Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

31 essential tracks for your Halloween playlist

The festivities of Samhain, All Souls’ Day and All Hallows Eve have melded together over the centuries into one glorious hodgepodge of traditions – but despite their differing origins, at the heart of modern Halloween there is still an age old obsession with death and regeneration – a theme which strikes me as significantly more appropriate than the consumption-driven festival of modern day Christmas, as society collapses in 2020.

Every October then, that same obsession with the afterlife always rekindles our interest in my favourite of genres: horror. But, as I’ve said before, the fiercely independent, socially conscious and gloriously gory medium is nothing without its soundtracks. That’s why, during this, the most wonderful time of the year, I can’t help but feel the greatest seasonal celebration of them all is not complete without a selection of festive jingles to accompany it.

There’s always a special spring in my step on the day when the 1st of October finally arrives and I can begin playing my own playlist of classic horror anthems on repeat. To help you get that warm festive glow and do Halloween right – even if the pandemic means you won’t be attending a costume party of more than six, or going trick-or-treating any time soon – here is my personal selection of horrific hits plucked from my Halloween playlist; one for every day of October.

#1: Dracula – Gorillaz

Not every song picked for this sinister selection comes straight from a horror film soundtrack. Obviously some will, but others will be sadly forgotten B-sides which just happen to capture the intoxicating mixture of macabre and merriment that is Halloween month. I’ve always been a bigger fan of Damon Albarn’s post-Blur work, but this remains my favourite Gorillaz piece – partly because of its ingenious use of Mel Blanc’s incarnation of the Prince of Darkness from a throwaway Loony Tunes short.

#2: Dinosaur – Collider

It’s been a long time since I made any films myself – and looking back I am under no illusions about how ropy my efforts were. Despite that, there are two ‘documentaries’ I produced which I am still proud of; both about the cultural implications of zombie films, and both are soundtracked with this gem of a song from Bill Vine and co. Its clanging guitar, creeping synth bass, and fizzing electronic feedback seemed like they would have been the perfect fit for a Danny Boyle zombie film (we’ll come to that) – while Vine’s lyrics conjure up ideas of a world on the edge of collapse. For that reason, no Halloween playlist of mine could be complete without Collider’s anthemic Dinosaur.

#3: In the House, in a Heartbeat – John Murphy, 28 Days Later OST

Every three years or so, when Danny Boyle is bored, he starts rumours of doing another 28 film. This is one of those years – and I’m foolishly hoping it turns out to be more than hot air this time. Eleven-year old Me was unable to finish 28 Days Later at the first attempt, on a VHS ripped from Sky Movies Premier. Having revisited it more than a few times since, what always sticks with me is the guitar-driven intensity of John Murphy’s score. The very British apocalypse that seems so pertinent today is underwritten perfectly by his work, which thankfully provides a much more subtle, Indy sound, than the pounding metal that the likes of Zack Snyder tend to deploy in modern studio zombie pictures.

#4: Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Long before I was old enough for horror movies, I’d heard my Mum jokingly warn someone, “Beware the moon” when they left the house after dark. Weirdly, the throw-away line stuck in my mind for long enough that when she finally got around to showing me American Werewolf in London, it felt like finally being in on the joke, a kind of cinematic coming-of-age. As a result, this particular song (in a soundtrack brilliantly crammed with moon-related tunes) will always bring up warm memories – even if it is also tied to an infamous moment of bone-shattering agony.

#5: Long Tall Sally – Little Richard

Pick the right song to launch your horror and you can really set the audience up for a fall. The squad are established as a hulking team of unstoppable alpha male demigods at the beginning of Predator, helped by their bombastic arrival to this Little Richard jam – something which only makes it more terrifying when a hidden alien force cuts them down like a hot knife through butter.

#6: Colqhoun’s Story – Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman – Ravenous OST

This is my favourite cannibalism film – trust me, that is quite an achievement – as this frontier horror played with the idea of the wendigo as a warning against the coming age consumerism, long before the monster became fashionable in the last decade. It’s underwritten by a terrific, pounding, fever dream of a score, by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. I routinely recommend this film to anyone who will listen, but you should also seek out the whole soundtrack (unfortunately it is not on Spotify though).

#7: Ghost Town – The Specials

It puts me in mind of Great Yarmouth, and what could be scarier than that? Apart from that, the song makes a cameo in Shaun of the Dead, highlighting a scene where the characters consider the horror of the living death that the regular customers of the local pub are enduring – a perfect combination of horror and humour.

#8: Goodbye Horses – Q Lazzarus

Calling something a “neo-noir psychological thriller” is a way for snobs to dodge admitting they like a horror film. Silence of the Lambs, like any good horror, elicits a feeling of dread from its audience that leaves the cinema with them, and will have them checking over their shoulders for the rest of the week – if not their lives. The extent of the film’s legacy as a horror is best summed up by what it did to Goodbye Horses – leaving what would otherwise be a serene, synth-driven post-punk song with an inescapably sinister connotation.

#9: Where’s Your Head At – Basement Jaxx

I would love to get inside the mind of the person who heard this tune, and made the leap to, “THE MUSIC VIDEO SHOULD BE ABOUT A MAD SCIENTIST PUTTING THE MINDS OF MUSICIANS INSIDE MONKEYS.”

Also, I might not have been the sharpest 10-year old, but at the time I swear the effects in this video weren’t half bad. More than enough to give me chills, at any rate.

#10: Red Right Hand – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Beside its appearance in Scream, this song is horrific in its own right. It is an ominous tale of crumbling infrastructure, urban neglect and societal decay, where people place their faith in ideas and men they really ought not to. The figure in the dusty black coat has concealed motives of vengeance and brutality – so while like Johnson, Trump or Bolsonaro, he will deliver change, it won’t be the kind that genuinely helps those who gave him power over them, and it won’t be something they can take back, however much they regret it. This was released 26 years ago, but it’s a warning that resonates even more deeply today.

#11: Southern Comfort Theme – Ry Cooder – Southern Comfort Soundtrack

Often overlooked due to its lack of shock value when compared to the sensationalist Deliverance, Southern Comfort saw Walter Hill (who also directed The Warriors) craft a nuanced and thought-provoking satire of American foreign policy. Emphasised by Ry Cooder’s haunting score, oozing with an authentic Cajun accent, a squad of bumbling soldiers manage to invent an entirely avoidable ‘war’ in the post-Vietnam years, seemingly hell-bent on creating enemies in their own backyard to give a justification to their own fading relevance. The Southerners here aren’t some antiquated evolutionary dead-end to be steamrolled by the North’s train of progress; they are provoked into defending themselves against the incompetent and arrogant forces of imperialism.

#12: Gremlins Theme – Jerry Goldsmith

Since Spotify is already trying to show Christmas songs down my throat before October is even done, here’s my favourite festive theme: one that makes me think of carnage being inflicted on thoughtless consumers when they don’t treat the natural world the respect it is due, and naively try to commodify a force they don’t understand. Truly, Gremlins is the Christmas film for the Covid-19 age.

#13: Monster Mash – Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett

My signature lip-sync song. Believe me; if I thought I could get away with having this on repeat at a Halloween party, I would do it. It has taken me every ounce of my strength not to post this until almost the middle of the list.

#14: Werewolves of London – Warren Zevon

I think my favourite thing about this song is how it toys with English people’s bizarre and self-destructive obsession with the ruling class. We are aware that given the chance they will mutilate us, but perversely against our own class interests we envy their style, and quietly wish we could emulate it. Hence:

“You better stay away from him
He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim
Huh, I’d like to meet his tailor.”

#15: Death Toll Theme – Mike Morasky – Left 4 Dead OST

Left 4 Dead is one of the most cinematic horror games I ever played – delivering a living, breathing movie on the sly, without leaning on heavy-handed cut-scenes or lazy quick-time events. Alongside a perfectly researched and worryingly prophetic imagining of pandemic-driven urban collapse, the film snuck in an engaging plot (if you paid attention.) It was backed with a game engine that could decide to swamp you with zombies at your most vulnerable, and a score that could strike up to set the appropriate tone whenever it did – subsequently giving us the chance to live an end-times fantasy that many people had been craving for years.

#16: Broken Out In Love – Mark Crozer and the Rels

Bray Wyatt has long been my favourite wrestler because his horror-inspired characters fit in so perfectly with the steady decay of late capitalist ideology. This song has always complemented his persona perfectly, and continues to evolve with him (and The Fiend). Seeing love and hate as a dichotomy can be something of a fallacy – some of the most monstrous things we submit ourselves do can be driven by some notion of ‘love’ – so walking in to a piece of music about being broken in love is telling of the what Wyatt represents; he is the waking nightmare that the promises of supposedly benign liberal ideology actually deliver.

#17: Utopia Finale – Cristobal Tapia de Veer – Utopia OST

Utopia was ahead of its time in many ways – a gripping, stylised conspiracy thriller about the threat of climate fascism (something that is on the cusp of becoming a mainstream issue amid the inaction of the incumbent political class on the matter) – but above all its humming synthetic soundtrack is something to be treasured. There’s something deeply unsettling about how its sinister artificial overtures are so otherworldly, but somehow lull you into forgetting they are even there. Technically the soundtrack warned you whenever danger is near, but in a way you often overlooked until it was too late.

#18: Thriller – Michael Jackson

What would Halloween be without monsters? And here’s a song by one of the most famous monsters ever to dominate in popular culture. Until the next one anyway… But I digress. It’s really the work of John Landis, Rick Baker and Vincent Price which makes this an untouchable classic. Thriller is just so beautifully embedded in horror culture, it never strays into the territory of kitsch pastiche, and like Price – whose true love was actually fine art – never treats the genre as ‘beneath’ it. What that yields is a wonderful, genuinely creepy homage, and one that no October is complete without seeing and hearing dozens of times.

#19: Main Theme – Gustavo Santaolalla – The Last of Us OST

I still endure a love/hate relationship with The Last of Us. Gorgeous post-apocalyptic visions of nature reclaiming vast cityscapes, and genuinely frightening moments with the ‘infected’ are almost entirely cancelled out by playing as the world’s biggest jerk, whose actions you don’t actually control – begging the question why Sony didn’t just make this a film. When it comes to the soundtrack, though, I’m firmly in the ‘love’ camp. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score is mournful, menacing yet at times even hopeful – it is majestic music storytelling, which means even though I dread the same sloppy writing of the first game recurring, I am excited to at least *hear* The Last of Us 2 whenever I find the time to play it.

#20: The Calling – Donald Rubinstein – Martin OST

George A. Romero was a wonderfully political horror auteur – and much more than the originator of the modern zombie film. I don’t know how often Martin can be called underrated before it actually becomes contradictory, but it’s a brilliant take on the vampire myth – with the usual themes of the genre (including sensual hypnosis) played out overtly as a patriarchal rape fantasy. Then there’s the main theme of the soundtrack – which backs this up by drawing on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (heavily associate with Dracula), but in a far less luxurious and grandiose manner – meaning at every level the film is delivering a pointed reference to the increasingly romanticised ideology of vampirism, while giving us the disturbing reality which it actually delivers.

#21: You Just Can’t Kill the Boogeyman – Cortex

It saddens me more people haven’t heard of Freddy Wadling – a balding Swedish folk singer whose howling forays into jazz and electronic punk have sadly flown well under the radar of the English-speaking world. There are many suitably creepy tunes voiced by Wadling – either as part of a group, or as a posthumous solo-act – with special mention going to 2019’s screaming, lurching Heartbeat in particular. His contribution to You Just Can’t Kill the Boogeyman as the frontman of Cortex is the best suited to a horror playlist however – using the seemingly indestructible nature of culture’s most effective monsters to playfully highlight the unstoppable nature of a catchy beat.

#22: I’m Afraid of Americans – David Bowie

This is an underappreciated example of how David Bowie was able to stay ahead of the curve even in his later career. Two years before Columbine and four years before 9/11 this song and accompanying video satirised a society on the edge of another very dark chapter. But for me what is more terrifying, even more than the accompanying video’s stalker Trent Reznor, is that it is not just a cosy outsider perspective – in the way snobby stand-up comedians in the UK would sneer at the stupidity of the Bush years – but an acknowledgement that even beyond the States, we’re complicit in a much broader consumer-led imperialist project. Not only that, but we’re so desensitised to it, we often don’t even think twice about participating in it ourselves. “I’m afraid I can’t help it.” That fear of losing control of our own will and instincts is a driving force in many horror films, where we can become the zombie, vampire, werewolf, wendigo, etc – and become slaves to the desire of exploiting the life-force of others.

#23: A Night with the Jersey Devil – Bruce Springsteen.

Among the pulsating mass of popularised myths that tend to dominate modern Halloween proceedings, it can be all-too-easy to overlook the folklore closer to home. The nightmares from our old backyards can give us a much needed way of staying in touch with our roots this time of year – and that’s exactly what the Boss does with his take on New Jersey’s infamous Jersey Devil.

#24: Black Shuck – The Darkness

Following on from the last song, I thought I’d better practice what I preach and show I haven’t forgotten the swamp I came out of. The Darkness’ bizarre, Spinal Tap-style romp Black Shuck takes recounts a famous encounter with one of East Anglia’s foremost phantoms – when the demon dog visited a church in Blytheburgh, striking several of the congregation dead. The claw-marks of the beast are still hewn into the church’s door to this day.

#25: Halloween theme – John Carpenter

There are so many amazing horror scores from John Carpenter, I could easily have picked The Thing, or They Live, or The Fog, but in the end it had to be this one. Spine-tingling yet simple, this chiller is guaranteed to make your blood run cold in seconds – it’s nothing less than iconic.

#26: Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield

Similarly, this is simply unavoidable in a horror-themed playlist. Used most famously as the main theme for The Exorcist, it’s deceptively melodic enough to have been re-appropriated for all manner of things since. This is something which would usually irritate me – but seeing an automotive company trying to flog its latest gas-guzzler to music conjuring up images of a foul-mouthed child hurling pea-soup onto a pair of priests is frankly hilarious.

#27: Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

There are many things that make this appropriate Halloween music, but I’m picking this for my 27th ‘day’ as that is my birthday. Over the years, this date has coincided with floods, storms, and power-cuts. Last year I found myself (foolishly) drinking my way through a particularly nasty bout of flu – while this year I’m turning 30 in the middle of a lethal pandemic. It seems quite appropriate to live by the advice that I shouldn’t fear the Reaper then – especially when my birthday is evidently cursed.

#30: Dracula’s Wedding – Outkast

The one thing more terrifying than not getting what you want is getting it. Here we find the Prince of Darkness himself cowering in fear at the prospect of finally finding the right one, and not messing things up. It helps this is crammed full of vampire puns and a reference to Sesame Street – who doesn’t have time for that?

#31: This is Halloween – Danny Elfman – The Nightmare Before Christmas OST

Life’s no fun without a good scare. I certainly subscribe to that – and the horror does not have to end simply because my favourite festive period has run its course. So, as I close out my Halloween playlist; here’s to Nightmares for now, for Christmas, and forever.

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