There’s always been something a little unsatisfying about Halloween music. Sure, it’s always fun watching drunk people attempt the "Thriller" dance in a paper-thin, rayon costume that was not designed with those hips in mind, but “spooky” has never really been a mood that pop music has executed well. Most Halloweenish tunes are fun and jokey, like “Ghostbusters” or “Werewolves of London.” Every year, folks have trouble putting together a Halloween playlist because they can’t remember any good Halloween songs. When was the last time “The Monster Mash” got stuck in your head?
Most of the chilling sounds that really stick with you have nothing to do with Halloween. On the 31st, people are looking to have a good time, rather than sitting alone in the infinite blackness, tearfully contemplating all the ways their deepest fears are coming true. Still, truly haunting music can stay with you forever, even if you don’t quite have the constitution to listen to spine-tingling stuff every day. And hell, if you can’t enjoy a haunting carol on Halloween, you might be some sort of psychopath. Go listen to Bruno Mars someplace far away, and stop bothering the rest of us.
If you really do want to make your party guests’ hair stand up on the backs of their arms, though, we’ve got you covered. What follows is a bittersweet batch of the most haunting songs we could come up with. Some are more obscure than others, but even if you’re not a T-shirt-wearing fan of each of these artists, chances are you’ve heard the tunes before: in your favorite gut-wrenching movies! Turns out songs that make people feel things come in handy if you’re a film director. Who knew?
So light a single candle, dredge up some painful memories and sob with us through ten songs that are simply too haunting for Halloween:
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10. Black Widow, “Come to the Sabbat!”
Black Sabbath gets all the credit for murdering the ‘60s with history’s most devilish tritone upon their crushing, eponymous entrance, but they weren’t the only pop group already experimenting with Satanic trappings back in the day. The English band Black Widow never approached the monolithic heaviness of Iommi and company, but they certainly embraced the Great Deceiver with much more enthusiasm on their minor hit “Come to the Sabbat!” in 1969. Aside from the pagan chanting, it’s a pretty upbeat little folk-rock number—not terribly chilling until you get to that quiet, half-whispered refrain of “Come to the Sabbat! Satan’s there!” If you can’t imagine dropping a few hits of acid on Halloween and stabbing someone to death to that soundtrack, maybe you’re more of a Flag Day person.
9. Samuel Barber, “Adagio for Strings”
No instrument weeps quite as beautifully as the violin. Composer Samuel Barber demonstrated that fact better than most in “Adagio for Strings,” a movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11, written in 1936. Only dedicated classical-music nuts know what the rest of the suite sounds like, but that “Adagio” is pretty damn hard to forget. Especially since it’s been used to score the saddest scenes in such heartstring-tugging films as The Elephant Man, Lorenzo’s Oil and — most famously — Platoon, when Willem Dafoe gets shot down by the NVA. Fuckin’ Tom Berenger, man…
8. Johnny Cash, “Hurt”
“Hurt” was probably the darkest, most desperate track on Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral when it was released in 1994, but Jesus Christ, did it take an even more chilling turn when outlaw country legend Johnny Cash covered the song in 2002. The Man in Black was extremely frail and in poor health at the time of its recording, and frankly, he sounded as if he already had one foot in the grave. He died a mere seven months after filming the song’s deeply affecting video. The painful honesty of the song turned out to be pure Cash, even if he didn’t write the lyrics. Today, it sounds as though it was sung by a ghost.
7. Radiohead, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”
Thom Yorke called it “the dark tunnel without the light at the end,” and it’s hard to argue that point. But the cold and solitary final track on Radiohead’s 1995 album The Bends was also its most popular. Underpinned by a melody of minor chords, Yorke does some of his absolute best moaning and wailing here in a career more or less defined by them. “Street Spirit” became an anxiously hoped-for live favorite almost immediately, and it previewed an increasing alienation explored by the band on their albums to come.
6. The Doors, “The End”
The Doors were always at their best when they were indulging mercurial singer Jim Morrison’s dreamiest, most totemic impulses. The group was never eerier than on “The End,” a 12-minute hypnotic voyage crescendoing into a nightmarish Oedipal orgasm. Ray Manzarek’s horror-movie organ certainly set a troubling mood, and the song took on an even darker edge when Francis Ford Coppola used it to soundtrack the militarized madness at the beginning and end of his Vietnam mindfuck opus, Apocalypse Now. If Col. Kurtz had a turntable, there’s no doubt he was jammin’ this shit.
5. Sigur Ros, “Rains of Castamere”
No one who is as addicted to HBO’s Game of Thrones as desperately as we are can hear the strains of “Rains of Castamere” without experiencing a few pangs of dread. Ever since the favorite tune of House Lannister heralded the arrival of the Red Wedding, it’s sorrowful lilt has forever been associated with Very Bad Things happening. The most haunting version yet of the song appeared on the soundtrack to Game of Thrones: Season 4, performed by ethereal Icelandic trio Sigur Ros. The group even made a cameo on the show, performing “Rains of Castamere” at King Joffrey’s wedding. No word on whether or not they made it out alive.
4. Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”
Remember Mazzy Star? No, you don’t. You remember “Fade Into You,” their baleful 1994 hit that has since become an auditory shorthand for wistful ‘90s nostalgia. The song’s simple, sliding guitar melody seems to have slipped deeply into our collective subconscious over the years, helped along by its relentless usage in ‘round about half of all TV shows and movies produced since its release. That’s because the song is so effective — it’s essentially the soundtrack to your prom date ditching you for another dude. Just try telling us THAT doesn’t haunt you.
3. Geto Boys, “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me”
There are a few haunting hip-hop songs out there (What it do, “Stan”), but they rarely become big hits. The brilliant exception that proved that rule is “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” the indelible Geto Boys classic that took Houston rap worldwide in 1991. In a captivating twist on the gangsta-rap ethos, ‘Face, Bushwick and Willie D sounded endearingly vulnerable as they spun tales of paranoia, isolation and delusion triggered by the lifestyle of the common G. It’s one of the most crucially moody songs in hip-hop history, and it also gave us the image of a maniacal Bushwick Bill robbing trick-or-treaters for bags of candy, which happens to be totally seasonally appropriate.
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2. Rebekah Del Rio, “Llorando”
Back in 1961, “Crying” was just sort of another one of Roy Orbison’s patented weepy country-rock ballads. Orbison had another minor hit with the song in ’86 when he recorded it as a duet with KD Lang, but when Rebekah Del Rio reimagined the song (with Spanish lyrics) for David Lynch’s 2001 movie Mulholland Drive, the tune became downright emotionally disturbing. The climax of the film’s bizarre, enrapturing Club Silencio scene, Del Rio emotes beautifully and painfully before… well, just watch it. And remember always — No hay banda.
1. Michael Andrews and Gary Jules, “Mad World”
The sweetly pained “Mad World” was the first chart hit by British synth-wavers Tears for Fears back in 1981, but by 2001, the song had been all but forgotten. That changed in a hurry upon the release of Richard Kelly’s strange and wonderful Donnie Darko. Rather than Tears’ trademark lush orchestration, the new version recorded by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules was stripped away to almost nothing—just a piano, a little cello and a haunting voice. Presented in the film as a sort of coda to the inexplicable-but-affecting events of the movie, the track quickly proved capable of making eyes misty with almost military precision. Maybe more than any other song since the turn of the millennium, “Mad World” is simply terrific at worming its way into the deepest part of your brain and lingering there, stowed away neatly with all of your saddest memories.