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Spooky Songs for the Soul

from our Optimisticles blog series

By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings

We’re celebrating All Hallows Eve and beyond this year with a collection of scary songs — with a Well Beings twist. Instead of ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night, the stuff of these artists’ nightmares center on the fear of losing control of one’s mind, the fear of being vulnerable in relationships and the fear of how chaotic and divisive the country is becoming, among other things.

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Thomas Dolby – I Scare Myself

Thomas Dolby is most widely known for his 80s smash hit, Blinded Me With Science, but on his 1984 album The Flat Earth, he recorded a simply sublime version of the Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks’ song I Scare Myself. Sonically, the song is worlds apart from Dolby’s aforementioned hit record – trading in new wave synth heavy licks for the lushness of bossa nova tinged rhythms and piano. With lyrics like, “I scare myself, and I don’t mean lightly / I scare myself, it can get frightening / I scare myself, to think what I could do / I scare myself — it’s some kind of voodoo,” the song is about someone who is coming to grips with the fact that they are completely consumed by the object of their affection – perhaps to an unhealthy extent.

Snoh Aalegra – Under the Influence 

Thematically, Under the Influence from Swedish songstress Snoh Aalegra’s 2016 mini-album, Don’t Explain, has a lot in common with I Scare Myself (also on this playlist). But at least, according to the lyrics of the song, both parties in this relationship are “Just a little afraid.” In 2016, Aalegra told i-D magazine, “To be under the influence of somebody is a dangerous thing, specially when the relationship isn’t what it’s supposed to be, and everytime you try to do ‘the right thing’ by leaving, you just end up wanting the person even more.“

Radiohead – Paranoid Android

Fans of Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer may not be aware that the album title as well as one of its standout tracks, Paranoid Android, draws heavily from Douglas Adams’ sci-fi classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The paranoid android in question is a direct reference to the book’s Marvin the Paranoid Android, a robot afflicted with severe depression and boredom, in part because he has a “brain the size of a planet,” but is only assigned mundane assignments such as opening doors. Lines in the song such as “When I am king / You will be first against the wall,” may allude to the android’s delusions of grandeur, and his desire to seek revenge on those who chose to subjugate him.

The Kinks – Destroyer

In Destroyer, from the 1981 album Give the People What They Want, The Kinks revisit, Lola, a character who first appeared in the band’s 1970 hit Lola. Destroyer also borrows from the riff of another Kinks song, 1964’s All Day and All of the Night. With lyrics about “hidden cameras everywhere” and “a little green man in my head,” the song is about a man losing his grip on reality. Thankfully, he seems to be seeking medical attention: “Doctor, Doctor, help me please, I know you’ll understand / Theres a time device inside of me, I’m a self-destructin’ man.”

Rockwell- Somebody’s Watching Me

With the exception of I Put a Spell on You, Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me may be the most ubiquitous song on Halloween playlists. Released in 1984 on his debut eponymous album, the single got a healthy assist up the charts by none other than the King of Pop and his brother Jermaine on backing vocals. And it also didn’t hurt that Rockwell’s father was Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, who initially didn’t want to sign his son. Still, the song’s infectious melody, spooky fun lyrics and eerie vibe make it the quintessential tune about paranoia.

The Roots – Criminal

Understandably, there is no shortage of hip-hop songs about police brutality. In Criminal, from the 2008 album Rising Down, The Roots capture the essence of what it’s like for a person of color to be seen by some segments of society as a suspect, and as someone to be afraid of.  On this track, Black Thought trades verses about social economic conditions that can lead to a life of crime and the struggle to stay on the straight and narrow path with fellow Philly emcee Truck North, and Saigon (of HBO’s Entourage): “They act like I’m somethin’ to fear / Trapped in urban warfare / And pullin’ triggers at a college career / Can’t ignore the call of the wild / That’s drawin’ ’em near.”

The National – Afraid of Everyone

With lyrics that allude to the star spangled banner, and “young blue bodies” and “old red bodies,” the political overtones of The National’s Afraid of Everyone, from their 2010 release High Violet, aren’t hard to pick up on.  In an interview with Spinner UK, Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, explained “anxiety and paranoia and not knowing how to deal with it, that’s what that song’s about. And desperately wanting to defend yourself and your family from the chaotic forces of evil, and you don’t even know what they are, or who’s right or who’s wrong and what to believe.” 

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Although it’s one of Black Sabbath’s signature tunes and has one of the most iconic guitar riffs in rock history, Paranoid may be one of the most-famous mistitled songs in history. In 2013, bassist Geezer Butler told Mojo magazine that Paranoid was actually about depression. Lyrics like, “Make a joke and I will sigh / And you will laugh and I will cry / Happiness I cannot feel / And love to me is so unreal” seem to back up this claim. But Butler says that when he wrote and titled the song, he didn’t understand the difference between depression and paranoia. He also says that the song was intended to be just album filler “It was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a 3-minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff.”

About the Author

ee Dunning, author & psychotherapist providing crisis intervention

Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.

Related Series & Films is a mental health resource, not a crisis or suicide response website. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.