Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Halloween horror music was more or less synonymous with novelty records: “Dinner with Drac,” “Monster Mash,” etc. There were a few mainstream artists who dabbled in the field (both Jumpin’ Gene Vincent and B.B. King recorded songs titled “Haunted House”), but these songs – as much fun as they are – feature little in the way of actual spooky music; they tend to be straight-ahead pop/rock/blues with lyrics about monsters and ghosts.
Fortunately, that has changed over the years. There is now an entire mini-industry churning out atmospheric ambient music that resembles a soundtrack for your worst nightmares. Equally important, if you look hard enough, you will find that there is plenty of Halloween-appropriate music from artists you would not normally associate with horror. Below, we offer some suggestions for songs and CDs that will hypercharge your Halloween party or add horror to your Halloween haunt.
VAMPYRE By Midnight Syndicate
Midnight Syndicate is probably the king of Halloween horror music: their records are available year round in many stores, but come October and their CDs suddenly appear on the shelves of party stores in the specialty shops catering to the season. Vampyre is an excellent example of the work they do. It is loaded with synthesizer-heavy music. Some of it is atmospheric; some of it sounds more dramatic, like a motion picture soundtrack. A few tracks even come close to presenting enchanting melodies. Midnight Syndicate has contributed scores to a few low-budget films, but most likely you have heard their work while walking through professional haunted house attractions. This is not stuff you want to dance to, but it will establish a horrifying mood for your Halloween party.
“Sick Things” from BILLION DOLLAR BABIES by Alice Cooper
The King of Shock Rock has a ton of tunes that would be appropriate for playing at your Halloween party: the voodooesque “Black Juju” from Love It To Death; the creepy “Dead Babies” from Killer; “Devil’s Food,” “Black Widow,” and the title track from Welcome to My Nightmare. Our personal favorite is the awesomely imposing “Sick Things” on Billion Dollar Babies, a deliberately slow and plodding track guaranteed to stir a tremor of awe in your soul. As an extra added bonus, the album ends with the equally grave “I Love the Dead.”
“Home by the Sea” and “Second Home by the Sea” from GENESIS by Genesis
What starts out as a robbery turns into a terrifying encounter with the beyond, as a thief finds himself surrounded by the ghosts haunting the house he is pilfering. As the restless spirits relate the tales, the song seques into an instrumental representing their memories of being alive. A very nice piece of work from the prog-rock group.
“Wicked Annabella” from The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks
This concept album presents a series of vignettes of life on the Village Green. Amidst the wistful nostalgia and yearning for a simpler time that should be preserved, there is one terrifying tune about a wicked witch named Annabella, who lives in perpetual midnight and preys on helpless children. A simple but effective song spun out of a simple, descending three-chord progression that you could learn to play in five minutes, this one actually sounds spooky, unlike earlier “haunted house” songs.
“Swamp Witch” by Jim Stafford
The amusing but light-weight country artist – best known for his comical hit “Spiders and Snakes” – reveals a darker side in this excellent tale of “Swamp Witch Hattie,” who lurks in the Black Bayou. Tales of what she has done terrify nearby townspeople who blame her for a fever that rages through the populace. Help unexpectedly arrives in the form of a gooey green concoction, presumably left by Hattie when no one was looking, but the final lyric implies that the Swamp Witch may still be the fearsome creature the town always feared.
“Horror Rock” from LEFT FOR LIVE by John Entwhstle
Although The Who was known mostly for Pete Townshend’s rock opera songwriting, bassists John Entwistle churned out a series of macabre tunes for the band, including “Boris the Spider” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In his solo work, he took the eerie approach even further, culminating with this powerful instrumental track that shows off his talent for playing melodic minor-key riffs on the bass. This relatively obscure track really should be a real Halloween anthem; it’s too bad more people don’t know about it.
“Hammer Horror” from LIONHEART by Kate Bush
Hammer was the British studio for horror movies in the ’50 and ’60s, and English songstress Kate Bush plays tribute in this cryptic tale of an actor charged with recreating the lead role in a remake of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. The only problem is, he feels haunted by the original actor who became famous in the role years ago. Although largely a pop song, Bush was experimenting with the orchestra on this album; the track briefly emulates the melodramatic style of horror movie music.
“Black No. 1” from BLOODY KISSES by Type-O Negative
Goth-rockers don’t wait for October; they play their morbid tunes year round. However, this stand-out track from a very fine album features a specific reference to Halloween. It’s a raging lament from a jilted lover, describing his ex-girlfriend who uses Black Dye No 1 to maintain her Goth look year round, because “everyday is Halloween.” The heavy-rock sound is boiling over with great riffs, instrumental breaks, and guitar solos; the music also deliberately echoes theme music from TV shows THE MUNSTERS (the harpsichord) and THE ADDAMS FAMILY (the snapping fingers). A great track from an album loaded with music that would enhance any party on All Hallow’s Eve.
“Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man” from WALKING IN LONDON by Concrete Blonde
This is a rip-roaring tune, with fast-paced drums and jangling guitars, telling the tale of what happens when singer Jane Napolitano realizes that a ghost with decidedly earth-bound lusts has invaded the bathroom where she is taking a shower. Fortunately, the close encounter with the beyond proves to be far from terrifying: “You don’t scare me, you don’t scare me, I cried/To my ecto-plasmic lover from the other side.”
CLASSICS FROM THE CRYPT by Various Artists
We tend to think of symphonic music as beautiful and uplifting, but many classical composers flirted with ghosts, ghouls and goblins. There are numerous compliation albums that assemble a fairly standard set of titles (e.g. “Night on Bald Mountain,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” “Dream of a Witches Sabbath”), but we have a soft spot for Classics from the Crypt because of its cool cover art, which clearly features a caricature of Claude Rains from the 1940s version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
HALLOWEEN HORROR MOVIE THEMES by Various Artists
As with classical music, there are numerous compilation albums including theme music from famous horror movies. They tend to include material from HALLOWEEN, PSYCHO, and THE EXORCIST in equal measure. We picked this particular collection at least partly because its title specifically references the holiday but also because it includes a good mix of music, including tracks from DRACULA, THE SHINING, JAWS, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and THE X-FILES.
HALLOW’S EVE, VOLUME II: THE HORROR by In a World
In a World is a relative late-comer to the Halloween horror music world, but their work stands shoulder to sholder with Midnight Syndicate, in terms of quality. The arrangements tend toward acoustic instruments rather than synthesizers, and some of the tracks offer haunting melodies that turn the music into more of a stand-alone entertainment experience: you could actually enjoy sitting down and listening to some of these tracks, instead of merely playing the album for background atmosphere at your costume party. Read a complete review of the album here.
UPDATE: We cannot believe that our list neglected to mention Goblin, the Italian rock group that provided soundtrack music for DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA, DAWN OF THE DEAD, CONTAMINATION, TENEBRE, PHENOMENA, and most recently 2001’s SLEEPLESS (starring Max Voy Sydow). Any of these soundtrack CDs would be a worthy addition to you Halloween horror music collection, but we always advise listeners to check out the band’s non-movie work: Roller, Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark, and the 2006 reunion album Back to the Goblin. It is hard to select one recommendation from all of these, but our preference is for Bagarozzo Mark, a concept album that features the group’s only lyrical content (not counting their early days under another name, as Cherry Five). It’s all about Mark, a “cockroach” (Italian slang for drug dealer) on some kind of hallucinator trip to the Land of Goblins. The album features the group’s most straight-forward rock-n-roll and strong vocals from guitarist Massimo Morante, who vocal inflections help overcome the language barrier. (You can find English translations of the lyrics online, if you search hard enough.)