Halloween is, for thousands of kids and adults, truly the "most wonderful time of the year." October 31st brings with it a nationwide celebration of the macabre and fantastic that is the hub of many a horror lover's year. Everyone reading this knows the drill: ordinarily ordinary people suddenly decorate their houses with paper skeletons, pumpkins, and spiders, and carve jack o' lanterns. It is the only time of year that horror movies play round the clock on television. But one of the most sublime of Halloween traditions for many aficionados of the holiday remains hearing the strains of "Spooky Sounds" records wafting out of neighbors’ (or their) windows. As far as I'm concerned, Peter Pan Records' Ghostly Sounds LP is the mother of all spooky sounds albums. It opens with the following narration:
"Night falls. The forest holds its breath. Everything is still. The blood red moon stares through the trees. Suddenly, the wind blows! The trees... shiver. A bat quivers in the night... and flies away."
Purple prose like this was a fount for endless joyful Halloween memories. Ghostly Sounds is a perfect model of the virtues of this marvelous, undying part of the whole, harmless Halloween bacchanal. These "spooky sounds" records (For lack of a better name) are, like other, more traditional sound effects albums and tapes, composed of a variety of horrific noises, usually tied together by narration. They are familiar to almost any kid. A perfect cross-section of the kind of effects that might wind up on a given spooky sounds album can be found on the Ghostly Sounds record jacket: "Flying Bats; Walking Monsters; Cackling Witches; Screeching Cats; Rattling Chains; Haunting Ghosts; Shrieks of Horror and many, many more scary sounds."
The sounds themselves were only half of the show, though. The cover art, like George Peed's Ghostly Sounds art (whoever the terrific, unheralded George Peed is!) was often a marvel in and of itself to a monster-fixated, juvenile consciousness. The best of these records had cover illustrations that precisely accomplished the treacherous balancing act between deeply frightening and harmlessly juvenile images. The Ghostly Sounds cover, with its top-hatted vampire with skull cufflinks, textbook haunted house, and fanged skeletons was diffused by a dopey, grinning monster and the most unthreatening cartoon frog in the history of comic art. But, as added bonus thrills, there was one pupil-less monster, and the stern warning "Not for the very young." If anything would get an eight-year-old hot and bothered to hear a record, it would be that little test of his manhood. Almost every one of these albums' covers features a grotesque, Charles Addams-ish haunted house. Why did these houses never seem to exist in any real neighborhoods?
With its narrator ever present to guide us through Halloween territory, Ghostly Sounds begins with marvelous effects of wailing, cackling witches, and their bizarre spell-casting. Howling wolves and keening cats are heard. All the while, the eerie noise of wind purrs in the background. Many of the album's effects, all untitled, were done on a synthesizer, and those awful canned music machines were seldom used to better effect.
The piece de resistance of Ghostly Sounds, though, and possibly of the entire spooky sounds genre, is its "goblins" segment. "From out of their hiding places," the narrator announces, "Goblins step... and laugh... and dance." The deranged, bobbing, giggling, merry/creepy effects used to represent the goblins and their little jig has yet to be transcended on any spooky sounds LP No one who has heard that particular track forgets it, as far as I can tell.
Next, we are treated to "Strange, unnatural sounds" -- a woman's unholy, almost musical moaning. That and the track that follows, "Skeletons rising from their graves," are a highlight of an already splendid album. As if the boys at Peter Pan Records hadn't done enough to liven up Halloween, they throw in singing pirates and the noises of their creaking ship. The only thing that this record was missing to make any kid's year was a coupon for a free monster model kit of his or her choice.
The warped effects representing "monsters" sounds as if David Cronenberg had a hand in it, and comes close to equaling the "goblins." As the album's various creatures join together and rise into a cacophonous burst of pure Halloween, the narrator exclaims, a terrified, resigned catch in his voice, "And nothing will stop them! Nothing at alllll...."
"...Except lollipops, and apples, and chocolates, and nuts," the narrator concludes, his voice now steady and sober as that of a friend neighbor benignly dolling out Snickers. A last-minute terror softener. This is a children's album, after all, and there are limits to the fright that a kid can stand coming from his record player. But not if you're a kid...
Another classic along the same lines as Ghostly Sounds was Sounds to Make You Shiver from Pickwick. I don't own a copy, though, and my youthful memories of it are dim. I welcome my readers to send in their own memories of it and the thousand other great spooky sounds albums, be they LPs, reel-to-reel or other tapes, or CDs.
A less successful, but enjoyable, album was Spooky Sounds from Power Records. It featured a pseudo-Creature From the Black Lagoon effect ("The Swamp Creature") and a pseudo-Phantom of the Opera ("The Phantom of the Cathedral"). Perhaps its most absurd track, though, is the hands-down winner of the "Least Kids Scared" Award, "The Mad Harpist." Who thought that an effects track called "The Mad Harpist" would ever frighten even the single most chicken-gutted kid on Earth? The track, by the way, consists of a harp being wildly played while a Lon Chaney-wannabe cackles insanely. As SCTV's Count Floyd would say, "Skeery stuff, huh, kids?"
Walt Disney"s Buena Vista Records broke early ground in spooky sound and ghost story territory with its Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House (1964). Thrilling, Chilling Sounds features such odd effects as the infamous "Chinese Water Torture," "Shipwreck," and "The Unsafe Bridge." More standard fare on its roster includes "Screams and Groans," "The Haunted House," and "A Collection of Creaks." This is an archetypal spooky sounds album, and I've found it to be one of the easiest to find. Disney also released a 1969 Haunted Mansion album, the equivalent of an aural tour of the Disneyland attraction itself. It featured the voices of Disney's omnipresent Thurl Ravenscroft, Robie Lester, and a young Ron Howard.
A sure-fire back-up for the spooky sounds albums were the equally …popular ghost story records, a self-explanatory genre. One of the most popular of this ilk was Tales of Witches, Ghosts, and Goblins, Told by Vincent Price (and directed by Gordon Davidson). It was graced with a magnificent, refined cover illustration by a pair of magnificent, refined cover illustrators, Leo and Diane Dillon. The album was a unique combination of elegant ghost stories, like "The Phantom Merry-Go-Round" and "The Smoker," and bizarre recipes for spells, like "To Become a Werewolf." Price's mellifluous voice has been written and talked about into the ground. I will therefore suffice to say that hearing his crisp pronunciation of things like the French "Ile Derniere" is a wonderful thing, indeed. The album was nominated for a Grammy.
A staple of my childhood was Troll Records’ 1973 Great Ghost Stories, a treasure my brother brought home from a school book fair, probably before I was born. It's highlight was the truly terrifying "The Golden Arm," as evocatively staged as any episode of Arch Oboler's Lights Out. Its shock ending ("YOU'VE GOT IT!") was enough to petrify any child. The supposedly comical "Here We Go!", the story of a boggart, an invisible beastie plaguing a family, scared the bejesus out of me. The boggart's high-pitched laugh, thought up, no doubt, by someone who enjoyed horrifying children as much as Roald Dahl, was bloodcurdling. There is no other word for its effect on this author, aged seven or eight. Great Ghost Stories remains a favorite after all these years. Just from glancing over the cover, I can still remember the three narrators’ distinct voices. Troll released at least three other, similar albums: Scary Spooky Stories, Thrillers and Chillers, and Weird Tales of the Unknown. If anyone could send me tapes of them, in care of my publisher, you would be in my good graces for all eternity.
The mainstay of my childhood was Scholastic Books' 1970 book and record combo, The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales. This set featured a collection of classics like Goethe's "The Erl King" and "The Wreck of the Hesperus" coupled with new material. The latter was damn near remarkable for writing geared towards children. What kid could ever forget lines, like the closing passage of the titular poem: "For something walks along the stair -- something that is and isn't there."
As libraries have begun steadily sloughing off their record collections, these spooky sounds and ghost stories albums have become available, at times, for mere pennies. Despite seeing the older LPs disappear, there is no reason to mourn the passing of these wonderful, horrific works of vinyl. They are reborn each year as hundreds of horror sound effects tapes and CDs. proliferate in drugstores, dollar stores, and anywhere else that deals in Halloween paraphernalia. The genre is as lively as ever, just with different trappings. As long as there is a single kid left who wants a complete Halloween ensemble, there will be a spooky sounds album on a turntable, tape deck, or CD player eternally playing, somewhere.