We take you far past “Monster Mash” with a collection of October-ready tunes by legendary English outfits, classic rockers, iconic composers, and even swing and ska bands.
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We know what the actual most wonderful time of the year is — and it's not in December, either. As everyone's favorite frightening holiday approaches, what's the best way to get yourself in the Halloween spirit, well, besides fake cobwebs and pumpkin spice candles? Try our spooky season soundtrack, with over 20 of the creepiest hits that delve beyond "Monster Mash" corniness and are perfect for your costume party playlist… or just even when you're home alone on a dark and stormy night. Enjoy… and oh hey, was that a creaky footstep coming down from the attic?

"Season of the Witch" (1966) by Donovan

You're in the season of the witch now, and this psychedelic Donovan pop song is a great way to celebrate. As with so many of the season's hits, the song underlines October's spooky paranoia, whether you're glancing at all the strangers out the window, or, as things get more menacing in the second verse, checking out "Some other cat lookin' over / His shoulder at me."

Who knows if picking up every stitch will be enough to save you, but at least Donovan's clarification of this time of year, with his spare, yet sinister guitar work and vocals indicating an approaching menace, should help you become a little more prepared.

"Hell" (1996) by Squirrel Nut Zippers

The Squirrel Nut Zippers had quite a heyday in the midst of the '90 swing dance era, and one of their most famous songs is a gleeful ode to the afterlife. The nostalgic sound of the Zippers harkened back to the New Orleans-based blues and jazz of decades prior, so that in "Hell," you can almost picture a vintage devil with pitchfork and bright red horns guarding his depraved kingdom.

"Hell" functions as a cautionary tale, describing the place down below as somewhere where "Teeth are extruded and bones are ground / And baked into cakes which are passed around." But with a beat this infectious, how are you supposed to stay away from temptation?

"(Don't Fear) the Reaper" (1976) by Blue Oyster Cult

Then again, do we really need to fear death at all? Blue Oyster Cult's lead guitarist Donald Roeser (also known by the excellent '70s rock moniker Buck Dharma) didn't think so. He penned "Reaper," BOC's breakthrough hit (which is also fittingly featured in John Carpenter's Halloween), as a testament to the idea that the spirit can live on after death (which would really just make us all eventual ghosts, right?).

Maybe it's that epic and dramatic guitar solo, and of course, the perfect amount of cowbell, but even Stephen King himself chose to embrace the song's darker tendencies, quoting the lyrics at the beginning of his dystopian saga novel The Stand. It takes a lot of imagination to imagine Romeo and Juliet as having an eventual happy ending, so we give Roeser credit for trying, even though "Reaper" never fails to give us the creeps.

"Waking the Witch" (1985) by Kate Bush

If you're already equating "Running Up That Hill" with Stranger Things' straight-up horror-centric fourth season, do we have a Kate Bush cut for you, also from her classic Hounds of Love album. Numerous voices start off the track by urging the witch to wake up (please, do not), before an unnerving backwards sound bite leads into ironic church bells.

Bush appears to voice the perspective of a witch who's about to be drowned ("help this blackbird, there's a stone around my leg"), cursed by a crowd calling her "guilty" and a truly unsettling satanic voice urging her on like a demonic sea shanty. Well, the witch is definitely mad now.

"Ghost Town" (1981) by the Specials

The eerie "Ghost Town" is likely the most political song on this list: The Specials' keyboardist Jerry Dammers wrote it in the midst of a ton of turmoil in the band's native England; due to a bleak economy, many towns were getting boarded up, what with "No job to be found in this country," and "All the clubs have been closed down."

The ska band brilliantly scores the song as a horror story, complete with demonic chorus and scary-movie organ. One brief lyric flashes back to recent glory days ("Do you remember the good old days / before the ghost town / when we danced and sang") before descending again into haunted defeat.

Unsurprisingly, the song was voted "Single of the Year" by the three biggest English music magazines at the time; it was also the band's last single, as they broke up soon after. 

"This Is Halloween" from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) by Danny Elfman

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas perfectly functions as both a Halloween movie and a Christmas movie, an extremely rare combo for holiday fans. Burton's magical stop-action animation is only augmented by Danny Elfman's soundtrack, which even offers its own version of a Halloween "carol."

It's a classic "ushering in the season" song, just in a spooky minor key and describing not just the holiday, but the entire town of Halloween, where everyone hails the pumpkin king and life's no fun without a good scare. The hypnotic march-like dirge of Elfman's composition makes it nearly impossible not to get amped up for the season. Everybody scream!

"The Killing Moon" (1984) by Echo & the Bunnymen

While most songs of love praise eternal devotion, "Killing Moon," with its ominous, chiming intro, and a chorus with the lyric "Fate, up against your will" depict such romantic allegiance as a never-ending curse, as guitars soaring downward and far-away keys indicate that it's far too late for salvation.

Though we've probably spent too much time pondering whether the song's surrender is to an evil-minded lover, a vampire, or the devil himself, frontman Ian McCulloch has said that "Killing Moon" "... is more than just a song... It contains the answer to the meaning of life," which sounds a bit ambitious, but certainly fits with the tune's epic vastness.

"Somebody's Watching Me" by Rockwell (1984)

Motown founder Berry Gordy's son reportedly nabbed a music career without his father's involvement, auditioning anonymously. Still, the music-related upbringing of Rockwell (birth name: Kennedy William Gordy) helped set him up with a surefire hit.

Rockwell's ode to paranoia highlights the dangers that could lurk in "an average home," like closing your eyes in the shower after one too many viewings of Psycho, an intrusive mailman, or a Cujo-like dog chasing you down the stairs. And the fact that his childhood pal Michael Jackson provided the background vocals himself during the height of his Thriller fame assured the song's success. Rockwell's one-hit wonder still manages to capture the uneasiness of the season.

"Welcome to My Nightmare" (1975) by Alice Cooper

We have to give Alice Cooper a lot of props: his macabre shock-rock persona indicated all the fun that could be had from combining horror and rock music. No song cements this concept better than his classic "Welcome to My Nightmare," the title song from his first solo record.

The sonic freakout is aided by layers of intimidating horns and groovy guitars, as Alice basically lays out what his whole career was destined to be: filled with screams and sweat and laughs, diminishing the power of the dark side by embracing it completely.

One of our favorite versions of this song was when he performed it on The Muppet Show, in a number so disturbing to the intended family audience it was pulled from syndication for awhile. To this day, the now-septuagenarian Alice is still touring in a stage show that includes his on-stage death via guillotine.

"Psycho Killer" (1977) by Talking Heads

Despite the fact that David Berkowitz was arrested just a few months before the release of Talking Heads' debut album, which featured "Psycho Killer" as the band's second single, David Byrne has always maintained that the song is not about the Son of Sam. Instead, Byrne explained in the liner notes of a greatest hits compilation album that the song was actually inspired by demonic shock rock singer Alice Cooper himself.

Byrne's jittery depiction of a person forced to give in to his worst possible impulses is eerily effective, the French lyrics underlining the killer's separation from society. The experimental gambit gave the Talking Heads their first-ever charting single.

Theme from Ghostbusters (1984) by Ray Parker Jr.

Ray Parker Jr.'s biggest hit doubles as an ad for everyone's favorite paranormal investigators. The then-sort-of-retired musician told EW in 2016 that he was a little hesitant when Columbia Pictures approached him to write the movie's theme song, especially with such a clunky word as a title, but he managed to knock it out in a few days.

Kicking off with haunted house-esque sound effects, "Ghostbusters" soon segues into '80s-appropriate synths to assure the world that help is on the way to save us all from supernatural forces. The end result turned into an eternal catchphrase ("Who you gonna call?)" as well as a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The cameo-laden 1984 video is fun as well.

Theme from Halloween (1978) by John Carpenter

John Carpenter is one of the rare directors who also composes the score for many of his own movies, including Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog. He also, of course, created the iconic theme for the long-running franchise devoted to the season.

Rarely has a furiously fast, minimalist piano line sounded so menacing, as the strings kick in to indicate just how much murder and mayhem Michael Myers is about to inflict on not just Laurie Strode, but the world. Carpenter has said in interviews that the song's incessant, vital beat was inspired by a 5/4 percussion exercise his dad had shown him for the bongos.

Unsurprisingly, Carpenter has said he was also inspired by…

"Tubular Bells" from The Exorcist (1973) by Mike Oldfield

Perhaps the only thing scarier than the Halloween theme's keys may be the incessant, muted, spine-tingling clanging of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" that scored The Exorcist, which can raise your blood pressure after only a few seconds. Oldfield was a mere 19 years old when he recorded the Tubular Bells album, composing as well as playing every instrument.

The album skyrocketed in popularity after its appearance in The Exorcist, and is now used to emulate that the presence of satanic evil is nigh. If you can listen that long, eventually wailing guitars, a spooky organ, and finally triumphant keys kick in that appear to indicate the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Unfortunately, we're usually long gone by then.

"Spellbound" (1981) by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Yes, we know that Siouxsie and her crew even have a song titled "Halloween." But we can't escape this claustrophobic nightmare of a song, in which laughter is cracking through the walls and due to your useless limbs in a "rag doll dance," there is no escape. Siouxsie Sioux's hypnotic voice was always the key to this band's success, and she was never better here, competing with moaning guitars to soundtrack isolating imprisonment in a fun house from which there is no escape.

"Bela Lugosi's Dead" (1982) by Bauhaus

Bauhaus are essentially considered the godfathers of Goth, making their ultimate anthem one for the crypt. Apparently, "Bela Lugosi's Dead" wasn't just an ode to the longtime cinematic vampire, but a lament to a a Goth scene that had turned commercial.

However, the honoring of Lugosi also adds to the macabre veil that hangs over the song as it depicts that darkest funeral ever, translated by Peter Murphy's vocals sent straight from the underworld amidst a sinister, meditative bass groove and caterwauling guitar squalls.

After all, if Bela Lugosi, who often portrayed the (oft-repeated) undead, is dead, we don't even have a spooky afterlife to look forward to, just an endless blank nothingness, indicated by the song's extremely slow build and lines like, "bereft in deathly bloom."

"Thriller" (1983) by Michael Jackson

Sure, the video directed by John Landis is legendary, but let's give some credit to "Thriller" as a purely audio track. Jackson's collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, penned by songwriter Rod Tempterton, switched from its saccharine original title, "Starlight," into something much more sinister.

In the seventh and final single from the record-breaking album it was named after, Jackson compares the thrills of love to the chills of horror. Howling wolves, creaking doors, and master of the macabre Vincent Price himself all combine to create an iconic hit no Halloween playlist should be without. Bonus points if you can get a group line dance started.

"Elegia" (1985) by New Order

A spooky instrumental turn from the pioneering new-wave outfit, New Order's "Elegia" unfurls slowly, almost timidly, before drawing you into what is sure to be the soundtrack to one of your most effective nightmares.

The repetition of that mournful guitar line has the effect of wrapping itself around you until the supernatural synths and shimmering cymbals fade in to finish off the job. "Elegia" has unsurprisingly appeared in everything from Pretty in Pink to the 1990s version of Night of the Living Dead, but obviously is a much better fit for the latter.

"The Mercy Seat" (1988) by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

While "Red Right Hand" has garnered Nick Cave a lot of play, especially since it serves as the theme for the TV series Peaky Blinders, for our demonic dime, we have to go with Cave's ultimate kick-off from this mortal coil in "The Mercy Seat." A possibly innocent, possibly not man heads toward the electric chair, the "mercy seat" of the title. In one of Cave's best-ever performances, he painstakingly portrays the man's demise, the repetition of the verses eventually turning into a brutal attack.

In classic Cave fashion, the religious imagery is steep, the man weighing the fact that all things are "either good or ungood," repeating "an eye for an eye / a tooth for a tooth," implying that he's being sentenced to death because he himself is a murderer, despite his many protestations of innocence. It's an exhausting, seven-minute tour-de-force that just gets more compelling the longer it goes on. Even Johnny Cash covered it for an equally sinister (and shorter) version.

"Werewolf" (2003) by Cat Power

Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, is known for combining a lot of different genres in her music, and "Werewolf" is a perfect example. It's a throwback to the spooky side of the earliest days of folk and country, telling the story of a monster from the monster's perspective.

In Marshall's version, the werewolf deserves our sympathy, as he's not happy with his situation either: "Nobody knows my pain / When I see that it's risen, that full moon again." Disquieting, intrusive strings are the perfect backdrop for Cat Power's magnetic vocals translating the wolf's plight, so that "Werewolf" ends up sounding like a Tom Waits song instead delivered by a soothing chanteuse.  

Theme from Stranger Things (2016) by Survive

Series creators The Duffer Brothers reached out to Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon of the band Survive to create the ominous Stranger Things theme song. From the first foreboding notes, you know that something wicked is on its way to Hawkins, Ind.

The pair plays up the nostalgic element of this '80s-set series, layering synth sounds from the era to set the looking-backwards tone that sounds like the background music to the scariest arcade game ever. The pair explained in a Sound Exploder podcast episode how they made the percussion resemble a sped-up heartbeat, indicating anticipation and fear. No wonder we never skip the intro when binging. 

"A Forest" (1980) by the Cure

If your recurring nightmare has a theme song, it probably sounds a lot like "A Forest," an early masterpiece from everyone's favorite Halloween band the Cure.

The haunting atmospheric tone of this creepy creation by Robert Smith and company, off of their sophomore effort Seventeen Seconds, lures you in as the narrator searches for a girl in the woods only to find that she was never there. Now they — and we — are lost in the forest forever, "running towards nothing / again and again," tracked by dizzying guitars into claustrophobic infinity. It's not easy for a song to take you to the ultimate in bleak eternal despair in only around four minutes, but naturally, the Cure manages to pull that off. 

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