Each week, Frequency Rotation spotlights a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
My ghoul-friend Jesse Bullington and I briefly dug up The Misfits for our undead playlist, “I Rocked with a Zombie.” But the infamous horror-punk group always pops back into my festering brain just as soon as the leaves turn brown, the wind blows cold, and Halloween comes howling at the door. Why? Well, besides the fact that The Misfits loved dressing up in terrifying costumes as much as their predecessors, Kiss, and their offspring, Gwar, the band wrote one of the most haunting (and succinctly titled) Halloween anthems of all time: “Halloween.”
The history of The Misfits is shrouded in legend. While crypto-musicologists debate at length about the band’s origins, it’s generally accepted that frontman Glenn Danzig started the Misfits after crawling, fully-formed, from the slime-slathered hindquarters of some Mephistophelian succubus circa 1977. After a brief larval stage as a keyboard-driven spook-rock outfit, Danzig and crew morphed into the guitar-slinging, gore-loving, leather-sporting, facepaint-wearing, blasphemy-crooning, B-movie-regurgitating group we know and adore. (The band exists today in a bastardized, Danzig-less form, but it’s about as legit as The Doors minus Jim Morrison or The Dead Kennedys sans Jello Biafra.) While in their prime in 1981, The Misfits released their fifth single, “Halloween”—and the song forever mummified their sound, style, and devilish fixation on perversion and violence.
Obsessed with “pumpkin faces in the night,” “burning bodies hanging from poles,” “skeletal life,” and “candy apples and razor blades,” “Halloween” remains a powerful—dare we say poetic?—reminder of the dark forces that dwell below, about, and inside us. In fact, it’s downright pagan, in the most sinister (and admittedly erroneous) connotations that term can conjure. By linking Halloween to its modern-day slasher-flick urban legendry and its pre-Christian roots as the Celtic festival Samhain, Danzig rendered the holiday both sweetly bloody and cartoonishly evil. But was one “Halloween” enough? Of course not. The B-side of the single is “Halloween II,” a far weirder and more dirgelike reprise of the original track.
But with its atmospheric noises and chanted Latin (the idea likely swiped from “Stigmata Martyr,” one of the many masterpieces by goth godfathers Bauhaus), “Halloween II” never really fit. Instead, it’s kind of an odd tangent in comparison to the rest of The Misfits’ catalog. But Danzig resurrected “Halloween II” by revamping it in his post-Misfits project—a group he named, surprise, surprise, Samhain. And sure enough, Samhain’s creeping goth-metal wound up being a far superior vehicle for “Halloween II.” (Danzig makes eerie rock ’n’ roll to this day in the band that bears his name, but that’s a Frequency Rotation for another day.)
Three years ago I interviewed the notoriously morbid Danzig for The A.V. Club. I thought I’d be cheeky by ending our chat with this question: “Do you ever listen to any happy, positive music?” Danzig took the jape in stride and gave me a great answer, one that I think sums up his entire body of work—and maybe the spirit of Halloween itself. “Anything that makes you feel good is happy and positive. It takes two negatives to make a positive,” he told me with a surprisingly un-menacing laugh. “I’ve always been the person who likes to take negatives and turn them into positives. And if they stay negatives, that’s okay, too.” Spoken like a true patron saint of candy apples and razor blades.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar, and will someday get around to forming that Misfits cover band. His debut novel will be published by Quirk Books/Random House in 2012.