It’s Halloween. You’re getting ready to throw a party, or maybe hand out candy on your front porch. Time to turn on some tunes to set the mood. But wait: “Thriller,” “Monster Mash,” “Ghostbusters?” Yawn. You don’t have to be stuck with these overplayed picks — there are spookier songs out there that are just as thematic for October 31.
So don your witch’s hat or pop in your vampire fangs and queue up the 14 songs below. Trick-or-treaters beware.
1) “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Lead vocalist Karen O sings about dancing into the afterlife in this synth-pop Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. The music video is hard to forget: As the band plays, a werewolf performs Michael Jackson–style moves in front of a crowd before gruesomely murdering them in an explosion of confetti.
2) “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
When it comes to “I Put a Spell on You,” there’s nothing like the original. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wrote it as a love song in 1956, but when he put it to tape it came out as something a little more sinister. Nina Simone and She & Him, among others, have covered it over the years, but the bass-heavy Hawkins version is tops for creep value.
3) “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz
All the members of “virtual band,” have fictional backstories, with Del the Funky Homosapien embodying "Del the Ghost Rapper," who was said to be a spirit hiding from death within the band’s drummer. When you layer that knowledge on top of this track’s creepy opening “oh oh oh oh oh ohh”s, you’ve got a 2000 jam that slides right into a Halloween playlist.
4) “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell
Soft Cell’s cover of the 1960 Gloria Jones song ramps up the insidious nature of “Tainted Love.” At its heart, this song tells the story of a scorned lover. But on Halloween, running away from a tainted love feels a little more like fleeing a zombie than a bad girlfriend. (If you want to get even darker, try Marilyn Manson’s version.)
5) “Gosh” by Jamie xx
Jamie xx’s ultra-bassy “Gosh” has an almost overwhelming sense of urgency. The singer’s auto-tuned voice repeats the same phrase over and over — “oh my gosh” — notched down a few octaves beneath a normal tone. It’s a song designed to score the chase scene of some trippy, futuristic horror film.
In this macabre tune, Florence Welch sings about slicing out another girl’s eye after she made the singer cry. All par for the course for Welch, who told the Independent in 2009 that she’s “always been attracted to dark imagery.”
7) “Evil Friends” by Portugal the Man
What’s more alarming than realizing all your friends are really against you? In this fast-paced rocker by Portugal the Man, lead singer John Gourley imagines a pal ditching the rest of the crew for someone with less than pure intentions: “And it’s not that I'm evil / I got a friend in the devil.”
8) “Little Ghost” by the White Stripes
This song is a simple account of a secret relationship with a ghost. Listen and enjoy a joyful and weird Jack White celebrating a little spectrophilia: “No one else could see this apparition / But because of my condition / I fell in love with a little ghost, and that was all.”
9) “Zombies, Unite!” by the Unbearables
A sweeping journey, this six-minute Unbearables rock song infused with baroque pop is solely about zombies. It begins with a harmonic chorus repeating, “People, people — we’re gonna eat ’em,” before the guitars enter and the band’s lead singer urges the song’s titular zombies to come together. It’s bizarre but sonically sound — listen for the horns at the end.
When the Animals recorded this song in 1964, they were adding another layer to an already established traditional folk song. Their commercial hit, with its roiling guitar intro in a minor key, evokes a hazy New Orleans scene of gambling, prostitution, ill will, and bad luck.
11) “Hoist That Rag” by Tom Waits
More important than what this song means — or what Tom Waits is even saying — is how he’s saying it. His gravel-filled voice just wails on the chorus of this song, which you can imagine coming from the bottom of a well, or from a dark cellar, or out from a pitch-black forest … but maybe you shouldn’t.
12) “Shank Hill St.” by Shovels & Rope
Husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope meld their voices perfectly on this gloomy murder ballad about a butcher. The song builds to a crescendo until it ends with a “hot red drip.” I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
This one is for all the dads out there trick-or-treating. Mick Jagger sings from the perspective of Satan on this 1968 track, which earned the Stones a bit of a reputation as “devil worshipers.”
14) “Spooky” by Dusty Springfield
Dusty Springfield sings about dating a, well, spooky boy in this 1968 groove. Clearly she doesn’t have a problem with dating someone who’s “like a ghost,” but I’d suggest steering clear of any nonhumans this Halloween.
Listen to the Spotify embed below, or through this link.