Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

The 13 Scariest Rock Songs

on October 21, 2019, 10:10am
view all

Artwork by Kristen Frenzel.

If it haunts, chills, or creeps you out, you’ll find it at Forever Halloween, where it’s Friday the 13th, Devil’s Night, and All Hallow’s Eve 365 days a year. Yeah, we’re pretty much sick bastards.

I’ve always considered Friday the 13th a lucky day. In the past, I’ve aced tests, made great sandwiches, hooked up with wonderful people, and found lucky pennies in my closet. Okay, so maybe all those examples are just freak coincidences (though, the jury’s out on that last one — sheesh), but still, there’s something to be said about the illogical “holiday” that’s only popular because of a dated ’80s horror franchise.

Yes, thanks to the murderous, over-the-top rampages of Jason Voorhies, we’ll always point to Friday the 13th on a calendar and either smirk or shiver. If you’re the former, good for you — superstition eludes you. If you’re the latter, however, then here’s a list that’ll add to those chills and thrills. We’ve compiled the 13 scariest rock songs for your listening nightmares. Get it? Thirteen songs, Friday the 13th? Whatever.

We suggest playing these at night, preferably close to the hour of 3 a.m., when there’s nothing but the nagging silence beckoning you to either sleep or … lose your fucking mind. Here’s your soundtrack.

And please, feel free to share your scares in the comments below.


13. Joy Division – “Heart and Soul”

Closer songs like “Isolation” and “Decades” sound downright chipper in comparison to the entrancing, six-minute “Heart and Soul”. In terms of spookiness, its nearest rival on the 1980 album is its immediate successor, “Twenty Four Hours”. “Existence, well, what does it matter?” is how Ian Curtis, 23 at the time and dead before the record’s release, begins his final verse; elsewhere are equally ominous words like “soulless,” “pitiful,” “abyss,” and “savagery.” The bass-and-drums intro sets up a locked-in rhythm that leaves plenty of space for Curtis to enter, while the sheets of guitar that start to melt into the mix around the two-and-a-half-minute mark heighten the tension. In 1997, the title “Heart and Soul” would serve as the name of a nearly comprehensive Joy Division box set, because of course it did.

Moment the Spine Tingles: During the refrain: “Heart and soul/ One will burn.” Curtis delivers these six words in a resigned moan, but they have the jarring effect of a shriek.

–Michael Madden


12. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “The Mercy Seat”

At this point, Nick Cave’s struggle with religion is old hat. But even back in 1988, the lyrical content wasn’t what made “The Mercy Seat” scary. It was the dynamics, a series of constant shifts that made you feel like you were in a carnival fun house run by snake handlers. Cave’s voice is all deep throat at first, then immediately kicks into real time, followed by a steady flurry of violins that somehow feel post-punk despite having nothing to do with that genre.

Moment the Spine Tingles: Right from that distorted opening sentence.

–Dan Caffrey


11. EMA – “Butterfly Knife”

Butterfly knives are no joke, kids; you will lose flesh and fingers if you don’t use one correctly. Here, it’s a piece of salvation: “Only God can make it right/ In the desert underneath the light/ It’s 20 kisses with a butterfly knife.” Within the distortion and banshee screams, EMA speaks the lyrics as a fearful ghost. She’s a condescending one, too. It’s as if she’s chuckling at the petty flesh we hold dear. It says, “Can you think of a good reason not to leave that compromising physical state that you’re in?” “Butterfly Knife” is almost paranormal and borderline unhinged, yet you can’t turn away.

Moment the Spine Tingles: When EMA’s voice surfaces, sounding as if she’s visiting from the afterlife.

–Brian Josephs


10. Sonic Youth – “Death Valley ’69”

The strangely tuned clanging of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s guitars sometimes qualified as eerie, but this Bad Moon Rising single is downright scary. Seemingly drawing inspiration from the Manson murders (he and his family lived out in California’s Death Valley, and their murder spree occurred in ’69), Moore moans out lines from the perspective of a man out in the desert, angrily compelled to “hit it” when a girl screams, blurring the lines of violence and sex. Add in some pained backing howls from guest vocalist Lydia Lunch and Kim Gordon’s propulsive bass, and you’ve got a dark ride through an isolated gulch under a burning sky.

Moment the Spine Tingles: When Lunch and Moore flat line the words “Deep in the valley/ In the trunk of an old car.”

–Adam Kivel


09. The Fall – “Hip Priest”

Forget the fact that the song echoes throughout Buffalo Bill’s underground bunker in the skin-crawling climax of The Silence of the Lambs. “Hip Priest”, which was released on The Fall’s brilliant 1982 album, Hex Enduction Hour, is utterly terrifying in itself. That’s because it’s unwavering. “Hip Priest” isn’t a short slash at the jugular, a “boo” from behind a brick wall. For seven, slow-burning minutes, it just lingers there, beginning as an eerily soft jazz shuffle that peaks with a noisy mess of atonal guitars midway before falling back into near-nothingness.

Moment the Spine Tingles: At one point, Smith mumbles: “He’s not/ Appreciated.” And that’s when Nosferatu appears from behind the door frame.

–Dean Essner


08. Radiohead – “Climbing up the Walls”

OK Computer is far from monotonous, but one thing that’s consistent is the underlying tension that surrounds the sonics and is carried by Thom Yorke’s voice. You’d expect that tension to leak through in certain cathartic moments, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling. There’s the exhale of the album-closing “The Tourist”, the euphoria of “Let Down”, and the lasting horror of “Climbing up the Walls”. The hollow percussion and those creeping sound effects tell the story of some sort of stalker, told by a regularly off-putting Yorke in a distorted falsetto that portrays him at his most psychotic. It could be a recount of a homicide, or it could be a suicide. Or maybe some deeper existential crisis. However you interpret it, that parting yell isn’t going to leave your head for a while.

Moment the Spine Tingles: Thom Yorke yelling at the end as if he’s in the process of actually getting murdered.

–Brian Josephs


07.  Primus – “Mr. Krinkle”

You know when a murderer serenely and matter-of-factly explains that a little voice inside his or her head told them to cut up the mailman and decorate the neighborhood with body parts? Well, I’m pretty sure the voice they hear sounds something like Les Claypool’s twangy, pipsqueak vocals from “Mr. Krinkle” over that ghastly, severing bass part. Congratulations, Mr. Claypool. I think you’ve just soundtracked insanity. Not disturbing enough for you? Peep the video some time. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s Animal Farm’s Napoleon playing stand-up bass in that abandoned warehouse. Makes me want to ask for a pork soda to calm my nerves.

Moment the Spine Tingles: That demented bass that opens the song. At least in my head, it sounds like a chainsaw cutting through human bone — and enjoying itself to pieces.

–Matt Melis


06. Nirvana – “Polly”

“Polly” was inspired by the rape and torture of a 14-year-old girl in Tacoma, Washington. And that’s not the scary part. What makes “Polly” so profoundly unsettling is Kurt Cobain’s perspective, which occupies the mind of serial rapist and kidnapper Gerald Friend (yes, that is his real name). Against the skeletal strums of a $20 junk shop Stella, Cobain merges real-life details (rope, knife, blowtorch) with avian metaphors (“let me clip your dirty wings”) using the kind of sociopathic deadpan that’s light years more menacing than a shout, scream, or growl.

Moment the Spine Tingles: “Polly says her back hurts/ She’s just as bored as me.” *shudder*

–Randall Colburn


05. The Doors – “Not to Touch the Earth”

“We should see the gates by mornin’/ We should be inside the evenin’,” Jim Morrison croons, dizzying any listener into his spell. It doesn’t take much with this one. Off The Doors’ underrated third studio album, 1968’s Waiting for the Sun, “Not to Touch the Earth” is a technicolor hell in audio and a supernatural catastrophe that captures Morrison at his strongest and most deranged lyrically. Inspired by the writings of Scottish social anthropologist James Frazer, the song shifts in a multitude of directions, lamenting the dichotomy between heaven and hell with allusions to the occult and even ’60s politics. Terror aside, “Not to Touch the Earth” glues each member together in an assembly of strengths that really exude the warped psychedelic jazz rock The Doors would keep as their own forever. Love ’em, hate ’em, they were on another plane of existence.

Moment the Spine Tingles: Right out the gates, thanks to Krieger’s damning repetition, but here’s when the spine shatters: At 1:35, when Morrison warns: “Dead president’s corpse in the driver’s car/ The engine runs on glue and tar.” How angry, violent, and damning he sounds. I’ve always imagined Hell’s finest shuffling between this and “Sympathy for the Devil” … and maybe some Anal Cunt, too.

–Michael Roffman


04. Pink Floyd – “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”

“Careful with That Axe, Eugene” is the kind of song title that stays with you: unique, portentous, darkly humorous, and equally mysterious. You recall that soft, swirling organ build, that persistent D on the bass, tinkled percussion, and sparing guitar stings. Then Roger Waters whispers those nonsensical words, whistles into the mic, and delivers a pre-emptive yet lightweight scream. The net effect unsettles you. There is menace in the air, an as-yet-undefined threat, but the music lulls and entices you into a near-soporific state. It doesn’t last.

Moment the Spine Tingles:  Naturally, the second Waters lets out that full-bodied scream. (For full effect, scan to 3:06 on their version from Live at Pompeii.) The screams continue for 20 odd seconds, exorcised by an intense band jam, led by David Gilmour’s cutting guitar until the music dies away in a retreat to the darkness from whence it came. Eugene may have been no ordinary axe murderer, but then again, how would “Careful with That Axe, David” have sounded?

–Tony Hardy


03. Swans – “Where Does a Body End?”

Sure, The Seer put Swans back on the map with its massive existential dread, but Michael Gira and Co. had been dredging up this dark menace for decades. “Where Does a Body End?” (off 1994’s The Great Annihilator) opens with disorienting, twisted vocals and Carpenter-esque guitars, but the true creep factor comes from Gira’s deadpanned delivery of macabre lines that question the physical limits of existence: “I saw you kneeling on a desert plateau/ Your eyes were melting from inside your skull/ The wind was burning holes into my skin/ Where does a body end?”

Moment the Spine Tingles: This one’s full of claustrophobic lines and mutilation, but Gira’s affectless question upon seeing a beating heart tops it all, in sadness, confusion, and emptiness: “What does a body mean?”

–Adam Kivel


02. Throbbing Gristle – “Hamburger Lady”

Just the title makes me wince. I picture some gargantuan lunch lady who nonetheless moves incredibly fast, hacking up kids after school, then shoving them in a meat grinder. In reality, the song’s actually about a burn victim — not that you’d know without a lyrics sheet in front of you. In true Throbbing Gristle fashion, the words are indecipherable, chopped and filtered through a junk-technology soundscape that’s somewhere between an alien radio transmission and a souped-up lawnmower engine.

Moment the Spine Tingles: That second engine rev, about 20 seconds in. Things are always scarier when coming at you from a distance.

–Dan Caffrey


01. Suicide – “Frankie Teardrop”

And you thought Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was nerve-racking. Try taking that miserable story of the proletariat and add in the psycho industrial no wave of New York duo Suicide. That’s “Frankie Teardrop”. In his book, 31 Songs, author Nick Hornby called the song something you listen to “only once,” but that’s probably because he’s too scared of the dark. Don’t be afraid. Rather, embrace the darkness. Allow the terror to reach up to your armpits and claw deep. It only lasts for 10 minutes, but it’s the most honest, godless thrill ride to be found in a record. Hell, Bruce Springsteen loved the sounds within so much he isolated himself from everyone and re-listened to them again and again and again, coming out alive with Nebraska — an anecdote that reads like a lost Clive Barker short story, huh? Of course, Hellraiser this isn’t. It’s far more terrifying than that.

Moment the Spine Tingles: Alan Vega’s first scream at 3:34 is a shot to the brain. But the bullet doesn’t go through until a good 25-30 seconds later when he says, “Frankie looked at his wife/ Shot her,” diving straight into manic yelps and screams. From there, it’s the stuff that David Lynch or Charles Manson might play before sleepy time.

–Michael Roffman

view all
67 comments