While the genre of horror is primarily associated with art forms like film and literature, musicians have been experimenting with spookifying their sound for hundreds of years. From orchestral compositions to heavy metal classics to hip-hop collaborations, the exploration of horror through music is ubiquitous in every genre of music.
“Danse macabre” by Camille Saint-Saëns
The oldest release of all the tracks on this list by over a hundred years, “Danse macabre” by Camille Saint-Saëns is a staple classical, orchestral piece that showcases some of the oldest musical motifs associated with fright and horror. Conceptually built around the devil raising the dead to dance on midnight of Halloween, the piece starts off with 12 strikes of the clock, before the “devil’s tritone” — a trio of notes commonly used in horror compositions — ushers in a ghastly waltz of violins, flutes and harps. Xylophones are used to mimic the rattling of bones throughout the piece before the dead are laid to rest again when an oboe chimes in as the morning rooster.
“I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Written in 1957, Jay Hawkins’ bluesy “I Put a Spell on You” is the most freakish love song of all time. The song was originally intended to be a straightforward ballad, but after a few drinks, Hawkins peppered the recording with his own growls and screams, earning him his “Screamin’” nickname. This rendition was banned on airwaves for being overly “cannibalistic,” but nonetheless, Hawkins chose to wildly play into this persona through costuming in his live performances, and the song remains a classic in terms of its vocal richness and unbound freakiness.
“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath is considered one of the seminal heavy metal bands of all time. Fronted by Ozzy Osbourne, the band’s dark aesthetic compliments what is perhaps the most terrifying song on this list. The song begins with the sounds of rain and church bells ringing in the distance, as the band then enters with the guitar churning out a lethargic and heavy riff. The riff incorporates a tritone that is often referred to as the “devil’s tritone,” further emphasizing the spooky qualities of the song. As the band quiets, Osbourne’s haunting vocals enter the song recounting an encounter a member of the band had with a dark entity in their room. Osbourne’s blood-curdling screams interject at the end of each verse before the band crashes in like a jumpscare. The tempo then picks up into a more traditional metal song with the lyrics following the theme of a sort of descent into hell. While this record may not be the most comfortable song to listen to, if you’re looking to be spooked this Halloween, this song is for you.
“Creeping Death” by Metallica
Along with Black Sabbath, Metallica is considered one of the most important heavy metal bands in the genre’s existence. This song takes a distinctly different approach from that of Black Sabbath, as the slow-as-molasses tempo of “Black Sabbath” is replaced by the frenetic pace of Metallica’s signature brand of thrash metal. The song recounts the biblical story of the 10th plague of Egypt from the perspective of the Angel of Death. This story of chaos and disorder is perfectly silhouetted by the twin guitar onslaught of Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield. The song crescendos into a searing guitar solo by Hammett that perfectly compliments the frantic nature of the song and lyrics. This section is followed by a thunderous and earth-shaking bridge with “die” repeated in a sort of cultish chant. While the song is biblical in length — nearing seven minutes long — this similarly compliments the story of repeated plagues upon Egypt, as the chaotic nature of the song seems never-ending. There is something very ominous and foreboding about this reinterpretation, especially the haunting chants during the “die” bridge.
“Nightmare” by Offset and Metro Boomin
“Without Warning,” the hip-hop album that dropped by surprise on Halloween of 2017, is a fan-favorite collaboration between Atlanta rappers Offset and 21 Savage. Produced entirely by rap heavyweight Metro Boomin, the album’s highlight is “Nightmare.” The instrumental intro sounds are straight out of an 80’s horror film, full of wolves howling in the distance and a haunted jack-in-the-box ticking away. Offset delivers a cold performance, comparing himself to Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” — “give ‘em a nightmare / Soon as you close your eyes, we’re right there.” Rap has always taken inspiration from film, from Wu-Tang Clan’s frequent sampling of martial arts flicks to modern nods towards TV classics on tracks like J.I.D’s “EdEddnEddy,” “Nightmare” is modern hip-hop’s equivalent of a cult classic horror film.
“Halloween” by Phoebe Bridgers
Now, for a palette cleanser. While these previous songs may have been scary for their lyrics depicting death and demons, indie musician Phoebe Bridgers shows off a distinctly unique take on the spookiest time of the year. The song begins with the bass and guitar entering at the level of a whisper before Bridgers’ voice enters at a comparably hushed tone. Her lyrics are similarly macabre, but in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way that begins with her first verse saying, “I hate living by the hospital / The sirens go all night / I used to joke that if they woke you up, / Somebody better be dying.” The rest of the song finds Bridgers reflecting on something perhaps scarier than ghouls and goblins: apathy. The “Kyoto” singer’s deadpan tone suggests a sort of boredom of a tired relationship, with her seemingly begging her partner that on Halloween, “We can be anything.” This is seemingly reinforced on the outro of the song with Bridgers pleading “Whatever you want / I’ll be whatever you want.”