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The 20 best Halloween songs

Perfect pop music and Halloween go together like pumpkins and spice. Celebrate the year’s spookiest holiday with these essential creepy cuts.
Photograph: Shutterstock
By Andrew Frisicano and Time Out contributors |
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Awesome Halloween costume? Check. Amazing snacks made to look like eyeballs/intestines/skulls? Check! Pumpkin carved with teeth that look like the skyline? CHECK! But what’s that? You say you don’t have a mind-meltingly amazing Halloween playlist for your party? You don’t have a selection of too-ghoul-for-school music to groove to as you pull on your slutty-Ewok outfit? Fear not! We have lovingly selected the 20 best Halloween songs ever recorded for your listening and dancing pleasure: Treasures include perfect pop from Michael Jackson, creepiness galore from Nick Cave and, of course, “The Monster Mash.” In short? All “Thriller.” No filler.

Best Halloween songs

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Michael Jackson, “Thriller”

“I’m not like other guys,” Michael tells his girl at the beginning of the greatest video ever made, from the greatest album ever made. Did we realize how prescient that statement would be in 1982? So much of “Thriller” shouldn’t work—MJ is a doll, 71-year-old Vincent Price raps, and it’s six minutes long. But together, it’s ballsy genius, riding on an insistent, funky Minimoog bass line. “I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult,” Jackson wrote concerning the video. No, but the Elephant Man bones and chimp did.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell On You” (Remix)

Arguably one of the original Halloween songs. Inarguably one of the greatest. Hawkins’s tune—which he claims to not remember recording—permanently added the “Screamin’” to his God-given name. “Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins, (but) I found out I could do more destroying to a song by screaming it to death.” He found out he could also do more if he appeared out of a coffin on stage in a black cape, tusks coming out of his nose, accompanied by a cigarette smoking skull sidekick named Henry. A rare remix by KCRW’s Jeremy Sole.—Christopher Tarantino

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Donovan, “Season of the Witch”

Donovan never explains quite what he means by a “season of the witch” in this five-minute foray into ominous psychedelia, from the British singer-songwriter’s 1966 album, Sunshine Superman. But a shiver of paranoia runs through the song’s depiction of identity flux (“So many different people to be”) in a world gone topsy-turvy (“Beatniks are out to make it rich”), and the guitar part—played by a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page—adds welcome notes of acid.—Adam Feldman

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The Cramps, “Surfin’ Dead”

These rockabilly goths were always a B-movie for your ears, so it was inevitable that Lux Interior and Poison Ivy would end up on the soundtrack to a campy slasher flick. In 1985, Return of the Living Dead popularized the notion of zombies chomping brains. In the movie, a bunch of punks battle the undead—but the Cramps have a hard time choosing a side. When Interior sings “Run run run run!” it sounds just like a chain saw itching to rip through necrobiotic flesh. But in the end, he makes it seem more fun to be one of the rotting.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Time Warp”

Rocky Horror Picture Show might be a musical, but it’s still a spooky essential. No self-respecting Halloweenie hasn’t experienced the toast-tossing, costume-clad, line-ad-libbing extravaganza at least once. And with a jump to the left plus a step to the right, you can thank Richard O’ Brien for cooking up the movie’s party-favorite “Time Warp” dance.

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The Specials, “Ghost Town”

Okay, so technically this song is about unemployment, inner-city violence and urban decay, not decaying flesh. But the 1981 hit, released at the height of the U.K.’s recession riots, still creeps us out in the very best way, with eerie flute solos, ominous lyrics and maniacal, childlike la-la-las—plus some pretty spooky synth fades.—Kate Wertheimer

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The Ramones, “Pet Sematary”

Hard to believe the original Ramones are all dead. By 1989, the punks’ career was nearly six feet under. But this toe-tapping title track from a hit horror film, a bite-size Snickers with a metal shard inside, put the New Yawkers back on MTV, introducing a new generation to the leather-wrapped Phil Spector fanatics who looked like motorcycle zombies. If only Stephen King’s resurrecting graveyard were real—we miss these buffoons.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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The X-Files (Terrestrial Mix)

Recently this iconic theme-song synth riff transcended from a well-known nostalgia artifact to a staple of modern meme culture. So despite these sounds being lifted from a beloved ‘90s TV show, it's all the more relevant for celebrating with millenial crowds this spooky season. And don't be mistaken—this isn't some orchestral party-pooper. This is the chart-topping trance remix written and released by the original composer in 1996. Expect it to bring every "I want to believe-r" to the dancefloor.

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Cerrone, “Supernature”

French 1970s musical icon Marc Cerrone created this frightening (for then at least) vision of a not-too-distant sci-fi future where escaped mutant creatures created in a lab to end human starvation have rebelled against their makers to disastrous effect for all. Basically sci-fi disco for the Studio 54 set, this track is the greatest statement on that brief genre. Period. The video (and album artwork) are also stone-cold classics. Ask your parents.—Christopher Tarantino

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Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me”

If Rockwell (real name Kenneth Gordy, son of Motown founder Berry) shivered at Big Brother's glare in 1984, one can only imagine what he'd make of the Internet age, where the government, news media and rogue hackers are all equally likely to be keeping tabs on you. The “Thriller”-esque hook comes courtesy of Rockwell’s buddy Michael Jackson, a good dude to have on speed-dial, though I’m not sure how much help he’d be if you're looking for someone to check for monsters in the closet.—Andrew Frisicano

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Mark Knight, “Devil Walking”

It may be a place of great beauty, but a lot of things can happen in Bangkok beyond dodgy street meat. Especially after the sun goes down. Just ask Stu from The Hangover Part II: Dodgy street meat truly never sleeps. So when Mark Knight needed a foreboding vocal sample for his peak time house jam, he headed straight to Murray Head’s ’80s classic “One Night in Bangkok” and whipped it into an intense frenzy about knowing the devil that’s walking next to you…like really knowing.—Christopher Tarantino

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The Misfits, “Halloween”

Funny how time tames horror. In 1981, the Misfits seemed genuinely scary. In hindsight, they’re as dangerous as a Scooby Doo mystery. But, great Beelzebub, what fun! “Candy apples and razor blades! / Little dead are soon in graves!” croons Glen Danzig, somewhere between an Elvis impersonator and an amateur MMA fighter. “Skulls” might better spook the kids today, but this noir pop is on-point—like Jerry Only’s hair.—Brent DiCrescenzo

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”

Of course, we could’ve put together an entire list of Nick Cave songs to score your Halloween shindig, but instead we're choosing Cave’s singularly most creepy cut. A smoldering slow-burner, “Red Right Hand” appears on 1994’s Murder Ballads album and lifts its title from John Milton’s Paradise Lost epic poem—which refers to the supposedly vengeful hand of God. It’s been used in all three Scream movies, such is its spook-factor. Show off your vampiest moves on the dance floor as you shimmy along to its rumbling drums, clanging bells and Cave’s sinister lyrics.—Sophie Harris

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Kanye West, “Monster”

’Ye pulled out all the stops on this 2010 track: He’s got guest vocals from Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross and Bon Iver (because why not?). The gang name-checks nightmarish images at every turn—blood suckers, goblins, the Bride of Chucky—and dishes out a healthy helping of Haterade to critics and skeptics, but it’s the funky groove and sick rhymes that’ll raise the goosebumps (in a good way). Some of us (not naming names) may even like to pretend we’re Nicki Minaj sometimes and spit the Harajuku Barbie’s verse (the best one of the bunch) in the privacy of our apartment.—Carla Sosenko

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DJ Touche, “Vampires”

Theo Keating a.k.a. DJ Touché a.k.a. Fake Blood a.k.a. formerly the Wiseguys a.k.a. half of the Black Ghosts a.k.a. a guy who knows his horror. This cut is just one in a long list for someone who's had more than 20 years to rack up quite a few proverbial “kills.” It’s the title track of his EP (alongside other funky frighteners “Zombies” and “Spectres”) on Fatboy Slim’s Southern Fried Records.—Christopher Tarantino

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Greenskeepers, “Lotion”

If Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill made beats instead of flesh masks, he would have probably been super proud of the fanmade video to Chicago band Greenskeepers song “Lotion,” in which he appears to be singing along to the song detailing his exploits with his latest would-be victim.—Christopher Tarantino

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Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”

Bela Lugosi died in 1956. Informing people of his demise in 1979 was strictly the concern of the most archetypal of goth bands, Bauhaus. Goth is a cocktail best served as equal parts glamor and nihilism. Singing about Dracula is metal. Singing about the Hungarian star of the silver screen who played him is goth. The ticking dirge was used fabulously in The Hunger, in the coolest opening sequence of ’80s cinema, a montage of sex, jump cuts, drugs and Bowie. At last, frontman Peter Murphy was a vampire in the movies.Brent DiCrescenzo

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Echo and the Bunnymen, “People are Strange”

If you can’t commit a bit of sacrilege at Halloween, then when can you? We're choosing Echo and the Bunnymen’s 1987 version of this song over the Doors’ original, partly because this cover soundtracked cult ’80s vampire movie The Lost Boys (a Halloween must-see), but also because it kicks ass with its dramatic pauses, spooky piano flourishes and—oh!—that ending.—Sophie Harris

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Art Department, “Vampire Nightclub”

Art Department, which is now just No. 19 boss Jonny White going solo—but at the time also included Canadian house legend Kenny Glasgow—linked up with the ghost of Seth Troxler–past on "vocals.” It's not until halfway through this face melter that it dawns on you that the title may be a double entendre that you’re not sure you completely get.—Christopher Tarantino

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Mike Oldfield, “Tubular Bells Part 1”

If you’re looking for something to set the mood, throw on this 1973 track and watch everyone’s hair stand on end. At least, everyone who’s seen The Exorcist. What could have been a beautiful orchestral piece is instead insidiously and inextricably tied to images of projectile vomit and bloody crucifix masturbation. Oh well, happy Halloween!—Kate Wertheimer

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