Haunted Halloween Hits, Part One Or, what makes a Halloween song

This is part one of a three part series all about Halloween music.

For 12 years now, I’ve engaged in the same annual ritual – scouring the internet for new Halloween songs. There are tons of them out there – as evidenced by the fact that I still find good ones each and every year – but they’re hard to find. Searching “Halloween music” on Google, Spotify, or iTunes is no help, and I discovered this very early on. It’s always the same 20 or so usual suspects: Thriller. Ghostbusters. Monster Mash. Psycho Theme Halloween Theme Exorcist Theme and on and on and on. That’s frustrating enough, but it’s made worse by the fact that, among the typical staples are always a group of songs that are NOT appropriate for setting the Halloween tone – the one goal of Halloween music.

I’ll get to calling out those specific songs in part two, but before I start pointing fingers I figure I should be super clear about what actually makes a “Halloween song”. It’s not like Christmas music – you can’t just go, “is it about Halloween? If yes, Halloween song.” There are, of course, many songs about Halloween, but there isn’t a deep enough roster of them to fill in a good playlist. It’s both a blessing and a curse that what makes a Halloween song is totally subjective to the listener. I’ve been doing this a long time though, and I have a pretty well defined image about the tone of Halloween, and what types of music conjure that tone and which ones don’t. 

To me, it comes down to a combination of two factors:

Is the song ABOUT Halloween?

Does the song SOUND like Halloween?

“About” has to do with the lyrical content of the song, and doesn’t necessarily have to be about Halloween itself, but anything Halloween-adjacent. This can be anything spooky like ghosts, monsters and killers, or directly about horror movies (a lot of strong material there), or even about the Autumn season. However, the caveat is that this rule overlaps a lot with goth and metal music, which are often about dark and violent subjects but aren’t “Halloweeny”. This also falls prey to a trap wherein songs may be titled with references to Halloween and horror, but the song itself has nothing to do with it. Dave Matthews Band, Gaslight Anthem and The Fratellis all have songs called “Halloween”, but they’re absolutely not Halloween songs. And yes, it’s very frustrating.

“Sound” is harder to pin down. In a sentence, it’s music that would make you think of Halloween regardless of the lyrics. This means many different things to different people. As far as I’m concerned, the Halloween sound is best exemplified by that minor key, organ-laden surf guitar sound, as so many of the Halloween novelty songs of the 1960’s made famous (see the Munsters theme). But it can also be sparse, creepy instrumentals like John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween Theme, or a more jaunty, upbeat version like what Danny Elfman did with his themes for Tales from the Crypt and Beetlejuice. A macabre yet playful holiday demands macabre yet playful music. There are more genres that fit the mood, but for now we’ll leave it there.

The mixture of these two major elements is what makes a Halloween song. The absolute best Halloween songs are high in both aspects – Rob Zombie & The Ghastly Ones’ Halloween (She Gets So Mean), The Mission Creeps’ Halloween Theme, and Harley Poe’s Pagan Holiday are wonderful examples, as is Danny Elfman’s This is Halloween from The Nightmare Before Christmas. But if one factor is lacking, it can still be a Halloween song as long as the other part compensates for it. For example, the Tales From the Crypt Theme is fully instrumental, thus can’t be “about” anything lyrically, but sonically it IS Halloween. You can’t listen to that track and not think of a haunted castle. Likewise, The Misfits’ Halloween sounds like a fairly typical hardcore punk song from the early 80’s, but it is overtly About Halloween (and gave this website its name).

That’s why songs like Werewolves of London and Frankenstein by Edgar Winter Group don’t work for me. Werewolves and Frankensteins are certainly Halloween-adjacent, but the songs don’t have the right sonic quality, and the lyrics don’t have enough overt Halloween content to make up for it. Werewolves of London simply mentions werewolves, and Frankenstein is, well, instrumental. In fact, in that case the title Frankenstein came about because the creation of the song resulted from mashing together different instrumental parts composed separately. Song titles alone do not make for Halloween songs.

Psychobilly is an interesting in-between case. A mixture of rockabilly and punk, it often employs a vaguely sinister, minor key quality and even surf guitar melodies. It’s also common for Psychobilly bands to directly reference horror themes or even base their entire aesthetic around them. The Creepshow, Nekromantix and Bloodsucking Zombies From Outer Space all do this. Based on those standards, Psychobilly ought to be the default musical genre of Halloween right? While there are several great Halloween songs by Psychobilly bands (Nekromantix – Trick or Treat, Reverend Horton Heat – The Halloween Dance, Mad Sin – No More Trick or Treat), it’s important to use it sparingly on Halloween playlists meant for mixed company. Like metal, it has a devoted fanbase but can come off as too aggressive and abrasive for casual listeners.

Again, this is a good time to restate that what different people consider to be Halloween music is extremely subjective. Some people like it really gothy. Others like melancholy, sorrowful music that makes them think of dying leaves and the coming winter. Some lean exclusively on the soundtracks of iconic horror movies. And then there’s the more in-your-face, dirty hard rock version of Halloween music exemplified by Rob Zombie. That’s not my thing, but he did happen to release one of the greatest compilations of classic Halloween music I’ve ever heard:

It goes on and on. The band Midnight Syndicate has been prolific about releasing albums full of atmospheric instrumental music for Halloween, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra has dipped their toe into it in between making Christmas arena rock. The important thing that unifies all this is, good Halloween music goes way beyond the played out staples littering cheap compilations you find at Walgreens in the seasonal aisle. But you have to look hard for it.

Coming in Part Two: What’s NOT a Halloween song

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