by Ryan Fine
When you watch a Halloween movie, you generally want to get scared out of your seat. There’s definitely a place for campy horror movies; that’s why Rocky Horror has gotten so popular, after all. But then there’s also a wealth of real horror movies, the stuff that gets into people’s minds and makes them fear their entire existence.
That’s where Halloween music is different. We all love doing the Monster Mash, the Time Warp and whatever dance you do to the “Spooky Scary Skeletons” song. But where are the genuine terrors? Where’s the merciless Halloween music that’s gonna linger in my mind when I’m done listening and make me afraid to go to sleep at night? If you’re looking for a “Thriller” that actually has the effect of a real psychological thriller, here are a few songs that prove it’s possible. I just wouldn’t recommend putting any of these on your Halloween party playlist.
Radiohead – “Climbing Up the Walls” (OK Computer, 1997)
“Climbing Up the Walls” (which takes up the first 4:45 of the above video) makes for a great entry point into horror music, which is partly because it seems like it might be a normal song the first time you hear it. The muffled drums and vocals are off-putting, but for the most part, it just seems to glide along in a laid-back, icy groove for the first three minutes. But when you hear the dissonance of the strings at the end of the song and its accompanying maniacal laughter, you might be inspired to take a closer look at the lyrics.
That’s when you realize that this song is actually pretty screwed up. “I am the key to the lock in your house / That keeps your toys in your basement,” the song’s narrator proclaims at the beginning, and it doesn’t get any less eerie than that. When the chorus finally comes around, the true meaning of the title is revealed. This antagonist isn’t rock climbing, or even climbing up the walls of your house. It’s climbing up the walls on the inside of your skull. Where the music itself may be ambiguous, the lyrics much more clearly paint a portrait of real, unadulterated paranoia.
Bent Knee – “Sunshine” (Shiny Eyed Babies, 2014)
Boston’s Bent Knee, an art-rock band that formed at Berklee in 2009, is far too ambitious to be as overlooked as they are. Possibly their most conceptual album to date, 2014’s Shiny Eyed Babies, deals with a number of heavy real-world terrors such as drugs, war and suicide. Then there’s “Sunshine”, a slow-burn that deals with the unforgiving wrath of a jealous ex-lover. The first few verses of this song stay pretty quiet. The narrator addresses her former sweetheart for a few bars, then the music sharpens to a point before tearing itself back down for more lamentation. There are several instrumental buildups, each one expanding upon the previous one, but they all turn out to be fake-outs…until they’re not.
There’s something beautifully sinister about using children’s songs for horror purposes. For the same reason dolls and clowns have such a huge effect in scary movies, Courtney Swain’s repetition of the “You Are My Sunshine” verse at the end of this song takes it to new heights of creepiness. This is especially true once the last buildup finally explodes into a dramatic film score-like climax, followed by a cold cliffhanger that leaves the song without any real resolution. “Sunshine” is not only a prime exercise in building musical tension, but also a brilliant exploration of the line between unrequited love and full-on dangerous obsession.
Nine Inch Nails – “The Downward Spiral” (The Downward Spiral, 1994)
The title track from Trent Reznor’s famous concept album The Downward Spiral is undeniably menacing. But considering that this is actually one of the more subtle songs on the album, it’s a bit surprising that it managed to pull off the scariness so effectively. Most of the track is just the sound of flies superimposed onto an acoustic guitar rendition of the melody from “Closer”, which might make you look over your shoulder to be safe, but it won’t legitimately frighten you.
That is, until you reach the 2:32 mark. At this point, the mix turns inside out and becomes extraordinarily muffled (don’t worry, your speakers are probably fine). Through the right channel, you hear the silenced screams of a man who has finally been driven to insanity. Through the left channel, you hear the voice in his head describing death through a self-inflicted gunshot wound (“So much blood from such a tiny little hole”). Nine Inch Nails have been notoriously edgy since the very beginning, but in some ways “The Downward Spiral” was entirely new territory.
Suicide – “Frankie Teardrop” (Suicide, 1977)
Speaking of downward spirals, this classic piece of horror storytelling is another prime example. “Frankie Teardrop” is a semi-true account of a man who struggles to make ends meet and decides the best solution is to kill his entire family and then himself. The song goes slightly past the 10-minute mark, but it’s actually pretty straightforward in its presentation. The instrumentation is repetitive and minimalistic enough that it’s easy to pay attention to the story instead, and the production lends a hand in making this one of the most truly terrifying songs of all time.
At certain important plot points in “Frankie Teardrop”, the vocals seem to move closer to the listener. When the narrator says Frankie is going to kill his wife and kids, it’s an up-close and personal experience that almost makes you feel like Frankie might kill you next. And then there’s the bloodcurdling shrieks. When Frankie shoots his wife and his six-month-old child, vocalist Alan Vega suddenly screams into the microphone like a banshee. These moments are unforgivingly loud and they come out of nowhere, almost like a musical jump scare. If you’ve never listened to this song, I recommend doing it while walking alone in an unlit neighborhood when everyone has already gone to sleep. You’ll probably need to do some laundry when you’re done.
Pharmakon – “No Natural Order” (Contact, 2017)
Upon hearing “No Natural Order”, the closing track from Pharmakon’s newest album Contact, it’s easy to see why her music isn’t for everyone. She is obviously going for shock value (I mean, just look at that disgusting album cover), but it’s still uniquely terrifying even with that knowledge in mind. Instrumentally, the song is full of pounding percussion and chain sounds, which is disturbing enough as it is. With the vocals on top of that it’s almost too much to handle.
This is one of the only tracks on Contact with any intelligible words, though it’s hard to call them “lyrics” since they’re non-musically shrieked rather than sung. Her vocal delivery is shrill to the point of being legitimately difficult to listen to for the entire run time of the song, and the production is equally punishing. This savage, animalistic presentation sums up the message of the entire album: “We cannot transcend all of our instincts / Just animals lost in a confused dream”. People are just like any other living thing on Earth and we are tiny and insignificant compared to the universe as a whole. It’s a nihilistic point of view, but it turns out nihilism can be the strongest form of horror.
Bonus: Stalaggh – Projekt Misanthropia (2007)
It’s hard to define Stalaggh’s Projekt Misanthropia as a song, as an album, or even as music at all. This 35-minute monolith is horrifying not only in its sound, but in its ridiculous, undeniably immoral legacy. Though the members of Stalaggh have never shared their actual identities, the band claims that the vocals on this album were recorded from patients they abducted from a mental institution. Because one of the band members worked at this institution, they were supposedly able to pull seven patients to record for them. In the process, one of the band members was nearly stabbed to death by a patient with uncontrollable homicidal urges.
Considering black metal musicians’ reputation for committing horrible crimes for the sake of their image, it’s actually not too unbelievable that Stalaggh would go to such lengths to make their music seem more authentic. But that really doesn’t make it any less disturbing to think about. I see no reason for anyone to ever listen to this entire album in one go, but for some reason the whole thing is on YouTube so I guess that option is available if you’re morbidly curious. God help you.