Christmas has carols, but Halloween has a whole assortment of spooky tunes

By Drew Mackie
Updated October 13, 2015 04:50 PM
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If someone asked you to name a Christmas carol, you’d probably have no trouble naming a dozen of them. If someone asked you to name a Halloween song, however, you might not be quite as quick to think up a complete playlist. You see, while Halloween can compete with Christmas well enough in the decoration and candy departments, there just aren’t that many traditional songs associated with Halloween.

We’ve got “This Is Halloween” from A Nightmare Before Christmas, “Anything Can Happen on Halloween” from The Worst Witch and that’s pretty much it, as far as popular songs that are explicitly about the holiday.

However, over the years pop culture has yielded a handful of songs that aren’t explicitly Halloween-y, but nonetheless hit that sweet spot between creepy and fun. Check out our favorite All Hallow’s Eve hits below.

1. "Thriller" by Michael Jackson (1982)

A standard. The “Thriller” video featured a werecat, dancing zombies, and even a creepy spoken word monologue by Vincent Price. It became a mainstream hit both because of and in spite of all that spooky imagery. The fact that Jackson prefaced the video with a disclaimer – “Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult” – only made fans more curious about what sort of message Jackson was trying to convey. Today, it’s still a means to get people dancing, in Halloween costumes or otherwise.

2. "The Monster Mash" by Bobby Pickett (1962)

Hokey? Yes. But few other songs can instantly take you back to the giddy joy of being a kid on Halloween. A No. 1 hit when it was released just before Halloween back in 1962, it’s actually the first in a series of similar songs recorded by Pickett, including "Monster’s Holiday," "Monster Motion," "Blood Bank Blues," "Me and My Mummy," "Werewolf Watusi" and "Monster Swim." That said, maybe don’t play them all back-to-back unless your intention is to clear out the party.

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3. "The Time Warp" by the Rocky Horror Picture Show cast (1975)

It’s the standout song in a musical full of catchy tunes, and it’s kind enough to include an explanation of how to do the dance in the lyrics. Playing “The Time Warp” at your Halloween party will instantly reveal who among your guests is a fan of the film and therefore already knows when to put their hands on their hips and bring their knees in tight. (The Rocky Horror Picture Show just celebrated its 40th anniversary, BTW, and if that makes you feel old, just do this dance until you actually go backward in time.)

4. "Don’t Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult (1976)

It’s a rock song about the inevitability of death that became associated with the holiday as a result of its appearance in the movie Halloween and again (in ballad form) in Scream. But it outgrew its somber associations as a result of the famous Saturday Night Live sketch that launched a million jokes about cowbells. Fifteen years after that Christopher Walken-hosted episode aired, we still can’t hear “Don’t Fear the Reaper” without picturing Will Ferrell’s bared midriff.

5. "Enter Sandman" by Metallica (1991)

How can a guitar sound so sinister? That opening riff should give you chills on its own, and the accompanying video, which stars a little boy having the least restful night’s sleep in the history of music video-dom, makes the song play like an anti-lullaby. Maybe that kid would have slept better if Metallica weren’t playing in his bedroom.

6. "The Killing Moon" by Echo & the Bunnymen (1984)

A beautiful, wistful tune that was introduced to a younger generation as a result of playing over the opening credits of the cult Jake Gyllenhaal film Donnie Darko, “The Killing Moon” won’t get the party jumping but it will get people talking about what that movie was about and how adorably young Gyllenhaal looked in the role, even when he was being creepy.

7. "Spooky" by Dusty Springfield (1970)

First released in instrumental form in October 1967, “Spooky” has since been covered by everyone from Martha and the Vandellas to Imogen Heap, but we’re declaring Springfield’s cover as the best – and a great song to play at a Halloween party at which you might just fall in love with someone dressed up as something horrifying.

8. "Somebody’s Watching Me" by Rockwell (1984)

Consider this a spiritual sibling to “Thriller.” It’s darn weird, the accompanying video is shot like a horror movie, and additional vocals are provided by Michael and Jermaine Jackson. You have to wonder what paranoia prompted the song, which was also written by Rockwell, son of Motown Records legend Barry Gordy, but who was estranged from his dad when the song became a surprise hit .

9. "Season of the Witch" by Donovan (1966)

Don’t ask us what Donovan is actually singing about in this eerie psychedelic rock track, but there’s something about it that’s unsettling. Bonus cool points for future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page providing the guitar. Bonus spooky points for getting used in any movie or TV show wanting to evoke a haunting mood, from the movie version of Dark Shadows to the third season of American Horror Story.

10. "Wolf Like Me" by TV on the Radio (2006)

Not every song on your pop culture Halloween playlist has to be an oldie. This TV on the Radio track probably isn’t about literal werewolfism, but lyrics such as “Got a curse, I cannot lift / Shines when the sunset shifts / When the moon is round and full / Gotta bust that box, gotta gut that fish” were translated quite literally in the video, which features some creepy stop-motion doggies.

11. "Lotion" by Greenskeepers (2005)

(Warning: This song contains lyrics that may be NSFW). Want to treat party guests with a spooky, Halloween-appropriate song they haven’t heard before? This alt rock gem has a decent beat and also is narrated from the perspective of Buffalo Bill, the skincare-obsessed serial killer from Silence of the Lambs. Why? Why not?

12. "A Nightmare on My Street" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (1998)

Lest we forget, Will Smith once rapped about Freddy Krueger. The song samples the creepy score from A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the rappers didn’t actually clear their use of elements from the horror film series. A settlement forced certain pressings of the record to note that it was not sanctioned by New Line Cinemas and wasn’t affiliated with the Elm Street films in any way.

13. "Dead Man’s Party" by Oingo Boingo (1986)

Written by Danny Elfman long before he wrote “This Is Halloween,” “Dead Man’s Party” is about exactly what that title would make you think: a rollicking party attended only by those who have passed on. But it’s too good of a ska dance song to be morbid.

Bonus Track: "Jump in the Line" by Harry Belafonte (1961)

What’s spooky about this calypso classic? Nothing, save for the fact that a whole generation of kids came to know it from the famous scene in Beetlejuice in which Winona Ryder’s jams out to it in midair. Play this for Halloween revelers, and they’ll get the reference.