Over the years, we've turned our spooky spotlight on musicians who share a link to horror, dark fantasy, macabre tales and occult practices – proving how music, in its many incarnations, is a perfect medium for expressing the darker corners of the imagination. Scary tunes have been an art form since humans first started gathering around campfires, singing incantations to protect themselves from evil spirits. But it wasn't until the birth of Rock & Roll – "The Devil's Music," as the uptight prudes used to call it – that it became more common to find musicians devoting whole albums, even their entire careers, to horrific themes.
Many of those artists have carved their names into music history, topping the charts and winning our hearts with their dark music arts. (See what I did there?) It was tough narrowing it down to just ten outstanding albums from the halls of horror-themed rock... but to help in this unholy quest, I weeded out novelty tunes, soundtracks, bands who wear scary makeup but don't usually sing about horror (sorry, KISS) and any music that wasn't specifically written to express an occult or macabre message. Check out the list and let us know if we picked (or missed) any of your favorites!
Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare
Horror fans aren't the only ones who hold Alice's immortal 1975 horror-rock opera near and dear to our hearts; Nightmare also happens to be one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. Alice and producer Bob Ezrin (who re-teamed for the sequel, coming this fall) worked closely together to craft the tale of a boy named Steven, whose dreams transport him from a terror-filled childhood through his troubled teens and finally to manhood, where he may have done something... horrible. A decade before Vincent Price lent his diabolical laughter to Michael Jackson's Thriller, he poked fun at his sinister image in the song "Black Widow," later reprising his role in person during a TV special based on Alice's notorious stage show.
Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath
Arguably the founding fathers of the entire heavy metal genre, you can't deny the horror connection with a band who chose their name off the marquee of a theater showing a Mario Bava horror anthology film. Their self-titled 1970 debut has aged amazingly well, and even though they soon moved away from themes of witches, devils and other supernatural figures, this album's chock full of 'em, including the Lovecraft ode "Behind the Wall of Sleep," the devil-themed "NIB" and the legendary title track, which guitarist Tony Iommi based on his own vision of a "figure in black" (which may also be referenced by the spooky chick on the album cover – or is she the subject of "Evil Woman?"). The album was even released on Friday the 13th... how awesome is that?
Christian Death: Only Theatre of Pain
The term "Gothic Rock" had already been kicked around plenty in the '70s, long before goth would become a cultural movement. But bands who often got slapped with that tag – like Bauhaus or Joy Division – usually hated the idea, and tried to distance themselves from it. Others beat the movement to the punch and came up with their own brand... like the groundbreaking group Christian Death, who dubbed their own style "Death Rock." That signature blend of punk, freestyle experimentation and gloom-and-doom lyrics permeates this 1980 debut record, loaded with songs about suicide, murder, blasphemy, madness and malignant spirits. Goth culture has grown over the years to absorb many musical styles, but they all owe a debt to this band.
GWAR: Scumdogs of the Universe
Not all the bands mentioned here are in the horror business full-time, but you know damn well you won't be hearing anything else from this lumbering team of mutant monstrosities. Their sound doesn't vary much from one album to the next, but that's part of their charm. The GWAR you know today really began with this groundbreaking 1990 release, which catapulted their filth-caked lyrics of splatter, perversity and sex-mad rampaging monsters (including "Vlad the Impaler" and the Lovecraftian "Horror of Yig") from the realm of lo-fi punk into epic thrash. They've thrown some creative curve-balls over the years, but this is where the GWAR formula you know and love reached critical mass.
Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast
No collection of modern rock and metal is complete without this 1982 classic, which admittedly is not 100% horror-themed, but qualifies because it's the first time the band really brought nightmarish elements to center stage. The title track (which had plenty of clueless folks pegging them as a satanic group) is based on a nightmare experienced by band founder Steve Harris (after watching Damien: Omen II), who decided to riff on the concept of a midnight visitation from Ol' Scratch; and the haunting ballad "Children of the Damned" takes its title from the classic sci-fi/horror film. Maiden's best work really gets the adrenaline pumping, and many of these songs transform that urgency into moments of terror... but often end in exhilaration, giving you the feeling of having survived the most dangerous amusement park ride ever built.
Marilyn Manson: Antichrist Superstar
Concerned citizens in the '70s raised a big stink over Alice Cooper's gory onstage antics, fearing what it would do to their children. Can you imagine their reaction if they heard just one track from Marilyn Manson's breakthrough 1996 album? (A certain scene from Scanners comes to mind.) Still, if you put things in context, Manson's epic concept album Antichrist Superstar is Welcome to My Nightmare for the cynical, industrial-strength '90s. Where Alice had poor, terrified Steven, Manson's central character is "The Worm," who rises from a nothing existence to transform into a dark messiah. Antichrist represents everything Manson does well – that is to shock and seduce the listener at the same time. It's an uncomfortable feeling, in the same way an unflinching horror film keeps you glued to the screen, even while you squirm with fear. This is shock rock, but it doesn't come with a wink to tell you everything's safe when the lights come on.
Mercyful Fate: Melissa
King Diamond is a horror music category unto himself, and he has released many solo works that belong here... but let's compromise by focusing on the first and finest effort from his original band. Mercyful Fate are known for their operatic horror lyrics, delivered by King's versatile vocals that rise from sinister sorcerer's chants to a falsetto worthy of Robert Plant. Released in 1983, Melissa and its title track refer to an actual woman's skull – a stage prop that inspired King to write about the fate of its owner – and that should give you some idea of the mood they set out to create. The very first track is titled "Evil," and it sets the tone lyrically and musically for the nightmarish tales to follow, particularly the epic opus "Satan's Fall" – a chilling account of human sacrifice and demonic conjuration. Dangerous, haunting and fun... in other words, everything a horror music fan craves.
Misfits: Walk Among Us
You can't have a horror-rock list without mentioning these dudes. Like King Diamond, early Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig is in a musical class of his own and deserves an entry or two, but the Misfits brand is so closely associated with horror-punk that it's better to just find the single moment where Glenn and the band came together at their brief but legendary peak. This 1982 release is not only a landmark in horror music, it's a major influence on generations of punk rockers to come. Ditching punk's socio-political themes in favor of tributes to classic monsters, cheesy sci-fi movies and horror hosts, the band also defined what has now become the classic horror-punk image, including the famous "devil-lock" hairstyle (sort of a long, swooping widow's peak). Misfits and Danzig continue to rock hard separately, but when they played together, it was black magic, baby.
Rob Zombie: Hellbilly Deluxe
Rob has become such a horror institution these days, it's hard to believe he could have ever written a song that didn't have something to do with monsters, hot rods or carnival freaks. The band White Zombie leaned toward the dark side more often than not, and Rob's ventured away from horror motifs in later albums, but his first solo venture put his brand of monster-powered danceable metal on the map and upped his game in a major way. Zombie did return to his roots with a sequel to Hellbilly, but this 1998 record was lightning in a bottle, boosting his gonzo-ghoul style to a huge audience. The chart-topping tracks "Living Dead Girl," "Dragula" and "Superbeast" were welcomed into the ears of people who would never in a million years have imagined themselves grooving to songs inspired by low-budget horror flicks and rockin' dead chicks... so you gotta give the Z-man props for that.
Venom: Black Metal
This 1982 release should place high on any Top 10 list of classic metal, just for its influence on the genre alone. It even sparked a metal subset in itself, igniting a massive firestorm of satanic-themed music that reveled in lo-fi production, Alice Cooper-influenced "corpse paint" makeup, gritty album art and impossible-to-read band logos. Even if you don't consider Venom to be the official forefathers of black metal, their lyrics, musical style and production are all essential elements. Black Metal and its predecessor Welcome to Hell broke new genre ground in other ways, being one of the earliest thrash/speed style metal records to surface during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM, to the faithful). Focusing on satanic themes mainly for their shock value, Black Metal was one of the most extreme records of its era. Other bands may have been more refined musically, but Venom probably didn't give a shit.