Forget Movies: What Are the Rules for the Perfect Halloween Playlist?

Halloween playlists, unlike movies, come with far fewer ground rules or critical consensus.
By  · Published on October 13th, 2017

Halloween playlists, unlike movies, come with far fewer ground rules or critical consensus.

When it comes to horror movie recommendations for Halloween, the internet has got you covered. Our own website, dating back to its earliest days of existence, has countless articles and lists about the best movies to watch this October. There’s our list of the 15 best horror films of the new millennium; 31 horror films from 31 countries; heck, just in the last 24 hours we ran a piece on the 17 most underrated horror films from the last 17 years. In short, no one out there is hurting for Halloween movie options. You may quibble with orders and lists, but the fundamental goal of the exercise –  finding new movies to watch for everyone’s favorite holiday – can be easily achieved at any number of websites.

This isn’t the case with the best Halloween playlists. Every year I struggle to put together the best mix of music for my Halloween party, and every year I’m surprised by how much of a free-for-all this holiday remains. Every other major holiday has certain guidelines that dictate what you will or won’t hear; this is not so with Halloween. We can’t even seem to decide on what kind of music belongs on a Halloween playlist. Should we choose songs from famous horror movies (John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, “The Time Warp”)? Do we choose original songs that fit into the aesthetic of the holiday, even if they aren’t specifically related to a horror film (“Boris the Spider” by The Who)? Or do you only play songs that have withstood the test of time as Halloween favorites?

In my years of struggles to put together the perfect playlist, I’ve learned that it’s fair to invoke a Christmas rule when it comes to Halloween music: you cannot select songs that you would play consistently at other times of the year. That isn’t to say that there aren’t people who listen to Christmas music all year ’round; look, sometimes you just need to hear some of Sufjan Stevens’s Songs for Christmas in the middle of June. What it does mean, however, is that Halloween songs are songs with a very specific seasonal connotation. You wouldn’t throw “Good King Wenceslas” on at 5:00 PM just to wind down the office a little bit; it’s similarly hard to imagine you play “Monster Mash” at a summer barbecue just because you like the sound of it. Songs have their season, and not every song that references monsters in the title deserves to be added to your Halloween Spotify playlist.

Take the “Halloween Party” playlist on Spotify, a playlist with more than 90,000 followers (as of this writing). Scroll through the list and you’ll see plenty of songs that are perfectly appropriate for Halloween. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The Ghostbusters theme song by Ray Parker the Latter. The eponymous “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett. Move past these classics, however, and you’ll find a slew of popular songs only tenuously connected to the holiday. “Superstition” by Steve Wonder? “Work” by Rihanna? This isn’t a Halloween mix; this is your niece or nephew’s iTunes library after his or her parents accidentally download a few Halloween tracks. I see what they’re trying to do here, but if playing the Climax Golden Twins’ ambient soundtrack for Session 9 for two hours is a Halloween party no-no, then cramming the party full of songs by The Chainsmokers is probably just as far wide of the mark in the other direction.

Then again, at least “Halloween Party” recognizes the fact that you shouldn’t tank a Halloween party altogether just to satisfy your own pretentious need for the perfect playlist. These are still popular songs with strong appeal; the same cannot be said for “The Halloween Playlist” (37,600 followers), an egregious mix of acceptable Halloween songs and uninspired classic rock. Maybe, if you caught me in a good mood, I could justify a track like “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” which does have an ominous tone to it, but Meat Loaf’s “Highway to Hell”? Hall & Oates’s “Maneater”? Ke$ha’s “Cannibal”?! It’s like you’re not even trying. You can’t just pick a bunch of songs with scary words in the title and pass it off as Halloween music. If that were the case, then Toto’s “Gift of Faith” would be one of the most popular Christmas songs of all-time. Don’t get me wrong, I like “Maneater” as much as the next guy, but it fails my Christmas test. If you’d hear it regularly throughout the year, it doesn’t make the cut.

So that’s how I’m going to plan out my playlist this October. Just as I spend the rest of the month encouraging people to watch horror movies they may not otherwise see, the Halloween playlist shouldn’t lean too heavily on songs they’ll recognize from their Classic Rock station. Maybe that means mine will be the only Halloween party that doesn’t feature The Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” or Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” but maybe my guests will walk away with a few new creepy horror themes and artists to check out. After all, you wouldn’t spend the entire month of October telling people to rewatch Jaws, right? So why take the same approach with your music selections? Halloween only comes once a year. Make the most of it.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)