The first Halloween mainstay I heard as a child was the 1962 novelty hit “Monster Mash,” created by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, which reached the top spot on Billboard charts that year during the last weekend of October.
In the late 1970s, I discovered Warren Zevon’s bluesy “Werewolves of London,” which we all love no matter what time of year it is.
It was the 1980s, however, that seemed to be the peak time for spooky-tinged pop, R&B, and new wave hits that still dominate Halloween party mixes today. If you look at most Halloween playlists, the decade of hair bands and MTV will always be well represented during the haunting season.
If you’re putting together your own Halloween mix, I would be willing to bet at least one of these 1980s hits….love them or hate them…will be featured on it.
“Thriller” by Michael Jackson
Before he became a tabloid scandal factory, 1983’s “Thriller” was a great example of just how incredibly talented and groundbreaking a performer Michael Jackson was. The 14-minute music video was directed by John Landis (American Werewolf in London) with visual effects by Rick Baker, and is so far the only music video selected to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The video was remastered in IMAX format this year, to accompany showings of the Eli Roth film, The House With a Clock in Its Walls.
“Somedbody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell
Pop singer Rockwell (the son of Berry Gordy) found his only mega hit in 1984, with the help of Michael Jackson on vocals. This ode to paranoia is a spooky standout for other reasons as well, such as its references to the Psycho shower scene. The video only adds to it with that weird horror movie first-person perspective. And what’s with that skeletal pasty diaper guy in the graveyard? Eeeek!
“Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr.
One of the most successful comedies ever made was 1984's Ghostbusters, and it spawned one of the most popular movie theme songs as well. Parker had some other success on the R&B charts in the 1980s, particularly, “The Other Woman,” but he could probably live off those Ghostbusters royalties alone for several lifetimes. Generations of fans know this one so well they could sing it in their sleep, whether they want to or not.
“A Nightmare on My Street” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
Will Smith just turned 50, but he was only at the end of his teens when he and Jazzy Jeff put together this 1987 crossover hit. What’s the moral of this story? Never “bum-rush” a Freddy Krueger movie with your posse then go home and fall asleep. You might find yourself with a new, slightly more homicidal DJ. There’s no official video for this one, but some stories work best when left to your imagination.
“Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo
My favorite of this list comes from 1986, with new wave band Oingo Boingo, led by the coolest ginger in the galaxy, Danny Elfman. It’s everything you want from a Halloween party song: creepy content, catchy beat, and it can stand on its own as more than just a “seasonal novelty hit.” I crank this one year-round whenever I hear it. Elfman, who has since gone on to be a prominent soundtrack composer, performed his hit live for the first time in 20 years in 2015 during his “Nightmare Before Christmas” concert at the Hollywood Bowl. A little fun fact about the lyrics is Elfman references the eerie E.F. Benson story,The Bus Conductor…there’s room or just one more.”
So, when you’re getting that Halloween playlist together, bring along your 1980s songbook, and leave your body and soul at the door.