For some of us, Halloween is the only holiday that matters. A pagan holiday during which not watching slasher movie sequels is a federal offense? That’s a holiday I can get behind. The rituals are better than Christmas, the food’s better, the movies are better, and lord knows, the music’s better. To prove it, below is a hand-picked Top 40 guaranteed to add life to your own danse macabre, deejayed by the rotting reanimated corpse of Casey Kasem. There are tens of thousands of songs to choose from, so the criteria for inclusion consisted of three simple rules. Any included song must:

1. Not be Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”
2. Not be Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
3. Not be, lord help us all, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash.”

This leaves a vast and haunted landscape that spans eras and genres, from R&B to classical, punk, creepy commercial jingles, metal, avant-garde and shadowy, indefinable genres no one has yet to name. So, enjoy, and to avoid fainting, keep repeating, “It’s only a pop song…only a pop song…only a pop song…”

The Silver Shamrock jingle, Tommy Lee Wallace 

A commercial jingle advertising diabolical Halloween masks is as perfect an invocation as they come. This grating ditty slithers throughout 1983’s “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” a countdown to doom composed and performed by director Tommy Lee Wallace. Long after you’ve forgotten all the other songs on this list, this one will still be stuck in your head. I’m sorry.

“Horror Story,” G.B.H.

G.B.H. was a third-generation British punk band often cited as a major influence on some far more successful punk and metal bands who followed. Thanks to their towering mohawks, the debate in the early ’80s was whether their name was short for “grievous bodily harm” or “Great Big Haircuts.” In this context, it might also stand for “Going Balmy on Halloween.” This 1986 track kicks things off nicely (and loudly), rounding up some familiar names (Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and the like) to celebrate the fun of being scared.

“Green Slime,” Richard Delvy

Richard Delvy was a founding member of legendary surf bands The Challengers and the Bel Airs. “The Green Slime” was a 1970 Japanese/American co-production about a space station overrun with one-eyed Sid and Marty Krofft rejects. The highlight of the former’s short-lived solo career involved recording the theme song for the latter. Apart from being The Greatest Movie Theme Song of All Time, it’s also a formidable piece of post-surf psychedelia. Better still, it’s a formidable piece of post-surf psychedelia about…GRE-EN SLIIIIIIIME!

“Burn the Flames,” Roky Erickson

After he left The 13th Floor Elevators to go solo (and kooky in the head) most of Erickson’s output focused on horror-themed songs, meaning he has landed a spot on every last Halloween Music list ever compiled. While “Three-Headed Dog” and “I Walked With a Zombie” are the standard go-to choices, I chose “Burn the Flames” because it’s less well known, it’s a catch-all and it’s just plain silly.

“Black Wings,” Tom Waits

The Devil has made his way into several Waits’ songs under various guises, but never like this. His most stalwart fans seem to consider 1992’s “Bone Machine” a second or third-tier offering. That’s their prerogative, but tucked there in the middle is this sinister little number in which Waits, with uncharacteristic hissing, whispered vocals, admits that as scary as he can be, some people think the Prince of Lies isn’t such a bad guy after all.

“The Witch,” The Sonics

This may be blasphemy, but if not for this one song, The Sonics would probably be considered a fairly tame, forgettable early-’60s garage band, and a cover band to boot. So, thank god for this primitive, staccato wonderment which predated all those witch songs that would come along a decade later. It’s a cautionary tale about the new girl in town, the one with the long black hair and long black car who may or may not be a witch. 

“He’s a Vampire,” Archie King

Archie King was man-years ahead of his time. Okay, so it’s just another R&B curiosity from 1959, and not a particularly great one, but a few years before The Sonics he’d already provided “The Witch” with a companion song. And 20 years before Bauhaus he used all the same damn imagery those mopey Brits would turn into their biggest hit. Yet does he ever get any credit?

“Year Zero,” Ghost

Swiss pop metal band Ghost may have lifted every facet of their shtick from other, better acts, but I still love these costumed Satan-happy goofballs. In terms of undiluted, overblown and hilarious pomposity, nothing can touch this anthem to Ol’ Scratch. Funny story. In 2012, they were recording their second album, “Infestissumam” (a concept album inspired by “Rosemary’s Baby”), in Nashville. They had to relocate to L.A. on account of this song, as no large Tennessee-based chorus would agree to provide backing vocals for a song whose refrain mostly consisted of “Hail Satan!” They had less trouble finding a cooperative choral group in L.A.

“Hello Skinny,” The Residents

In their odd, otherworldly way, for the past half-century The Residents have turned Halloween into a year-round celebration through their shifting array of disguises and in the playful darkness that permeates most of their music. There’s nothing overtly Halloweeny about 1978’s “Hello Skinny,” no witches or vampires, it’s simply a character sketch of a skinny fellow who sells things. But there’s something sinister about the music and performance, the indefinable creepiness ratcheted up a notch when you add the video, that it tops a lot of the entries here on the heebie-jeebies scale. 

“Because,” Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper’s penchant for horror-themed songs has made him another familiar face on lists like this, usually with “Welcome to My Nightmare” or “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” I love Alice Cooper, but yawn, right? For my money his sneering cover of The Beatles’ “Because,” which appeared on the 1978 “Sgt. Pepper” movie soundtrack, is a helluva lot scarier. And if you want to see something really scary, try sitting through the movie.

 “Zombie Stomp,” The Del Aires 

The no-budget 1964 beach party/comedy/monster picture, “The Horror of Party Beach,” wasn’t exactly what you’d call “good,” save for The Del-Aires. The Del-Aires were a surf rock band who formed in the late fifties and mostly played the small clubs around Patterson, N.J. As far as I can tell they never released any records, but when director Del Tenney saw them and asked them to appear (as themselves!) in his new movie, they agreed. It may be the only solid proof we have that they ever existed at all. This is a good thing, because “Zombie Stomp” is killer-diller. 

“The Silent Hedges,” Bauhaus

Bauhaus were just so damnably if unintentionally silly in their deadly serious Goth kings pose, you gotta admire them. Their first single, the ludicrous “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” became a big Goth disco hit in 1979, appeared in the all-star vampire movieThe Hunger,” and cemented a place on every Halloween music roundup. That’s why I refuse to include it here (see the three criteria above). But “The Silent Hedges”? I mean, who the hell knows what they’re talking about? Shrubbery? Shrubbery can be much more frightening than vampires, But I guess it doesn’t really matter. It may be just as silly as “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” but in a much more unnerving way. 

“The Human Bash,” Billy Kelly

If I never hear “Monster Mash” again, I will consider myself blessed. And if you see anyone including it on a list of top Halloween hits, you know you’re dealing with a lazy, unimaginative dolt. I will. However, include Billy Kelli’s parody, off his 2007 album “Ha Ha Halloween.” It’s pretty freaking great, because suburban cocktail parties are the most horrifying things on earth.

“Done Gone Gomorrah!,” David E. Williams

David E. Williams is a charter member of my own personal musical Pantheon. His songs are black as pitch, funny, catchy, intelligent and marked by unexpectedly subtle musical flourishes and wordplay. “I Have Forgotten How to Love You” (1996) his second album, is chock-full of smash hits like “Me and My Girl and the Cold Gray World” and “That Skirt’s Too Short for a Funeral, Honey,” but this portrait of a dysfunctional family’s stab at a Halloween party seemed the appropriate selection for our purposes here. A classic blend of humor, despair and iron lungs.

“Crazy Date,” The Crazy Teens

This 1959 weirdie doesn’t sound like something that would be recorded in 1959, but it was. Apart from this one single and the fact they were from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, virtually nothing is known about The Crazy Teens. Maybe they were all forcibly institutionalized two days after this came out, and remain Locked away to this day. Again, there are no specific horrors afoot here, but that creeping, palpable sense of foreboding, that knowledge that something really bad is going to happen, is scary as hell.

“Die, you Zombie Bastards!,” Count Smokula

Caleb Emerson’s 2005 horror/love story/superhero/gross-out comedy with The Greatest Title Ever was aiming for Troma territory, but just missed the cut. That’s okay. It’s so profoundly, deliberately dumb that it’s profoundly, deliberately hilarious. To accompany the film, Emerson released a kind-of soundtrack album featuring about a dozen bands, each playing their own unique original song called, yes, “Die, You Zombie Bastards!” Most of the entries, not surprisingly, are from punk and metal bands, which makes the Count Smokula (comedian Robert “Smokey” Miles) solo accordion iteration a charming standout — or at least as charming as a song about slaughtering zombies can be.   

“Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die),” SSQ

I’ve been informed that by refusing to include “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” I was still left contractually obligated to add one crowd-pleasing Goth disco hit. SSQ, while not technically a Goth disco band, does a passable impersonation of one here. The 1984 song was one of two tracks they contributed to the “Return of the Living Dead” soundtrack. The song appears to be told from the perspective of a zombie nymphomaniac. Not to be all purist here, but if I’m correct in my interpretation, if the narrator really is a zombie, then that title and chorus don’t make much sense.

 “Joan Crawford,” Blue Oyster Cult

Yes, yes, yes, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is the obvious choice here, the one on everyone’s list right below “Monster Mash.” Great as the song is, if you scan back through BOC’s entire catalog it’s obvious about three-fifths of their output would be appropriate, from the party stomp of “Godzilla” to the arcane mysticism of “Astronomy” to the tattooed vampires of “Tattoo Vampire.” So why be limited to the one damn song that’s been done to death (so to speak)? As the thinking man’s Sabbath, from the beginning BOC’s been tickling the dark side, but never quite so weirdly as here. Inspired by Christina Crawford’s 1978 memoir “Mommie Dearest,” it’s a zombified bit of celebrity gossip which asks the musical question, “what would happen if Joan Crawford rose from the grave and went on a rampage”? And who among us hasn’t asked that question?

“Black Sabbath,” Black Sabbath

Likewise, where do you even begin with Sabbath? With the possible (and only possible) exception of “Changes,” they were just one long, loud, rolling Halloween party. Might as well slap every album up here and call it a day. Instead, I chose “Black Sabbath” off the first album to keep things simple. 

The Mr. Yuk jingle

Dr. Richard Moriarty died earlier this year. He was the fellow who created Mr. Yuk stickers, the green, scowling, yucky-faced evil cousin to the iconic and inescapable “Smiley Face” buttons of the Seventies. The hope was seeing the sticker would dissuade youngsters from drinking delicious household cleaners. I don’t know how effective they were, but if you were a kid when the Mr. Yuk P.S.A. blitz launched in 1971, I have to believe this jingle inflicted far more damage on America’s youth Than half a bottle of Sani-Flush.

“Dig Up Her Bones,”The Misfits

What list of Halloween ditties would be complete without at least one love song about grave robbing and necrophilia? Make it a song by punk’s answer to Bauhaus in the ol’ goofiness parade, all the better. Then to top it off, open the song with some cartoon sound effects to set the proper graveyard atmosphere, and by gum you’re good to go!

“The Maddest Story Ever Told (Spider Baby Theme),” Lon Chaney Jr.

It’s one of the top five Greatest Movie Theme Songs of All Time. The credits sequence of Jack Hill’s low-budget 1967 cannibal comedy is accompanied by star Lon Chaney Jr. himself growling and cackling his way through a musical Halloween poem. Over the course of the poem he calls up all the usual suspects, vampires, mummies, spiders, ghouls, werewolves and Frankensteins, inviting them all to a “cannibal orgy.” While the song is intentionally goofy and sets the perfect tone for the film to come, it’s also (unintentionally) a stand-alone Halloween novelty song that could and should give that doink Bobby “Boris” Pickett a run for his money.

“Werewolf,” Five Man Electrical Band

There are almost as many werewolf songs out there as vampire songs, but this is among the best. The Five Man Electrical Band was a hippie country rock outfit from Ottawa who were around from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. They were much bigger In Canada than they were in the U.S., though even then “big” is a relative term. This 1974 single about a rural family trying to figure out what to do with their lycanthropic son — a less than characteristic release for them — should’ve fit right in with all the story songs coming out at the time. Well, songs about truckers, soldiers and housewives proved to be more popular, so it got a little airplay, then vanished. Unlike most werewolf songs it wasn’t played for cheap yuks, and its atmospheric Northern Gothic vibe makes it eerily effective to this day.

“I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” The Ramones

The basement of the house I grew up in was dark and dank, with cement floors, gray brick walls and too many hidden corners tucked away in the deep shadows. I was too terrified to venture down there alone. Maybe that’s why this Ramones song always struck home. There’s nothing overt here, no monsters or witches, no specific horror imagery. Still it manages to tap into the deepest of childhood fears. There’s something down there, alright, and it’ll get you, daddy-o.

“What’s Behind the Mask?” The Cramps

If you’re born into this world looking like zombie Elvis, what choice do you have but to perform psychobilly inspired by B horror films? The Cramps make a lot of lists like this, usually with “Human Fly” or their cover of “Goo Goo Muck.” Still, of all those great, great Cramps songs to choose from, “What’s Behind the Mask?,” a question a lot of people will be asking at drunken Halloween parties the world over, seemed the most appropriate. And Lux Interior’s closing line is probably the same response all those people will be feeling when they find out.

“Rockin’ in the Graveyard,” Jackie Morningstar

There were an unusual number of songs released in the ’50s and early ’60s about the crazy shit people saw while walking past a graveyard at midnight. The Revels’ “Midnight Stroll” from 1959 comes to mind. Usually there was a party or jam session of some kind involved. What gets me about Jackie Morningstar’s 1956 rockabilly take is that it’s the only “walking past the graveyard” song in which the narrator is struck in the head with a rock thrown by a ghost.

“Evil,” 45 Grave

I suppose “Partytime” would’ve been the obvious 45 Grave song to choose after it played such an important role in “The Return of the Living Dead.” “Evil” is not just simpler and more fundamental, it’s also, well, funnier. Pasty-faced Death Rock princess Dinah Cancer gives it her all to sound tough and scary, but lines like “You’re just plain ol’ evil” don’t really cut it, even when you’re sixteen. Fortunately, the band itself was always very good, and the guitar here rips out a neat little dour riff that’ll keep your toes a-twitchin’. (Note: The link is to a later re-recording of the song, after Ms. Cancer, maybe recognizing the silliness of the “plain ol’ evil” line, replaced it with “You’re evil! You’re evil! You’re evil!”)

“Swamp Witch,” Jim Stafford

Most of the witch songs that came out in the early seventies (and there were a bunch) were played for laughs. Most involved swamps, too. In contrast, Jim Stafford’s minor 1974 hit was, and remains, downright creepy. Stafford had a brief run of lighthearted novelty hits (enough to get him his own short-lived variety show), which made this dark turn all the weirder. With its talk of snakes hanging thick in the cypress trees and mosquitoes spreading plague in a local town and a witch named Hattie who lived deep in the bayou, it was a long way from “My Girl Bill.” This was one of the first singles I ever bought, and the damned song still gives me the willies.

“Little Demon,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Screamin’ Jay is another one who has a knack for making it onto Halloween-themed compilations, usually with tired old standards like “I Put a Spell on You” or “Feast of the Mau-Mau,” but this wild-eyed early rock’n’roll screamer puts them both to shame. What Makes this story of a demon trapped on earth trying to find his way back to Hell so perfect is that in the song’s chorus (if you could call it that) Screamin’ Jay, swear to god, is literally channeling a demon’s voice. It’s hilarious and scary as hell all at the same time.

“Frankenstein’s Den,” The Hollywood Flames

The Hollywood Flames were one of hundreds of cookie-cutter R&B outfits coming out of the West Coast in the mid-’50s, all of them with the bop-doo-wops and the hand claps and the love songs. Then in ’57 the Flames went a little funny in the head for a minute there and recorded this novelty weirdie. It not only predated “Monster Mash” by a good five years, but also presaged everything Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would become over the next three decades. In fact, when I first heard this I assumed it WAS Screamin’ Jay. Just compare this with Hawkins’ 1969 “Feast of the Mau-Mau.” What sorts of refreshments would be served while you were sitting around Frankenstein’s den waiting for him to show up? Well, the Hollywood Flames told us first, in between refrains of its head-scratcher of a chorus. 

“Frankenstein,” Edgar Winter Group

When it was released in ’72, the extended hard rock instrumental was a ready-made soundtrack for stoners whose rooms were filled with black light posters, red lightbulbs and strobes. At the time, I was too young to realize this. When it came on the radio while I was trying to fall asleep in a dark room with the Aurora Classic Monster models on the shelf and the pictures of the Apollo 11 command module up on the wall, it scared the shit out of me. All I knew was the song’s title. Figuring that must be of some significance, my tiny brain took to creating its own Frankenstein movie to go along with the music. It got a little out of hand, with not only the monster, but some flying saucers and lots of machine guns. Thinking back on it now, my imaginary Frankenstein movie wasn’t all that different from the final few minutes of Ken Russell’s “Lisztomania.” To this day I still can’t listen to this song in the dark.

“Subway Song,” The Cure

Back on their first album and before they went all fruity, The Cure was still more or less a garage band. While this quick little number isn’t exactly a discordant rocker (more a whisper, actually), it is very Halloween friendly in terms of its creepiness quotient and one cheap scare. Just keep in mind that here “subway” refers to a pedestrian underpass. That’s all I dare tell you about it.

“In Nomine Satanas,” Venom

Apart from those deeply involved with the speed, dark, doom, Satanic, death or black metal scenes, Venom’s influence on the course of heavy metal would follow over the next four decades has gone mostly unheralded. Without Venom there would be no Metallica or Anthrax. The black metal subgenre even took its moniker from a Venom song. Founded in England in the late ’70s, Venom borrowed Motorhead’s bone-crushing thrash and pushed Black Sabbath’s affinity for the Satanic to new and giddy levels. A quick sampling of song titles includes “welcome to hell,” “in league with satan,” “at war with satan,” “women leather and hell,” “sons of Satan,” “7 gates of hell,” “hounds of hell,” “leave me in hell” and, well, you get the picture. It was a model (minus the “Motorhead” part) Ghost would adopt in the 21st century with flashier costumes and much more commercial success. Anyway, “In Nomine Satanas” is a personal favorite and a real toe-tapper. Hint: it’s about Satan!

“Haunted House,” Johnny Fuller

There are so many versions of this song floating around that it’s hard to keep them straight. Jerry Lee Lewis covered it, as did John Fogarty, Jumpin’ Gene Simmons and about a dozen others. But I always find myself returning to Johnny Fuller’s 1958 original. Part of it’s the chain-rattling sound effects. Part of it’s the spare instrumentation. Most of all, though, it’s Fuller himself. Face it, when you’re dealing with the story of a man confronted with a one-eyed monster who eats his food, drinks hot grease, and demands he vacate his own home by sunrise, you want to hear that mix of terror, awe, and righteous defiance that only Fuller delivers.

“A Haunted Landscape,” George Crumb 

When revered avant-garde composer George Crumb released this atonal masterpiece in 1984, the original album cover art featured a stylized skeletal horse galloping across a gray and barren landscape dotted with oddly shaped, well, things. Okay, now try to imagine that in musical terms. For the more adventurous, it’s the ultimate Halloween soundtrack. Just set it on “repeat.”

“Little Ghoul Blue,” Frankie Stein and His Ghouls

Given they were a one-note novelty act, it’s hard to believe Frankie Stein and His Ghouls released as much as they did. Sure enough, in the mid-’60s they put out some six full albums worth of comic horror-themed surf instrumentals. They may not have given The Ventures a run for their money, but they did give us classic numbers like “Dinner With Drac,” “Dr. Spook Twist,” “Goon River,” “Who’s Afraid of Weirdo Wolf,” and this one, one of the very few of their tunes to include vocals. Or what might pass for vocals in some other demented universe.

“Tupelo,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Pretty much everything Nick Cave did with The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds fits neatly somewhere along the “menacing” spectrum, but rarely was it this terrifying. Through growls, chants, yelps and whispers he describes a great Evil moving relentlessly toward the town where Elvis was born. It’s up to each listener to decide what the particular Evil might be, but I always like to believe it’s Elvis himself. Either that or tourists. 

“The Hell of It,” Paul Williams 

I’m not sure why, but Mr. Williams’ closing credits number for Brian De Palma’s 1974 darkly satirical rock opera, “The Phantom of the Paradise,” became a big hit with his fans. It’s even harder to believe he’d be asked to perform the song on The Brady Bunch Hour. With lines like “Nobody liked you, you’re better off dead,” and “If I could’ live my life half as worthlessly as you, I’m convinced that I’d wind up burning too,” it’s, simply put, a musical eulogy for an asshole. I have already made arrangements to ensure that after my death, “The Hell of It” will be performed at my memorial service. 

“Spooktacular Finale,” Spike Jones

Well, I couldn’t very well end things on such a minor chord, could I? After all, this is a happy occasion where we can sit down and share a drink with various demons, skeletons and ghosts, both the personal variety and those of others. So, here’s something off Spike Jones’ 1959 collection of musical horror spoofs, “Spike Jones in Stereo” (aka “Spike Jones in Hi-Fi” and “A Spooktacular in Screaming Sound”). With luck it’ll brighten the mood a bit and help us forget that tomorrow we’ll all be one day closer to the grave.

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