One of old age’s weirder aspects is the dramatic shift in what truly scares us. As adults, it’s typically the Four Horsemen – Death, Famine, War, Pestilence – plus mundane downers from everyday Western existence, such as crime, bankruptcy, or infirmity. For sheltered young kids in the 1970s (at least in my case), it was divorce, movie monsters … and music. Always music.
We don’t mean campy novelties like Boris Pickett’s “Monster Mash” or snarling Scandinavian death metal, either. A truly haunting song is constructed from the ground up, touching visceral nerve endings via seductive minor keys and profound lyrical meditations on life, love, and loss. Strong drink or spice never hurts, whether writing or listening. Death need not even enter the equation, so long as the music or subject matter is spooky enough.
Here, we list ten mature, Halloween-ready fright fests that petrified us as kids, adults, and everywhere in between. All but three cracked the US Top 40 chart, with three others climbing as high as number two. Although neither exhaustive nor all-inclusive, these memorable campfire yarns should deliver a solid foundation for your scary yet sophisticated Halloween.
10. Seals and Crofts – “East of Ginger Trees” (1972)
Sharing an LP side with two breezy soft-rock hits – “Summer Breeze” and “Hummingbird” – one can be forgiven for dismissing the elegiac “East of Ginger Trees” as an afterthought. But the song made it onto Seals and Crofts’ 1975 Greatest Hits collection, scarring a bevy of children whose boomer parents kept that cassette on endless ‘repeat’ for over a year. Lacking a proper spoken chorus, the tune combines flute, strings, and finger-picked guitar with lyrics straight out of Baha’i scripture, ferrying the listener to a daunting yet wholly fulfilled “wilderness of clove”. Many years ago, this reviewer visited their holy temple in Jerusalem, which is about as far as my Baha’i knowledge goes. But the song is still fantastic.
9. Styx – “The Serpent Is Rising” (1973)
On its recent 50th anniversary, we saluted Styx‘s abandoned Serpent Is Rising LP as an underappreciated early 1970s progressive rock pearl. The forward-looking title track, written and sung by late founding member John Curulewski, remains genuinely frightening – a pounding orgy of growled apocalyptic lyrics, pre-Metallica guitar/organ riffs, and a spine-tingling bridge solo. Who is the Serpent, and why is he rising? Your guess is as good as mine. But this track’s fiery antagonism has haunted us since childhood and still does.
8. The Alan Parsons Project – “Games People Play” (Chart #16 – 1980)
Few pop hits ever sounded this cool – a prescient taste of futuristic New Wave, before anybody besides Gary Numan even knew what it sounded like. With a raging guitar solo and a bridge as desolate as any winter forest – “How do we spend our time / Knowing nobody gives us a damn?” – of course, we little kiddies were scared. But this deeply horrifying tune continues to frighten us as adults for entirely different reasons. The kids have grown up and gone; more years lie behind us than ahead, and as the man sings, nobody gives a flying damn. So here we sit, playing stupid marriage games after midnight, wondering what to do with our lives as the Final Curtain draws ever closer. Brrrrr. Pass the hemlock, please!
7. The Doleful Lions – “The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!” (1999)
Borrowing song titles from several trashy horror/creature features – “Driller Killer”, “Destroy All Monsters” – the Doleful Lions‘ sophomore effort, The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!, marked leader Jonathan Scott’s first major step toward songwriting maturity. This title track plays like a serial killer’s anthem, with the moon turning red and lamb’s blood on your door. Then it breaks into the catchiest, most cathartic chorus since J Geils’ heyday, somehow managing to harmonize those eight incongruous words all the way down to the murky depths. Just try listening to this one late at night without glancing over your shoulder.
6. Al Stewart – “Year of the Cat” (Chart #8 – 1976)
We reach our second Alan Parsons-produced track, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Released as a US single in October 1976, “Year of the Cat” took its sweet time climbing the charts in early 1977. Yet nobody who heard the song ever forgot it, and it remains one of the more fondly remembered singer-songwriter hits of the decade. Every chord, note, and lyric of this supernatural, perfectly-constructed hymn flows in the same spooky direction, climaxing in saxophonist Phil Kenzie’s immortal twin solos. Tim Renwick’s lead guitar gets comparatively short shrift but contributes mightily to the dreamy proceedings as well. Perhaps more than any track on this list, the ghostly “Year of the Cat” clenches itself in the subconscious and never lets go.
5. 10cc – “I’m Not In Love” (Chart #2 – 1975)
Still legendary among producer circles, 10cc’s studio masterwork had to be sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster and took almost as long to record. The vocal loops alone required weeks to construct, using 12-foot lengths of tape. A brilliant example of ‘show don’t tell’, “I’m Not In Love” depicts a man sarcastically claiming he isn’t in love, then proving by his obsessive actions that he hopelessly is. For that eerie spoken-word bridge, the band grabbed secretary Kathy Redfern and had her whisper, “Big boys don’t cry” into the mic repeatedly. The unforgettable result is a haunting tour-de-force of studio wizardry that retains every ounce of its power to shock and impress; even Axl Rose is a huge fan. Avoid butchered single-edits or pointless cover versions, and prepare to be chilled to the bone.
4. Gordon Lightfoot – “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Chart #2 – 1976)
Everyone remembers the Titanic. But would anyone recall the 10 November 1975 tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald without this near chart-topper? Even five decades later, this eternal classic cannot help but come to mind after every disaster, whether natural or manufactured, and it remains the ultimate “by the grace of God” cautionary tale. So vivid was Lightfoot’s poetic storytelling that even as youngsters, we competed to see who could memorize the entire thing. Perhaps most fascinating, from a studio standpoint? According to the 2019 documentary “If You Could Read My Mind”, this hit version was a rough, first-take rehearsal – which, try as they might, Lightfoot and his gang simply couldn’t top. Yours truly was privileged to see the late singer on stage twice, in 1985 and 1996. Both times, the reverent hush during “Edmund Fitzgerald” was nothing short of stunning.
3. David Bowie – “Space Oddity” (Chart #15 – 1973 / Chart #124 – 1969)
During his orange-haired Ziggy Stardust heyday, everybody under age 12 really believed that David Bowie came from another planet. This mind-bending showstopper was a major reason. How could anyone sing so convincingly about outer space unless he’d actually been there? The answer apparently lies in a stoned viewing of 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which significantly impacted Bowie. Is the song about a marooned astronaut or the writer’s growing alienation? Either way, the result is a timeless paean to the horrors of isolation, which may be the scariest human proposition of all. Perhaps alone on this list, “Space Oddity” remains at high risk of cultural over-saturation, thanks to SpaceX, Blue Origin, and similar “Final Frontier” ambitions. But if humanity’s ultimate cosmic destiny lies among the stars, then somebody needs to drag a copy of “Space Oddity” along to keep us grounded.
2. The Moody Blues – “Nights in White Satin” (Chart #2 – 1972 / Chart #103 – 1967)
The Moody Blues shattered every studio barrier on their fully orchestrated 1967 masterwork Days of Future Passed, and that telltale string section still feels wildly out of place on rock radio even today. Listening now, as adults, it’s easy to forget how frightening “Nights In White Satin” sounded to young children back in the early 1970s. Granted, mellotrons and orgasmic orchestral crescendos can terrify youthful ears in and of themselves. But wait – were those real ghosts wailing during the famed “I Love You” chorus? Then, finally, after hiding beneath the covers, comes baritone Mike Pinder’s marrow-freezing delivery of ‘Late Lament’: “We decide which is right… And which is an illusion!” Illusion, indeed.
1. Blue Öyster Cult – “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (Chart #12 – 1976)
If this seems an obvious choice for the number one Halloween Tune, that’s because it’s so darn perfect. Seriously, this one scared the bejesus out of an entire generation. Though supposedly not intended to sound pro-death or pro-suicide, that’s how “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” comes off, with characters extolling their Final Journey in suggestive lyrics like “She ran to him” and “We can be like they are”. Beyond any childhood fears or misinterpretations, the five-minute “Reaper” is an undeniably seductive meditation on death and loss. But such nonchalance is much easier said than done, right? The self-preservation instinct is hard-wired into every living thing for a reason. Accepting Death in the abstract is a breeze until you’re in the plane on your way down. Some radio edits removed the chilling middle bridge and guitar solo, which still ranks as a crime against humanity. And yeah, okay, fine, we know – more cowbell!