Some people would have you believe that the modern incarnation of Halloween, with its focus on Trick or Treating, is a holiday for kids. Savvy adults know better. It’s really a holiday that allows grown-ups to act like kids again.
Whatever your age, if you need to set the proper mood for your Halloween party, or simply want to get in the Halloween spirit with a spooky playlist, consider the following tracks essential listening.
Here’s part one of the list of 13 essential songs for your Halloween playlist.
13. “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield
With the exception of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” few horror movies in the last 60 years have had the cultural impact of 1973’s The Exorcist.”
Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” album initially had no connection to the film. The album consisted of two extended instrumentals (“Tubular Bells, Part One” and “Tubular Bells, Part Two”). Only a small snippet from the opening portion of “Tubular Bells, Part One” was actually used in the film’s soundtrack. But when the film became a phenomenon, Virgin Records decided to release a single under the title “Tubular Bells (Now the Original Theme from ‘The Exorcist’).”
The single – a compilation of bits and pieces taken from “Tubular Bells, Part One” – was put together by studio engineers. It became a Top-10 hit in the United States. Oldfield himself had nothing to do with it, and in fact was unhappy with the release.
As with the theme from “The Twilight Zone” that came before it and the theme from “John Carpenter's Halloween” that came after it, only a few bars of “Tubular Bells” are needed to inspire chills up the spine.
12. “Draw of the Cards” by Kim Carnes
“Draw of the Cards” was the 1981 follow-up to Kim Carnes’ hit single “Bette Davis Eyes.” The cryptic lyrics (“Sleight of hand/ Hand of Fate/ Chance you take/ Life's a snake”) are centered on mystery and illusion, but it's the music – an incessant, percolating beat, contrasted with steely synth fills and a jazzy saxophone lead – that lends the song an eerie sense of uneasiness. It builds to an outburst of maniacal laughter in its final moments, solidifying its place as one of the creepier Top-40 hits of the 1980s.
If you want to be totally freaked out, turn out the lights and watch the original music video for the song. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, it plays like a cross between a twisted Carnival celebration and a hallucinogenic nightmare.
11. “Witch Queen of New Orleans” by Redbone
“Witch Queen of New Orleans” was a Top-40 hit in 1971 for Redbone, the band that later recorded its signature hit, “Come and Get Your Love.”
The song was inspired by the life of Marie Laveaua, a 19th-century New Orleans, Louisiana-based Creole, and a practitioner of voodoo. Unlike the character in Redbone’s song, Laveaua had no association with witchcraft, and was actually known as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.” She was also a devout Catholic.
Laveaua was also the inspiration for the songs “Marie Laveau” by Dr. John, and “Marie Lavaux” by Dr. Hook and the Medicine show.
In “Witch Queen of New Orleans,” Redbone spins a tale of witchcraft, voodoo, and sorcery. If that isn't enough to get under your skin, the spooky, chanted background hook repeated throughout the song – “Marie, Marie La-voodoo-Veau” – should do the trick.
10. “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard
Not to be confused with the 1962 country hit of the same name by Marty Robbins, “Devil Woman” was a Top-10 hit in 1976 for Cliff Richard in both the United States and England. An upbeat pop-rock tune, it doesn’t sound particularly scary, but the tale it tells plays out like the twisted plot of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Seems there’s this fellow who, believing he is jinxed from crossing paths with a cat with “evil eyes,” seeks out the help of a fortune teller to break the spell. In the end, it turns out that the cat was, in fact, an incarnation of the fortune teller – the “Devil Woman” who put the spell on him in the first place!
9. “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell
The musical embodiment of paranoia, “Somebody’s Watching Me” was the title track and first single pulled from Rockwell’s 1984 debut album. It was the only Top-40 hit for one-hit wonder Rockwell, whose real name is Kennedy William Gordy. He is the son of Motown founder and CEO Berry Gordy.
Wanting to succeed on his talent rather than his family name, Rockwell secured his recording contract without his father’s knowledge. When it came time to record “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell tapped childhood friend Michael Jackson (who sings the title hook) as well as Jermaine Jackson, to provide backing vocals. Rockwell himself took an odd approach on lead vocals, adopting a British accent in the second stanza.
The eerie keyboards, coupled with a reference to “Psycho,” and lines like, “When I come home at night, I bolt the door real tight/ People call me on the phone, I'm trying to avoid/ But can the people on TV see me, Or am I just paranoid?” have made “Somebody’s Watching Me” a perennial Halloween favorite. "Somebody's Watching Me" became a Top-10 pop hit in both the United States and England, and hit #1 on the R&B charts.
8. “Hells Bells” by AC/DC
“Hells Bells” is the opening song on “Back In Black,” the first AC/DC album recorded after founding member Bon Scott's death, and the first featuring replacement singer Brian Johnson. As rock ‘n’ roll songs go, it’s considered one of the best album openers ever, for much the same reason it’s a great Halloween song – that bell!
Sounding like an ominous and heavy church bell, it rings four times before we hear Angus Young’s opening guitar line. It continues to ring even as the music builds, a total of thirteen (naturally) times until Brian Johnson’s intense vocals are first heard.
With suitably malevolent lyrics – “I'll give you black sensations up and down your spine / If you're into evil you're a friend of mine / See my white light flashing as I split the night / 'Cause if good's on the left, then I'm stickin' to the right” – the song is a natural for Halloween.
Fans have argued over the meaning of the song’s lyrics, which were written by Johnson. Some suggest it’s a tribute to former lead singer Bon Scott. In reality, much of the song was inspired by a series of tropical storms that struck the Bahamas while the band was recording the album at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios. The opening lines – “I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain / I'm comin' on like a hurricane / White lightning, flashing across the sky / You're only young but you're gonna die” had to do with Johnson’s discomfort in his unfamiliar environment.
7. “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles
A Top-10 hit for the Eagles in 1972, “Witchy Woman” is the best example of the many pop, rock, and country songs that compare an enchanting female to a sorceress. The lyrics – “Raven hair and ruby lips / Sparks fly from her finger tips / Echoed voices in the night / She's a restless spirit on an endless flight” – describe the “Witchy Woman” in more mysterious, rather than evil, terms.
If you think the music to “Witchy Woman” has a cinematic quality, you’re not alone. In the liner notes for “The Very Best of the Eagles,” Don Henley recalls writing the song with Bernie Leadon: “Bernie was living way out in Topanga Canyon, but he came over one day and started playing this strange, minor-key riff that sounded sort of like a Hollywood movie version of Indian music – you know, the kind of stuff they play when the Indians ride up on the ridge while the wagon train passes below. It had a haunting quality, and I thought it was interesting, so we put a rough version of it down on a cassette tape.”
Don Henley’s echo-enhanced lead vocals and the high-pitched “wooo hooos” of the chorus add to the haunting atmosphere of the song, ensuring its rightful place on any Halloween playlist.
In part two of this feature, we'll dig deeper into the graveyard and name the top six songs for your Halloween playlist.