things. But then you're in a weird house in Edmonds and your ride is making out with the person you were hoping to make out with (fat fucking chance) and your host is scraping resin out of a wooden pipe and this motherfucker comes on and you can't leave. Ever.
Coil: "Tainted Love" from Scatology
Soft Cell's version of this '60s chestnut was a moody gateway drug to a certain kind of late night underworld. It also makes you want to dance, perhaps through your tears. This rendition is a dirge, with a video that is explicitly about AIDS and features agonizing footage of flies trapped in honey and the first time I saw it was on MTV or Night Flight and it made me think that life was only suffering, and I still basically believe that.
The Beatles: "Wild Honey Pie" from The Beatles
No one's favorite Beatles song has an eerie, I-thought-you-said-this-was-going-to-be-a-meditation-lesson-but-it's-really-a-circus-hippie-orgy-in-a-muddy-tent quality that has always felt deeply wrong to me. Especially when people then try to talk smack about "Honey Pie" on the same record, because it's always easy to rag on McCartney. And though I always assumed this song was John making fun of Paul, it turns out it was Paul all along, which makes it all the more difficult for me.
Peggy Lee: "The Siamese Cat Song" from The Aristocats
You obviously don't have to look too far to find elements of racism in Disney films. I'd like to say it's the damaging stereotypes employed in the characterizations of Si and Am that make me shrink from this creepy-ass song, and in a strictly music theory way (those parallel fourths!) it may well be. But an ignorant child wouldn't know that, and an only-slightly-less ignorant adult barely does either. I just know this song has always made me run for cover, and I'm glad I'm not the only one.
Lou Reed: "The Kids" from Berlin
Once the crying starts, around 5:17, this already disturbing story of a woman losing her kids because she's sexually active becomes a primal nightmare that makes you both need and not want to know how the background performances were captured.
Lou Reed: "Kicks" from Coney Island Baby
One of many sleaze-crime masterpieces from the late great Reed—I take this one over the more graphic "Street Hassle" because its laid-back groove and backgroungcarries a lot more menace than the cello figure at the heart of the later number. Also, many is the stoned evening when I have been drowsily lulled into a headphone reverie by this tale of murder by seduction and murder only to be jolted awake—and afraid—by the loud stab that pops up at 2:00 (a reminder that you're never really safe).
Napoleon XIV: "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" from They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!
The naked drumbeat at the top makes you assume that the song is about to trombone up into "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," but instead you get this close-miked freakout of a novelty song that actually succeeds in evoking violent mental derangement, both despite and because of its varispeed grabassing.
The Trashmen: "Surfin' Bird" from Surfin' Bird
Ever since Kubrick cut hard to it in Full Metal Jacket, this song has been the sonic equivalent of opening a door that you think leads to a bathroom, but instead it's the clubhouse of a coven of psychotic hillbillies who have been both cooking and smoking meth for a thousand days in a row and this is what they want to tell you about it before they kill and eat you.
Suicide: "Frankie Teardrop" from Suicide
Much like Throbbing Gristle's "Hamburger Lady," this song appears on every one of these "scary songs for Halloween" lists, and with good reason.
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown: "Fire" (intro only) from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
I was briefly a born-again Christian, right around the time MTV started broadcasting the show Closet Classics, which repurposed old live and lip-synched performances, mostly from UK and European TV in the '60s and '70s. The commercial for the show began with the five second declaration, "I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE, AND I BRING YOU—" and the old video quality combined with the stentorian British stage actor voice (and the make-up) was convincing in the same way old porn is convincing. And just as troubling. Though I would come to learn years later that the song itself is a kind of innocuous, organ-heavy London white blues in the manner of Brian Auger, that intro wormed its way into my unconscious forever.
Gene Wilder: "The Wondrous Boat Ride" from
I mean, obviously.