One of Apple Music’s more interesting holiday-themed playlists, “Halloween After Dark” will more or less give you a moderately hip Halloween shindig. Songs like “Don’t Fear the Reaper, “Psycho Killer” and “Dead Man’s Party” may flirt with the macabre, but only in the callow manner of teenagers giggling over a Ouija board at a slumber party, toying with unseen forces they’d better hope don’t get unleashed. The following artists are much more attuned to a less benign musical vibe, sinister songsmiths less concerned with the pop charts than those things that go bump in the night. These bands make you sleep with the lights on.
Real horror can’t be too unlike waking up every day in Kid Rock’s America, but a long time ago people used to tear up the world looking for kicks. And whatever kicks could be found were certainly found by Hasil Adkins, the weird West Virginian rocker and hell-raiser. Long before Jesco White the dancing outlaw clog-danced his way into the hearts of hundreds, well before Gummo, before the exploitation of white-trash Americana went mainstream, before Tobacco Road was a term interchangeable with a White House cabinet member, Hasil Adkins was making his own strange way in the world. People say DIY now, if they say it anymore, and it probably means doing things on a laptop and uploading them on a bandit wi-fi signal. Adkins performed as a one-man band, banging on a guitar and drums at the same time, because that’s how he interpreted the music he heard on the radio. He’s rumored to have pulled guns on bands with whom he shared stages, he wrote extensively about food, and has had songs covered by the Cramps, so we’ll forgive him if he’s also said to be the father of psychobilly. TEX KERSCHEN
Literally named after the beast found in the book of Job, Behemoth lifts many allusions from the Bible for the sake of distorting them for Satanic purposes. Call it a gimmick, a schtick or a ruse, just don’t call it counterfeit. These Polish dark lords have kept the unholy fires burning since the early '90s. Live shows promise not only satanic hymns, but an audience covered in sacrificial blood, making typical American haunted houses look juvenile and clownish by comparison. If you’re the type who appreciates a night of horror films and gore-themed shock, Behemoth’s haunting music videos detail everything from birthing demons to angel cannibalism. Thrill-seekers who scare best when disturbed psychologically should check out lead singer’s Adam “Nergal” Darski’s side project, Me and That Man, a country-blues act that haunts to the bone with tales of Voodoo Queens, blackened churches and night rides you won’t soon forget. KRISTY LOYE
Yes, that’s spelled correctly, from the recovered memories of an '80s hair-metal hangover. Long thought to be buried in the crypt of either Bands with Terrible Names or Bands Desperate for Scary Imagery, Helloween still exists. Believe it or not, this self-described “German power metal” act has not only been delivering Halloween-inspired tunes since 1985, but is still touring and making music. Whether that’s good or bad, we’re unsure, but at least it’s timely for the season. With a new album, entitled Pumpkins United no less, they've also got a Helloween book and DVD along with live albums, studio LPs and singles for sale on their website if you should find yourself so inclined for fearful and unnerving frights. Fans refer to themselves as “pumpkins,” and there’s plenty of creepy jack-o-lantern images on most merch. For all the spooky symbolism, we can’t figure which is more frightening: a trope borrowed from a popular holiday, or still capitalizing on it 30 years later. KRISTY LOYE
Like most healthy Americans, I consider Halloween the only important holiday. And for us in the South, there are few better ways to prepare for Halloween than by cruising I-10, eastbound or westbound, in the early morning, at least a few hours before dawn, with something by Jandek playing at a low volume. The horror here may not be family fun like the Misfits, White Zombie, or anything requiring the application of corpsepaint; no way, it’s completely existential. Why, you’ll be forced to ask yourself, am I alone? What drove them all away from me, me, whom mother and father may have loved once? TEX KERSCHEN
Less than a month after Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral, their cover of “Dead Souls” appeared on the soundtrack of rising action star Brandon Lee’s ill-fated final film, The Crow — and, much much later, on that very same "Halloween After Dark" Apple playlist mentioned at the top of this article. That alone indicates how loudly Joy Division’s bleak prophesies of mental instability and social alienation have echoed, now for nearly four decades. During their brief active period, though, the Mancunians were virtually alone, unclaimed by no genre and thus forced to (involuntarily) create not one, but several. The three survivors of Ian Curtis' 1980 suicide improbably went on to found New Order, a band as buoyant as Joy Division was dour, yet one with an easily scratched melancholy streak buried just beneath the surface. Small wonder why. CHRIS GRAY
While there may be plenty of other acts to choose from when it comes to spooky bands, few have the longevity of the Misfits. Unapologetically ghoulish and macabre, they’ve long taken the scarier side of Fall’s best holiday and made it into an entire lifestyle. Halloween frights, skull faces and haunted tales of lyrical doom once assigned to a single calendar evening are instead recurring themes across multiple albums for not just the Misfits, but co-founder and erstwhile front man Glenn Danzig himself. From his freaky cameo on Portlandia to his hellish Verotik comics, and his own house full of literal trash and frights, Danzig may as well be crowned dark king of Hallow’s Eve, if there was such a liege. If you’re still not convinced, The Blackest of the Black festival, handcrafted by Danzig himself, includes a Danzig castle, body suspension, a sacrificial altar (for God knows what) and stages featuring electro-shock, bondage, (presumably fake) blood baths and freak-show performers. Oh, and a bunch of metal acts as well. KRISTY LOYE
The Mummies aren’t scary at all, but they did dress as mummies — classic Universal Studios Boris Karloff mummies. Musically, they were crude like the Sonics, arch like Devo, and fun like the Cramps, specialists in a rowdy combination of garage and punk rock that often came out sounding something like a trucker-speed version of “The Monster Mash.” Their wave of destruction surf-rock prefigured many of America’s best high-concept, high-energy party bands like Man or Astroman?, The Fatal Flying Guilloteens, and countless more, each of them similarly Halloween-ready, bands for whom the party isn’t over 'til the place is wrecked and anyone who’ll listen has been told to scram. TEX KERSCHEN
Suicide showed up toting primitive synthesizers to the CBGBs revolution and turning signifiers of ‘50s cool — Elvis, Gene Vincent, souped-up cars, Marvel Comics — into a poisonous antidote to the bloated stadium-rock and writ-large social decay of the late ‘70s. Of “Frankie Teardrop,” a 10-minute death spiral in which a young factory worker descends into madness and murder, High Fidelity author Nick Hornby once said, “Me, I need no convincing that life is scary.” Bruce Springsteen, however, wouldn’t have made Nebraska without it. CHRIS GRAY
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Sunn O))) take the stage under robes, covered in fog. When the drones start, you feel like maybe you're watching something you're not supposed to. And maybe you're not: Sunn O))) is not for everyone. If bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor write songs that sound like the world is ending, Sunn O))) write songs for a world that's both long dead and haunted by those who've passed. Whether it's recording vocals in a casket or serving up glacially slow but glacially massive chords, there's nothing that feels safe about a Sunn O))) track. They're the band that the evil kids into Satan in horror movies should be listening to instead of whatever boring ass cock rock that normally gets put into those scenes. CORY GARCIA
Ulver do not look scary. There's no corpse paint, no weird haircuts, no spooky props when they hit the stage. And no, not everyone single thing they've released has existed to frighten or chill. But when creepiness is what they're after, few bands make music that will raise the hair on the back of your neck like Ulver. “Silence Teaches You How to Sing” is a masterpiece in how music can frighten without telling some overt story. It's a creeping terror, as if you've tuned into something from a different dimension where everything is just wrong. Put it on in a dark room or a drive in the middle of the night, play it loud and enjoy living in your own horror movie for 24 minutes. CORY GARCIA