Good evening, all. I come with great sorrow to announce that, once again, I still suck at Halloween and my dear friend Abel Charrow has failed once again at making me even the least bit interested in Halloween. I like to think it’s because I’m already soooooooo slutty in my everyday life that there’s no possible way for me to dress like a skanky version of anything… But no, it’s because I’m really an 80-year-old cat lady at heart who just wants to eat candy and watch reruns of Gilmore Girls… and knit. So the commissioner of Halloween has taken it upon himself, like he’s done twice before, to educate you in some LEGIT scary tunes for your halloween of double-oh-thirteen. Take it away, Abel!:
*Note the picture I chose of Abel, when I easily could have posted… this.
As the Commissioner of Halloween, it is my responsibility to keep tabs not only on fantastic party music, but also truly creepy, spine-tingly, curl-up-in-the-fetal-position music. For this year’s list, I’d like to share my favorites from the sliver of Venn diagram where those two categories overlap. Avoiding the usual suspects (Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” The Beatles “Revolution 9,” Eminem’s “Kim” & “Stan,” all Norwegian Death Metal, etc.), here are some deeper cuts for the more courageous to consider adding to the playlist:
First, let’s gently ease our way into this list of nightmarish soundscapes with a warm up song. Here’s one that has been inspiring an unhealthy fear of stuffed animals in small children for over eighty years:
Henry Hall – “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”
If you never heard this song as a child, you’re scratching your head right now. For the rest of us, those first few descending notes are like a stairway into a forgotten hell of sleepless nights, eyes warily fixed on Mr. Hugsy, wondering just what, exactly, is the main course at a teddy bear picnic. Is it children? IT’S PROBABLY CHILDREN.
Trauma rating: Losing a pillow fight
1. Chris Garneau’s “Dirty Night Clowns”
Mysophobia: fear of germs. Nyctophobia: fear of the dark. Coulrophobia: fear of clowns. So, for some unfortunate people, “Dirty Night Clowns” is a triple threat. It’s the Neil Patrick Harris of creepy songs. And, as we’re still in pretty innocent territory, about as threatening as NPH, too.
Trauma rating: A magician steals your watch and then gives it right back to you.
2. Tiny Tim – “People Are Strange”
You remember that scene in Insidious where the mom plays a game of hide-and-seek with a ghoul-faced newsie? Remember the haunting, high-pitched rendition of “Tip-Toe Through The Tulips” that plays throughout? That warbling voice belongs to Tiny Tim, a hulking, stringy-haired, ukulele musician from the late ’60s. Here, he covers The Doors’ “People Are Strange.”
Trauma rating: Hearing little girls sing nursery rhymes in the middle of the night
3. The Velvet Underground – “Murder Mystery”
Nine minutes of discordant voices whispering maddening nonsense, best experienced with headphones, so you can get the full schizophrenic effect of competing voices talking in your head.
I can’t decide if this song is truly creepy or just pretentious, but enough people have told me the Velvet Underground and/or Nico give them the heebie-jeebies to warrant the band a spot on this list.
Trauma rating: Working as a security guard at MoMA PS1
4. Barnes & Barnes’ “Fish Heads”
Barnes & Barnes was a novelty act from the ’80s, and their lasting gift to the world is this unnervingly cheerful, helium-voiced ode to decapitated ectotherms. Bonus: Look for a young Bill Paxton in the music video (no, he does not play one of the fish heads).
Trauma rating: Being partnered in biology lab with that kid who gets overly excited about dissections.
5. Butthole Surfers – “Pepper”
Blasé attitudes! Self-destructive tendencies! A psychedelic chorus played in reverse! It’s got all the winning elements of being decidedly and dangerously counter-culture, but still safe for mainstream consumption. Put this on the shelf next to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Trauma rating: An allergy to cigarette smoke
6. Tom Waits – “Murder in the Red Barn”
Here’s the thing about Tom Waits: his details are much too specific to be invented. If he says there was a murder in the red barn, I’ll take his word for it. He was probably there, sitting on some country porch, strumming away at his guitar, and casually narrating the whole affair happen across a barren field of scattered cattle bones. Just another day for Tom Waits.
Trauma rating: Stopping for direction in that Salton Sea trailer park where “THE HILLS HAVE EYES” is painted on all the walls. Oh, you’ve never visited? Yeah, DON’T.
7. The Violent Femmes – “Country Death Song”
Gordon Gano wrote this song as a teenager, based on a true story of frontier filicide. Thematically and structurally, it brings to mind Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”). Both explore the moral ambiguity of the West, loss of innocence, and the despair of being beyond redemption. They both also compel me to start a jug band.
Trauma rating: A windowless van slowly trailing you back home from the arcade.
8. Marilyn Manson – “The Nobodies”
Marilyn Manson’s anthem for angry, disenfranchised youth, written in response to being accused by the media of inspiring the Columbine shooters (he didn’t). It succeeds at being as chilling as it is thoughtful.
Trauma rating: The futility in expressing frustration at a world filled with pointless tragedy and an inescapable 24-hour news cycle.
9. Nine Inch Nails – “Reptile”
Practically any track from “The Downward Spiral” could contend for a place on this list (“Closer” and “Hurt” are both on that album), and remains a target for controversy, largely thanks to its success. I like “Reptile” because it stands alone better than some of the more atmospheric tracks, as Trent Reznor intended for it to be a single. The lyrics are cryptic and icky, with dozens of fan interpretations online. Anyone know what it’s actually about? Asking is so much easier than doing research.
Trauma equivalent: Have you seen the music video to Nine Inch Nail’s “Pinion“?
10. Aphex Twin – “Come to Daddy”
Richard D. James wants your soul, and then he wishes to eat your soul. He is very clear and convincing about his objectives.
Trauma equivalent: Here’s a real article about a man who didn’t realize a woman was secretly living in his closet.
11. Diamanda Galas’ “Skotoseme”
I grew up in New Mexico, where we have the legend of La Llorona, a weeping woman who drowned her children ages ago and now haunts the river banks at night, screaming and wailing, kidnapping any child that resembles her own. When I hear Diamanda Galas, I get an anxious chill down my spine, remembering dusks spent with my friends at the river’s edge, tempting fate.
Galas collaborated with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on “The Sporting Life” album, creating works that are considerably more accessible than her earlier works. Check out “Wild Woman with Steak Knives” for an idea of what she sounds like without a groovy baseline backing her up.
Trauma rating: Gene Simmons chasing you in a dream world, and no matter how hard you struggle, you can’t escape the suffocating squeeze of his serpentine tongue.
12. The Residents – “Jello Jack (the Boneless Boy)”
If you’re not directly familiar with the prolific, mysterious, avant-garde artists known as The Residents, you at least should be familiar with their influence in pop culture. They wear giant eye-shaped helmets over their faces and wear tuxedos and top-hats on stage, a look that has become their signature. They prefer to remain anonymous, preferring people focus on their art (“art,” in this case, being an euphemism for nightmare-vehicles). Remember that slowed-down video of the Olson Twins singing about pizza? If you couldn’t handle that, turn away now.
Trauma rating: That machine in A Clockwork Orange that straps onto your head and keeps your eyes open with a speculum.
13. Throbbing Gristle – “Hamburger Lady”
It begins, appropriately enough, “By far worse is the hamburger lady…” Oh, boy. Here it is. The mother of dark, ambient industrial tracks. The echoing lyrics are taken from a letter describing the condition of a hospital patient. I won’t elaborate here, because what good will it do to have both of us curled up on the floor, crying? This is the song I’d suggest playing when you’re ready for your guests to clear out.
Trauma rating: Norwegian Death Metal bands credit you as their inspiration.
If you are not sufficiently disturbed by now, there may be something terribly wrong with you. I hope you all enjoyed my list, and (I’m probably going to regret asking this) I’d like to hear the songs that scare you! Please add your favorites in the comments below. If you’re in need of more family-friendly Halloween tunes, check out my previous playlist. Both are available on Spotify (find me at User Name: abelcharrow).