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What makes a perfect Halloween song?: an investigation

For this month’s edition of Abundant Living, Zachary Lipez breaks down the three categories of Halloween music: soundtrack, Otherwise Goth, and “oh shit! Monsters!”

October 29, 2019
What makes a perfect Halloween song?: an investigation The Thing rubbing Christopher Lloyd's head in the bathtub in a scene from the film Addams Family Values, 1993.   Paramount/Getty Images

Abundant Living is a monthly column where Zachary Lipez does the only things he’s remotely good at: wallowing like a happy pig in a seemingly endless litany of grievances and expounding weirdly about the music he loves, hates, and loves to hate.

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“Well any time, any place, anywhere that I go
All the people seem to stop and stare
They say ‘why are you dressed like it's Halloween?
You look so absurd, you look so obscene’”
Al Jourgenson “(Every Day Is) Halloween” 1984

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“Every single Murder City Devils song is the Monster Mash.”
The author on twitter Oct 15, 2017 (7:54 PM)


Let us consider what constitutes “Halloween music.” It’s not like there’s anything else pressing going on, right? Now that language is as malleable as a particular limber ghost, “Halloween” music means whatever suits the mood and worldview of the speaker. A casual perusal of online mixes makes the argument that, if there’s a minor key somewhere and it’s played after September 31st, it’s Halloween music. If doing what thou whilst is gonna be the whole of the law anyway, throw a floppy black hat on that Charli XCX song and call it spooky. Who am I to be the Sabrina to your Salem Saberhagen? Be free like the bitter wind that rushes through the valleys of Blashyrkh.

But it might be fun (and this is all supposed to be fun, right?) to pinpoint what makes something Halloween music. As any astrologer in your band will tell you, the seasons are real and meaningful — so why not delineate their soundtracks? The leaves are changing! The owl is hooting! The dirt over the graves is shifting in an unsettling fashion, and the yearly Twitter debates over whether witches were burned or hanged has begun in earnest! Let us cut some lines of pumpkin spice on the Alien Sex Fiend CD case and figure this shit out. Halloween music can best be divided into three broad *extreme Crypt Keeper voice* categories; “Soundtrack,” “Otherwise Goth,” and “oh shit! Monsters!” (There’s less overlap than you’d think, but it happens.)

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The first category is pretty self-explanatory: the Italian prog of Goblin’s catalog, the background music to the film Halloween as composed and performed by director John Carpenter, the endless variations born from the blockbuster story-by-algorithm Netflix series Stranger Things, or a fuck-ton of theremin. (The music for the gothic horror movies, often focussed on the extended lineage of Dracula, British production house, Hammer Film Productions, made in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s obviously counts too, though were one to remove the word “vampire” from most of their composition titles, the music would work just as well for the more stressful discussions held over Thanksgiving.) Halloween soundtrack music has the notable benefit of having few words beyond “witch!” and “sh sh sh sh… sh sh sh.” As in romance, nothing can kill a vibe like a human person expressing themselves through language, and spooky soundtrack music is still the non-novelty song go-to for Halloween connoisseurs and the actual undead.

Otherwise Goth is my personal favorite. I’m too dumb and impatient for classical music, and too uptight for novelty songs or dancing. I am a basic bitch in black, and so Halloween music to me is the music I listen to all year round: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Birthday Party, the Vanity Set, Nick Cave and Die Haut, Grinderman, Crime & The City Solution, etc. The advantage of Otherwise Goth is that these songs are utilitarian insofar as they require no invitations to any Halloween festivities. If you’re anything like me, not getting invited to parties is as much a Halloween tradition as checking candied apples for razors. All you need to fully immerse yourself in an Otherwise Goth mix is time on your hands and a window or wall to stare at.

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When played in October, Otherwise Goth doesn’t have to be music that is strictly speaking the music one would hear at a Bat Cave in the ‘80s. In fact, out of their original context, a lot of True Goth (like, say, Specimen, who I otherwise adore) sounds a bit too glam to make sense to any ghosts or goblins who were raised from the pits of hell anytime after the advent of grunge. Otherwise Goth just has to have a lot of minor keys, maybe a little baritone or Siouxsie Sioux quaver, and a heaping of preferably unsubtle lyrical gestures towards oblivion. If the artist has the death drive and/or hair of Lydia Lunch, that’s a bonus, but this category encompasses everything from Norma Tanega’s beautiful folk one-hit, to Type O Negative’s problematic bohunk bubblegum goth-metal, to the moody avant-screech of Uniform/The Body, to the scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark of Gravediggaz.

The fact that the most illustrious examples of Otherwise Goth — Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch” (and its excellent cover by Lou Rawls), and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” — weren’t written within a decade of Goth’s invention might give a fainter heart pause. But like Scrappy-Doo (another student of the terrors and celebrations that accompany the end of the harvest), in the face of what others might fear, I keep my fists up.

The altar that all who engage in Oh Shit! Monsters! worship is the Monster Mash. It’s the Die Hard of Halloween music, and it’s tempting to indulge in my seemingly year-round pastime of crushing happiness, trolling, and not letting people enjoy things by saying something dismissive like “the Monster Mash is… fine.” But I can’t, because I have no idea if it’s a good song — in the same way I have no idea if air tastes good, or how I can’t claim to prefer gravity’s early work. The Monster Mash just...is, as inseparable from Halloween as harassing strangers for sweets in the name of Pan or puking into your Scream mask on the 4 a.m. subway ride home. The genre itself is a crowd-pleaser, and deservedly so.

Unlike the other aforementioned subgenres, these songs about werewolves and killers stalking the hills are made for dancing. Genre fiction is unjustly looked down upon by a variety of aesthetes, but songs about mummys and ghouls are irreproachable if the beat is strong enough. Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of adults dressing up as wizards, but it’s nice to have seasonal rock & roll music for those inclined to indulge in the fantasy without pencil necks like myself judging them for reading Harry Potter. A few of this kind even transcend genre: “Werewolves of London” is so potent that it can both soundtrack the listener’s roughest night of apple-bobbing and make Tom Cruise look tall. And what’s the good of myths if we don’t use them to feel bigger?

Halloween music is necessary for the same reasons ghost stories are. It provides adolescent kicks while non-denominationally hinting at another world — a place where it’s not just the masked serial killer who comes back at the end. Unlike the much-lamented playing of “Frosty the Snowman” that starts earlier each year, nobody complains about Halloween music. Partially because it’s less omnipresent than Christmas music, and the beats are better, but also because it’s an open invitation. You don’t have to love all of it, but it’s an inclusive party for depressives, composers, and Cramps cosplayers alike. You can just want to be someone else once a year — to enjoy feeling seasonally sinister, love candy, make ends meet in a Rasputina cover band, or even just be a literal sexy nurse. if your interests touch on any of these (and if you have two bat wings and a heart, they do), October provides you a soundtrack, and one that hopefully lives up to the Jourgensonian ideal: Halloween, every day.

For our October playlist, we give the coven its due by mixing Halloween classics with new non-holiday hits. But if it’s important to you that the mix be Officially Halloween, just remember that all the current musicians will eventually be ghosts and, people being what they are, I’m sure at least a couple of them are currently monsters.

Paul Bearer Theme (Oh Yes)
The Skatalites, "Skalloween"

Ministry, "Every Day Is Halloween"

The Birthday Party, "Release The Bats"

Gold Dime, "ABC Wendy"

Dan Melchior Band, "Nice Holiday"

Concrete Blonde, "Bloodletting"

Lou Rawls, "Season Of The Witch"

Algiers, "Can The Sub_Bass Speak"

Os Mutantes, "Ave Lúcifer"

Weeping Sores, "The Leech Called Shame"

Debby Friday, "Treason"

The Rondels, "Satan’s Theme"

Haircut, "Les Va a Tocar"

Deaf Club, "Lo-Fi Mono Tombstone"

Satan’s Breed, "Laugh Myself To The Grave"

Songhoy Blues, "Shakara"

Emel Mathlouthi, "Ana Wayek"

The Rattles, "The Witch"

Rocket 808, "Ghost Rider"

Gravediggaz, "1-800-Suicide"

The Moontrekkers, "Night of the Vampire"

Kal Marks, "Nu Legs"

Weeping Icon, "Ripe For Consumption"

Rasputina, "Transylvanian Concubine"

King Horror, "Dracula, Prince of Darkness"

Solarized, "Portal - Vortex}

Museum Mouth, "End of Days Reprise"

The Murder City Devils, "Bear Away"

What makes a perfect Halloween song?: an investigation