Thursday, October 27, 2011

All Hallows Eve - A Playlist to Chill You

This is not your traditional Halloween playlist. This is my off-beat, indie-influenced, thought-provoking list of music that I love to listen to during the Hallow's Eve festivities. Some of these are down-right chilling. Some are fun and whimsical at first listen, but upon hearing the lyrics, you'll realize they are sinister and horrible. Some are perfectly harmless when taken out of context, but unnerving once you understand where they come from.

I would like to thank all the folks who submitted suggestions on facebook for this entry. There were many suggestions that fit the criteria, but I had to trim it down. Because of this, I disqualified anything that was purely instrumental, or sung in a foreign language (sorry Mark). I also trimmed out any hardcore metal or screamer music, because it is generally more annoying than scary (Sorry Rob Zombie). What I came up with is simply my picks - not the ultimate list.

Feel free to suggest other songs - I'll add them into the lineup, or save them for next year!

Mad world - Gary Jules (Originally by Tears for Fears)

This song, originally performed by Tears for Fears is frightening. The Gary Jules version, taken out of context of the film Donnie Darko is serenely eerie.

But listening to it after the mind-blowing experience of this 2001 film makes your skin crawl. Donnie Darko is a sleeper-cell of huge actors, including Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and involves time-travel, planes falling from the sky, and the creepiest bunny costume since Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.

The line that gives me chills every time: 

"The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had."

Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner - Warren Zevon

This was a suggestion by a friend of mine, Dave Mahl. Warren Zevon put out this African war hymn in 1978. It is a bizarre tale of a Scandinavian mercinary, working as a hired gun in the Congo. After being sold out to the CIA by a fellow mercenary, Roland spends his afterlife haunting Africa and other strife-filled political conflicts.

The song itself is not scary as much as it is historically intriguing. The story is the spooky part, with the headless mercinary supposedly appearing at several of the better known struggles of the latter twentieth century - Ireland, Palestine, even Berkeley, California.

The creepy cultural reference that intrigues me: 
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it.

My Boy Builds Coffins - Florence + The Machine

Florence + The Machine is a soul filled woman from England (think Adele, but darker) who has a way of turning some of the most bizarre content into beautiful and captivating music. Her lyrics are laden with deeper meaning and nuances alliteration.

My Boy Builds Coffins is a wonderfully catchy tune sung from the perspective of a coffin-builders girlfriend. She waxes the deeper implications of this misunderstood profession, cryptically intoning,

"He's made one for himself and one for me too. One of these days, he'll make one for you."

The song addresses the universality of death, implying that "her boy" will eventually make one of these vessels to the afterlife for everyone, regardless of social or economic status.

My favorite line of the song:
"He crafts everyone with love and with care, then it's thrown in the ground - it just isn't fair"

Poor Edward - Tom Waits

Tom Waits could sing Amazing Grace and leave me afraid to close my eyes at night. And that is what is so great about Poor Edward (Thanks to Adam Overberg for this suggestion). The song is dark and peculiar, but more in a Burton-esque way than a sinister one.

In it, Edward is born with a demonic feminine face attached to the back of his skull. He is tormented by the satanic whisperings this woman slips into his brain, and eventually ends it for the both of them. At the end of the song, Waits puts forth the unknowable question of whether Poor Edward actually escaped the demon, or was dragged into Hell for eternal torment.

Weirdest opening line of a song:
"Did you hear the news about Edward? On the back of his head, he had another face..."

The Rake's Song - The Decemberists

The Decemberists have produced some of the greatest songs of the Americana folk movement that has surfaced in the last decade. In this caustic tale, Colin Meloy tells an incredibly disturbing story about a mans family life gone terribly wrong.

The self-proclaimed "rake" marries his love, only to have her die in childbirth after yielding four unruly kids. The narrator then tells us of how he kills each of his children, one-by-one, so that he can return to a life of bachelorhood.

The content is horrifying, but the song itself is so infectious. You find yourself smiling and jamming out...until you actually listen. 

Why I love this song:
It reminds me of the horrible songs that Johnny Cash would sing. He murdered, drank, and shot up, then made it all right in the end by saying "Don't do what I do."

Song of Joy - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave has been playing dark, moody, violent music since the 1970's. This song is on their 1996 album Murder Ballads which, as you can imagine, is full of upbeat alt-rock jams. My friend Paul Workman uses this album as a pick-me-up when he's feeling down.

Song of Joy is as much a tone poem as it is a song, with this story of domestic bliss descending first into depression, then to graphic mass murder, then finally to the drifting listlessness of an insane widower.

Cave's voice is haunting. The ambient noises that pan across the background of this song add a wonderfully chilling element as well.

Bizarre piece of literature in a horrifying song:
"[He] quotes John Milton on the walls in the victim's blood...In my house he wrote 'his red right hand.' That, I'm told is from Paradise Lost"

Polly - Nirvana

Kurt Cobain was a revolutionary song writer who indelibly impacted the path of pop and alternative music for the last twenty years.

He was also said to be mentally unstable. This song offers a potential insight into that instability. Polly starts out as a clever play on "polly wants a cracker." Then the listener begins to understand that Polly is not a dirty parrot, but a woman. A woman who is being tortured and and held captive.

This bass driven song is so catchy. And so disturbing. 

What makes this song so good:
The eerie interweaving of aviary imagery, mixed with implied psychosis.

Vampires of New York - Marcy's Playground

Marcy Playground is best known for their single I Smell Sex and Candy. This is, in my opinion, their worst song. Their self-titled album is full of bizarre and whimsical tunes about elves and suicide - and vampires. All of these songs are hilarious, captivating, and all-around wonderful.

Vampires of New York is the final track on their 1997 debut album. It's a quirky and peppy tune that happens to be about whores and the seedy underbelly of "The Big Apple."

The best ending of a song:
"Please watch your step as your getting off kids."

Revolution Number 9 - The Beatles

 Some people think that The Beatles (popularly referred to as The White Album) is one of the greatest albums the "Fab Four" ever created. Others think its complete trash.

The same is true of Revolution Number 9. Some laud it as a sonic experiment of visionaries. Others think it was The Beatles' way of seeing how much garbage they could throw together and still feed to their sheep-like fans.

Whatever you think of the album or the song, listening to this cacophonous collection of sound, song, and spoken word will, at some point, give you the chills. If it doesn't, set it to wake you up at three o'clock in the morning. Or better yet, listen to it backwards. There are conspiracy theorists out there who claim this song was meant to be listened to in reverse. I got through approximately forty five seconds before creeping myself out and turning it off.

Simultaneously the best and worst memory of this song:
Playing it at three o'clock in the morning, while my four college roommates were blissfully sleeping. Sufficiently creeped them out, then I couldn't go back to sleep. Epic backfire.

John Wayne Gacy - Sufjan Stevens

As scary as any of these other songs may be, this tune will always be my number one creepy song of the century. Written for Stevens' 2005 Come on, Feel the Illinoise album, the song both depicts the gruesome acts that Gacy committed in the 1970's, but also shares tragic insights into what possibly led the serial killer to commit the horrendous crimes he carried out.

At the end of the song, Stevens makes some unsettling comparisons between Gacy and the common man, which takes this distance horror and makes it incredibly real and personal.

The music video takes this chilling song to a new level of creepy, depicting "Stranger Danger" student safety videos of the 1950 and 1960's, as well as spliced in footage of hitchhikers, kids playing in parks, and youth interacting with older men that bear striking resemblance to Gacy.

Creepiest ending to a song:
"And in my best behavior I am really just like him. Look beneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid."

Why is it that such disturbing content makes for great music? Why are these songs, while being brutal and disgusting in nature, so catchy and fun to sing? Does this, as Sufjan Stevens implies, say something about the nature of all of us? Or is it simply the conflict that makes for good storytelling.

Either way, this is my top ten for Halloween. I encourage you all to post your thoughts and to let me know which horrifying tunes I missed.



  1. Two from me.
    1). Halloween Theme. Thank you John Carpenter for making me terrified of a frigging piano.
    2). Faaip de Oiad by Tool. That is the sound of terror in a persons voice.

  2. 1) The Rose by Bette Midler. It was popular when I was about 7 years old, and it always gave me a sinking, depressing feeling then, and still does.
    2) Anything by Journey. It's a problem of association; a mentally ill woman in our neighborhood wandered into the woods (probably via our back yard) in the middle of winter, and died at about the same time "Escape" was on the charts. I remember my parents talking about her death with "Don't Stop Believing" playing on the turntable.
    I'm old.

  3. Laramie,

    Fun fact about the theme from Halloween - John Carpenter wrote that song in about 15 minutes. He wrote it in 5/4 time, which is incredibly disorienting, which is partially why it freaks you out (thank you AMC "story notes" for that tidbit).

    Tool freaks me out in general. I'll check out this one.


  4. Keri,

    Those are some of the weirdest choices for scary songs ever. Bette Midler and Journey!?! Definitely tied contextually to your experiences.

    I've always been a little uneasy about "Spinning Wheel" by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. It stems from when I was a child. We were driving cross-country on a family vacation, and I woke up in the middle of the night while my dad was driving. the creepy instrumental carnival/jazz flute part was playing and it scared the crap out of me.

    "Hotel California" by the Eagles also gives me the creeps, although to a lesser extent.


  5. I know, but when I hear The Rose or Journey I get the same creepy feeling that I imagine ghost hunters get when a spirit brushes against them. I definitely have baggage.
    I agree that Spinning Wheel is pretty weird. And it feels strangely flat to me.

    Try the Gipsy Kings version of Hotel California. On second thought, it might keep you awake...