- Photo collage by Colleen Durkin
- The forecast calls for spooky with a chance of candy corn.
In 1974, a few months after the runaway critical and box-office success of horror masterpiece The Exorcist, New York label Crunch released The Rite of Exorcism, according to its sleeve an "actual and authentic" recording of an exorcism. Masterminded by a Connecticut priest named Patrick J. Berkery, The Rite of Exorcism was unsurprisingly no such thing: it was largely the work of five actors in a 51st Street studio in Manhattan. The LP opens with an incongruously upbeat funk track punctuated by piercing screams—an endearingly inept attempt to establish a tense, frightening atmosphere—and then segues into a dramatization that sounds like a tedious 50s radio play.
In 2006 WFMU's Beware of the Blog called The Rite of Exorcism a classic flea-market record, and in fact I found my copy at a record fair a few years ago. I've hardly touched it since, but I can still picture its startlingly lurid cover artwork: the face of a bug-eyed devil, rendered mostly in blood red and black in such tight close-up you can practically smell his breath.
Listeners with a taste for horror, kitsch, or a combination of the two have rarely had to look far for "scary" curiosities like this. Even Spotify has a playlist of Halloween sound effects, so you don't have to try to flip an LP in your Edward Scissorhands costume. The problem is, they're almost all as boring as listening to the PA in a train station. Reasonable people can disagree about what Halloween stands for, but under no circumstances should it be dull.
To celebrate All Hallow's Eve this year, I put together a mix of songs by Chicagoans that have some connection—in tone, in title, in subject matter—to our Svengooliest holiday. Sometimes the link is a stretch, I admit, but together they demonstrate that Halloween has more dimensions to it than the latest Saw movie or a sexy zombie bar crawl.
In order to acknowledge more of Chicago's long history of spooky music, I avoided some on-the-nose choices, among them Ministry's "Everyday (Is Halloween)," half of Alkaline Trio's catalog, Lake of Dracula's "Dracula Killed Frankenstein," and almost everything by the Goblins (fronted by Reader contributor Jake Austen, aka the Phantom Creeper) and Gramps the Vamp. I also took suggestions from Austen, from my editor Philip Montoro, and from a few other colleagues and friends, among them past and present Reader editors Kevin Warwick and Jamie Ludwig and Secret History of Chicago Music creator Steve Krakow. I considered a couple drill songs—notably Fredo Santana's "Kill U on Camera," from Fredo Kruger 2—but despite the obvious connection to A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was worried that by picking it I'd feed into racist fears of young black men as somehow inherently dangerous.
I wanted to winnow the dozens of tracks on my initial list—I had to get down to 13, obviously—and that forced me to cut great songs by 80s punks the Effigies ("Haunted Town"), techno producer DJ Rush ("Childs Play"), and trad-metal outfit Satan's Hallow ("Satan's Hallow"). This isn't meant to be a definitive collection, but I can promise that it'll make for a less boring Halloween.
“Wicked Woman” (1969)
Formed in 1967, psych-rockers Coven embraced the occult more than a decade before the satanic panic of the 80s forever linked heavy metal and the devil in the public imagination. Front woman Jinx Dawson grew up immersed in the teachings of the Left Hand Path, and Coven practiced eldritch rituals on- and offstage—Dawson also claims to have been the first person to "throw the horns" in a rock 'n' roll context. Mercury Records pulled their 1969 debut, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, after the Manson family murders, in part because (as Dawson told Iron Fist magazine in 2016) Charles Manson had been photographed posing with the Coven LP outside a Tower Records. Dawson's dark personal magnetism and feral vocals give Coven's music an alluring air of danger, and on the no-nonsense Witchcraft single "Wicked Woman" she sounds like she can raise the dead.
L.E.P. Bogus Boys featuring Lupe Fiasco
“Zombie Land” (2011)
Chicago gangsta-rap duo L.E.P. Bogus Boys liked to drop mixtapes on Halloween, and "Zombie Land" appears on Now or Neva, which came out on October 31, 2011. MCs Count and Moonie deliver their street-rap snapshots of robberies, shootouts, and confrontations with cops in language saturated with horror-movie iconography—if you assume gangsta-rap lyrics are strictly autobiographical, you'll probably be confused by the song's hook, which brings all the duo's enemies to life as zombies. This is hardly the only L.E.P. song to reference Halloween horror, but it does include Lupe Fiasco referencing Candyman and, um, Pumpkinhead.
“Basement Dwellers” (2014)
It's easy to take producer Beau Wanzer for granted in Chicago—he's been running monthly progressive electronic-music series Hot on the Heels at Danny's for almost 12 years—but he's also a renowned figure in the international underground electronic scene, notably as half of techno duo Juzer and one-third of experimental trio Mutant Beat Dance. More pertinent to our purpose here, he loves horror films, as anyone who's heard his solo recordings ought to notice. The muffled synths and constipated drum patterns of the misanthropic "Basement Dwellers," from his untitled 2014 debut album, make it sound like dance music for people who are more afraid of dancing than they are of the dark.
“Sweet Exorcist” (1974)
In May 1974, soul legend Curtis Mayfield told Jet that his new LP, Sweet Exorcist, had nothing to do with The Exorcist—in fact he insisted that he'd avoided seeing the film till finishing the album. The title track uses exorcism as a metaphor for love driving out the bad spirits of depression, so in that sense it's not actually scary at all. I included this song because it's actually really good (notwithstanding the middling review Rolling Stone gave the album), and its title let me do it. "Sweet Exorcist" is a sumptuous, understated tune, with subtle funk keys, wah-guitar flourishes, and sweet vocals that come together for an irresistible hook. You're not hurting anybody if you decide to pretend it's a response to Linda Blair's breakout film—in case it helps, the Mayfield album does have a pile of bones on the cover.
T. Valentine with Daddy Long Legs
“The Vampire” (2012)
In 1957 Chicago outsider musician Thurmon Valentine recruited a few women to act in a play he'd written after stumbling across a vampire movie on TV. He called his play The Vampire, naturally, and he and his cast staged it in south-side clubs for the next two years. His output since then has been mostly musical, though, which suits my purposes—and his work became marginally less obscure in 2000, when Norton Records issued a T. Valentine compilation (which ends with a radio spot for The Vampire). In 2012 Valentine released an album called The Vampire, a full-length collaboration with New York blues-rockers Daddy Long Legs. Atop the bleak, torpid vamp of the title track, he howls and stutters about a woman on South Michigan Avenue who endures a home invasion by the titular sanguinary coffin-sleeper.
Extreme-metal jesters Macabre have been retelling the same joke for more than three decades: basically, they make silly songs about real-life serial killers. They call it "murder metal," and at best it's a rough chuckle—not everybody will see the humor in a tune about Jeffrey Dahmer that spoofs the Oompa Loompa song from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory ("Oompa loompa doopity dah / Jeffrey loved eating men from gay bars"). The lyrics of "Dr. Holmes (He Stripped Their Bones)," from the band's 1989 full-length debut, Gloom, are a little easier to take because they're about someone much further in the past: H.H. Holmes, the notorious Devil in the White City active during the 1893 World's Fair. And whiplash-inducing metal is actually a pretty good setting for clownish songwriting about homicide—vocalists Corporate Death and Nefarious can barely keep up with the stampeding drums as they holler "He melted their flesh in acid bath / And sold their bones in classified ads."
“Dr. Holmes (He Stripped Their Bones)” (1989)
“Werewolf & Witchbreath” (1968)
Previously known as the Trolls, this short-lived band started out playing garage rock before transitioning to wide-screen psychedelia for their only album, 1968's fanciful Animated Music—which closes with the proto-metal stomper "Werewolf & Witchbreath." Distorted guitars, distraught screams, and disturbing keyboard licks accompany lyrics about a variety of potentially malevolent supernatural varmints, but the song's paisley pizzazz and dainty string arrangements keep it playfully spooky rather than genuinely harrowing.
Last summer, after Chicago experienced a rash of mothman sightings, rapper-singer Rich Jones decided to do something about it. He paid tribute to the cryptid with a low-key, funky tune that used vocal processing to give the "creature" a cameo. Some people believe the mothman to be a harbinger of doom, but Jones is the friendliest guy in Chicago hip-hop—in this context, the flying humanoid seems pretty chill too, even though Jones raps that if they ever cross paths he'd play dead. Sometimes we could stand to let our monsters be whimsical too.
Touched by Ghoul
“Nice Corpse” (2016)
Postpunk band Touched by Ghoul got on my long list by virtue of their name alone, and the consistent screwing around with horror-movie tropes on their 2016 debut, Murder Circus, sealed the deal. (Full disclosure: guitarist and cofounder Andrea Bauer is a former Reader photo editor.) On "Nice Corpse" front woman Angela Mullenhour sings about stumbling through a graveyard, though at that point this dark, ferocious rager sounds its most euphoric—the band seem to want to say that terrifying shit can also be fun and life-giving.
“Freddy’s Dead” (1999)
Gene Hunt began DJing in 1986 at age 13, and within a couple years he was apprenticed to house icon Ron Hardy. Even when Hunt briefly retired from performing live in 1994, he continued to release music, including the 1999 track "Freddy's Dead." Released on the 1999 compilation Gene Hunt Classics and reissued in 2014 by L.A. Club Resource as a 12-inch single, this dance-floor filler opens with a long sample from a Nightmare on Elm Street movie superimposed onto a queasy, hyperactive percussion loop. You never hear Freddy Krueger after that, but Hunt maintains an aura of foreboding even without him.
“Bates Motel” (1987)
Most of Screeching Weasel's 1987 self-titled debut is powered by the aggression of hardcore, but its ode to Psycho prefigures the jocular, melodic style that would make the band suburban pop-punk heroes. Front man Ben Weasel keeps his usual belligerence under tight control as he belts out a brief sketch of Norman Bates's, um, family issues. If you listen to any pop punk at all, you know that the dudes in those bands love to make juvenile jokes about jerking off—but most of them can only fantasize about a line as perfectly terrible as "And don't ever call me Master Bates."
“Haunted by Love” (2016)
Ludicrously prolific metal polymath Chris Black loves the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. His band High Spirits, which began as a solo project in 2009, makes power rock worthy of the genre's 80s heyday. Built on crisp, brisk guitars, stadium-size drums, and sweet vocal harmonies, the ballad "Haunted by Love" (from 2016's Motivator) turns a tale of unrequited love into a ghost story. That sort of thing can take a lot out of you, even if nobody literally buries you in a hole in the ground.
Harry Manfredini & Hot Ice
“Theme From Friday the 13th Part 3” (1982)
Harry Manfredini was living in New Jersey when he wrote the score for the 1980 slasher classic Friday the 13th, but he was born in Chicago and earned a bachelors degree in music education from DePaul. Remember the eerie, echoing whisper of ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma that tells you the killer is fixing to remove an important portion of a protagonist? Now you know who to thank for that. For the franchise's 3-D third installment, Manfredini and producer Michael Zager teamed up with disco group Hot Ice for a boogie spin on the main theme. Its prickly, oscillating synth ostinato and that infamous whisper create a genuinely creepy mood, but that's undercut somewhat by a "spooky" theremin-like keyboard line that sounds like an electronic greeting card trying to sing along to a werewolf movie. Gramavision released "Theme From Friday the 13th Part 3" as a 12-inch in 1982, and it should be part of every boogie obsessive's Halloween DJ set. v