Two FSJ writers offer up their Halloween playlists: a mix of everything from the Gothic to the goofy.
Caught up in the chaos of simply trying to live, Americans rarely take the time to think about death. It’s easy to imagine pagans in Ireland, Scotland and Wales (some of them my ancestors) confronting death as an everyday fact of life. Come the inevitable withering of life and the darkening days of autumn, they would celebrate holidays like Samhain. They took time to revere the dead and the awesome power of nature, with its ability to create life as well as take it away.
But it would be reductive to say that Samhain was only a reflective and mournful time, akin to the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur. Samhain was also a time when the barriers between life and death would diminish, and that attrition allowed the living to commune with the spirits themselves.
Confronting the horror of death is a way for us to celebrate our lives. So Halloween, drawing so much from Pagan celebrations, is defined by two poles: reverence and revelry.
In that spirit, these staff playlists from our writers contain every kind of Halloween song imaginable, from eerie folk tunes to dark pop gems to tongue-in-cheek novelty songs.
1. Gatekeeper – “Giza”
“Giza” is a house-tinged ode to the industrial and EBM music pioneered by artists like Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy. Offered up by band whose name evokes the season’s liminality, the song is an ideal opener for a haunting mix. Propelled by a martial rhythm and sinister synth lines that sound like a dystopian reverse-engineering of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing, “Giza” will coldly usher revelers to the dark side.
2. Excepter – “Rock Stepper”
Usually, Excepter makes synthesizers drone, allowing them to ooze into an uncanny mire, twisting sounds into an undulating mass that is both fantastically human and alien. “Rock Stepper” has a more traditional structure, but the slowly bending melody and flat delivery make the song more unnerving than accessible. With each repetition of the simple theme, the synths threaten to swallow the song whole and drag it down to the abyss.
3. Espers – “Dead Queen”
Philadelphia natives Espers make otherworldly folk, folding in influences from traditionalists like Pentangle and psychedelic astronauts like The 13th Floor Elevators. Using harmonics, Espers summon spirits with their guitars, creating an ethereal, spooky atmosphere.
4. Current 93 – “Then Kill Caesar”
Autumn is the twilight season in temperate regions, the annual transition from the humming warmth of summer to the gelid silence of winter. Similarly, David Tibet sees the apocalypse itself as a twilight, a passage from the profane world to the sacred world of eternity. On “Then Kill Caesar,” Tibet conjures Milton and the Gospels in a swirling sermon on annihilation and revelation.
5. Depeche Mode – “Black Celebration”
While they were never as dire as industrial groups like Front Line Assembly and Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode courted the night on their 1986 album Black Celebration. The titular single works because when Depeche Mode go dark, they snuff out all light. Everything from the downcast minor key to the wash of choral pads to the reverberations of the tom drums seems orchestrated to place the song deep in the shadows. Oftentimes, that kind of overt darkness doesn’t work (see any earnestly morose mall-gawth band), but Depeche Mode know enough about black days to craft a convincing song about it.
6. Mirel Wagner – “No Death”
Most of Mirel Wagner’s spartan folk shares a direct lineage to macabre traditional songs like “O Death” (to which the title itself is a nod) and “Poor Ellen Smith.” Wagner is less interested in illuminating dark places than in inhabiting them. On “No Death,” she proves that love can also be a descent without return if you choose to linger there too long.
1. Michael Jackson – “Thriller”
This song and its beloved EC-comicesque video embody what Halloween is all about. In the 13-minute music video, director John Landis pays homage to a cauldron of horror-movie images, from werewolves to zombies. But Jackson is the center of the nightmare. As Jackson’s puerile (or possessed) boyfriend demonstrates, the song embodies the giddy thrill we get from spooking each other. With sepulchral color man Vincent Price lending Jackson a skeletal hand, “Thriller” is the perfect soundtrack for your childlike sugar rush and a great throwback to an era when Jackson controlled the airways.
2. Alice Cooper – “Feed My Frankenstein”
Just the title of this song screams Halloween. Guising as a revenant of disjointed parts, Cooper uses The Monster as a metaphor for sexual desire. Cooper’s driving guitars and creepy, over-the-top theatricality make this a Halloween classic for diehard rock fans.
3. Danny Elfman – “End Credits Part 2”
Elfman wrote this eerie song for the closing credits of the movie Corpse Bride. The song begins with some jazzy syncopation and ends as a grand opera, always seeming creepy enough for Halloween. Stirring enough to be memorable, but quiet enough to recede into the background, the melody will become an auditory hallucination long after the song has expired.
4. Beck, Bogert, Appice – “Superstition”
Jeff Beck lays down a heavier take on Stevie Wonder’s funky classic. The guitar notes that open the song set the mood for mysterious and supernatural events. The lyrics focus on everyday fears, but that sinister opening and the minor-key funk allow it to sit comfortably among other bewitching classics.
5. Black Veiled Brides – “Shadows Die”
Black Veil Brides have always used religious or supernatural lyrics, which fit right into the paranormal of Halloween. The music itself has an evil, ominous feel, especially with the screamed vocals and creepy sound effects. Plus, it has a scarily-shredded guitar solo.
6. “Weird Al” Yankovic – “Nature Trail to Hell”
While everything else on the list has been fairly serious, you may not want your party to become a complete downer. This song is a great showcase for Weird Al’s ability to endear himself even while you groan. The lyrics focus on a Jason Voorhees-style slasher, over which Yankovic layers multiple goofy sound effects, making the song either spookily stupid or stupidly spooky.
Find this playlist on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/echarlesboice/playlist/5pqTnd9vbGeYBZgFBeGhEg