The Doors: “The End”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Clocking in at over 11 minutes, this dark, majestic odyssey of a song is regarded by many as The Doors' masterpiece. In 1979 (almost 10 years after composer Jim Morrison died under mysterious circumstances) it rose to still greater fame when it was used in the opening credits of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now—a frightening film that suited the song perfectly. (Related: These are the 31 scariest movies of all time.) With hypnotically chanted lyrics (“lost in a Roman wilderness of pain/and all the children are insane”) and evocative poetry (“the killer awoke before dawn/he put his boots on/”) the song’s meaning is both allegorical and shrouded. It could be about anything, any event in time, and anybody—and that's what makes it so chilling.
Elton John: “Madman Across the Water”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The 1971 album Madman Across the Water is best known for delivering beloved Elton John/Bernie Taupin classics like "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon." But the record's title track is a sinister departure from Elton’s hits. Many have seen the song as a somber political allegory; another interpretation is that it's a story told from the POV of someone who's been institutionalized. The tune's nightmarish imagery takes the listener on a visceral ride, leaving the protagonist standing on the shore staring at “a boat on the reef with a broken back,” and standing in a high tower, about to jump out, while musing “the ground's a long way down but I need more.”
The Police: “Mother”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
A crazed, hallucinatory diatribe that sounds like it's ricocheting off the walls of a mad scientist's laboratory, “Mother” is an unhinged delight, and a must-have for any Halloween playlist. A preponderance of what sounds like Arabian flutes gives the track a snake-charmer's vibe, while high-pitched vocals evoke the imagine Psycho's Norman Bates screaming, “Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!” Kooky, spooky, and fun, here’s a song to kick off any Halloween dance party. (Related: Psycho is just one of these horror films inspired by true stories.)
David Bowie: “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) has more than a few frightening songs on it, and its title track features lyrics that swing the mind wide open to a potential crime scene: “She could have been a killer if she didn't walk the way she do/she opened strange doors that we'd never close again.” What's behind those strange doors? Is the woman in the song insane, or is its narrator? Or is the song about a serial killer duo? These are questions that make “Scary Monsters” an eerily fascinating ride; but then, the late, great Bowie was a master at that.
Talking Heads: “Swamp”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Like the Talking Heads’ classic “Psycho Killer,” this song collides a swingy, jovial tone with brilliantly macabre lyrics. The general consensus seems to be that the tune is about fascism/the New World Order, but it could just as easily be about genetic mutation/annihilation. Make what you will of lyrics like, “And when they split those atoms/ It's hotter than the sun/ Blood is a special substance.”
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: “Song of Joy”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Singer, songwriter, and novelist Nick Cave is a master of magnificently dark music, and for total pitch-black immersion nothing beats his 1996 album Murder Ballads. The record's first track, “Song of Joy,” is an epic piece of art that's as bloody as anything Shakespeare wrote (think Macbeth, think daggers). The song chronicles a mysterious stranger who arrives at a randomly chosen home one winter night, seeking shelter. The stranger has a story to tell, and whether or not he's the murderer in said story is never clarified; but lyrics like “the wind round here gets wicked cold/but my story is nearly told/I fear the morning will bring quite a frost,” leave little to the imagination.
Beck: “Black Tambourine”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Singer/songwriter Beck is brilliant at evoking visual atmospheres, and “Black Tambourine,” off 2005's Guero, is no exception. Jazzy, jangly, and demented, the song tells the story of—what, exactly? A ghost couple on the run, squatting in a dilapidated building? (“My baby run to me/ She lives in broken down buildings/ Can't pay the rent again/ These spider webs are my home now.”) It’s no coincidence that director David Lynch chose the song to accompany an unforgettable scene in his masterpiece Inland Empire—a supernatural, time-traveling, identity-morphing film that's also about people who don't know what kind of lives that they're living—or even if they're living, for that matter.
PJ Harvey: “Broken Harp”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
PJ Harvey's 2007 album White Chalk is melancholy, gorgeous, and a full-on gothic ghost story all the way through. As such, any song off of it probably belongs on this list, but “Broken Harp” is in a class by itself. Its spare, plucking, deliberately “broken sounding” instrumentals sound like background music for a last-rites ceremony; and the lyrics (“Oh, something metal/tearing my stomach out/if you think ill of me”) bring to mind the image of someone sitting alone in a white room, about to discover their bowels on the floor.
Nine Inch Nails: “Ghosts 1”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
“Ghosts I” is the first track off 2008's Ghosts I-IV, NIN's two-disc album. Like most of the songs in the collection, it's an all-instrumental track, and one of the most beautiful tunes in the whole lineup. It starts out with somber minimalist piano, quickly joined by looping electronica that evokes a clock (or a life) slowly winding down. To sum it up: “Ghosts I” sounds like a haunted house, if it stopped being a house and turned into music instead.
Dead Can Dance: “Frontier”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Dead Can Dance is one of the most beloved gothic rock bands in the world, and one of their earliest tracks, “Frontier,” remains their most powerful. With its crashing onslaught of drums and vocals, the song almost seems to run frantically out of itself toward the listener, and as it goes along, its tribal drumming speeds up hysterically. If this song does have a meaning, it's probably best that it never be revealed; the ambiguity is what makes it “real horrorshow,” as they say in Clockwork Orange.