Halloween Soundtrack: 17 Fear-Filled Songs Inspired by Scary Movies - Rolling Stone
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17 Fear-Filled Songs Inspired by Scary Movies

The Ramones, Talking Heads, Kate Bush and more make great music for creeps

Norman Bates

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The imagery and storylines provided by movies have long inspired songwriters, who have offered musical takes on films ranging from Citizen Kane to High Fidelity and Dirty Harry. But if songwriters can be inspired by movies that make us cry, laugh or mangle Clint Eastwood lines, why shouldn’t they also gives us tunes about slashers, monsters and freakazoids? With Halloween hitting this week, here are our favorite songs inspired by the creepy, spooky and downright freaky films that make us nervously hum when we’re home alone.

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Michael Sembello, ‘Maniac’

A New York Times reviewer didn’t think much of William Lustig’s film Maniac, which he described it as "a movie that shows how an aging, pot-bellied maniac slices up young women of no great intelligence" with a narrative that "seems to have been borrowed from an early pornographic film." Yet, the film's lady-scalper inspired songwriter Dennis Matkosky to write a Number One record. Co-written with Sembello, the tune was originally about a cat-killing psychotic, but producer Phil Ramone convinced the writers to change the lyrics to describe a crazy-mad dancer with killer moves. The song famously backed the sweaty, jiggling-buns dance scene in the movie Flashdance.

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Ramones, ‘Pinhead’

At the end of the Ramones' concerts, Joey Ramone would often hoist a homemade banner with the words "Gabba Gabba Hey," which not only promoted a rally cry during live performances of "Pinhead" but also referenced a foreboding scene from the 1932 film Freaks. The nightmare-fodder horror flick, which the band saw in an arthouse theater in 1976, features sideshow freaks – including the unfortunately misshapen "pinheads" – who at one point chant, "Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, one of us, one of us!" which foreshadows, ah . . .

You'll have to see it. But don't blame us when you do.

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Devo, ‘Jocko Homo’

Like "Pinhead," the B-side of Devo’s first single references Freaks pinheads, but it offers a greater nod to the 1932 movie Island of Lost Souls with its oft-repeated line "Are we not men?" Devo, who formed out of Kent State after the infamous National Guard shootings there, wanted to introduce their theory of de-evolution (ergo, the band name) with this song. Island of Lost Souls – a film about a twisted scientist whose bizarre experiments tinker with evolution in bad ways – seemed a perfect inspiration for mankind's regressions.

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Talking Heads, ‘Psycho Killer’

When the Talking Heads started out, the thin and jittery David Byrne was often compared to Norman Bates, the motherless killer from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. That description came especially easy for critics once Byrne – purposefully channeling Alice Cooper – wrote this unhinged funk ballad inspired by knife-wielding Norman.

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Vampire Weekend, ‘Walcott’

A fan of the teen vamp movie The Lost Boys, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig decided to make his own East Coast version of the film the summer after his freshman year in college. His movie – Vampire Weekend – was about a guy named Walcott whose father gets offed by bloodsuckers, prompting Walcott to travel to Cape Cod to warn the mayor that vampires are headed for the Cape and that's bad news. Koenig forgot about the movie for a while, then unearthed it again his senior year – roughly a month before Vampire Weekend reawakened as a band.

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Eminem, ‘Buffalo Bill’

We don't want to question Eminem's outlook on life or anything, but he does seem to have a fascination with Buffalo Bill, the penis-tucking, woman-skinning serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs. While this song lyrically follows the killer's quest for a flesh-colored outfit, "3 a.m.," a song from the same year, quoted Buffalo Bill's famous "lotion in the bucket" line. Around that time, Eminem (who also appeared on 50 Cent's "Norman Bates Motel" – told the Guardian newspaper, "I did find myself watching a lot of documentaries on serial killers. I mean, I always had a thing for them."

Good to know, Em.

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Deep Purple, ‘Why Didn’t Rosemary?’

After watching the Roman Polaski film Rosemary's Baby, the guys from Deep Purple returned to write this song, featuring the line, "Why didn't Rosemary ever take the pill?" Not a bad question, given that movie Rosemary gave birth to a devil baby. But really – how could she have known?

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Billy Idol, ‘Eyes Without a Face’

If you don't understand the lyrics just before Billy Idol sings the line "eyes without a face," then chances are you didn't take French. Or flunked it. The line, sung by Idol's ex-girlfriend, Perri Lister, is "Les yeux sans visage," which is French for – ready for this? – eyes without a face. That's also the name of a film by French director Georges Franju. In the 1960 flick, a twisted doctor is responsible for a car crash that horribly disfigures his daughter, who wears a mask to hide her newfound facelessness. Meanwhile, the doc abducts young women with pretty faces in an attempt to give his kid a major makeover.

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The Clash, ‘The City of the Dead’

Though this Clash tune isn't about witches or virgins, it borrowed its title from a 1960 British horror movie, The City of the Dead. In the movie, a female student travels to Massachusetts to research witchcraft – only to become chosen as the annual sacrificial virgin.

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Kate Bush, ‘Hounds of Love’

This Eighties track kicks off with a sampled line from British actor Maurice Denham, who yells, "It's in the trees – it's coming!" The line comes from a 1957 British horror film, Night of the Demon – a favorite of Kate Bush's – featuring a demon that appears from the woods, hell-bent on spreading some evil.

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Blue Oyster Cult, ‘Nosferatu’

The Nosferatu from the 1922 German Expressionist horror film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror is a pale, bat-eared vampire in serious need of a pedicure. But, hey, even the "Bird of Death" needs companionship. The song follows the romantic story of Count Orlock/Nosferatu and the woman of his coffin-covered dreams.

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Meat Loaf, ‘Bat Out of Hell’

Most viewers don't remember the opening sequence to Psycho like they do the famous shower scene or the film's cross-dressed conclusion. But "Bat Out of Hell" writer Jim Steinman told Classic Rock magazine that this homage to teen crash songs of the Fifties began like the Psycho intro. "The way Psycho begins is of a long shot of Phoenix, Arizona, then it goes to a medium shot of the motel room from the outside, then to a closer shot of right outside the motel, and then to a close-up of the two lovers in bed in the motel room," he said. "The song 'Bat Out of Hell' basically starts with that long shot. . . and then it keeps going closer to the bedroom, which is when the girl and he are together."

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The Cramps, ‘Human Fly’

Napa State Hospital might seem like an odd place for a band like the Cramps to have a gig – particularly given that a large percentage of Napa's patients are criminally insane, and many Cramps songs might generate potentially disturbing images for dangerous minds. But in 1978 the psychobillies did perform at the institution, and the mind-altering set included this song, based on the horror movie The Fly. "Somebody told me you people are crazy," singer Lux Interior told the committed crowd that day. "But I'm not so sure about that. You seem to do all right."

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Van Halen, ‘House of Pain’

The "HOP" released on Van Halen's blockbuster 1984 album was different than the original, inspired by the movie The Island of Lost Souls. (Oingo Boingo's "No Spill Blood" and the Meteors' "Island of Lost Souls" also found inspiration in the movie.) In the film, a mad scientist – apparently not into the whole anesthesia thing – operates on animals in a room called the House of Pain, hoping to boost them on the evolutionary chart. In the Seventies, singer David Lee Roth reportedly offered a synopsis of the film before performing the tune.

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Kate Bush, ‘Get Out of My House’

Here's a creepy little experiment: Queue up the official trailer for The Shining, then turn down the volume and use this song as the soundtrack while you watch highlights of horror. Of course, this song – with its ghost story lyrics and guttural screams – could make a scene from Mary Poppins look freaky. But Bush has said that "Get Out of My House" is her own Shining, minus the "redrums."

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Alice Cooper, ‘Ballad of Dwight Fry’

To help Alice Cooper channel horror movie actor Dwight Frye (the song dropped the "e" in his name), producer Bob Ezrin had Cooper wear a straightjacket while recording this song. "Probably my most psychologically disturbed song," as Cooper described it to the Boston Globe, it's about Frye's character, Renfield, from the 1931 film Dracula. "He was the guy nobody ever recognized, but he was the scariest guy," Cooper said. The song ends with Cooper frantically yelling, "I gotta get out of here!," a sentiment he easily conveyed after seven hours of forced restraint.

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Ramones, ‘Chainsaw’

When the Ramones were playing at CBGB in New York in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was showing at a theater on 49th and Broadway. The punk pioneers weren't subtle about their inspiration here, kicking off the song with the sound of a chainsaw, which leads to the lyrics, "She'll never get out of there/Texas chainsaw massacre."

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