Beyond 'Monster Mash': 10 Songs That Actually Give Us Chills

A particularly prickly scene from 'Suspiria,' whose soundtrack, by Italian prog-rock band Goblin, might reduce even the bravest of adults to Jell-o.

Halloween is a two-faced holiday. Its roots are so fabulously weird and adult, and yet -- aside from some drunken street revelry and that thing where your favorite local punk bands perform covers while dressed up as other bands -- its modern-day rituals are mostly for kids: the costumes, the jack-o'-lanterns, the neighborhood pillaging for candy.

As for Halloween-specific music? It basically follows suit: the tunes most likely to get airplay in the days leading up to Halloween are far more silly than scary. There's Bobby Pickett's vastly overrated "Monster Mash." There's Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party." And, of course, the funkiest zombie-themed opus of all time, MJ's "Thriller."

Some of these songs are great, but none of them ever actually chill listeners to the bone -- not even children. With that in mind, I asked my colleagues at KQED for songs that truly give them the creeps, Top 40 airplay be damned. The results are as varied as, well, my coworkers. Grab your most comforting stuffed animal and give 'em all a listen below.

Sunn o))), "It Took a Night to Believe"

Each year on Halloween, I forego 'Spooky Sound Effects' playlists and just go straight for the petrifying sound of Black One, by Sunn o))). The darkest duo to ever don hooded robes, Sunn o))) specializes in a truly terrifying sound: a mixture of stoner-metal guitars, vampirish vocals, and bass rumblings that hie ever closer to the elusive “brown note.” How antagonizing is their music? I once witnessed a crowd of Celtic Frost fans flipping them off and yelling at them – and if they can enrage a group of metalheads, you can imagine what terror they strike in small children wearing Elsa costumes. Do the right thing and blast album opener "It Took a Night to Believe" on Halloween.  -- Gabe Meline

Lesley Gore, "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows"

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One of the most sinister songs I can think of. Not only does its forced sense of good, clean fun chill me to the ribs, but the song was also unforgettably used in In On It, by Daniel MacIvor -- an unsettling play I saw at the Thick House in San Francisco that still haunts me 10 years on.  -- Chloe Veltman

Martin Simpson, "House Carpenter"

"What hills, what hills are those, my love?" Christ, a decade after hearing it, this is still the scariest song I know. An arrangement of the traditional Scottish ballad "The Daemon Lover" (spoiler alert!) by English folk hero Martin Simpson, "House Carpenter" is a narrative of pure, queasy comeuppance as a faithless woman abandons her family to set sail with a long-lost love, only to discover her truly hellish mistake once they’re alone at sea. The stomach-churning reveal -- "she espied his cloven hoof..." -- is the stuff of satanic horror movies, propelled along by the inevitability of Simpson’s relentless fretwork that increasingly sounds like taunting. How anyone can listen to this one after dark is beyond me. -- Carly Severn

Rebbie Jackson, "Centipede"

What do you do when you're born into a super-talented family with no discernible talent of your own? Fake it 'til you make it -- or, in the case of Rebbie, eldest of the Jacksons, fake it 'til you make a horrifying song about a horny centipede. This song terrifies me for a variety of reasons (the use of the phrase "snake that's on the loose" as a metaphor for someone's penis, for starters), but the terror mostly stems from the fact that centipedes are creepy, and centipedes that want to have intense sex with you are even creepier.  -- Emmanuel Hapsis

Reinhard Lakomy, "Gespensterduett"

When I was growing up in Berlin, almost every night, I listened to a vinyl LP (yup, this is how old I am) from German composer Reinhard Lakomy. As the most-published musician in the German Democratic Republic at the time, one of Lakomy's famous records was for kids called Traumzauberbaum. Every time when “Gespensterduett” began playing, I was startled, and hid behind my hair under the blanket just wishing the song would be over... listening to it now, it all comes back. -- Johanna Reis

Neko Case, "Make Your Bed"

In this spooky, stripped-down song, Neko Case sings the part of a vengeful woman who puts her man "to rest at the bend in the river" and invites his "young girl" to make her bed beside him. If Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is one response to infidelity (a plaintive plea), "Make Your Bed" is another, less forgiving approach (a postmortem tune). Case's sweet voice belies a song full of violence and madness, with lines that always give me the chills: "Only one thought pacifies me / That the murky black water grounds your bones into sand / When the catfish have stripped off your hide."  -- Sarah Hotchkiss 

Goblin, Score to 'Suspiria'

I imagine this soundtrack -- which opens with a haunting, sing-song refrain, then builds into an wall of anxious, electro-prog chase music, punctuated by a menacing male voice whispering taunts -- would be scary even if you haven't seen the 1977 cult film for which it was written. But if you have, Goblin immediately transports you to an austere German dance academy, where behind every closed door lies a sort of salacious teachers' lounge for murderous witches -- or, sometimes, just a sh*t ton of potentially fatal barbed wire, for no apparent reason. Regardless: I dare you to drive around at night in a sparsely populated rural area with the "witch, witch, witch" part playing, and just try to keep your cool.  -- Emma Silvers 

Geto Boys, "Mind Playing Tricks On Me"

The songs that scare me are less "blood and gore" and super hood-specific. This one, for example, scared the sh*t outta me as a kid, especially the last verse when Bushwick Bill flips out and punches the concrete. Let's just say crackheads were a very real thing for a kid growing up in Oakland in the '80s and '90s! -- Jamedra Brown Fleischman 

Nurse With Wound, "Salt Marie Celeste"

This very simple, hourlong ambient piece begins quietly but ominously, with gradually intensifying swells of digital noise. It grows into an atmosphere inky black with distinctly maritime swells -- overlain with wooden creaks, groans and skitterings. By itself, it's genuinely unsettling. And then there's what it's named for: the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship famously found adrift and abandoned in the Atlantic in 1872. It's still not known what happened to her crew, who were never seen or heard from again. If you're a sucker for nautical horror, turn off the lights and put on your headphones. -- David Marks

Sword Heaven, "Town Hag"

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I've always been a scaredy cat, even though I grew up in the heyday of horror movies. I wasn't allowed to see Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th as a kid, but even on the rare occasion when I had a chance to watch a scary movie, I turned and ran: Just the thought of monsters like Freddy Krueger and Leatherface was enough to give me nightmares. As I got older, though, I realized my imagination was much more frightening. Which brings me to "Town Hag" by "horror sound" duo Sword Heaven, a track that's continually given me the heebie-jeebies since I first heard it years ago. This recording still taps into my childhood fears, inspiring visions of a monster that would give H.P. Lovecraft the runs. If you've hit play and you don't find yourself scrambling to turn it off, imagine hearing those noises coming from a locked room at the end of a dark hallway -- do you dare investigate? -- Kevin Jones

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