October 24, 2018
Boo! It’s that time of year again. The only time of year where it socially acceptable to give sweets to children and dress up as Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball. That’s right, it’s Halloween, and what better way to celebrate than putting together the ultimate party playlist? So turn on your spookiest mood lighting, brace yourself yourself and get ready to delve into the ultimate history of Halloween music. A warning in advance though, this isn’t one for the faint hearted.
The first Halloween music
Halloween music has a long and storied past, dating back to traditional pagan festivals in Western Europe. Marking the beginning of Gaelic winter on Medieval calendars, this was a time where people would get together, dress up, and light bonfires in an attempt to ward off spirits crossing over into the afterlife. In the eighth century Pope Gregory III declared the 1st of November a time to honour all saints. It wasn’t long before ‘all saint’s day’ merged with these folk traditions, spawning hallowed eve’ – later known simply as Halloween.
Music in these times was influenced by the origins of the festival, limiting itself to traditional folk songs. However the unfortunate truth is nobody really knows when the first music specifically for halloween was written. Songs in those days were largely handed down in rural communities and have been buried in the passages of time.
Halloween was popularised though migration to America in the latter half of the 19th century, mainly through Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. With them, they brought the old Irish and English traditions, eventually morphing into a more secular celebration. Between 1920 and 1950 the holliday really took off, becoming the second largest commercial holiday in the US after Christmas (obviously). People also started having halloween parties at this time, and what’s a party without music? Cue the start of Halloween music as we know it today.
‘That Old Black Magic’ – Glenn Miller and Orchestra, 1943
This chart topping tune originated in Hollywood, ending up in the vinyl collection of the more sophisticated Halloween observer. It was a simpler time back then and Halloween lacked the commercial edge it’s now known for. Indeed, the soft jazz and soulful tones of Miller reflect how the occasion was largely a family affair, still contained within the boundaries of the home.
Recorded for the film Star Spangled Banner, it was such a hit that it was repeatedly sent upwards in the charts by multiple artists, including the one and only Sammy Davis Jr in 1955.
‘Purple People Eater’ – Sheb Wooley, 1958
Packed with pop culture references about short-shorts, tequila and the rock and roll lifestyle, this quirky hit truly paved the way with its kooky lyrics and inherent danceability. Charting his experience with a ‘one-eyed, one-horned. flying, purple people eater’, Sheb Wooley inadvertently discovered that the surefire way to a Halloween number one was to simply make it catchy as hell (and include chipmunk voices, obviously).
‘The Monster Mash’ – Bobby “Boris” Pickett, 1962
If you haven’t heard of the monster mash you should probably stop reading at this point. You’re beyond saving. Still the biggest Halloween song in the UK, over half a century since its release there’s something of the ‘mash’ that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Halloween music. Upbeat, check. References to monsters, check. Funny voices and associated dance moves, double check. Everything you need is right there.
A lesser known fact about the monster mash is that it’s actually a spinoff of another 60’s hit called ‘Mashed Potato Time’. If you really have nothing else to do why don’t you teach yourself the dance here, expertly demonstrated by Shelley Long in 1962.
‘Don’t fear the reaper’ – Blue oyster Cult, 1976
From the very first bar, you know your time has come. Finding its way from the heights of the mainstream charts to DJ requests all over the land, the unmistakable guitar riff is now a staple of the Halloween playlist. It was written by lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser while picturing his own early death but as of yet the reaper has yet to have come for him. He remains well and still performs regularly at the age of 70.
‘Werewolves of London’ – Warren Zevon, 1978
Werewolves of London actually started out a joke between Phil Everly (of the Everly brothers) and Zevon after the latter joked that he could adapt the title of the 1935 horror flick into a dance craze. Cycling through the same three chords throughout, the song only took fifteen minutes to write and rather ironically surpassed all of Zevon’s subsequent work. Witty and containing just enough gimmicky howling, it’s the definition of Halloween funk.
‘Abracadabra’ – Steve Miller Band, 1982
Some may argue that Abracadabra isn’t a really a Halloween hit, however the yearly spikes in Youtube listening figures strongly suggest otherwise. Apparently inspired by Diana Ross when Steve Miller met her on a TV episode of ‘Hullabaloo’, the song currently sits pretty at number 90 in billboard’s top 100 songs of all time. The real beauty of of the song however is the fact that even the most tenuous reference to magic seemingly gets you a spot on the Halloween wall of fame.
‘Thriller’ – Michael Jackson, 1982
Any other year Abracadabra would have been the undisputed king of the Halloween song. Unfortunately for Miller (and fortunately for everyone else) a little heard of musician by the name of Michael Jackson was about to drop the quintessential Halloween hit. With an equally creepy music video behind it, Thriller soon became a global phenomenon, cementing its dance as a Halloween tradition on par with trick or treating.
‘The Ghostbusters’ theme song – Ray Parker Jr, 1984
If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Why it’s the Ghostbusters crew of course, immortalized in quite possibly the most catchy theme song to ever grace cinema. Legend has it that Parker jr. was inspired by a cheap infomercial on his TV and wrote the song in the same format. With over 3.3 million singles sold to date, it’s a rare example where a song made the film as much as the other way around. Halloween simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
‘Feed my Frankenstein’ – Alice Cooper, 1991
Unashamedly grizzly in his lyrical descriptions of eating the listener, Alice Cooper turns the Halloween dial (and gain) up to the max with this perennial classic. From the whispers of “he’s a psycho’ to maniacal monster chuckles in the background everything about Feed my Frankenstein is about as blatant a swipe at the Halloween market as it’s possible to make. However it’s one that Cooper makes expertly, even bursting out of a fifteen foot skeletal rib cage during his stage performance.
‘This is Halloween’ – Danny Elfman/Marilyn Manson, 1993
The perfect Halloween song to accompany the perfect Halloween movie, nothing says it’s time to get the pumpkins out more than the famous eponymous refrain. Penned by Elfman for Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s ideal as the first song on any playlist or, even better, listened to with the movie itself.
‘Spooky Scary Skeletons’ – Andrew Gold, 1996
Although it was widely ignored on its release, the children’s song ‘Spooky Scary Skeletons’ found unprecedented chart success after it was cut to footage from Disney’s ‘skeleton dance’ and uploaded onto youtube in 2010. In a rather bizarre rise to fame, a series of memes and a dubstep remix reignited interest in song, sparking a hundred-fold increase in searches for it. Every year even more remixes and covers are added, in our opinion though, you can’t beat the original.
‘Witch Doctor’ – Cartoons, 1998
Despite the fact that the only link to Halloween is the word ‘witch’, this irrepressibly catchy (some say painfully so) anthem has wormed its way onto Halloween compilation albums the world over. Perhaps it’s the fact that the lyrics (Ooo eee, ooo ah ah ting tang Walla walla, bang bang) can be sung in any language, or the child friendly vibe it throws out that makes it so popular. Regardless of the reason, we reason that once a year is just about the right exposure.
‘Disturbia’ – Rihanna, 2007
Originally written by Chris Brown, an early iteration of Disturbia was passed on to Rihanna after Brown thought it would suit a female singer better. Disparaged by the BBC for seemingly making no sense, it’s become a modern(ish) day lesson in how lyrics aren’t the important aspect of a Halloween song (see Witch Doctor). Instead its electro-pop sounds and processed vocals give a perfectly twisted depiction of a life lived in fear. Of course none of this really matters when everyone at a party stops to simultaneously belt out “DISTURBIA!”
Your song? – 2019
As you might have gathered there isn’t much rhyme or reason to what makes some Halloween music classic and what makes others join the ghosts they sing about. References to creepy things, ingrained dance moves and silly voices all seem to themes thrown up time and again but some of the best have found their way into the crypt of fame through pure musical brilliance. Whatever your approach, why not try your hand at penning your own Halloween hit with the fantastic facilities and expertise at Kore Studios. After all, the next Thriller is just a bit overdue, don’t you think?