Welcome to The Playlist Project, where we’ll be posing musical questions to Paste staff, interns and writers and then compiling their responses into a handy playlist before opening it up for discussion in our comments section.
With Halloween around the corner, we’re bracing ourselves for all things ghoulish, gross, dark, and deadly. Some of favorite songs can get this creepy, too, so in the spirit of the season, today’s Playlist Project prompt is…
“You Better Run,” Junior Kimbrough
Junior Kimbrough, one of the most beloved, cultish Mississippi Hill Country bluesmen of the ‘90s, played a style known for its minimalist melodies and repetitive grooves. “You Better Run” serves as the mid-point track on his most revered album All Night Long. While it’s easy to let the ramblin’, seven-and-a-half-minute “You Better Run” hypnotize you—as is the norm for much of the Hill Country blues—the lyrics to this track are terrifying enough to shake any listener out of its deep South heat wave daze. Kimbrough takes the tune one terrifying step past murder ballad into rape song territory. He sings, “You better run. / Don’t let him get you. / If he gets you babe / He gonna rape you,” threatening a fate arguably worse than death for his poor, scared lady protagonist. I can no longer listen to this song—on one of my favorite albums—without staving off a panic attack.
“Theme from Unsolved Mysteries”
This piece of music scared the ever-loving hell out of me as a child. Go on and listen to it. It’s absolutely sinister sounding. When you heard that music and Robert Stack walked out of the fog, the frightening thing was a lack of knowledge of what he was about to spring on you. Something totally innocuous, like a story about bank robbers who disappeared without a trace? Or an utterly terrifying story about alien abduction or demonic possession? Each was equally likely on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in the ‘90s, and for some reason my childhood self could barely handle the uncertainty. Just hearing this music today makes me want to hide behind a couch in the family basement.
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” Napoleon XIV
I had the Dr. Demento CDs when I was a kid and this song scared me so much I would skip it every time it came around. Even now, I only listen to enough of it to make sure it was the right song and then quickly pause it.
“Do You Know How to Waltz?,” Low
The most scared I’ve ever been by a song was when I fell asleep listening to Low’s The Curtain Hits the Cast, which, being a Low album, is normally very slow and very quiet. The second to last song, “Do You Know How to Waltz?”, ends with 10 minutes of a looped guitar line, and as it runs through the delay pedal, it gets louder and more distorted until it eventually sounds like what you hear when you go to hell. I woke up in the middle of that one day after too-short nap, and it scared the hell out of me for a good five minutes or so. I was pretty sure I was dead.
“The Escape,” Scott Walker and “Body Betrays Itself,” Pharmakon
As far as being terrified by music, I usually measure how much anxiety I’m feeling and how quickly I wish a song would be over (even if something in me enjoys it). I originally thought of a few Tom Waits songs, but even at his scariest there’s still a playfulness to everything he does (from “Oily Night” to “What’s He Building In There?”). For a second I thought of “John Wayne Gacy” by Sufjan Stevens, but that’s not so much scary as it is creepy and off-putting.
I ultimately settled on Scott Walker’s “The Escape.” Pretty much everything he’s released in the past decade has been absolute madness (Bish Bosch is stomach-churning), but I always think about this song from The Drift, which begins as ominous, bug-eyed crooner fare and then with about two minutes left sounds like we’re exploring the lower intestine of a demon with IBS. And then the Donald Duck voice comes in—which, if you can imagine hearing the Donald Duck voice spoken in a room with no light, directly into your ear, heavy breathing sort of leaving your ear lobe damp—then you might realize how scary that can be.
The other track I have to include is Pharmakon’s “Body Betrays Itself,” which is nothing less than the soundtrack to a nightmare of evisceration. And it just keeps going. Margaret Chardiet is screaming bloody murder throughout, while a sound tantamount to some sort of Eraserhead-world machine sloppily tearing her apart. But then it just keeps going. It reminds me of when I went to a Swans show and almost fell asleep (not a judgment; they were awesome) because the music was so loud and repetitive that it became somehow soothing, but this never becomes soothing. The sound of her screaming—of just unadulterated, abject fear—makes sure of that.
”Damien” and “The Omen,” DMX
Basically 75% of all DMX tracks constitute scary songs for me. His most terrifying lyrical narratives can probably be found on classics like “Damien” and the follow-up, “The Omen,” which has the added benefit of a Marilyn Manson feature. In both songs he wrestles with his relationship with a friend who always needs a dark and violent favor in return for help. Spoiler: he’s basically the devil.
“Every Breath You Take,” The Police
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police has creeped me out ever since I was a kid. Hearing the line “I’ll be watching you” over and over is disconcerting at any age.
“Fish Heads,” Barnes & Barnes
Barnes & Barnes’ “Fish Heads” is supposed to be funny, but let’s be honest: this is the sound of sanity imploding. Two voices warped into Alvin and the Chipmunks falsetto describe fish heads as “rolly polly” before commanding the audience to “eat them up, yum.” OK—pparently this is a thing. A gross thing. But the song also describes the titular delicacies going to movies and hitting up the cafe. In any case, this fucked up scenario either features reanimated severed noggins gaining consciousness or a man socializing with animal parts. Either way, pescetarians are way freakier than we ever thought.
“Dance With The Devil,” Immortal Technique
Immortal Technique’s “Dance With The Devil” it is really fucking violent and terrifying. It’s not meant to be a scary song, per se, but it gave me real nightmares.
“Bad the John Boy,” David Lynch
David Lynch’s entire worldview creeps me out, and in act of brilliant artistic translation, he distilled the horror that exists in his films into a short song. “Bad the John Boy” is terrifying, and I wish it didn’t exist.
“Ready Err Not,” Flying Lotus
When I hear “Ready Err Not,” I get this image in my head of Flying Lotus’ Steven Ellison passing through a dark cemetery at night. Only in this act, he’s becomes a vermin who’s making his way through underground burrows, going from grave to grave as the lives of the dead he passes flash before him. He touches death over and over again, until he burrows through a grave only to end up in a cold dark crypt without another breath in sight. The meandering droplet effects and an ominous pipe organ layered over a dark and quivering bass line of “Ready Err Not,” sends chills down my spine and the creepy video shows a sick and twisted world of the dead.
“Theme from Psycho”
Growing up in Florida we went to Universal Studios all the time for field trips, and one year when I was maybe nine or 10 years old, they took us on the backstage tour for the old Alfred Hitchcock movie experience they used to have. We (4th and 5th graders) had to reenact Psycho to explain how the shower scene was shot, and I had nightmares for months afterwards. Anytime I hear the song I still get spooked.
“Theme to Suspiria”
The Goblin’s theme for Suspiria is best horror score there has ever been or will be. It’s equal parts creepy and thrilling. It has drums and demonic whispering. It’s absolutely what plays in my head when I feel like pretending I’m in a horror movie.
“Invisible,” Clay Aiken
I was young when this song first premiered, and a baby-faced American Idol runner-up stormed the radios with a song about unrequited love. To this day, though, I still remember the seedy undertones of Mr. Aiken’s lyrics. How he wishes he could be invisible so he could watch the object of his mad obsession in the confines of her home; how he wants to scream and shout at her his feelings, though he’s obviously concealed his presence for some time; how he wants her to simply walk by him, presumably for a snipping of hair to adorn some Hey Arnold!-esque shrine in his closet. This is a song about a determined and deranged man, and the most frightening part is we all bought it as a sappy love song.