It’s time for the apparitions to make their annual appearance! If you’re looking to put a spooky soundtrack to the ghostly comings and goings, here are our recommendations … as well as the stories behind seven iconic Halloween songs.
1. I Put a Spell on You
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (can you think of a better name for an artist on this list?) may have written this as a simple love song back in 1956, but the ensuing recording session transformed it into something very different. “The producer got everybody drunk,” Hawkins later recalled, “and we came out with this weird version … I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.” Even the classy 1965 Nina Simone cover version couldn’t completely remove the sinister overtones. Listen to the original here and the Nina Simone version here.
2. Monster Mash
This half-sung, half-spoken 1962 graveyard smash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett rocketed (or flew on a broomstick) to the top of the charts just before Halloween that year. Pickett was an aspiring actor with a knack for impersonations who sang with a band called the Cordials. During a performance one night, he did the monologue to the song “Little Darlin’” in the style of horror movie actor Boris Karloff. The audience loved it, and a career was born. Listen to it here.
3. Season of the Witch
This Donovan song is not so much eerie as it is ethereal, but it’s been used/overused so much in horror movies and suspense TV shows that it deserves a place of honor here. The original 1966 recording features haunting guitar work courtesy of Jimmy Page, then a London session guitarist who was still several years away from finding fame and fortune with Led Zeppelin. Listen to it here.
4. Black Magic Woman
Most Americans are familiar with the 1970 Santana version of this spooky song, but Brits of a certain age remember it as a ’60s hit single by Fleetwood Mac … years before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined the group. Listen to the original here, and the Santana version here.
5. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
No listing of super-creepy recordings would be complete without the title track from David Bowie’s 1980 album. Featuring nails-on-a-chalkboard atonal guitar from King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, the lyrics (sung by Bowie in an exaggerated Cockney accent and effected heavily) describe a woman’s descent into madness. Listen to it here.
This short film by Michael Jackson not only revolutionized music video back in 1982 but also spawned a hit single, complete with howling werewolves and an unnerving voice-over (accentuated with a burst of ghoulish laughter) from horror movie mainstay Vincent Price. Watch and listen to it here.
The theme to the 1984 film of the same name, this was not without its controversy. Songwriter/performer Ray Parker Jr. was later sued by Huey Lewis (he of The News) for plagiarizing his song “I Want a New Drug.” While the subject matter is quite different, there is undoubtedly a distinct resemblance! Watch and listen to it here.