I was recently asked to write a review of “Elvira’s MTV Halloween Special” and I was delighted to discover that it concluded with Elvira hosting her favorite spooky music videos. It reminded me that there was a time when MTV vj’s were considered the coolest people on television, and many was the time I fantasized about being gainfully employed as a hip trendsetter whose whole job was to say what music video was about to be played next.
Years went by and I grew up, and discovered that I just wasn’t cool. Also, MTV fell into a stinky quagmire of pointless, non-musical programming. But the fantasy remained and it’s been reawakened. So, inspired by Elvira, I’ve decided to share with you my own favorite (not necessarily the best) spooky music videos to watch and enjoy on Halloween.
Some of them are funny, some of them are freaky, but all of them have a hint of the macabre. And none of them were on Elvira’s list (although “Wicked Ways” by The Blow Monkeys probably would have made it if I hadn’t arbitrarily decided on that rule).
I should probably warn you right now that most of these music videos aren't the best ever filmed, that most of them hail from the time when I watched the most music videos (the 1980s and 1990s), and that I've never, ever claimed to have the best taste in music.
13. “Shame” by Stabbing Westward
You gotta start somewhere, so you might as well start with Stabbing Westward, an industrial rock band that made absolutely no impression on me during their original run, from 1986-2002, even though they contributed to the soundtrack of movies that I definitely watched, including “Mortal Kombat,” “Spawn,” “Bad Boys,” “Clerks” and “The Faculty.”
But the music video for “Shame” always interested me. What starts as a fairly standard premise - a woman fighting for her life from a violent stalker, intercut with the band playing the song in a nondescript location - gets weirdly meta, as the band members get distracted by the narrative and one-by-one ditch the stage, eventually leaving the oblivious lead singer all alone.
Adding another, odd layer, is the fact that the band takes their seats, puts on 3-D glasses and eats popcorn, but they’re not watching a movie in a theater. They’re on the roof of the building where the action takes place, and watch the story’s climax play out right in front of them, doing nothing to help like callous jerks.
“Shame” is merely a decent song, and without the meta twists the music video isn’t much better. (The way the hero stops the stalker is pretty weak, to say the least.) But the novelty of a band getting too distracted by their own music video to participate in the music video is a hoot, and comes completely out of nowhere in an otherwise nondescript MTV outing.
12. “Are You Ready for Freddy” by The Fat Boys
One of The Fat Boys has inherited a spooky house from his Uncle Freddy (“He’s from a part of my family we never mention”), but first he has to spend one night inside! It’s a blissfully hokey concept for a blissfully hokey music video, in which Freddy Krueger, still played by Robert Englund, actually raps. He even gets to say “My name is Freddy and I’m here to say,” which is just inherently fun.
But I will always be completely perplexed by the era in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Freddy Krueger was treated like a harmless pop culture phenomenon, doing the talk show circuit in character and participating in adorable marketing tie-ins like “Are You Ready for Freddy.” He’s a child murderer. He’s not a fun guy.
In short, he’s not a fun guy, but he got to do a lot of fun stuff anyway. And this song is a hoot. It’s a juxtaposition of evil and fluff that your mind wants to reject but has to come to terms with anyway. I kind of love it.
11. “Rock DJ” by Robbie Williams
What. The. Fuck.
Robbie Williams seems like an innocuously entertaining pop star, and lots of his music has a skillful bubblegum quality. It’s not uncommon for me to put his music on when I’m in a bad mood, and it always seems to cheer me up.
But at some point, Williams decided to get super mega weird and violent and edgy, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything. The music video for the charming earworm “Rock DJ” features Williams stripping in the middle of a roller derby, which is exactly the kind of them you’d expect him to do. Not just in a music video, but in real life.
And then… things get weird. His female audience doesn’t seem interested in his stripping, and wholly reject any interest in his genitalia, so after he’s completely naked he keeps going. He rips off his own flesh and muscle and that’s exactly what these women wanted, so they start bathing in his blood and rubbing their faces with his flayed skin.
Like I said: What. The. Fuck. And the answer I’ve come up with is that Robbie Williams is commenting on the all-consuming need to be noticed, that celebrity culture which strips you away until there’s nothing left. It’s an effective, brutal and disgusting metaphor. And it’s wonderfully creepy to watch.
10. “Dancing With Myself” by Billy Idol
Billy Idol had a series of great hits in the 1980s, and I count his self-titled debut album as one of my favorites of the decade. One of the best things about Idol was that he wasn’t just a talented performer, he had a fully formed persona at a time when many bands struggled to visualize themselves for an MTV generation. Idol was a bleached blonde shirtless punk, undeniably macho but undeniably feminine.
Idol’s all-encompassing sexuality is on full display in “Dancing With Myself,” a song which is ostensibly about dancing in front of a mirror just for the joy of dancing (but sometimes interpreted as a metaphor for masturbation). The video takes place in an apocalyptic urban hells cape where Idol’s urge to dance somehow alerts and raises an army of zombies which scale his skyscraper, only to get blown off when Idol attaches his lithe appendages to an electric generator.
The unusual combination of sexuality and horror perfectly suits Idol, and it’s perfectly indicative of the work of Tobe Hooper, who directed the music video in between his various horror movie projects. Hooper is best known for classic horror films like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Poltergeist” but the majority of his career was spent making bizarre amalgams of violence and sensuality and eccentric style, and “Dancing With Myself” might be one of the best examples of that aspect of his work.
9. “Greedy Fly” by Bush
Dark, brooding, film noir music videos were nothing new by the time “Greedy Fly” came along. David Fincher’s video for Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” had arguably codified the subgenre, and every once in a while someone tried to top it, and Marcus Nispel’s video for this somewhat forgotten Bush single came pretty close.
The video opens with the police investigating a mysterious and grotesque murder, perpetrated by Gavin Rossdale, the band’s lead singer, who’s being interrogated with a cone over his head like a wounded dog. As the police investigate the crime scene we discover the unthinkable nature of Rossdale’s crime: the murder and dissection of an angel, with unusual bug-like biology.
Was Rossdale killing the good part of himself? Is he a madman who killed a real person, only imagining the supernatural elements? I tend to take these sorts of music videos literally, so “Greedy Fly” becomes a supernatural serial killer narrative, and a rather good one, with perversely fascinating, Cronenbergian body horror imagery and the implication of a larger, more complex narrative.
8. “One” by Metallica
Metallica will probably go down in history as one of the ultimate metal bands and one of the best bands of the 1980s. But there was a time when they eschewed music videos. That was before the music video for “One,” which was such a depressing and disturbing bummer that MTV vj’s used to have trouble segueing to other content afterwards.
The music video takes a familiar structure, with the band playing in a stylishly photographed limbo area, and the story playing concurrently via parallel editing. But the narrative is taken entirely from Dalton Trumbo’s film “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971), about a young soldier who loses his arms, his legs, his eyes, his ears, his mouth and his nose. He’s conscious but completely unable to interact with reality, and goes slowly mad as Metallica intones “Hold my breath as I wish for death! Oh please god wake me!”
Most of the videos on this list are about fun or freaky horror, but “One” is different kind of nightmare, and was relatively unique in its time for daring the audience to endure emotional turmoil in the midst of a medium which was otherwise typified as elaborate, entertaining commercials. It’s still one of the best music videos ever produced.
7. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
The late, great Tom Petty was beloved for his music but I fell in love with him because of his endlessly imaginative music videos, like the animated “Little Nemo” homage “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and the “Alice in Wonderland” riff “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
But he really stretched his muscles in the music video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” playing a mortician who steals a corpse - played by Kim Basinger - and takes her home, treats her like his wife or girlfriend, and then tosses her body into the ocean. It’s tempting to say that the story would be charming if it wasn’t so ghoulish, but it’s just plain ghoulish no matter how you slice it.
I think the temptation to think well of Petty’s character comes from Petty himself, who didn’t do much acting but had an undeniably intriguing on-screen presence. Petty’s face often appeared pained and lonely, and that effect combined with his thin frame and striking posture give him the appearance of a classic, silent film star. He evokes sympathy even when he’s a monster. He’d have made a great horror movie villain.
6. “Karma Police” by Radiohead
Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” was a seminal event almost immediately after it was released, and shot the band from respectability to legendary status, where they’ve remained ever since. The whole album is brilliant and it gave birth to several noteworthy music videos, of which “Karma Police” is - for my money - the best.
The video takes place inside a car with an unseen driver, as it coasts along a lonely highway in the middle of the night, slowly creeping up behind a helpless man who runs from his inevitable death underneath the vehicle’s tires. The song’s melancholic tones robs the scene of any “coolness,” so that it plays instead like an illustration of terrifying futility.
So it’s appealing that the music video for “Karma Police” has an ending that doesn’t go quite the way you expected, but it still manages to play disturbingly. I’ll never forget the first time MTV played the video, because they cut off the ending and Carson Daly - normally cheerful to an almost annoying degree - got upset that the station ruined it.
5. “Crypt Jam” by The Crypt Keeper
Let’s go back to a fun one! Folks who listen to our podcasts, like our “Tales from the Crypt” episode of Critically Acclaimed, know that both Witney Seibold and I love the HBO series, and that I’ve worked for years on doing a pretty decent Crypt Keeper impersonation, so it should come as no surprise that I also love the absolutely ludicrous music video tie-in, “Crypt Jam.”
Like “Are You Ready for Freddy,” this is another bizarre hybrid of old school rap and horror iconography, but this one works a heck of a lot better. It’s hard to imagine Freddy Krueger having a sense of humor about himself, so his music video plays like it came from an alternate reality. The Crypt Keeper always had a ridiculous self-awareness, playfully spouting bad puns whether they were funny or not. “Crypt Jam” could easily take place in the continuity of the “Tales from the Crypt” series, so I imagine that’s exactly how it works!
4. “I Stay Away” by Alice in Chains
Very few music videos are actually scary enough to freak me out, because again, they’re usually trying to sell you something, not permanently traumatize you. Alice in Chains went there, though. Their music video for “I Stay Away” still kinda gives me the willies.
The stop-motion animated video tells the story of a circus, where all the performers and their animals are destroyed over the course of a single day. The culprit: a fly, a single solitary fly, which came along at exactly the wrong time.
The extremely dour imagery and somber song contribute to an altogether oppressive atmosphere, and sells the audience not on buying an Alice in Chains record, but on the idea that we’re all just one random second of happenstance away from starring in our own horror story, and meeting a grisly and ironic end. It tells you the world is a terrible and terrifying place, when I watch it, I believe that. Yikes. I get the shivers just thinking about it.
3. “Sober” by Tool
If this were my list of the best music videos ever, “Sober” would still be on it, and near the top. This incredibly immersive, surreal experience comes from Tool, and tells the story of… geez, I dunno. A haunting, lonely, frightening, pointless existence, I guess. The enigma is the point, I think.
If “Sober” tells a story, it’s the story of a decrepit man living seemingly alone, in a vast space where nooks and crannies hide horrors, like a malformed and brutalized human in the walls, and pipelines full of running, raw meat. Along the way he finds a box, which may be empty or may contain the entirety of his universe. It’s possible he’s not alone in this vast space, as other strange humanoids appear by the end, with faces full of fast-spinning wire and grotesque ocular enhancements.
“Sober” feels more like a nightmare than some of my own nightmares, but when I saw it in 1993, it perfectly captured the darkest fantasies my mind concocted during my sleeping horrors. The sense of gothic isolation, of the abhuman, the meaningful meaninglessness of a total void. “Sober” isn’t just a music video, it’s one of the grimmest pockets of the universe.
2. “Black Lodge” by Anthrax
Anthrax was an extremely big deal when I was young, but this heavy metal band doesn’t seem to have made an indelible impression on the mainstream. But I put it to you that their music video for “Black Lodge” is one of the finest horror shorts ever produced in music video form.
“Black Lodge” tells the story of a mad scientist, evocative of Dr. Génessier from Georges Fransu’s “Eyes Without a Face,” who trolls the streets for young girls. He brings them back to his own and subjects them to a bizarre experiment, in which he connects their brains to his comatose wife, in a desperate attempt to bring one woman back to life at the cost of another.
Susan Tyrrell plays the comatose woman, and future sitcom star Jenna Elfman plays the victim, and director Mark Pellington seems to understand that the true horror isn’t what’s actually happening - which is hard to even explain - but how emotionally invested the scientist is. He’s not doing this for research purposes, he’s absolutely desperate, and desperation turns a scary story into something profoundly tragic. Not even the villain is enjoying this. Everyone loses. Life is horror.
1. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by Backstreet Boys
Okay, but here’s thing: Halloween isn’t just about being scary, it’s also about having fun. Death shouldn’t be the most frightening thing in the universe, it’s a natural part of life and we shouldn’t obsess over it too much. So my pick for the best spooky music video of all time is one of the silliest, but most infectious: “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).”
The plot has a playful, “Scooby Doo” tone, in which the Backstreet Boys’ bus breaks down and they have to spend the night in a haunted house, which is perfectly overstylized. Along the way they each get transformed into the sexiest possible version of classic monsters, like mummies and phantoms of the opera. And then they dance like no one’s ever danced before, because aren’t monsters nifty? Isn’t the dark side of our psyche kinda fun sometimes?
Yes, yes it is. And that’s what Halloween is all about, everybody. So embrace the macabre and make it your own, and don’t forget to rock your body once in a while!
Yes, yes it is. And that’s what Halloween is all about, everybody. So embrace the macabre and make it your own, and don’t forget to rock your body once in a while!
Top Photo: Polydor