Ordinarily, when I think about costumes, the topic of music comes to mind. Mention costumes, and I think about costume balls, which require music. If there were no music at costume balls, people would just mill around, making inane chit-chat and stuffing their faces with free grub.
In fact, that’s actually how Halloween began. See, there was this gigantic costume ball. I think it was in Wisconsin, but it might have been New Jersey. All the men wore tuxes with those black Lone Ranger masks, and the ladies wore gowns with little glitter masks on sticks. But so many freeloaders crashed the party that the crowd spilled out onto the street, and those unlucky enough to get stuck outside with no access to the chow got hungry.
So they went door to door, in their costumes, asking for food. Since it was late at night, most people didn’t have a hot meal handy. So they gave them whatever was available. Usually, it was candy. In those days — I’m talking many years ago, before movie monsters were even created to inspire costumes; people had to dress up like their aunts, uncles and cousins, which created a lot of confusion — people ate a lot of candy. Snickers, Milky Way, Reese’s Pieces, the list goes on. Check out some photos of the early years of Halloween and you’ll notice all the adults are fat, and most of them have chocolate around their mouths.
Eventually, kids got wind of this ritual, and as kids are wont to do, they muscled in. Gradually, over the years, the kids took over this holiday, and costume balls began to fade in popularity. Now you will rarely see an adult in a costume out in public, unless it’s on Hollywood Boulevard.
At least that’s the way I heard Halloween began.
But thankfully, the music remained. Whether it’s kids or adults, Halloween isn’t Halloween without some scary tunes to make your hair stand on end. Here is a list of 10 to make your Halloween smoke like Beelzebub’s hot tub. It’s a blood-curdling, panic-inducing, bone-chilling, spine-tingling mix of styles designed to bring out the beast in you. Listen … if you dare:
1. “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett
The mother of all mock-terrifying Halloween ditties. It has sold about 4 million copies, making it one of the most popular novelty songs of all time. Pickett began doing a Boris Karloff impression as a youngster who watched horror movies in the theater his dad managed in Somerville, Mass. Later, he would slip in some Karloff while performing with the band The Cordials. He wrote “Monster Mash” with some friends and recorded it with a new band called the CryptKickers. It hit No. 1 on October 20, 1962. It was released three times — in ’62, ’70 and ’73 — and won three gold records. “He did The Mash, he did the Monster Mash; he did The Mash, it was a graveyard smash.” This is the “Silent Night” of Halloween. (Suggested costume: dress up like Elvis Presley, who once called this song “the dumbest thing I ever heard.”)
2. “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder
This appeared on the “Talking Book” album, recorded in 1972. The song was originally written for guitarist Jeff Beck, but Wonder decided to release it himself, creating a brief rift between he and Beck, who cut his version shortly after. Around the time it came out, Wonder toured with the Rolling Stones, broadening his audience. “Superstition” is about how silly it is to be superstitious: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” This became Wonder’s second No. 1 in hit in the U.S., after 1963’s “Fingertips.” Obviously, “seven years of bad luck” didn’t apply in Wonder’s case. (Suggested costume: You can’t go wrong with a black cat holding a broken mirror.)
3. “Dead Man's Party” by Oingo Boingo
“It’s a dead man’s party, who could ask for more. Everybody’s comin’, leave your body at the door. Leave your body and soul at the door.” Now that’s spooky. Released in 1985, the album by the same name was the band’s only one to go gold. You might recall this song played during a campus bash in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy, “Back to School.” Oingo Boingo — originally known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo — decided to call it quits with one last blast — during a Halloween performance in 1995. Also, one of the key members, Danny Elfman, went on to a spectacular career writing music for scary movies like “Sleepy Hollow” and the upcoming “The Corpse Bride.” (Suggested costume: Either an all-black outfit with a white skeleton painted on it, or go as an alternative rock musician.)
4. “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Sometimes love hurts. You can let time heal the wound. Or you can get revenge! Hawkins wrote this about a girlfriend who jilted him: “I don’t care if you don’t want me, because I’m yours, yours, yours anyhow.” He performed this during a Christmas concert for DJ Alan Freed in 1956, and it became an instant hit. In future performances, Hawkins would come out in a flaming coffin while holding a stick on a skull. Hawkins died in 2000, and it is rumored that he fathered about 50 children. So there’s an outside chance one of the little devils who comes to your door this Halloween might be his offspring. If you think you see one of them, give the kid an extra candy bar, just in case. (Suggested costume: Put your hair in dreadlocks, carry a skull on a stick, and wear a Shawn Kemp jersey.)
5. “Boris the Spider” by The Who
John Entwistle, the band’s now deceased bass player, didn’t get the opportunity to write too many songs. But for their second album, the record company gave each member of the Who a bonus if he would write a song. So Entwistle wrote this as a joke, based on his fear of spiders as a kid: “Look, he’s crawling up my wall. Black and hairy, very small. Now he’s up above my head. Hanging from a little thread.” The song definitely has a creepy-crawly feel to it, which endeared it to the band’s fans. It became a big favorite in concerts, and Entwistle began wearing a spider medallion because of it. “Boris the Spider” has a sad ending, however, as the title character gets squished. Oh, well. How many insects could say they were immortalized in song by one of the greatest rock bands ever? (Suggested costume: Put on a pair of coveralls, carry a small tank of insecticide with a squirt nozzle at the end of a hose, and you can be John Goodman from “Arachnophobia.”)
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6. “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon
The title was suggested to Zevon by Phil Everly. Warren and guitarist pal Waddy Wachtel were goofing around and starting throwing out lyrics: “He’s the hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent. Lately he’s been overheard in Mayfair. You better stay away from him. He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim. I’d like to meet his tailor.” (Note: In the realm of misheard lyrics, some knuckleheads think he says, “I’d like to meet Liz Taylor.”) Then they would howl like wolves. This became Zevon’s only top 40 hit, rising to No. 21 in 1978. BBC Radio2 listeners voted, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand” as the greatest opening line of all time. Warren died in September, 2003, and his first wife Tule, mother of his son Jordan, passed away earlier this year. Pay heed to Warren’s parting advice: “Enjoy every sandwich.” (Suggested costume: A werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand. Make sure his hair is perfect.)
7. “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones
Talk about scary. The band performed this at the infamous Altamont outdoor rock festival. Shortly after that song, a fan was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels hired to provide security. The Stones did not play this live for seven years after that because of the bad publicity. The song, which appeared on the 1968 “Beggar’s Banquet” album, was believed to be an attempt to establish themselves as the bad-boy alternative to the Beatles. “Sympathy” portrays the devil as a “man of wealth and taste” and makes references to some of his handiwork throughout the years, including the Holocaust and the Kennedy assassinations. Mick Jagger insisted he wasn’t glorifying Satan, but merely pointing out that we all have a little of him in us: “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints …” Right before the live version of “Sympathy” from “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” a young girl pleads, “Paint It Black! Paint It Black! Paint It Black, you Devil!” (Suggested costume: Devil’s horns and a T-shirt with a big red tongue insignia on the front.)
8. “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick has a way with words. And his voice makes Tom Waits sound like Charlotte Church. But on this cut, one of his best, he’s dark, sinister, chilling and wild. He’s talking about the Devil, even if he doesn’t come out and admit it: “He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru. You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan. Designed and directed by his red right hand.” The term “red right hand” appears in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “What if the breath that kindled those grim fires. Awakened should blow them into sevenfold rage. And plunge us into flames? Or from above. Should intermitted vengeance arm again. His red right hand to plague us?” This song has appeared as a secret cut on the “X Files” soundtrack, as well as the soundtracks of “Scream” (which makes sense) and “Dumb and Dumber” (which does not). (Suggested costume: Dress up like Mick Jagger. Or the political candidate you envision in Hades, with no term limits.)
9. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson
In 1983, when this song was released, Michael was one of the least frightening people on the planet. Now he’s one of the most frightening. But I digress. “Thriller” featured narration by Vincent Price, a horror movie icon who was a personal friend of Jackson: “Darkness falls across the land. The midnight hour is close at hand. Creatures crawl in search of blood. To terrorize y’all’s neighborhood.” Price reportedly had his choice of royalties or $20,000, and he foolishly chose the 20K. He should have gotten more simply for saying “y’all’s neighborhood.” The song would have been popular in and of itself; the album has sold more than 56 million copies. But the video, directed by Jon Landis (“An American Werewolf in London”), sent it through the roof. In the video, Michael’s face has a hideous, unnatural look in keeping with the theme of the undead. Fill in your own joke here. (Suggested costume: A sequined jumpsuit, a single white glove, lots of makeup and, if possible, a couple of high-profile attorneys.)
10. “The End” by The Doors
Legend has it that this was the last song Jim Morrison listened to before he died. It could be true, considering that it was Morrison. Or it could be death-wishful thinking. Either way, “The End” is synonymous with graveyards, untimely demises and the blackness of men’s souls. It was originally performed at famed L.A. nightclub the Whisky-A-Go-Go in 1966. Because they had to fill up two sets, the Doors extended the song, which deals with Oedipal themes of eliminating the father and pleasing the mother: “Father? Yes son. I want to kill you. Mother? I want to …” In fact, Morrison and the band got fired from the club for taking the lyrics to a naughty extreme that did not fly with club management and record companies at the time. “The End” later gained added fame when Francis Ford Coppola used it over the eerie opening sequence in his Vietnam epic, “Apocalypse Now.” Jim would have been proud. (Suggested costume: The Grim Reaper with a guitar instead of a sickle.)
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.
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