Halloween is enjoyable in moderation, but, as is the case with many vices, it is difficult to enjoy without overindulging. Every year, I set out to have a good spooky time, and before I know it, I’m huddled under a blanket with all the lights on because I thought it might be fun to cook dinner while the creepiness equivalent of the It Follows soundtrack plays. This year, though, I’ve found the sweet spot that walks the line between hokey and too scary—unpolished old music performed entirely by people who must be dead by now. That is, Halloween music of the 1930s and 40s.
The ideal creepy-but-fun Halloween song hails from an era when Halloween was less about faux-Gonzo exorcism movies and chainsaw massacres and more about distracting the public from the death and sadness that was a part of their day-to-day lives, soundtracked by creaky, crackly music with a sense of fun. Music that was written for children but performed by adults. Like this number, titled, simply “I’m a Ghost,” from 1935 Scrappy cartoon.
Here’s Kay Starr’s “The Headless Horseman” a jaunty tune played over a Betty Boop cartoon, the very creepiest of the creepy old cartoons.
Or the soundtrack to this classic Disney short called “Skeleton Dance.”
Until recently, I wasn’t aware that these songs aren’t just rare cartoon soundtracks; there’s a veritable trove of spooky old Halloween songs that were made and forgotten, out-of-favor standards that should never have fallen out of favor. Some of it is genuinely virtuoso, like “Heebie Jeebies,” as performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.
“Nightmare,” in this 1938 version performed by Artie Shaw, combines musicianship with a good old fashioned sense of the creeps.
Some of it is pure camp, like “Ghost in the Graveyard” by Prairie Ramblers.
The other night, as I listened to some old Halloween standards (there’s a great two-volume treasury of it available on Spotify), it occurred to me that since these songs were recorded in the 1930s and 1940s, everybody involved in their production was almost certainly long deceased. That man performing a creepy ghost voice for the delight of children? Dead. The clarinets buzzing out a minor key melody? Dead. The person who unlocked the studio and set up the equipment so the songs could be captured for posterity? Dead. The children gathered around radios in their living rooms in the 1930s, enjoying these songs when they were new, are now either dead or very old. From an era early in the first half of the last century, these songs about the dead have become a way for dead musicians to communicate with people like me and you, echoes that continue long after their gravestones first began to weather.
Take a few minutes or hours to enjoy these forgotten songs. It’s both a lovely way to honor the memory of people who have passed by enjoying something they’ve created, and a sobering reminder of our own respective waning mortality. Is there any more fitting—or spooky—way to celebrate Halloween?
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Image via Disney.