To get into the spooky season mindset this Halloween season, we asked Berklee Online faculty: What in your opinion is the scariest song? With course authors and instructors who teach music production, music therapy, and film, TV, and game scoring, we were bound to receive some interesting answers: and we did! Their recommendations range from the usual seasonal suspects, to trick-or-treat celebrations that evoke the childhood fun of Halloween to horrifying themes from some of the scariest films of all time, to dark and petrifying rock ‘n’ roll. Scroll down to the bottom for an even more comprehensive playlist. Prepare to get scared . . .
Prince Charles Alexander
Prince Charles Alexander, who is a professor of music production at Berklee says, “The scariest music is usually in horror or sci-fi; like the shower scene from the original Psycho or the climactic sequence in the first Alien. But my favorite Halloween song is “The Monster Mash.”
Theme from Psycho
This classic theme from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, is titled “The Murder” and was composed by Bernard Herrmann. It plays during the famous shower scene Alexander speaks of, where the character Marion is murdered. As Herrmann’s biographer Steven Smith said in an NPR interview, the Psycho theme reimagined how stings could be used in film.
“It creates a very different sound from what we think of as the usual Hollywood romantic film score that used violins,” says Smith. “It’s the exact opposite. It’s cold, it’s chilly, and he uses the strings also for percussive effects, since we don’t have the traditional things like timpani and all the sort of devices that film composers use to scare or startle people. He created percussive effects in the strings.”
Theme from Alien
Jerry Goldsmith composed the iconic 1979 Alien score, known for its bleak and eerie soundscape to accompany the space horror. Even though his original score was heavily edited in the final movie, Goldsmith is admired for creating the movie’s signature sounds with instruments such as an Indian conch horn, a didgeridoo, steel drums, and a serpent, and for using an echoplex tape delay effect.
‘The Monster Mash’ by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett
The 1962 novelty song “The Monster Mash” was composed by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and bandmate Lenny Capizzi, after an audience went wild over Pickett’s impression of Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster in the 1930s films. The accompanying dance is a take on the “Mashed Potato” dance craze, made famous by James Brown, and then used by Dee Dee Sharp for her song “Mashed Potato Time.”
Listen closely for the voice of Darlene Love, who is known for her work for a different holiday, in particular as the singer of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” She sang backup vocals on the “Monster Mash” track as a member of the Blossoms. She didn’t think it would be a hit at the time it was recorded.
“I don’t think Bobby figured this song would be a hit either,” she said in an interview with Esquire. “I think they’re going there with the idea that this is a cute song, let’s record it. So, I don’t need to understand it. If they play it, it will be a hit. You never know what little kids are thinking.”
“The Monster Mash” has since become one of the most quintessential Halloween songs.
Joy Allen is the Music Therapy Chair at Berklee College of Music and authored the Berklee Online course Introduction to Music Therapy. As someone who studies music and the emotions they covey, she can attest that this one will generate a sense of dread.
‘The Becoming’by Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie“I would say the live Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie version of ‘The Becoming.’ Between the driving bass synthesized screams, it gives me images of being stuck yet pulled in several directions with no escape!” —Joy Allen #ScaryMusic Click To Tweet
“I would say the live Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie version of ‘The Becoming.’ Between the driving bass synthesized screams, it gives me images of being stuck yet pulled in several directions with no escape!”
Enrique Gonzalez Müller
Berklee Online music production professor, Enrique Gonzalez Müller, offers three pieces that represent the horrors of the real world, the film world, and Disney World.
‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ by Krzysztof Penderecki
“Hands-down, ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,’ composed by Krzysztof Penderecki,” he says. “Not only is the music chilling but the subject matter . . . horrifying. If you don’t know this composer, look him up now and . . . brace yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Penderecki dedicated the piece to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were killed and injured after the US dropped an atomic bomb on the cities in 1945. His work has appeared in several horror films, including The Exorcist, The Shining, and Shutter Island.
‘I’ll Rip Your Soul Out’ from Evil Dead
“Most recently, ‘I’ll Rip Your Soul Out’ composed by Roque Baños,” says Müller. “The Evil Dead remake had me turning on all the lights in my house in the wee hours of the night, just to make sure deadites weren’t hiding in the shadows. If you haven’t seen the original Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi . . . do it now! Then, check out the remake where this piece comes from.”
Composer Roque Baños graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1995, after studying composition for film and jazz.
Disney’s ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’
“And finally, ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ from Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion is my faaaaavorite ‘scary song’ of all-time,” says Müller. “Not quite a Halloween song but it does still manage to scare my inner eight-year-old Enrique to the bone!”
“Grim Grinning Ghosts,” also known as “The Screaming Song” was written for the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney theme parks. You might recognize the vocalist, Thurl Ravenscroft, as the voice of the narrator in the 1966 How The Grinch Stole Christmas cartoon, and as Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger.
Berklee’s Sean Slade has produced, engineered, and mixed records for Radiohead, Hole, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Warren Zevon, Lou Reed, Joe Jackson, the Dresden Dolls, and many more artists. It’s no wonder he went with a classic rocker.
‘Shake Appeal’ by Iggy Pop and the Stooges
“‘Shake Appeal’ by Iggy Pop and the Stooges from the Raw Power album. There is something evil about the song’s primitive, relentless rhythm.”
Jeanine Cowan is the acting assistant chair of the Film Scoring Department at Berklee College of Music, and as a composer for film, TV, and video games, she offers examples for all three.
Mephisto Waltz Score by Jerry Goldsmith
“One of the absolutely scariest pieces in my view is the score to the film Mephisto Waltz by Jerry Goldsmith,” says Cowan. “It’s haunting and disconcerting. Just listening to it might make you not even be brave enough to try and watch the film!”
The 1971 film Mephisto Waltz was one of the first horror movies that Goldsmith scored, eight years before the premiere of the first Alien movie.
Chernobyl Score by Hildur Guðnadóttir
“A more modern score is the one for Chernobyl by Hildur Guðnadóttir,” says Cowan. “Very haunting and disturbing.”
Guðnadóttir is an Icelandic cellist and film composer who won a 2020 Grammy award for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media” for Chernobyl, and also received several awards for her scoring work for Joker. She actually recorded sounds for the score at a decommissioned power plant in Lithuania.
“I had no idea what I was going to get out of it,” says Guðnadóttir in an interview with IndieWire. “I went in with open ears and open mind. I was willing to listen to what the space sounded like before I started coloring it with anything I wanted to do. I only knew that the radiation was so strong and really important that it had roots in reality and connected to the space.”
Dead Space Theme by Jason Graves
Cowan says, “Jason Graves’ work on the games from the Dead Space franchise can be bone-chilling at times as well!”
The three-part survival horror video game is often cited as one of the scariest video games of all time. It is also known for helping popularize the video game horror genre.
Erin Barra has authored several music production and songwriting courses for Berklee Online. She is also one of the leading product specialists for Ableton.
‘Heartless Horseman’ by Erin Barra, featuring Kon Boogie
When we asked Erin to name one of her favorite spooky tracks, she gleefully responded, “May I put a song of my own in there? Haha!” Why, yes, you can, Erin! Her 2012 jam, “Heartless Horseman” feels like it needs to be playing during a wild Halloween party scene in a hip horror-comedy. You hear that, Netflix and/or aspiring filmmakers?! Next time you’re looking to showcase good-looking young people having some spooky fun (before some bogeyman murders a select few of them, of course), then consider this dark dancey piece, featuring an inspired rap by Kon Boogie.
And now, here is our special playlist for your own funky Halloween party, featuring as many of these songs as are available on Spotify. You may notice that we have placed most of the moodier soundtrack pieces at the end, so you can keep your party going (and get everybody out of your house if they have stayed too long!)