This feature originally ran in October 2014. We’ll continue to share scares, old and new, as we creep towards Halloween.
If it haunts, chills, or creeps you out, you’ll find it at Forever Halloween, where it’s Friday the 13th, Devil’s Night, and All Hallow’s Eve 365 days a year. Yeah, we’re pretty much sick bastards.
If there’s one thing to learn about horror, it’s that anything can be scary. Terrifying clowns? Thanks, John Wayne Gacy. Old family portraits? Oh yeah. Evil dolphins? Simpsons did it. As we’ve discovered over the past year, music also has the ability to chill our bones and leave us counting the seconds under our covers ’til sunlight. Whether it’s rock or hip-hop or pop, every genre’s entitled to one good scare — in this case, 13 in all.
Now, before you click ahead, know that we strictly chose pop songs that haven’t already been tied to relics of horror. In other words, we opted out of The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” via Halloween II or “Jeepers Creepers” via (duh) Jeepers Creepers or Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” via The Silence of the Lambs. Instead, these songs are on this list specifically for their own gloriously terrifying DNA.* So, click ahead and let your fears be popped.
* = Two inclusions were in episodes of Miami Vice, but neither scenes were particularly scary.
13. Lady Gaga – “Bloody Mary”
As a pop star, Lady Gaga has always flirted with the darker side of the mainstream, not just with her highly conceptual and frankly weird persona but also with her overlooked but intricate and defined lyrical content. Off her 2011 sophomore effort, Born This Way, there’s no better example of this than “Bloody Mary”. Over a throbbing barrage of synths, bleak imagery, and distinctly Gaga-at-her-peak intrigue, the song floats by with the darkly shaded menace of her unhinged vocal performance. There’s intricate wordplay exploring the subtle differences and religious implications of words like “cry” and “crucify” and blood-curdling screams thrown into her radio-friendly mix. If there’s any pop star that could adequately fill the infamously royal shoes of her song title’s ruthless namesake, it’s Gaga. –Josh Terry
12. Rockwell – “Somebody’s Watching Me”
Voyeurism and stalking are always interesting topics when it comes to music (as you’ll see later in the list). This was the premise of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”, which was essentially a Michael Jackson song because of his borderline shrill performance on the hook. You even got the horror show video — complete with scenes ripped from Psycho — to add to that Oct. 31st feel. However, perhaps the true horror, at least for Rockwell, is how he would never even come close to matching the success of this No. 2 hit for the rest of his career. –Brian Josephs
11. Fiona Apple – “Hot Knife”
Make no mistake, “Hot Knife” is a happy song. For once, Fiona Apple sounds assured and comfortable in a relationship, singing: “He makes my heart a cinemascope screen.” But here’s the thing: What if this song’s one-sided? What if Apple’s the only one who feels that way? Given the vocal repetition and the eerie percussion, lines like “He’s never gonna need another” and “Maybe I could teach him, too” start feeling just as sharp as the song’s namesake. But isn’t that the true horror of love? No one ever knows what’s going on inside their lover’s heads. They just assume. And usually the worst. #GoneGirl –Michael Roffman
10. Lana Del Rey – “Ultraviolence”
There’s something unexplainably chilling about “Ultraviolence”, the title track from Lana Del Rey’s sophomore LP. It feels like the kind of music one might queue up to walk through a foggy graveyard on an overcast day. Her brilliantly executed pantomime of Americana is almost eerie. The harmonies carry like ghostly whispers; they’re practically ethereal. The whole thing encapsulates the spookiness of the film noir aesthetic. Not to mention the song takes its name from Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. –Sheldon Pearce
09. Adele – “Chasing Pavements”
UK darling Laurie Blue Adkins, aka Adele, is inarguably one of the most powerful voices in the 21st century. “Chasing Pavements” was the first step in catapulting her to stardom — it’s also her most haunting. The chords that open permeate the track with an echo that recalls Portishead’s “Mysterons”, and that ominous tone carries the song as Adele occupies the same elegiac register. The lyrics grapple with mortality and the “if you love someone, tell them” that death’s finality inspires. In the context of its similarly disturbing video, the song leaves one with an off-centered feeling, thanks to its stoic juxtaposition of fear and beauty. Needless to say, the song stays in your brain long after you listen. –Kevin McMahon
08. Sky Ferreira – “Night Time, My Time”
The title “Night Time, My Time” seems like it’d be the calling card of a predator in a slasher flick, so it’s fitting that Sky Ferreira’s song is as brooding and sinister as its title suggests. “I’m useless and I know it,” she opens. “Auditory hallucination.” That’s a pretty solid description of the sonic experience. It’s slow-moving with an affectless drum kick that maintains the pace, and a symphony of sounds swirl around in a haze. It has a dark, almost grungy feel that creeps down your ear canal. –Sheldon Pearce
07. Madonna – “Frozen”
Somewhere back in 1998, Beth Gibbons was probably gritting her teeth as Madonna’s “Frozen” dominated the airwaves and VH1. After all, the mid-tempo electronic ballad is more or less a paint-by-numbers Portishead track, only there’s a pop aesthetic driven by the signature vocal power of Ms. Ciccone. Produced by William Orbit, the classical arrangements, courtesy of Craig Armstrong and Marius De Vries, offer a lush, dark chocolate taste that’s sophisticated and yet altogether spooky. The VMA-awarded music video expanded on these notions, pitting Madge in the middle of a desert with ethereal effects that mirrored much of the post-apocalyptic imagery that’s commonplace today. In actuality, it’s a rather hopeful song, but as she sings, “You only see what your eyes want to see,” and I see delicious terror. –Michael Roffman
06. Michael Jackson – “Smooth Criminal”
Here’s a scary thought: Imagine that you’re tasked with following up the highest-selling pop album of all time. Of course, Michael Jackson faced this dilemma during the making of Bad. Jackson was hoping to feature the likes of Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, and Prince (!) on the project. He ended up having to go at it with Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder, and nonetheless, Bad was still a success. Part of the reason was the murderous beats and lyricism behind “Smooth Criminal” and especially those anti-gravity boots. If Jackson seemed too famous to be a human being, the sight of him breaking physics ought to further confirm that theory. –Brian Josephs
05. Kate Bush – “Waking the Witch”
On Kate Bush’s 1985 Hounds of Love cut “Waking the Witch”, it isn’t really the lyrical content that makes the song frightening. Instead, it’s the disorienting and demonic vocal samples that are peppered throughout the terrifying track. One voice in particular sounds like the devil himself, with a gruff menace that’s absolutely horrifying over Bush’s ethereal squeals. There’s a pummeling, programmed drumbeat and snarling synths, along with Bush, who details a frightening depiction of a witch trial. Knowing the disgusting ways in which the Puritans actually treated their so-called heretics, listening to Kate Bush remind us of the gruesome details in “Waking the Witch” is scary enough. –Josh Terry
04. Phil Collins – “Another Day in Paradise”
“Oh think twice…” That’s all Phil Collins has to say to get his point across on this Grammy-winning cautionary tale, “Another Day in Paradise”. While not exactly scary, per se, the themes of poverty and ignorance subconsciously itch the nerves, especially in today’s America, where the middle class is dissolving and the poor achingly scales back from the curb. There’s also something inherently damning about that keyboard melody. When the riff strikes at each chorus, it’s almost like this heavy slap to the face that screams, “Do you get it now? Do you?” During his heyday, Collins was always exceptional in crafting atmosphere, the sort of environment worth relishing over. This one, however, has always been a single to skip, but only because it’s a topic that nobody wants to think about, regardless of Collins’ foreboding pleas. –Michael Roffman
03. Peter Gabriel – “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”
Who’da thought an interlude from Peter Gabriel’s least experimental and most commercially successful album, So, would end up being one of the scariest pop songs ever? Maybe Gabriel, actually. This terse and mostly instrumental piece attempts to convey the blind obedience of the masses to dictators during wartime. That’s not exactly what I got on first (or even 30th) listen, but there’s an undeniably creepy presence here. A thin wall of heartbeat drums and music box-like lullaby is methodically knocked down by overdubbed guitars and rising violin. Before you know it, the collective chant of “We do what we’re told” floats in. It’s a gentle, lifeless, and mechanical march toward wartime atrocities, or maybe it’s the Manson gang coming for your sleeping family in the night. Either way, the terror comes from how quickly and easily the normal turns nightmarish – how relatively short a march it is to that place where we simply “do what we’re told.” –Matt Melis
02. Beyoncé – “Ghost/Haunted”
The biggest surprise (musically) in the last few years has been Beyoncé’s self-titled album dropping out of thin air, and it produced some of the most ominous music in recent memory. The one-two punch of “Ghost” and “Haunted” is hair-raising. Bey opens “Ghost” in a chant, and her call is met with phantom vocals. “Ghost” segues into the gripping melancholy of “Haunted”, a tale of enchantment backed by minor piano. “My haunted lungs/ Ghost in the sheets/ I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me,” she sings. Her tone is unnerving, and her words are spellbound. –Sheldon Pearce
01. The Police – “Every Breath You Take”
True story: I didn’t actually get spooked by The Police’s landmark single until I was about 15 years old and read a fan-fiction novel based on the Halloween series. In the story, a character haunted by Michael Myers turns off “Every Breath You Take” on her stereo and says something about it scaring her. This confused me until I actually re-listened to the lyrics again and realized, “Oh, yeah, this song’s about a stalker.” That’s about the greatest attribute of Sting; at his finest hour, he’s one subversive motherfucker, and this was his finest trick of all.
To date, the song pops up in dance halls and weddings because, on the surface, it’s one of the true diamonds of ’80s FM radio. But, it’s always meant to be a horror story. “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil,” Sting told the press in 1983. “It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” So, what’s scarier: the fact that most listeners have been clueless all these years or that Sting was able to pull a fast one on everyone? Rhetorical, of course. –Michael Roffman