In pagan times, Halloween or “Samhain”, meaning “summer’s end” in Gaelic, marked the time of year when people believed the boundaries between the physical and supernatural worlds were at their thinnest. They built bonfires and wore masks to communicate with spirits and prepare for the coming winter. These days, while Halloween often means getting a tarty costume from Spirit Halloween and a pumpkin-flavored latte at your favorite coffee shop, it remains the most bewitching time of year. The air sharpens and cools, and the leaves blush and drop to the ground. As the daylight gets a little shorter and the shadows get a little longer, Halloween lurks just around the corner.
Before you go out to your favorite haunted house or visit your favorite witchy woman this year, be sure to have the proper monster music handy. The supernatural has inspired some exceptional and creative tunes, so it’s not difficult to find the perfect song to spice up a dark autumn evening. The following list includes 12 solid staples, comprised of classics as well as a few lesser-known tracks, to add to your playlist this Halloween. Well-known or not, they all capture the essence of Halloween, from the nostalgia of childhood trick-or-treating to the superstitions we still harbor as adults.
12. Stevie Wonder – “Superstition” (Talking Book, 1972)
In 1972, Stevie Wonder’s single about the risks of believing in superstitions reached number one on the US charts. The song, which was written with Jeff Beck, laments superstitions such as breaking mirrors, the number 13, and walking under a ladder. Beck, who co-wrote the song, did not play on Wonder’s single and later released his version. Beck’s version was eclipsed by Wonder’s, which reportedly caused tension between the two musicians. Released on Wonder’s Talking Book album, “Superstition” is funky and highly danceable, perfect for getting down on the dance floor with your favorite ghoul.
11. Bauhaus – “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single, 1979)
In 1979, this was the first single released by gothsters Bauhaus. The tune, which is a tribute to Dracula star Bela Lugosi, was recorded live in one take, resulting in a nine-minute creep-fest replete with clanging guitar, clacking sounds reminiscent of bat wings, and a morose bassline while Peter Murphy sings “Undead, undead, undead”.
The tune first became a pop culture mainstay when it was featured in the 1983 horror flick, The Hunger, starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as bloodthirsty, sex-starved vampires who feed on Susan Sarandon. The band appeared in the film during the opening credits as a club act who lurk around menacingly inside a cage while playing the song. In time for the film’s release, the song was edited and resulted as a promotional seven-inch single. Verifying the song lives on, bassist David J. released a cinematic interpretation of the song titled “Bela Lugosi’s Dead (Undead Is Forever)” last Halloween.
10. Cat Power – “Werewolf” (You Are Free, 2003)
The fifth song on Cat’s Power’s 2003 album, You Are Free, is a cover of “Werewolf” by American folk singer Michael Hurley. Chan Marshall makes the song her own using dark, moody strings, arranged by David Campbell (Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three plays violin). Marshall condenses Hurley’s lyrics, pressing the song into a hard little diamond of pining desire. When she sings, “Nobody knows my pain / When I see that it’s risen – that full moon again” in her quiet, husky voice amid the sustained echo of the cello, it goes straight to the heart. You can almost picture Marshall walking through a moonlit forest, looking for her werewolf.
9. The Ramones – “Pet Sematary” (Brain Drain, 1989)
One of the biggest hits for the Ramones, “Pet Sematary”, was initially written for Stephen King’s 1989 movie of the same name. King is said to be a fan of the band and was friends with Joey Ramone when Joey was living. The song directly references the book, published in 1983, which King made into the film. When Joey sings, “I follow Victor to the sacred place / This ain’t a dream, I can’t escape”, he is referring to the character, Louis Creed, who moves to Ludlow, Maine, and follows dead stranger Victor Pascow to the pet cemetery (misspelled “sematary”) behind Louis’s new home and warns Louis not to go beyond it. Only the Ramones could make a song about bringing the dead back to life into an upbeat pop-punk anthem.
8. Bobby “Boris” Pickett – “Monster Mash” (The Original Monster Mash, 1962)
Bobby Boris Pickett released Halloween favorite, “Monster Mash”, in 1962. It’s not much of a surprise to learn that Pickett was an actor who was well-known for doing Boris-Karloff-as-Frankenstein imitations. Turning his talents into a song made “Monster Mash” a number one hit in the US the week before Halloween in 1962. Sung from the point of view of a mad scientist, much like Dr. Frankenstein, the tune is about a monster that rises from the slab one night to do a new dance called the “Monster Mash”. Consequently, the dance catches on with all the ghouls, including Wolfman and Dracula, who shakes his fist, wondering, “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”
Several artists have covered the song, including the Beach Boys, the Misfits, and Boris Karloff himself on a 1965 episode of Shindig!. Pickett performed the song on American Bandstand in October 1964, making facial expressions that could put Jim Carrey to shame.
7. Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Halloween” (Juju, 1981)
When Siouxsie and the Banshees released their fourth studio album Juju in 1981, the album revealed its roots in dark material. With titles like “Voodoo Dolly”, “Head Cut”, “Sin in My Heart “, and “Spellbound “, it was clear there was a theme. In 2007, The Guardian stated, “the Banshees honed their trademark aloof art-rock to its hardest and darkest pitch on Juju.” Among the tracks on Juju is “Halloween”. The song, while a fun sing-a-long with the line “Trick or treat, trick or treat, the bitter and the sweet” is also a contemplation on the loss of innocence. As Siouxsie Sioux sings, “The carefree days are distant now I wear my memories like a shroud”, John McGeoch’s caustic guitar punctures the song alongside Steve Severin’s fluctuating bass and Budgie’s steadfast rhythm, making the song a poignant and eerie mediation on Halloween.