The 15 Scariest Songs of All Time
These creepy songs run the gamut from hip-hop to avant-garde to spine-tinglingly bizarre—and all of them just plain good.
The Doors – “The End”
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. 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”
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”
A crazed, hallucinatory diatribe that sounds like it’s ricocheting off the walls of a mad scientist’s laboratory, “Mother” is an unhinged delight. A preponderance of what sounds like Arabian flutes gives the track a snake-charmer’s vibe, while high-pitched vocals evoke Psycho‘s Norman Bates screaming, “Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!” Kooky, spooky, and oh-so fun.
David Bowie – “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”
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.
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Talking Heads – “Swamp”
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”
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”
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-travelling, 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”
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”
“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”
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 horror show,” as they say in A Clockwork Orange.
The Boogie Man: “Chick Bullock with Todd Rollins & His Orchestra”
This gem of a vintage tune, originally performed by 1930s jazz vocalist Chick Bullock, re-emerged from the archives when it appeared on the soundtrack to the popular video game series BioShock. And it’s fortunate that it did, because it’s far too great a song to just vanish into obscurity. This ditty has the warm, nostalgic, phonograph-crackly, comforting sound that 1930s radio music always has, but its lyrics are downright sinister: “Boo, I’m the Boogie Man/The terrible, horrible Boogie Man/ I come in the middle of the night and frighten bad little girls like you.” Shiver!
Radiohead: “Climbing up the Walls”
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is an artist who’s well known for penning haunting and poetic lyrics, but one of his most disquieting works is “Climbing up the Walls,” off 1997’s OK Computer. The song, which appears to have been written from the POV of a homicidal maniac, is intense enough to feel like a virtual projection into the heart of a bloodcurdling horror film. “Some people can’t sleep with the curtains open in case they see the eyes they imagine in their heads every night burning through the glass,” Yorke has said of the lyrics. “Lots of people have panic buttons fitted in their bedrooms so they can reach over and set off the alarm without disturbing the intruder … this [song] is about the unspeakable.”
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Randy Newman: “In Germany Before the War”
Earlier on in his career, before he became renowned for scoring family favorites like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters Inc., Randy Newman was known for writing eloquent and (sometimes) unsettling songs. His most somber tune is surely “In Germany Before the War,” a song about the serial killer known as the Dusseldorf Ripper (who was executed for his crimes in 1931), but also about the horrors of Nazism. Despite the subject matter, the song features lushly beautiful string arrangements and a mesmerizing melody; but it’s also sad, and it’s hard not to hear the heaviness in Newman’s voice as he sings the song’s unforgettable final lines: “We lie beneath the autumn sky/my little golden girl and I/and she lies very still.”
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Tori Amos: “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”
The song “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” (aka “Just the Two of Us”) created controversy when it appeared on rapper Eminem’s Slim Shady EP, but in the eyes of many, it was never truly done justice until singer-songwriter Tori Amos covered it on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls. The song is a fictionalized/fantasy account of Eminem killing his ex-wife with the help of his baby daughter; but where his version was mocking and aggressive, Amos’ was frightening and claustrophobic. She reinterpreted the song from the POV of the dying wife, locked inside her husband’s trunk; and the fact that she literally whispered the lyrics (as opposed to rapping and/or shouting them) made the song’s effect all the more powerful and disturbing.
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Psychic TV: “In the Nursery”
Singer and performance artist Genesis P-Orridge is famous for basically inventing industrial music, and for being the frontman of English experimental band Throbbing Gristle. After Gristle’s breakup, P’Orridge formed the band Psychic TV, and promptly went on to write some of the most unsettling songs ever put to audio. None of the group’s compositions, however, are quite as frightening as “In The Nursery,” a dystopian Grimm’s fairytale, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque allegory gone haywire. “As a result of our inquiry, I went through the door. I passed a wolf and a bear,” the song starts out; from there, the imagery only gets darker and stranger.