Halloween parties are all generally the same. Friends — or strangers — gather together to wear costumes and get drunk while listening to “Monster Mash” or the theme to “Ghostbusters.” It’s as American as baseball or self-loathing. As listenable as Halloween-related party music can sometimes be, there’s something about late October and fall in general that begs for darker songs. When September turns to October and the outside turns from the summer weather you were just getting accustomed to, to a bitter chill, music generally follows suit. Thankfully, the average fall brood syncs up pretty well with everyone’s favorite candy-based Pagan ritual.
The king of terrifying songs that would usually freak out a Halloween party is undoubtedly Tom Waits. Spread across 16 albums, Waits can always be counted on for at least two or three ominous tracks per album that would fit well on a Halloween-themed mix. Take a song like “Dave the Butcher” from “Swordfishtrombones.” Right away you’re feeling a little uneasy from just looking at the title. And then there’s the song itself. As a two-minute instrumental, it doesn’t have much time to come in and leave its mark and yet it’s still singularly creepy. The whole song consists of the pounding of dissonant, ugly chords on an old keyboard with a decrepit circus melody bellowing from a second keyboard on top. It’s the soundtrack to a nightmare of running through an abandoned circus after dark while being chased by the titular butcher. Naturally, it’s a party favorite.
But where people like Tom Waits excel in the area of blatant terror, there are different variations on the theme. Sufjan Stevens is generally seen as a guy who makes all kinds of pretty music, whether it be acoustic-based or steeped in electronics. Nestled near the beginning of 2005’s “Come On Feel The Illinoise” is the quiet but terrifically foreboding “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” As an origin of sorts to the fun, part clown and part convicted murderer, the song didn’t have to do much to be dark. It’s a testament to Stevens’ sense of lyrics and melody that a song as simple and quiet could be as crazy as it sounds. The major takeaway from the song is the notable last verse, which is the icing on the creepy cake that is “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” “And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floor boards/For the secrets I have hid.”
In 2009, a band called Dead Man’s Bones released its eponymous debut album. The album was firmly Halloween-themed, from the song titles like “My Body Is A Zombie For You” and “Werewolf Heart” and the eerie children’s choir that accompanied the band on most of the tracks. The music is quite good, but there’s a pretty good chance the band would have flown under the radar if one half of the duo wasn’t the current title-holder of Man of Your Dreams Champion Ryan Gosling. Splitting instrumental and vocals duties with compatriot Zach Shields, the album is the perfect mood-setter for Halloween. There aren’t any genuinely scary songs, but it makes a great party playlist alternative to hearing “Thriller” for the quadrillionth time.
No listing of music in the key of Halloween would be complete without the true kings of the craft, the Misfits. It would be a fool’s errand to name check just one song since literally the band’s entire catalogue is, as a Wal-Mart circular would say, spooktacular. Lead singer and total jerk Glenn Danzig held a fascination with B-movies, the occult and all sorts of otherworldly horror lore, so it only makes sense that songs like “Teenagers From Mars” and, uh, “Halloween” are celebrated seasonal favorites. Like a horror-punk Kiss, the Misfits delivered songs about black magic and the devil with a straight, usually painted face, which is what makes the rock band’s discography so celebrated.
Other than Christmas, there aren’t many days on the calendar that conjure up so many songs. And compared to that holiday, which I’m sure will be thrust upon us the moment that this one is through, Halloween-inspired songs can be listened to all year round. However, there’s nothing better than driving on dirt roads at night listening to the Misfits’ “Last Caress” to get you in the spirit for celebrating spirits. After all, there’s a sizeable amount of the population that asserts Halloween as a celebration for the devil, so why not play his favorite songs to get psyched up for it? When “Monster Mash” grows stale, thrust this column in the face of your party’s playlist-maker and demand that he or she make a change for the terrifying.
FIVE MORE SONGS THAT WILL GET YOU KICKED OUT OF THE HALLOWEEN PARTY:
“They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” — Napoleon XIV
“God’s Away On Business” — Tom Waits
“Me and the Devil Blues” — Robert Johnson
“Halloween” — Sonic Youth
“Lady Godiva’s Operation” — The Velvet Underground
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.