Just in time for Halloween, A Closer Listen presents 20 of the best haunted house albums ever made: music to jolt, frighten and unhinge. Enter if you dare! Warning: younger children, pregnant women and people with heart conditions should not read this article. We warned you.
What makes a great haunted house album?
When we started to go through our collections, we began to realize that not every scary album is a haunted house album. Some albums are perfectly unnerving to play at home while reading a horror novel in October, but they create a sense of slow menace ~ something that most haunted house visitors don’t have time to experience. A great haunted house album needs to be more immediate, moving along with the visitors, implying that something is with them. And while there are plenty of excellent gothic, industrial, death metal and dark ambient albums on the market, there are fewer instrumental albums in those veins, especially in the first three categories. We included a couple obvious choices, but preferred to go for music unfamiliar to general audiences. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in G minor” is simply not scary any more, and anyone who tries playing all of “Tubular Bells” in a haunted house will be embarrassed when Mike Oldfield starts introducing the instruments by name.
Our choices are specifically chosen for use in haunted houses. While some are meant to be played in specific places (cellar, woods), most are effective wherever they are played. They offer sound effects, sudden shocks, and a spirit of disquiet. Follow our tips below for extra impact!
Ten Tips for Haunted Houses
1. Play different music in different places; overlap tracks; incorporate periods of silence so that no one will know when they begin.
2. Many local laws forbid haunted house personnel from touching those who enter. Make sure you plant one of your own in each group that enters; that way you can stalk, choke and stab to your heart’s delight. Warning: sometimes a “Good Samaritan” will be so convinced that this is real that you will be attacked; just be ready! A big knife or taser will help.
3. If possible, separate groups into smaller groups as they enter. Best of all: movable walls or doors that cut single people off from the group. Let the screaming begin.
4. Misdirection is key. Show people something that is mildly scary, then let them turn around and see something even scarier. They won’t be ready. Implementing mirrors in the shadows works well.
5. Identify the most nervous, vulnerable person in the group and follow them throughout the house and grounds. Don’t speak, but make sure they know you are there. Their terror will increase the terror of the group.
6. Make your haunted house cute if you expect lots of little trick-or-treaters, but have that one horror-filled room that is revealed for the older groups. Even experienced haunted house-goers will be surprised by a cute facade turn suddenly into a nightmare.
7. If you really want your haunted house to be authentic, come up with a story for why the house is haunted. Is it haunted by the ghosts of a plantation owner? 13 husbands murdered by the same woman? The mummified remains of a family of cats?
8. Simply handing guests a flashlight and saying, “You’re going to need this,” is a sure-fire way to get their guard up. And if the flashlight doesn’t work? Bonus.
9. Come up with a simple way for your haunted helpers to behave strangely, such as walking on all fours, saying things backwards, or focusing on an object in one’s hand while never making eye contact.
10. Get your neighbors involved. It is way more fun to share in the creation of a real haunted universe with other people. More ideas, more props, more hands on deck. And do keep a pot of mulled wine or a cauldron of spiked cider, because it’s important to stay inspired while on the job.
Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House (Disney, 1964)
To most listeners today, these sounds come across as quaint, but as children, many felt a frisson of fear when they put the needle to the record and turned off the lights. The narration may be a bit cheesy at times, but the screams and screeches are real enough, and the sudden scares (especially on “Your Pet Cat”) continue to be effective. Opening track “The Haunted House” provides the greatest chills: a collage of every disturbing sound mixed into a running time of under three minutes.
John Carpenter ~ Halloween: Original Score (Varèse Sarabande, 1978)
36 years later, and even the trailer is scary. John Carpenter may have cut corners by composing this music himself, but there’s no denying its impact. The trailer includes a fine selection of the film’s main themes: the brooding bass, the staccato strings, and of course the 5/4 keys. The phrase John Carpenter synth is widely recognized, and generations of composers have sought to capture the initial impact of this score; few have succeeded.
Krzysztof Penderecki ~ Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (Warner Classics, composed 1960; remastered 1994)
While many people recognize the music from The Shining and Children of Men, it’s not a horror film score; it’s a dedication to the victims of real-life horror. The composition made the composer famous outside his native Poland, and his career continues in earnest today. A Penderecki compilation is a worthy addition to any collection, and is sure to contain the staccato strings that are his hallmark.
Trent Reznor ~ Quake Soundtrack (id Software, 1996)
A classic shareware game with a soundtrack that still gives us the heebie jeebies. The first track opens with a very aggressive NIN guitar riff, but after quickly subsiding, a subtle, satanic ambiance persists throughout. In Reznor’s own words, “What I was hoping to achieve with it was not so much some adrenaline-pumping, “let’s go kick ass,” Rob Zombie kind of music, but more like the music in films by John Carpenter, the tension and uneasiness, or David Lynch, the dissonance or sound as atmosphere enhancement.”
Beneath The Lake ~ Inside Passage (Glass Throat, 2002)
The Glass Throat label, run by Chet Scott, is chock full of obscure, ritualized, funeral doom and ambient records heavy on field recordings. This debut by the duo Beneath The Lake is perfect for playing from under a bush or behind the fog machine as guests approach the house. Flowing water, rip cords of thunder, howling whales and heavy drones accentuate themes of nature and humans in conflict with one another. Nothing is scarier to a comfortable human than the feeling of all she knows being stripped away by the raw power of wind and waves. This album is dark and threatening; perfect for ambient terror.
Fantômas ~ Delìrium Còrdia (Ipecac, 2004)
Mike Patton’s soundtrack to an unmade horror film about anesthesia-free surgery never settles on a single state for long. Screaming, hospital beeps, and black metal combine for a thoroughly unnerving experience. This is the sound of pure pandemonium. The last quarter of the album is taken up by a needle in a groove, but by the time you reach it, you’ll be jumping at every shadow.
The Elemental Chrysalis ~ The Calocybe Collection (Glass Throat, 2005)
Perfect for your haunted farm! Some records are better when played outside, and if you dare to brave the elements and spook up your yard this year, label head Chet Scott’s Elemental Chrysalis is a good starting point. This album features patient descents into meditative darkness, a parade of spirits, psychedelic guitar drift and haunted vocals moving in and out of focus. This music will bring dramatically-lit trees to life and give any backyard a taxidermied mystique.
Eric Cordier ~ Breizhiselad (Erewhon, 2006)
Cordier referred to the original sounds he used from an old Breton 78 as “horrible, due to the catechism-like vocal arrangements,” but after stepping into his laboratory, the resulting Breizhiselad emerged: a haunting, fuzzy, doom-laden ghosts’ lament. Stuttering as often as it soothes, the album is overladen with the sounds of a deranged man muttering and singing to himself as he trudges through snow and wind-whipped, medieval landscapes. Stark in its execution and undeniably beautiful, this album creates unrelenting and unsettling ambience of a unique quality.
Svarte Greiner ~ Knive (Type, 2006)
Erik Skodvin’s entire catalogue could be appropriated for a haunted affair, but there is no doubt that Knive is a Halloween album. Putting the doom-laden, metronomic “Easy On The Bones” on repeat would do the job, but then we’d miss the dagger-holding organ playing in “The Black Dress” and the grave digging field recording that precludes the ghostly operatic singing in “Final Sleep.”
Æthenor ~ Deep Ocean Sunk The Lamp Of Light (VHF, 2006)
Welcome to the haunted shipwreck. This is the debut from the trio of Stephen O’Malley (Sunn0))))), Daniel O’Sullivan (Guapo), and Vincent de Roguin (Shora), and it sounds like the inner workings of an alien metal forging factory. And don’t forget the chorus of ghouls that are seemingly synchronized with every agonizing turn of the gears. Deep Ocean is rich with details, and no two listens reveal the same secrets, making this a gorgeous record to spook on repeat.
Demian Johnston and Mink Stolen ~ Trailed and Kept (Debacle, 2011)
Some situations demand music that is dangerous and loud, and a little unpredictable. Trailed and Kept is drone, noise, doom, metal, ambient and is definitely the soundtrack to unmitigated massacre. No drone, however, is safe on this album, as wind, crash cymbals and even shrieking may puncture the gloom at any time. It’s a curve ball, for sure, but such a good record and not to be trifled with.
The Caretaker ~ An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (Haft, 2011)
Deriving his name from Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, The Caretaker imitates the soundtrack heard in the ballroom and bar populated by ghosts as Jack descends into psychosis. For this album James Kirby used old 78s to help create the out-of-focus feeling one might have suffering from Alzheimer’s. The expression of memory loss through pleasing and inoffensive parlor bands from a bygone era creates the sensation in the listener that she is, in fact, dead, wandering around. The effects placed on the record crackle alone can be spine tingling, and leaving this album to play by itself in a room full of creepy nostalgia would be highly effective.
Stig Inge Oy ~ Domaine de la Lutte (Etherkreet, 2011)
Basinski and Jeck can get freaky at times, but Stig Inge Oy pours on the fear and mystery with three turntables informing one another with classical 18th and 19th century music on “prepared” vinyl records that often feature rust! There is something inherently spooky about ambient turntable albums, but this one goes for a decisively eerie narrative (plenty of organ and cosmic scree). Record crackle, skips, and other “limitations” of vinyl (any ghost’s medium of choice) inform the visceral, off-balance themes.
The Haxan Cloak ~ S/T (Aurora Borealis, 2011)
The album starts with a startle and proceeds to rattle and unnerve. All of the expected elements are here: the chains, the rumbles, the disembodied voices, the distant choir. The album has gone through multiple pressings since its initial release, evidence that it has struck a very dark chord. This is what the classic Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House might sound like today: terrifying noises embedded in deep, disturbing drones.
Kreng ~ Works for Abattoir Ferme 2007-2011 (Miasmah, 2012)
When it comes to the Miasmah label, pretty much anything will do for Halloween. But when it comes time to choose the best of the label, only one release will do ~ and it has an unfair advantage. Kreng’s collection of soundtracks for silent films is massive and all-encompassing, including every disturbing twist one can imagine, from musique concrète to deranged choir to raving lunatic. This 5-LP set sold out almost immediately upon release, but is still available to download, and makes a great one-stop shopping trip for those who need a lot of scary music in a hurry.
Tarab ~ Shards of Splinters – Fragments of Scratches (Semper Florens, 2012)
This is the album to play while playing another album. The title says it all. Tarab’s recordings scratch, splinter, and shatter; metal is dragged across floors; dogs bark and winds howl. The effect is extremely disorienting, covering up the sound of any approaching ghouls. Consider playing this in the woods or basement while the haunted house is in full swing. When the glass starts to break, some people may leave the line, fleeing to their cars, unable to take the suspense.
raison d’être ~ Collected Works (Infinite Fog, 2013)
It’s impossible to choose a single album from Peter Andersson’s 15-year discography, so we’ve chosen to highlight this collection of odds and ends from various compilations, encompassing the span of his career. With so much dark beauty on display, listeners may dream of an elegant death.
A special dedication to Roger Karmanik of Brighter Death Now, who ran the Cold Meat Industry label from 1987 until February of this year. For most of our lives, Karmanik has been bringing us the best of dark ambient and drone, including most of raison d’être’s discography, Mortiis, In Slaughter Natives, and so much more. Writes Karmanik (as quoted from Side-Line), I had a lots of fun during the years of creating CMI and I’ve learned it made a massive impact on the music scene. Being in the middle of this creative storm I got personally drained, it emptied my body of strength, and happiness. It caused me deep depression, alcoholism, and misery. I, who thought I was invincible… It was hard to admit to me, and also to all people around me. Now, I am finding the way back to my inner-self, and exploring life again – and music! We wish Karmanik the best, and owe him a debt of gratitude for making haunted music his life. We follow in his footsteps, and at the same time, we hear his footsteps behind us.
Lost Trail ~ Holy Ring of Chalk (Wounded Wolf, 2013)
Zachary and Denny Corsa have recorded so much haunted music that we were stumped on which album to choose; so we asked Zach, and he suggested Holy Ring of Chalk. The album was recorded in an actual haunted house in a single night (“Ge-e-e-t o-u-u-u-t!”) and incorporates (or discorporates) the spectral sonic remains of former inhabitants, as well as footsteps, crackling leaves and the echoes of old warped Edgar Cayce tapes. In the liner notes the Corsas write, “We secluded ourselves to evoke something elemental and primal from the raw, teeming woods around our isolated firelight, our own holy ring of chalk protecting us from the spirits beyond the door. ”
Mica Levi ~ Under The Skin OST (Milan, 2014)
Levi’s tension-filled score for this Jonathan Glazer-directed horror film is blatant in its attempts to unsettle, but why beat around the bush? We’re looking to scare people! When the midi-player in your goofy Halloween doormat lets you down, go for broke and play the “hollow” and fierce sounding tremolo violas with cymbals that represent Scarlett Johansson’s sexually predating creature’s battle with her inner humanity. Levi turned to the works of György Ligeti (The Shining, Lontano) as inspiration, and she describes the music as sometimes coming from the “black void” that the creature doesn’t understand, while “everything else is coming from her alien stomach.”
Valerio Tricoli ~ Miseri Lares (PAN, 2014)
The last of our haunted house recordings to be selected, Valerio Tricoli’s latest effort is a work of subtle disturbance rather than abject terror. The listener is led through a cornucopia of disturbances: titters, crackles, whispers, cries. Disembodied dialogue, creaky doors, and insectoid murmurings all come into play. Many of the aforementioned artists have been influences; Tricoli has learned his lessons well.
Nayt Keane is a haunted house veteran and will gladly dress as a sasquatch to hand you a mug of mulled wine. Richard Allen has transformed church basements into graveyards and designed Spooky Walks as community fundraisers. Hey, has anyone seen Nayt’s kids? They were just here…