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There is certainly no shortage of classic, party-ready Halloween songs out there; from the iconic and goofy “Monster Mash” to Warren Zevon’s catchy sing-a-long, “Werewolves of London.”
But if you’re looking to get into the Halloween spirit without a party full of glow-in-the-dark punch drinkers, perhaps the following list of tunes can help up the creep factor in your newest playlist. Here’s a list of songs that tell some spooky stories — some true, some fictional, all sure to rattle your bones.
The Decemberists – “Shankhill Butchers”
This creepy gem is a track off of the Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife. It’s simple and stripped down Colin Meloy with a haunting ballad-style melody and fairy-tale lyrics cautioning children about heeding their parents’ advice or else they may find themselves under the cleavers of the Shankhill Butchers. While giving the feel of being a cautionary tale for children, the song is very much based on a real group of murderers who abducted people and brutally killed them in Northern Ireland.
Sufjan Stevens – “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
Sufjan Stevens included this very mellow song about one of the most famous serial killers of all time in his state-specific concept album Come On Feel the Illinoise. The album focuses on songs originating from and inspired by the state of Illinois, of which Gacy was a native. Moody, minor guitar picking and Stevens’ reedy voice balance out the disturbingly intimate lyrics: “Look underneath the house / there, find the few living things rotting fast in their sleep.”
The song details the life and murders of Gacy — including his day job performing as Pogo the Clown at children’s parties (which is disturbing all on its own). And if all that wasn’t enough, the track ends with the close-mic’d subtle trembling of Stevens’ breath.
Helen Reddy – “Angie Baby”
I first heard this song by Helen Reddy as a kid, and it really freaked me out. The story is about a young girl who is maybe, or maybe not, in her right mind. She’s obsessed with the radio and talks to people who “aren’t there” and who apparently appear to her through the radio. One day, a neighbor boy shows up and makes some moves on her — unfortunately, it doesn’t end well for him because Angie is looking for a new playmate. He ends up trapped in her radio for all eternity, “never to be found,” and is forced to entertain her.
In the final verse, Reddy sings, “It’s so nice to be insane, no one asks you to explain. Radio by your side, Angie baby.” Freaky!
Ween – “Cold Blows the Wind”
Also known as “The Unquiet Grave,” this poem dates back to the 1400s and has been sung as a popular folk song since at least the 1800s. It’s downright creepy, too. A woman mourns the loss of her love and weeps by his grave for him. One day, he actually answers, asking to know why she disturbs his sleep! The song is about how mourning too hard can actually wake the dead, which is an unsettling thought in and of itself.
Ween did a great version of the song (and it’s probably the easiest one to find), but there are plenty of renditions to be heard — a beautiful version was even featured on the hit horror show Penny Dreadful.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (ft. PJ Harvey) – “Henry Lee”
Like many traditional folk songs, this Scottish story goes by many other names, such as “Young Hunting,” “Love Henry,” and “Proud Girl,” and dates back to the 1700s. It narrates the story of Young Hunting, who tells a woman that he is in love with another woman far more beautiful than she. She calmly sits him down and convinces Hunting to share a drink, subsequently getting him very drunk and taking him to bed. There, she stabs him to death and throws him into the river. Later, crippled by guilt, she confesses to the authorities that she committed the murder, and she is burned at the stake.
Nick Cave’s version of the song appears on his critically lauded 1996 album, Murder Ballads, which collects 10 songs (some traditional, some original) about murder and death.
The Beatles – “Helter Skelter”
This song is a bit out of character compared to most of the Beatles’ hits – it’s loud, there’s lots of screaming, and lots of wailing, distorted electric guitars. Ostensibly about a carnival ride in the Beatles’ home country of England, it also alludes to everything being a disorderly wreck. But the song itself may have remained simply an oddity in their catalog if not for its connection to Charles Manson and his infamous cult-related murders.
Manson became obsessed with The White Album and “Helter Skelter” in particular, believing that it confirmed a prophecy he had. It became the inspiration for the murders he and his cult followers carried out in 1969.
Of course, there are tons of other great songs out there to round out your playlists, from “Thriller,” always a strong favorite, to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ voodoo shocker “I Put A Spell On You,” and, of course, anything from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Have fun this Halloween, and don’t be afraid to mix up your playlist with the unpredictable!
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