Halloween music has gone much the way of the holiday over the decades: accumulating camp and kitsch, confectionary fun, friendly monster-on-monster romping, and a sort of innocence that has made the season more about good times than chilling your soul.
Most everybody knows Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” with its Karloffian lead vocal and Dracula impersonation that, to modern ears, is as much Count Chocula as Bela Lugosi. The 1950s from which “Mash” sprung un-crypted loads of similar novelty cuts to soundtrack Halloween parties, middle-school dances, and senior-center mixers.
It’s easy to love all of that stuff, given that it’s sweet as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. But there’s something to be said for less palatable fare. Halloween deserves something more nastily pagan, evoking noisome crypts and jangling bones and moldering souls. Which is why, at least once a death-season, I return to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, a work of full-on eldritch perfection.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard Danse Macabre pretty regularly throughout the background of your life, even without ever realizing it. It features in that Jameson commercial where there’s a whiskey-thieving hawk who gets barbecued up at the end in the streets of Dublin by Johnny Jameson himself. Saint-Saëns was never one of the classical heavies like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, or Handel, but he was a formidable prodigy, an organ master, and a variegated composer probably best known, now, for The Carnival of the Animals. That’s essentially his Peter and the Wolf number—as much, if not more, for children—and a work he refused to have published in full in his lifetime, thinking it would cause people to stop taking him seriously as a composer for adults.
In general, there’s something about organ music that induces terror. Maybe it’s the austere settings of the church where the instrment normally resides. Also the tonal range, sheer volume, echo-friendly notes, and rib-tingling power factor in, too. It’s as if the organ represents the sounds inside of us made externally audible. Your fears, doubts, paranoias, given sonic voice. Reverberating, swirling. For proof check out any garden-variety horror film from mid-century, or something so organ-dominated like 1962’s Carnival of Souls, a film I absolutely refuse to watch at night anymore.