Just as one cannot fathom taking a ride at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion without hearing the iconic song, “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” a number of songs have become a staple during Halloween season. Some come from pop music, others from scary movies and each has an interesting story behind them. Here are ten stories behind some of the most iconic spooky songs for Halloween.
“Dinner with Drac”
In 1957, Universal Studios began releasing many of its classic monster movie titles to television syndication under the title of Shock Theatre. One on-air host of the show named Roland in the Philadelphia market was played by John Zacherle. He was a hit and after a year, he was moved to host the New York City version of the show. He rubbed shoulders with Dick Clark who named him the “Cool Ghoul.” With Clark’s help, he recorded the horror-themed rock song, “Dinner with Drac” with producer Dave Appell. The song is about a man who was invited to Dracula’s home for dinner only to find that he was on the menu.
For a while, every day was Halloween for Zacherle. The New York Times reported that in the 1960s he hosted a horror-themed teen dance show called Disc-O-Teen that ran for three years and brought in guest bands like Lovin’ Spoonful, The Young Rascals, and The Doors.
The Halloween hit “Monster Mash” also owes its popularity to the syndicated Shock Theatre. While waiting for his big break in Hollywood, Bobby “Boris” Pickett would play in clubs and would often imitate the famous personalities including Boris Karloff with rave reviews. He decided to write “Monster Mash” in 1962. The song itself was a mash-up of the Shock Theatre craze and Dee Dee Shar’s song, “Mashed Potato Time.” “Monster Mash” was released just two weeks before the holiday making it the #No. 1 song. Ironically, the song re-charted as a Top 10 song in August 1973.
“The Purple People Eater”
Though Sheb Wooley appeared in over 60 western movies, he is still best known for writing the song “The Purple People Eater.” The song topped the charts at #1 for six weeks in 1958 and three million copies of the song were sold. But why did he write it? The L.A. Times quoted the singer saying, “The Space Age was upon us. Everyone was thinking about rockets and wondering if maybe we would find people up there. I still wonder if we will.” He got the idea for the song when a friend told him about his son’s made up story about a people eater from space. “I wrote the song in a matter of minutes — just dashed it off as a sort of afterthought.”
The hit song almost didn’t arrive on the airwaves as Wooly’s record label, MGM Records, were not a fan of the tune. “They did not like it,” said Wooley’s wife, Linda Dotson. “But he liked it. And at the end of a recording session he had 30 minutes left, so he went on and recorded it.”
Wooley then turned in a tape of the song to his producer who “played it to the kids in the office,” Dotson said. “When he returned from lunch, everybody on the floors were gathered listening to it, and he said, ‘Hey, maybe this is something.’ “
There is still some debate among fans if the creature was really purple or if he only ate purple people.
The Theme from Jaws
While not officially considered a Halloween movie, Jaws was scary enough to keep people out of the water and it’s creepy “shark music” fits right in with the season. Composed mostly of just two notes (E and F or F and F sharp) the shark theme from Jaws has been given the distinction of being ranked the sixth greatest score by the American Film Institute and director Steven Spielberg said that he felt that the film would have only garnered half of the success it did without it. The score was written by the legendary John Williams who described the theme as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.” The tune was played by tuba player Tommy Johnson. Williams stated that he wanted to use the tuba as it sounded more threatening.
The Theme from Psycho
Bernard Herrmann wrote the score as well as the iconic stabbing “music” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho who, like Spielberg, admits that at least a third of the film’s impact depended on his music treatment. Like the film itself, Herrmann went with a low budget route using just a string orchestra which he felt matched the black-and-white cinematography of the film. Initially, Hitchcock didn’t want any music used during the iconic shower scene, but while Hitchcock was out of town, Herrmann composed the music and then played it for the director during his return. Hitchcock, in turn, gave Herrmann the second most prominent billing in the credits and doubled his salary.
The Theme from Halloween
Surprisingly, there isn’t much to tell about the classic Halloween movie theme. The entire score was written by the movie’s director, John Carpenter, in just three days. According to Mental Floss, Carpenter said that he drew inspiration from a simple drumming exercise for the bongos that he was taught by his father when he was a just a boy. Carpenter has written most of the music for his films.
Another song not tied to Halloween directly is Debbie Harry’s “Rapture.” The leader of the band Blondie wrote the song about a man from mars who comes down to earth to eat cars, bars and even guitars. Frankly Curious writes that many have mistaken that the song is about drugs. Instead, it is about environmental destruction and over-blown consumerism. “The whole issue of ‘The Rapture’ is present throughout the song,” says writer Frank Moraes. “At the end, Harry’s disclosure that the man from Mars has gone back up to space is cold comfort. She seems to say, ‘The Rapture is a myth, no one is really going to come down and destroy you, but your things are going to be taken away from you — by you and the way you live — and you will be left with, what? Each other.’ Thus, the song provides a tidy message: don’t relate with your things, relate with each other.”
Though Michael Jackson’s Thriller video was released on December 2, 1983, it has become synonymous with Halloween. The short film was directed by John Landis who also directed An American Werewolf in London. It was the most expensive music video ever made at that time. According to Landis, the song/video is a coming of age story. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “In adolescence, youngsters begin to grow hair in unexpected places and parts of their anatomy swell and grow,” regarding the role of the werewolf metaphor. “Everyone experiences these physical transformations in their bodies and new, unfamiliar, sexual thoughts in their minds. No wonder we readily accept the concept of a literal metamorphosis.”
Before David Seville (whose real name was Ross Bagdasaria) created The Chipmunks, he had released “Witch Doctor” as his first single. The “doctor’s” voice was achieved by recording Seville’s voice at half speed and then playing it back at normal speed, a technique he perfected for the many Chipmunk songs to come after. He was inspired by reading a story called Duel with a Witch Doctor written by Jan de Hartog. The song became a #1 hit in April 1958 and stayed there for three weeks.
The Theme from The Exorcist
The Exorcist is often described as one scariest horror film ever made and is often viewed on Halloween. Mike Oldfield wrote the song “Tubular Bells” for his first album which was later used as the theme music for The Exorcist. Though Oldfield was unhappy on how the song was used in the movie, the movie helped the song to receive significant airplay. The music even has three sequels in the ’90s: Tubular Bells II (1992), Tubular Bells III (1998) and The Millennium Bell (1999). The song was used during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
[Featured Image by Sven Kaestner/AP Photo]