As Halloween approaches, feel free to ignore "Monster Mash" in favor of this handful of more austere chillers: Vintage murder ballads, dissonant classical spine-tinglers, psychedelic freak-outs, shock-rock creep-outs, Southern gothic alt-rock gloom, art-noise desolation and more.
As this murder ballad became a folk standard, recorded most famously by the Stanley Brothers in 1956, the events it relates became the stuff of hazy legend. But when this struggling three-man string band first sang these lyrics in 1930, their story of Charlie Lawson was ripped from the headlines. Just a year earlier, on Christmas Day, Lawson murdered his wife and six of his seven children, rested their heads on pillows of stone and then killed himself. (The seventh child was out on an errand at the time.) The Buddies sing with a cool Appalachian resignation, acknowledging but not sensationalizing the violent terror lurking in everyday life. The idea that a man might one day snap without explanation and destroy his family and himself feels all the more tragic set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, suggesting as it does that not even family life could offer refuge from the economic despair of the age.
Maybe the best-known Appalachian murder ballad is the first-person account of an apparently otherwise ordinary Tennessee fellow who inexplicably takes time out from a stroll with his sweetheart to beat her to death with a stick despite her heartbreaking protests. On the recording they made for their 1956 debut LP Tragic Songs of Life (later a country hit), Ira and Charlie Louvin harmonize with grim rectitude over a brisk, easy waltz rhythm that adds to the fatalism of its crisply moralistic ending, with the violent creep wasting away in prison. (Though really, the murderer doesn't sound any more repentant in jail then he had when he was dumping his slain gal in the river then heading home to bed.) First recorded in its recognizable modern form in the 1920s, "Knoxville Girl" in fact drew from material that had been floating around for centuries, maybe traceable back to a real-life 17th Century killing in Wittam, England. Over the years, the titular victim hailed from a variety of towns – from Oxford, England to Wexford, Ireland – which suggests, terrifyingly enough, that just about every locale had at least one bloodthirsty woman-slayer to be sung about.
Music scholars call this trailblazing piece of 20th Century classical music an exemplary use of “sonorism”– but this dark cloud for 52 strings is more simply described as controlled anarchy. Instruments are smacked, bows are sawed across places bows weren’t intended, and the entire orchestra hums like a swarm of angry bees. Naturally, the sound of the Polish composer has become shorthand for the tense and psychologically suffocating in film: Both The Shining and Children of Men use the piece; and his music informed Jonny Greenwood’s score to There Will Be Blood and Mica Levi’s score to Under the Skin. “For some pieces, like the ‘Threnody,’ I prefer young people to perform it, because they are still open to learn,” Penderecki told Resident Advisor. “Some notation that I invented at that time is now common, but there are still some special techniques, different types of vibrato, playing on the tailpiece of the bridge, playing directly behind the bridge. These things are unusual, even after 50 years. With so-called normal symphony orchestras, sometimes I refuse to have this piece in the program, because it takes too much rehearsal. Some older orchestra musicians don’t want to learn anything new.”
Hungarian composer György Ligeti worked with clusters of sound, creating a space-filling blur of chaos and movement. His Volumina, a piece for solo organ, begins with the performer's forearms across the keys – infamously causing the motor of the Göteborg organ to catch on fire. Though the piece is more about "colors" than notes, "Volumina" is made remarkably anxious thanks to its long passages of dissonance and a duration that hovers somewhere north or south of the 15-minute mark
Clocking in at nearly 12 minutes, Jim Morrison's epic "The End" is a bad trip that builds up to an insane, surprising end. The psychedelic rock epic has widely been interpreted as a goodbye to childhood innocence, and Morrison has said as much in interviews. It begins calmly, with the singer bidding adieu to his only friend, the end, before taking a lyrical tailspin into wilder verses, begging the listener to "ride the snake" and "ride the highway west." The final section is done as a spoken word narrative retelling the story of Oedipus, with the narrator telling his father that he wants to kill him and telling his mother he wants to have sex with her, before devolving into a flurry of chaotic "fuck"s. "The End" was developed during the group's tenure as the house band at Whisky a Go Go when one night, after Morrison had dropped acid, he improvised the song's tumultuous ending. They were fired the next day.
The psychedelia of the Sixties translated its share of horrific fantasies into swirls of ominous sound, echoes of bad trips that spelunked into the listener's wormy subconscious. But in its definitive form – the live version on Pink Floyd's Ummagumma LP – "Careful With that Axe, Eugene" is less a moody freakout of a rock jam than a lysergically summoned haunted house, offering up door after door for you to open against your better judgment. At the start, Richard Wright's organ diddles and Nick Mason's cymbals flutter, with soft, distant moans foreshadowing doom. Then the title is whispered and before the danger it suggests has a chance to register, Roger Waters screams repeatedly with horrific derangement. David Gilmour's guitar whips up a frenzy in response, but soon the music returns to the hushed, eerie lull that proceeded the violent interlude. Something dreadful has happened, and we're left to imagine it.
One-hit wonders Bloodrock improbably scored a Top 40 hit with a gruesome, eight-and-a-half minute, first-person account of dying. The hard rockers' music resembles a British ambulance siren and the lyrics describe the gory aftermath of a plane crash as a man is tended to by an EMT. He feels "something warm flowing down [his] fingers," he tries to move his arm but when he looks he sees "there's nothing there." He looks for his girlfriend, and sees her face covered in blood as she looks off distantly. By the end, he offers this couplet: "The sheets are red and moist where I'm lying/God in Heaven, teach me how to die." It ends with the sound of American sirens. "I guess maybe just the whole thing as a package [music and lyrics] is what freaked people out, and on top of that the sirens," keyboardist Steve Hill said in a 2010 interview. "The FCC banned 'D.O.A.' A lot of stations didn't play that because people were pulling over in their cars because they thought there was an ambulance behind them."
Songs of Love and Hate might be Leonard Cohen’s most depraved album, which is saying a lot. Accounts of suicide (“Dress Rehearsal Rag”) and infidelity (“Famous Blue Raincoat”) leave an undeniable sting, but the 1971 LP’s creepiest moments come on opener “Avalanche,” which finds Cohen playing his classic role of stygian bard to perfection. Over rolling flamenco guitar and swelling strings, he portrays a hunchback living at the bottom of a gold mine: “Your laws do not compel me/To kneel grotesque and bare,” he sneers. Even as the song edges into dark obsession and, eventually, pure horror (“It is your turn, beloved/It is your flesh that I wear”), Cohen’s voice maintains a trancelike composure. No wonder gloom-rock poet laureate Nick Cave has been covering the song for more than 30 years.
Shock rock's greatest act could add any number of songs to a list of truly frightening songs – "Dead Babies" (about child neglect), "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" (an insider's view of going mad), "Sick Things" (sick things) – but it's one of Alice Cooper's at least three(!) paeans to necrophilia that remains his most chilling. There's an unsettling frankness about the recorded version of "I Love the Dead" – Billion Dollar Babies' gothic and occasionally majestic closing track – that transcends satire: "While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave/I have other uses for you, darling." It's only onstage, where the song has served as prelude to Cooper's nightly beheading by guillotine, where it becomes camp. In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Alice Cooper shrugged off the tune's shock value. "To me, anyone taking it that seriously … yeah," he said, trailing off. "I don't think you can shock an audience anymore [today]. If I cut my arm off and ate it, OK, that would be shocking. But you can only do it twice."
Suicide’s Alan Vega introduces the title character, a 20-year-old factory worker struggling to support his family, in breathless gusts, like he wants to bust into “Be-Bop-A-Lula” but lives in too grim a world for such footloose pleasures. Barely halfway through this nearly 10-and-a-half-minute threnody, Frankie has killed his family and himself, but even death is no escape – “Frankie’s lying in hell,” Vega insists. And there’s no way out of Suicide’s claustrophobic no-wave either. Vega’s screams aren’t cathartic – at first they’re half-stifled with shame, then they’re full-throated bursts that collapse into sobs or are splintered into infinity by delay effects. The story of Frankie Teardrop would have been mere melodrama if set to the slashing guitar and racing backbeat of Suicide’s CBGB peers but Martin Rev’s electronic backdrop, which churns and grinds with the unsettling murmur of a home appliance that obsesses you during a bout of insomnia, instead suggests a peculiarly modern vision of damnation: not the blazing fires of the Biblical description, but a gray, wearying static of perpetual despair.
Ever the fetishists of the grotesque, English noise/art collective Throbbing Gristle hit peak body horror with standout track "Hamburger Lady" off 1978 album D.O.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle. The lyrics were directly sourced (and spliced) from a written testament by artist Blaster Al Ackerman – who served as a medic in Vietnam, and later in a burn victim unit at a hospital, where he cared for a woman who was scorched from her waist to her face. "Hamburger Lady," repeats a deadpan Genesis P-Orridge, "She's dying, she is burned from the waist up." Even more skin-crawling than the words themselves is the ominous, mechanical whirr of a motor, suspended against a backdrop of clinical white noise.
“Welcome to the car smash,” howls a ferocious, 25-year-old Nick Cave. “Dead Joe” is a scuzzy fiasco about a car wreck, presumably around Christmas (per Cave’s ho-ho-ho-ing) that’s so grisly you “can’t tell the girls from the boys anymore” – an interesting metaphor for London’s post-punk scene. The song was cowritten by Cave and his then-girlfriend Anita Lane, interpolating tonal elements of American Southern Gothic into roiling, cartoonish art-rock. Although the band fell apart just a year later, the Birthday Party influenced gothic rock by incorporating disparate strands of blues and rockabilly to eerie effect.
Just another Springsteen song about a boy and a car and a girl. Except this time the driver offering to whisk his gal away from her town full of losers is Charlie Starkweather, the real-life spree killer who rampaged through the American west for two months in the late Fifties in the company of his “pretty baby,” 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate. Bruce had given a voice to desperate souls before, but those were usually good people fallen on hard times. He’d never sung about tramps like these, and his drawl takes on an appropriately sociopathic chill, while his harmonica scrapes like a rusty weathervane atop an abandoned barn. When Charlie’s captors demand to know the reasons for his cruelty, we’re at the moment all horror movie fans recognize, where a psychotherapeutic explanation surfaces. Starkweather’s flat shrug of a rationale: “There’s just a meanness in this world.”
Although Metallica were underground trendsetters for the early half of the Eighties, they broke into mainstream consciousness in 1989 with "One," a single about a quadriplegic solider asking to die. "When we were writing the Master of Puppets album, James [Hetfield] came up the idea – what it would be like if you were in this situation where you were sort of a living consciousness, like a basket case, where you couldn't reach out and communicate with anyone around you," Lars Ulrich once said. "You had no arms, no legs, couldn't obviously see, hear or speak." They revisited the idea in the fall of 1987, when their managers turned them onto Dalton Trumbo's antiwar novel and movie Johnny Got His Gun, which recounted the agony of a patriotic American soldier, Joe Bonham, in World War I who awakens one day to find a landmine had stripped him of his limbs, eyes, ears and most of his mouth – yet he could still think and feel. He eventually headbangs Morse code on his pillow, asking his doctors to kill him. For Metallica, that story – set against machine-gun thrash riffs for nearly eight minutes – made for an unlikely Top 40 hit, an unforgettable music video using footage from the movie and a Grammy win.
A tale told by a bog witch of the highest order. In the lead single from her 1995 album, To Bring You My Love, Polly Jean Harvey transforms into a beguiling, filicidal mother from a swampy underworld, beckoning her daughter back from the river she drowned in. The music video sees Harvey undulating to a sinister cha-cha rhythm and thrashing underwater in a red satin dress: She genuinely struggled to come up to the surface, she told Spin, thanks to the weight of her hefty black wig. The chorus plays on the otherwise innocuous “Salty Dog Blues,” an American standard first recorded by New Orleans legend Papa Charlie Jackson: “Little fish, big fish swimming in the water,” Harvey whispers, “Come back here and give me my daughter.”
The low drone that opens Scott Walker's 1995 track "Farmer In The City" only hints at the plainly laid out horror that's going to come. The pop idol turned experimental miserablist has the sort of voice that can't be described using simple terms like "haunting" or "funereal" – he has a precisely calibrated moan with a vibrato, and the pitch-black music he's released in the past two decades has used his voice, and his bleak outlook, to arresting effect. "Farmer in the City" might be the closest thing he's released to a pop song during his later period, although it's still fairly harrowing. Over a tense, spare arrangement by the Sinfonia of London, Walker wails his abstract interpretation of the Italian film director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini's final thoughts (he was murdered in 1975). "Paulo take me with you/It was the journey of a life," he murmurs near the song's end, a flash of regretful self-reflection that speaks to the low-level horror of not knowing when one's end is going to arrive.
Nearly every Nick Cave song is scary; few artists have dedicated themselves to the grim and macabre like the Australian Bad Seeds leader. In the mid Nineties he tasked himself with writing and recording the self-explanatory album Murder Ballads, whose songs claimed the lives of dozens upon dozens of hapless fictional victims. Its lugubrious lead track, originally planned as a sequel to Cave's Milton-inspired soundtrack fave "Red Right Hand," tells the unflinching story of a man who meets a "sweet and happy" girl named Joy, whom he eventually married, only to discover her one day after she "had been bound with electrical tape, in her mouth a gag/She'd been stabbed repeatedly and stuffed into a sleeping bag." The killer also claimed the lives of the narrator's three other daughters; by the end of the song it seems the narrator may know more than he lets on. "They never caught the man," Cave sings. "He's still on the loose."
Diamanda Galás’ reputed four-octave vocal range precedes her. But on her 1998 cover of Shel Silverstein’s 1962 novelty song “25 Minutes to Go,” her voice penetrates in more muted ways. When Johnny Cash covered the song in 1965 and again in 1968 at Folsom Prison, his version of the song about a prisoner on death row played with the song’s dark humor. Galás, on the other hand, sucks the air from the cell as if she’s transforming into Mary Surratt. Her meandering piano is almost feline in the way it starts the song’s 25-minute countdown with an awry, circus-y stomp and winds down to a slow, tinkling of keys. Galás illuminates the more forlorn lines. “Now hear comes a preacher to save my soul/With 13 minutes to go,” she sings as if her lungs are filling with liquid. Instead of the campy ending that the folk versions include (“One more minute to go/And now I’m swinging and here I go!”) Galás’ voice drops its final layer to ghastly effect, underlining the tragedy that inspired the comedy. The composer and singer makes it clear on her blues covers album Malediction and Prayer, she’s paying as much tribute to Maria Callas’ pained arias as she is the tradition of dry murder ballads.
This dramatic monologue from a nosy neighbor is set to a palette of eerie sound effects – subdued metallic clangs, low-rent electronic flutters – that would be the envy of any haunted house designer. Always a creepy dude (not for nothing did Francis Ford Coppola cast him as the bug-gobbling Renfield in his take on Dracula), Tom Waits wheezes here like he's shining a flashlight underneath his chin to spook an edgy campfire scout troop. In fact, they way he repeatedly intones, "What's he building in there?" – emphasizing the word "building" each time with a worried compulsion – eventually makes the narrator sound far more suspicious than the eccentric loner he's spying on. At least until the unsettling coda, where we hear the whistling from the home of the eccentric builder for ourselves.