Ozzy, Michael Jackson, Tom Waits, Son House: 13 Scary Songs For Halloween
Music can conjure a variety of emotions. And when it comes to Halloween, few things can induce fear more than a haunting piece of music.
But what are the songs that make for a perfectly disturbing soundtrack? From Ozzy Osbourne and nursery rhymes to Marilyn Manson, Tom Waits and spooky scores, here are 13 delights that masterfully mix music with a side of mystery and the macabre.
"Thriller," Michael Jackson
OK, let's get the big one out of the way first. The King of Pop's "Thriller" is a perennial Halloween favorite, and for good reason. With chilling voice-over by Vincent Price, moody music and Jackson's delivery of the song's frightful lyrics — not to mention an iconic video — "Thriller" continues to reign as the ideal choice for any Halloween party.
"Ring Around The Rosie"
A nursery rhyme on a scary song playlist? Dating back to the late 19th century, "Ring Around The Rosie" (sometimes referred to as "Ring A Ring O' Rosie") is one of those songs that, upon closer examination, may reveal a deeper, darker meaning. Though its rote melody makes for easy singing for children, urban legend has it that the words describe the Great Plague of London, or the Black Death, the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague that killed an estimated 100,000 people from 1665–1666 — a theory shot down by some historians, adding a layer of intrigue.
"Fire," The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
Before Alice Cooper and Kiss, London's The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown shocked audiences with a mix of psychedelic-laced rock and roll, makeup and costumes. Though a rock song, the instrumentation in "Fire" interestingly lacks guitars and bass, instead fueled by the disturbing sounds of a Hammond organ and lyrics such as "I am the God of hellfire" and "You're going to burn."
"Hurt," Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor has made a career out of pairing shocking lyrics with brooding soundscapes. Released in 1994, the now-classic "Hurt" was featured on The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails' sophomore LP. While the lyrical content has sparked ample debate, the music is unequivocally ominous, driven by an extremely dissonant tritone in the song's verses.
"Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)," Marilyn Manson
Who could turn a "sweet" song about the search for fulfillment into something completely unsettling? Marilyn Manson did just that with his 1995 cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)." While the song itself is perfect for any haunting holiday soundtrack, it's the accompanying video that really packs the stomach-turning shock value. Indeed, Eurythmics' co-founder Dave Stewart once described Manson's video as "one of the scariest things" ever.
"Her Ghost In The Fog," Cradle Of Filth
As if you couldn't guess from their name, GRAMMY nominees Cradle Of Filth have a penchant for extreme metal. A foreboding song featured on 2000's Midian, "Her Ghost In The Fog" is themed after a man whose love was assaulted and killed by five men. Topped off with a melancholy piano intro, swirling guitars and frontman Dani Filth's venomous vocals, "Her Ghost …" is certainly not for the faint at heart.
"What's He Building?" Tom Waits
Creepy enough to make Rolling Stone's list of 25 songs that are "truly terrifying," this dramatic Tom Waits tune reads like the climax in a frightening episode of "CBS Radio Mystery Theater." With a subdued spoken monologue, sparse effects and perfectly timed instrumental flourishes, "What's He Building?" is a traditional Waits-style ode to the proverbial strange next-door neighbor who seemingly engages in questionable activities.
"There's always someone in the neighborhood, the Boo Radley, the village idiot," Waits said about the song in the book Wild Years: The Music And Myth Of Tom Waits. "[He] drives this yellow station wagon without a windshield, and he has chickens in the backyard, and doesn't get home 'til 3 a.m. ... It's really a disturbed [song]."
"Werewolves Of London," Warren Zevon
Released on 1978's Excitable Boy album, "Werewolves Of London" forms one-third of singer/songwriter Warren Zevon's "terror" trilogy, rounded out by "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Excitable Boy." The spooky "Werewolves …" song idea was the brainchild of Phil Everly of Everly Brothers fame, who suggested to Zevon that he adapt the title for a tune after watching the 1935 film Werewolf Of London.
"Werewolves Of London" ultimately became Zevon's lone Top 40 hit. Speaking of scary, the song features a scary-good backing band comprising John McVie on bass, Mick Fleetwood on drums and Waddy Wachtel on guitar.
"Death Letter Blues," Son House
How about a blues song with a storyline that will really freak you out? Son House's "Death Letter Blues" is positively chill-provoking. Anchored by a slab of slide-guitar riffery, "Death Letter …" is an unfortunate tale of love and loss, with the protagonist male learning of his estranged girlfriend's untimely demise.
"Death Letter Blues" has been covered by a variety of artists, including Grateful Dead, John Mellencamp, Gov't Mule, and Cassandra Wilson. The White Stripes interpreted the song on their 2000 album, De Stijl.
"I Put A Spell On You," Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Is there a more powerful notion than the thought of actually being able to put a spell on someone? Screamin' Jay Hawkins originally envisaged "I Put A Spell On You" as a bluesy ballad ruminating the loss of a love he desperately wanted back. The R&B legend recut the song for Okeh Records with a different feel, yielding the track containing Hawkins' now-famous shrieking vocals.
Other artists who have tried to weave their magic with "I Put A Spell …" include fellow listees the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and Marilyn Manson, Annie Lennox, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Nina Simone.
"Bark At The Moon," Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne on a scary song playlist is a perfect combo akin to candy corn and a sweet tooth. But "Bark At The Moon," the title track on Osbourne's 1983 album, is arguably the Prince of Darkness' darkest moment. Led by Jake E. Lee's swirling guitar licks and Osbourne's howling, the real trick behind this tune is the storyline: "a werewolf who comes back from the dead and seeks revenge," according to Songfacts.com.
Of course, morbid songs are par for the course for Osbourne, the man behind the murky "Mr. Crowley" and "Diary Of A Madman" — not to mention his longtime band Black Sabbath was named after the 1963 film of the same name starring Boris Karloff.
Scream Score Soundtrack
Halloween just isn't Halloween without a classic horror film. And a classic horror film just isn't classic without the perfect unsettling musical underscore. Not convinced? See exhibits A, B and C: Halloween (John Carpenter), Suspiria (Dario Argento) and The Exorcist (Mike Oldfield, Jack Nitzsche).
In the '90s, Wes Craven's Scream grabbed ahold of a new generation of horror fanatics. Composed by Marco Beltrami, the film's score adds layers of fear and mystery as Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is targeted by the violent slasher known as Ghostface.
The "Ice Cream Truck Song"
Finally, for something slightly different, sometimes the sounds that seem benign and innocent on the surface can be the creepiest of all. Case in point, those "friendly" jingles you'll hear from the neighborhood ice cream truck. Next time you see one, take a closer listen: Do you really want an ice cream that badly?