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Scary Songs - A Top 10 List

Updated on November 7, 2013

They're not just for Halloween.

There are many scary songs without a Halloween or gothic theme. One of the most well known examples is "I Put A Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins which has become a staple of Halloween party playlists.

This page provides a small sampling of the scariest pop and rock songs from the last half of the 20th century. Many scary songs have been recorded over the years, but I have restricted my list to those that either made the pop charts or have been played so many times in other settings that most people are familiar with them by now. My list of what I consider to be among the top ten scariest songs of the latter half of the 20th century was compiled by choosing the top two scary songs from each decade, beginning with the 1950s and ending with the 1990s. These songs are presented below chronologically.

The above image is from the Screamin' Jay Hawkins album, "Cow Fingers & Mosquito Pie," available at amazon.com.

"I Put A Spell On You" - Screamin' Jay Hawkins (1956)

The scariness of this song is not so much in the subject matter, but in the desperate and maniacal delivery of the wild and wooly Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "I Put A Spell On You" was first recorded by Hawkins in 1956, and even after over half a century, this song still gives many people the willies. Although it has since been covered by other bands and artists, most notably Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Screamin' Jay Hawkins version remains heads and shoulders above the rest.

"Mack The Knife" - Louis Armstrong (1956)

This swinging, jazz-infused number has a jaunty and lighthearted feel, but if you listen carefully to the lyrics, they are among the scariest of all pop music. "Mack The Knife" later topped the charts for Bobby Darin in 1959, but I think the gravelly-voiced Armstrong version sounds a lot more ominous.

"Run For Your Life" - The Beatles (1965)

"Run For Your Life" is a song in which the song's narrator continually threatens his girlfriend (to whom he refers as "little girl") with violence. I don't know about you, but I don't think I would want to be this guy's girlfriend. Although I enjoy most Beatles' songs, this deceptively upbeat-sounding but chilling song is definitely not one of my personal favorites.

"Helter Skelter" - The Beatles (1968)

Of all the scary songs from the 1960s - and there were a fair number from that decade - the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" tops my list. This song was inspired by the murders of the evil and smirking Charles Manson and his hair-brained puppet "family," and it actually used to give me nightmares growing up.

"DOA" - Bloodrock (1971)

Although this song borders on being silly due to its corny ambulance noises and other melodrama, it is still among the scariest songs of the 1970s - and that's saying a lot. What makes "DOA" scary is its very graphic depiction of the thought processes of someone who has been fatally injured in a plane crash and is on the verge of dying.

"Angie Baby" - Helen Reddy (1974)

This creepy and surreal song, which topped the charts for Helen Reddy in 1974, is about a girl deemed "crazy" who spends much of her time alone in her room listening to the radio. A stalker enters her room and attempts to rape her, but she turns down her radio, whereby he is supposedly sucked in and then obliterated. With its chilling "it's so nice to be insane, no one asks you to explain," this song makes the listener wonder what really happened to that stalker and just how dysfunctional Angie really is.

"Every Breath You Take" - The Police (1983)

This song is scary for the same reasons that the Beatles' "Run For Your Life" is (see above). Listening to "Every Breath You Take" makes you feel as if you are under police (ha ha!) surveillance. Why this song has become a favorite at weddings is beyond me.

"Thriller" - Michael Jackson (1984)

When it comes to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," it is not so much the music that is scary, but the (MTV) video associated with it. Watching Michael Jackson metamorphosize before your eyes and the chaos that ensues is almost as terrifying as that time when his hair accidentally and tragically caught on fire during that fateful Pepsi commercial from 1984 (from which, thankfully, he recovered).

"Black Hole Sun" - Soundgarden (1994)

AH1 named "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden to be one of the top 100 hard rock songs of all time. As this show's commentators observed, it is mainly the creepy video, with all those evil-looking people with hideous plastic smiles who are eventually swept up by a black hole, that makes this song scary. The music also give this song a really spooky feel as well.

"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" - Marilyn Manson (1995)

Marilyn Manson's famous cover of the Eurythmics' 1983 hit, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," really sends shivers up my spine and would make a great addition to any Halloween playlist. The scariness of this song comes not from the music itself, but from Manson's blood-curdling delivery.

What do you think makes a song scary?

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