I was reminded of this incident by two different events recently. First, after a few weeks of working on my Halloween playlist, I took a dip into a couple of music streaming services to see what they were serving up on various Halloween channels. The other was a series of disturbing dreams I had in the wee small hours of a recent morning.
Quick digression: the psychological definition of a nightmare is an unpleasant dream evoking an emotional response which disturbs the sleep cycle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be scary to be a nightmare as far as psychologists are concerned, but it does have to actually make you wake up to qualify as a nightmare. So while colloquially we usually think of nightmares as bad dreams, usually invoking fear or despair, other kinds of emotions can be involved.
So, I’ve more than once had a nightmare where I woke up extremely angry. And that was very disturbing, especially during those initial moments of waking up where you don’t quite realize it was only a dream. I had a new one, this time, I woke up extremely annoyed. Three times in one night. The first two didn’t really have any element most people would think of a spooky: I was trying to set up some sound equipment for some kind of party or concert, and someone kept moving my toolbox full of patch cables. There were a number of people in the dream, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in many years. And they were all being uncharacteristically unhelpful. The second one involved someone I didn’t recognize who kept trying to make me go to this place I also didn’t recognize and pack up things that had been left behind by someone. Oddly, once I gave in, I recognized all of the blankets and towels (which were only a subset of the items) as ones that had belonged to my family when I was a child and a teen-ager. The third one was like a combination: I was walking somewhere intending to retrieve something I needed, and I noticed an open door of an apartment, I think, and inside I saw scattered around clothes that belong to me. When I was checking out the place and gathering things, people kept wandering in to try to take stuff from me—and they people each had these weird glowing eyes and I was absolutely convinced that they were undead or something similar.
Even then, when I woke up, I wasn’t feeling fear, but extreme annoyance that I had to deal with weird creatures and someone stealing my clothes when I really just wanted to go get the thing—whatever it was—that I had started out looking for. (And no, I don’t need any dream analysis. My subconscious is never subtle. I know what I’m feeling anxiety about right now.)
The thing was, even though my feeling at each awakening was annoyance—neither anger nor fear—there were still moments while I was waking up where I felt that disturbing confusion about what was real and what wasn’t. Which is its own kind of spooky.
Many Halloween playlists I see on various streaming services or that people post often contain songs that I don’t think are spooky at all. Many seem to be chosen because the title of the song has a tenuous connection to some spooky concepts, while the lyrics of the song are often just standard pop fare.
I happen to believe that a Halloween playlist should consist of tracks where the content of the track has some connection to ideas, moods, et cetera, that people associate with Halloween, trick or treating, monsters, and so forth. I make exceptions for instrumental tracks from movies and such that I personally find spooky. I realize that most of those don’t seem spooky if you don’t recognize where they are from (but some are very eery and really set a spooky mood even when you don’t recognize their source). Anyway, here is my 2018 Halloween playlist:
1. “It’s alive!” From the Young Frankenstein soundtrack. This isn’t a song, it’s the dialog for one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Dr Frahnk-in-steen finds out that he put an abnormal brain in the body of his creation.
2. “Monster Mash” A blue grass cover of the classic Halloween song by a band called Hayseed Dixie. It’s quite fun.
3. “Science Fiction Double Feature” From the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the campy lyrics describe several classic sci fi thriller movies.
4. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown. “Everybody run! The Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!” and “…it’s like the whole school was totally coked or something!”
5. “Anything Can Happen On Halloween” by Tim Curry from the movie The Worse Witch. A fun song.
6. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (with narration in the middle by Vincent Price). A classic for Halloween. And you can dance to it!
7. “GhostBusters (I’m Not Afraid” by Fallout Boy. An interesting cover/re-imagining of the original Ghostbusters them recorded for the new GhostBusters movie.
8. “Rest in Peace” from Once More, With Feeling, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear doesn’t make it real.”
9. “Bad Moon Rising” by Mourning Ritual. A very creepy re-imagining of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit that I first heard in one of the spookiest, creepiest episodes of the Teen Wolf TV series. I can’t hear this song without reliving the scenes where Void Stiles was doing various horrific things.
10. “Monster Mash (featuring Black Magic” by Halloween FX Productions. A cute cover of the Halloween classic.
11. “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” from Little Shop of Horrors just fun!
12. “Haunted Honeymoon Main Title” by John Morris. A spooky instrumental from one of my favorite comedies ever. Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, and Dom DeLuis in a hilarious send-up of 30s mystery radio shows and spooky forties movies.
13. “Teen Wolf Main Theme” by Dino Meneghin & Bloody Beetroots. The theme for the Teen Wolf series is just some really dramatic music.
14. “Theme from the Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – if you aren’t familiar with this comedy send up of various Hitchcock-esque movie tropes starring Don Knotts, you really need to Netflix it or something. And the organ music is suitably spooky and silly, at the same time.
15. “”Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, the theme song from the original cartoon series.
16. “Dark Shadows” the original eerie, spooky, haunting theme song from the ’60s gothic horror soap opera.
17. “Funeral March of a Marionette” an orchestral piece which was used as the theme for the old Alfred Hitchcock show.
18. “The Munster’s Theme” by Jack Marshall. A tiki-fied cover of the them song for the 1960s horror comedy series.
19. “Mamushka” by Raul Julia and Marc Shaiman. The silly show-stopper song from the theatrical Addams Family movie.
20. “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers. The original, classic Halloween Novelty song.
There was no sign that the car had been broken into (one of the reason we have several iPods salvaged from the junk pile at my husband’s workplace is that we have had about four previous iPods stolen from over the last ten years and two cars), so I knew the most likely cause was that the iPod was too cold. I opened up the console, dug the iPod out while trying not to disconnect its cable and it was definitely ice cold. Electronic devices with internal rechargeable batteries have temperature sensors that deactivate the system if the device is either too cold and too hot, because the chemical processes inside the rechargeable batteries don’t operate as efficiently (and safely) outside certain ranges.
This made me realize that the overnight low temps are cold enough that I probably should sit in the car letting the engine idle for a couple of minutes before driving. And this is yet another sign of the changing of the seasons: sometimes it’s cold enough to disable the iPod. That probably means I should bring swap out the iPod in the car to change out the music a bit.
And that reminded me that while I have been thinking about a new Halloween playlist, all I have actually been doing is listening to all my old ones (I usually make a new one each year). Combine that with a conversation between two friends on social media about playlists for NaNoWriMo, and I spent more than a bit of my free time this week setting up a new Halloween playlist and a possible NaNoWriMo playlist.
I love making playlists. Given that there are literally thousands in my library, I probably love it just a bit much. Writing playlist are assembled in several different ways. Some songs I associate with certain characters. Lots of songs simply evoke moods. A good friend always remarks on how many of the songs in my writing playlists have lyrics. He says he can’t write while listening to people talking or singing words. I get that, and I have a few writing lists that are entirely instrumental. The key, of me, is that the songs that have lyrics can only go into a writing list if I know the song well enough that I don’t have to actively process the words to follow the song.
Many of my writing playlists are intended to help me think about writing while doing other things. Listening to my playlist, “A Dark Lord’s Lady” during my evening walk, or while riding the bus, or walking from the bus to the office, or while working on certain tasks at work make keeps me in the mood to write scenes related to one certain characters and subplots in a couple of the books in my fantasy series, for example. Whereas the playlist, “Devil in the Trickster Details” has me thinking about a completely different set of characters and their subplots across….. many more of the books in the series.
To make a new list for this year’s NaNoWriMo requires me to decide which of many projects to actually work on this November. And that’s a problem, because I’ve been running the Red Queen’s Race in regards to a bunch of writing projects for the last few years, and can’t quite manage to actually finish anything. Which is frustrating, but also entirely my fault.
I think I know what I’m going to do. And I have assembled a new NaNoWriMo playlist (currently titled “A Heart Rattling World Ending”) with 55 songs that focus on characters in a couple of the stalled projects. But I might change me mind by the time November 1 rolls around. If you happen to be doing NaNoWriMo this year, and want a writing buddy, I’m Fontfolly over there, so say “hi.”
Compounding the problem for many of us it the grinding compassion fatigue/outrage fatigue/existential fear fatigue that world events have been inflicting on so many of us. There were literal mobs roving streets of cities this weekend looking for liberals and queers and anyone else the alt-right thinks of as enemies. They beat a bunch of people up, and in at least three cases the cops arrested the victims. It should be no surprise, then, that many of us are having trouble getting into the mood for holidays, no matter how much we may love Halloween. Let alone getting in the mood to write a novel.
But I refuse to give up.
In this kind of social/political atmosphere, creating is an act of rebellion. Having fun that doesn’t come at someone else’s expense is an act of rebellion. I’m trying to remember that. Let’s all try to accomplish some creativity and celebration together, shall we?
A friend recently commented that a lot of my playlists re-use songs. He’s right, particularly since many of the lists I’ve been sharing lately are based on some of my writing lists2. That’s because I assign some songs to particular characters. Or I assign some songs to particular character combinations. For instance, I use the Matt Goss song, “Evil” if I’m working on a story or section of one of the fantasy novels when the characters of Madame Valentina and the Zombie Lord figure prominently; because the song’s lyrics sound like something that Madame Valentina would say to her former friend and comrade-in-arms about why they are no longer friends. Other songs represent something a bit more abstract and just wind up in lots of playlists.
I listened to music while writing long before having a program that could play pre-programmed lists. And I even had playlists, of a sort. I used to make myself mix tapes3 on cassette. Like the playlists now, they were often meant as sort of a soundtrack for a project I was working on at the time. Before I had that technology, I used to like to listen to certain albums on vinyl while I wrote4. But more often I listened to the radio, where I had no control on what music would come up.
I’ve had multiple friends comment that they can’t write at all while listening to music that has lyrics. They can only write to music if the music is only instrumental. They mention this because they are confused when the vast majority of my writing playlists are made up of songs (often dance, pop, or rock songs, but queercore, baroque pop6, and broadway style musicals7 figure heavily as well) that have lyrics. I attribute this ability to two things. First, the fact that back when I was 11 years old9 and such I listened to the radio while I wrote. But another factor is familiarity. I usually only put songs that I know relatively well into the playlists, which means I don’t have to spend a lot of brain power parsing the lyrics when I hear it.
But even when I put new songs that I have only just discovered into the playlist they quickly become familiar. Because—and this is something I only realized recently is different than the way these friends use writing playlists—I don’t just listen to the playlist while I’ve actually writing. I listen to the playlist to get me in the mood to write a story. By which I don’t mean I sit quietly listening to the playlist hoping that I’ll eventually feel like picking up the keyboard and getting to work. No, I listen to the playlist during the day at the office, or while riding the bus to work, or while walking home, and so on.
I mentioned above that some songs function as themes for some of my characters or certain relationships, but I also have some songs that are essentially theme songs for specific subplots, or story arcs, or even specific plot twists. It’s not that I sit down and think, “Okay, this moment here needs a song,” it’s more that I’ll hear a song and find that when I listen to it it makes me think about that bit of the story. So I add the song to one of my existing writing lists; or I take subsets of several existing writing lists plus this song that hasn’t been in one of the lists before, and put together a new one. Which is another reasons that some of my lists repeat songs in other lists.
I know that I’m not the only person who uses inspirational playlists this way. But clearly the idea of listening to a writing playlist other than when you’re writing isn’t an obvious one. And it is true that sometimes I find, while I’m actually writing, that I need to switch to something other than the new writing playlist I’ve been listening to recently. There are times when I’m focused more on the words than the story. But that doesn’t happen often.
I think that might be another difference. I’ve always had a little trouble understanding why some people get so hung up on what to write next. Particularly when they describe struggling to find exactly the right word, or that a particular sentence kept coming out awkward. Because writing isn’t about showing off your gigantic vocabulary. It’s storytelling. And you can tell any story, even a new and unique one that is yours and yours alone many ways. This is sort of an extension of an idea that Stanley Fish talks about in his excellent book, How to Write a Sentence. Fish argues that the basic tool of the trade of a writer is the sentence, not the word, because words don’t take on their exact meaning until they are put in the context of a sentence, right?
The important part of a story aren’t specific sequences of words or astonishing turns of phrase. The story is about the characters confronting a problem, how they react to it, how they grow (or fail to) as they endure the slings and arrows of the tale. It’s about how the reader feels about those things. It’s about how the reader is moved by the events, what those events mean to the characters, and the state of each character as they reach their final fates.
That’s why lyrics shouldn’t distract you. Because good songs speak to your emotions. And emotions and events are what you need to be focusing on while writing your story. The words are just how you get there. They aren’t the end, they’re the means.
Put on your headphones, queue up some music that makes your heart and soul want to dance. Then, start writing.
1. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
2. I very very occasionally publish lists of the songs on my blog. I slightly more often zip up all the songs in a list and share the file with friends who express interest.
3. Other people made mix tapes to get to people they were romantically interested in or already dating as a way to express their feelings. I assembled tapes of songs for myself.
4. Once I had my own record player, I could put a stack of vinyl albums on the spindle, and it would play one side of each album one after the other. It only held three albums5, but it was a way to build a very primitive sort of playlist.
5. The big stereo in the living room could hold five or six albums in a queue!
6. For instance, Rufus Wainwright or John Grant.
7. Yes, I’m the kind of queer man who listens to musicals! So sue me!8
8. It almost goes without saying that I appeared in musicals in school, but the truly frightening thing is that I’ve written a musical!
9. I decided to become a writer when I was four or five years old, after Mom responded to my question about where books come from. I wrote my first “book” when I was six. I learned to type at age 10, and wrote a lot of short stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter until, just before my twelfth birthday, my paternal grandmother gave me her 1952 Remington Let-R-Riter. I owned my own typewriter! And I went crazy with the writing.
Sometimes I don’t know why I try.
So, I saw in iTunes radio a new station called Halloween Party, and I felt like listening to something different, so I clicked it. First song? Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition.” Nothing the slightest bit spooky or Halloween-like about the song. Oh, sure, the word “superstition” could be related to something Halloween-like, the actual lyrics? No.
Almost any time someone posts a so-called Halloween playlist, the songs are chosen because the titles of the song have some tenuous connection to sort of scary-ish concepts, regardless of the content of the song. If you’ve ever done such a thing, I have a news flash for you: the title of a song is not the song. There are some songs whose titles don’t even appear in the lyrics, so when I’m listening to the playlist, if I don’t happen to remember the title, the reason it has been included will be a complete mystery.
Now, you have the right to create a playlist anyway you want. If you want to collect songs together with altogether incorrect criteria and name said playlist a Halloween playlist, of course you can do that.
I happen to believe that a Halloween playlist should consist of tracks where the content of the track has some connection to ideas, moods, et cetera, that people associate with Halloween, trick or treating, monsters, and so forth. So, my 2013 Halloween playlist (yes, I make a new one each year) is:
1. “Theme from the Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – if you aren’t familiar with this comedy send up of various Hitchcock-esque movie tropes starring Don Knotts, you really need to Netflix it or something. And the organ music is suitably spooky and silly, at the same time.
2. “It’s alive!” From the Young Frankenstein soundtrack. This isn’t a song, it’s the dialog for one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Dr Frahnk-in-steen finds out that he put an abnormal brain in the body of his creation.
3. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown. “Everybody run! The Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!” and “…it’s like the whole school was totally coked or something!”
4. “Over at the Frankenstein Place” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
5. “”Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, the theme song from the original cartoon series.
6. “Body Snatcher” by Billy Idol. With lyrics about demons, creeping shadows, and so forth, this is where the list segues from the strictly comedic.
7. “Double Trouble” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Spooky.
8. “I Can’t Decide (whether you should live or die)” by Scissor Sisters. Includes lyrics like, ” I could bury you alive but you might crawl back with a knife and kill me” which is definitely creepy!
9. “I Can Make You a Man” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
10. “Dark Shadows” the original eerie, spooky, haunting theme song from the ’60s gothic horror soap opera.
11. “Rest in Peace” from Once More, With Feeling, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear doesn’t make it real.”
12. “Funeral March of a Marionette” an orchestral piece which was used as the theme for the old Alfred Hitchcock show.
This year’s is silly and harkens to horror movies and horror-related TV shows. Last years was a bit different, with songs like “Zombies Ate Her Brain” by The Creepshow and “Zombie Jamboree” by the Kingston trio.
Many years my list includes “Monster Mash” or “Thriller.” Which are obvious choices, but sometimes obvious is good.