Top 10 Halloween Songs of All Time

Flickr/Mike Kniec

There’s no “Monster Mash” on this list, just gonna go ahead and rip that bandage off right now. Sorry Bobby Pickett fans. It’s not that the song is outdated or has aged poorly (though it has), it’s that it just drips with cheese in a way that’s never quite seemed to mesh with a holiday that’s principally about delivering some scares. For similar reasons, “Thriller” is also nowhere to be found. It’s a tune that, if you look deep into your soul, is clearly schlock. It’s arguably the fifth best song on a nine song album that’s been overinflated by people who only own one MJ album and don’t know that Off the Wall exists.

So, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, the 10 songs below deliver on so much of what Halloween has to offer. Escapism. Thrills. Chills. Frights. Scares. A wee bit of hedonism. Just an out and out good time. These are all songs that could be played at any time of the year, which gives them even better standing, but take on an extra spooky air when October hits and Halloween 3 starts reairing on AMC. As one final note, this list largely avoids music from horror films because that’s just a little too easy and because such music rarely does well commercially. So take off your David S. Pumpkins jacket and settle in for the best of what Halloween has to offer.

10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs- “Heads Will Roll” (A-Trak Remix) [2009]
An absolute monster of a track that can destroy a dancefloor in a way that maybe only one other song on this list can do. The song, sung from the perspective of Alice in Wonderland‘s Queen of Hearts, is propulsive and bracing in any form, but there’s something about the A-Trak remix that wrings out every last little bit of twitchiness in the effort. Those rapidly panning synths and fervent claps are the main culprits, never quite settling down. When you’re so close to the guillotine there isn’t any calm to be found.

9. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins- “I Put a Spell on You” [1956]
The oft-repeated story about “I Put a Spell on You” is that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and company intended for it to be a love song, but they ended up getting piss drunk and playing it as sloppy as possible. Actually, that’s not entirely fair because Hawkins’ band is still playing tight throughout. Screamin’ Jay though? He’s hollering and howling and snorting and growling. In another bit of apocrypha, “I Put a Spell on You” was banned by certain stores and radio stations because of its “shockingness.” Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant because Hawkins is so committed to the performance that you’re willing to believe anything.

8. Kraftwerk- “Metropolis” [1978]
Numerous songs in the robots’ oeuvre could be described as cold and bone-chilling in their construction. However “Metropolis,” from The Man-Machine, ups the ante with Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider’s emotionally distant vocoder-heavy singing and a synthline that could claim credit for spawning every fourth horror soundtrack of the 1980s. “Metropolis” is the only word they speak during the song’s six minute runtime and it’s still unsettling. Each utterance only casts a darker shadow over the cityscape.

7. Talking Heads- “Psycho Killer” [1977/1984]
“Qu’est-ce que c’est ? What this is is a nervous trip straight to the mind of a serial killer, it’s a descent further into madness with each runthrough of Tina Weymouth’s iconic bassline. It’s lead singer David Byrne imaging Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman ballad and winding up with something Norman Bates might ominously tell Marion Crane at the dinner table, “I hate people when they’re not polite.” In the live version that opens up Stop Making Sense, Byrne tells the crowd “I’ve got a tape I’d like to play you” in the most monotone voice imaginable. Relating to people is taxing, they talk too much and listen too little. Rather than learn to socialize, the song’s killer is content to withdraw. Only coming out to pick off a person or two.

6. Tegan and Sara- “Walking with a Ghost” [2004]
Canadian sister act Tegan & Sara’s “Walking with a Ghost” has been pegged as “an exercise in post-heartbreak denial” and damn if that doesn’t hit the nail on the coffin. The song languishes in a refusal to see past and present circumstances clearly. It’s the old trick of saying “I’m fine, I’m fine” when that couldn’t be further from the truth. For Sara the denial takes the form of “You’re out of my mind” in the riff heavy first verse. The dark cloud of failed romance will just dissipate if she repeats the mantra. Yeah, and the monster around the corner will disappear if you say “There’s nothing there.” Reality can only be evaded for so long.

5. Rockwell- “Somebody’s Watching Me” ft. Michael Jackson [1984]
Yes this organ-tinged track is largely a vehicle for a stellar MJ hook and yes Rockwell probably wouldn’t have cut it as an artist if not for his dad being Motown’s Berry Gordy, but the young Gordy acquits himself well here. By citing the shower scene from Psycho and wondering aloud if the people on TV are watching him, Rockwell taps into a paranoia more than a few people have probably felt but are afraid to admit. We’re desirous of our privacy and we freak out when that right feels impinged upon. You might call it “crazy” or a little “touched,” but you may well change your tune when you’re home alone at night and those creaks seem to be getting closer.

4. Geto Boys- “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” [1991]
Whereas before there might’ve been someone there, something tapping on the window pane, now everything’s entirely an invention of the mind. The phone’s not tapped. The dude trying to kill you never actually existed. That fight you got in where you bloodied your hands? Never happened. The magnum opus of Houston rap trio the Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is posttraumatic stress disorder set to an Isaac Hayes guitar riff and an obstinate drum loop. It’s one of the earliest examples of fragility creeping in to gangsta rap. Sure the life promises big money and big cars, but the day will come when you’re spending every waking minute looking over your shoulder.

3. Ray Parker Jr.- “Ghostbusters” [1984]
Forget that the Fallout Boy and Missy Elliott version exists. Ignore the subsequent plagiarism lawsuit lodged by Huey Lewis against Parker Jr. Just enjoy the damn thing. In the realm of pseudo-ad jingles it’s probably the most successful ever made. (What else even makes such a list? “Red Solo Cup”? Chris Brown’s “Forever”?) Nominally that’s all the “Ghostbusters” theme is. Parker Jr. caught a cheapie commercial on his TV one night and voila, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” was born. That he never had a hit as big doesn’t matter. That line. Those chintzy synths. They’ll outlast any other detail about the song.

2. Roky Erickson- “I Walked with a Zombie” [1981]
It prolly would’ve been enough for “I Walked with a Zombie” to make the list with just the Ronettes drum beat it lovingly apes and the icy guitar lines it employs to send a chill up your spine. But really it makes the list, and sits so high, because it’s the rare “scary song” where the monster in question should be afraid of the human. Psych-rock pioneer Roky Erickson sounds like the one more likely to gnaw flesh from bone here. While he never goes full bore wailer like he would on other 50s horror film inspired songs, there’s enough edge in his voice to know he’s not messing around. He walked with a zombie last night and he enjoyed it. Whether or not the zombie did is what’s in doubt.

1. Rihanna- “Disturbia” [2008]
If chart success was the only metric for this list, “Disturbia” would win by a mile. The song was Rihanna’s sixth top 20 single from colossal breakthrough Good Girl Gone Bad. It was her fourth single to hit number one on Billboard which tied her with Beyonce and Mariah Carey for most of the decade. It sat at number one for a tidy two weeks. It went six-times platinum and sold 4.8 million copies as of June 2015, which makes it Rihanna’s third best-performing single in the U.S. Those numbers are unimpeachable.

But Halloween isn’t a numbers game. Among other things it’s about losing yourself, which Rihanna absolutely does here. She’s going crazy as soon as that “Bum-bum-be-dum-bum-bum-be-dum-bum” hook hits. Trains of thought are getting altered by the song’s winding melody and electro bounce. “Disturbia” is an all-consuming place, to the point that Rihanna’s caught in an actual torture chamber in the unnerving video that does “Thriller” proud. She might wanna get out of the haunted house, but she’s the only one. Why leave any of this?

Fervent “Thriller” that’s still incensed about its omission? Stevie partisan wondering where “Superstition” is? Feel free to say “boo” in the comments section.


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