How To Make a Halloween-Themed Dance Party Playlist — The Scalzi Way!

On Halloween I’m DJing a dance party for SFWA as part of their online Halloween festivities; it’s a two-hour slot so naturally I made a playlist that’s four hours long, with five dozen tracks. And you may ask yourself, “Well, Scalzi, how do you make a Halloween-themed dance party playlist?” I’m glad you asked! Here’s how I do it.

1. Have more music than you will use. I have two hours to program a dance; I will not need four hours of dance music. But I will probably need four hours worth of options — if certain sorts of music are working for the crowd but not others, it’s good not to be stuck with music that’s not working, and to have the option to do more of what is working.

Which brings me to the next point:

2. Have a real mix of styles/eras/genres/etc. The playlist has goth, R&B, psychobilly, EDM, rap, pop and even some metal, because, again, you never know, and you want it all at your fingertips. Likewise, the music on hand dates from the early 70s up until this year, because I expect a range of people showing up and I don’t want anyone left out for more than a song or two.

Also, because this is a dance:

3. Songs have to be songs you can dance to OR AT LEAST emote dramatically to for a few minutes. Whenever I DJ a dance someone will invariably come up and ask me to play a song that I know will absolutely kill the momentum on the dance floor. It’s not a song anyone can dance to, it’s just a song they like. And I tell them “no,” because, get this, I’m DJing a dance. Which means that I’m going to play songs people can dance to, and not play songs people can’t or won’t dance to.

(I also have a rule that anyone who requests a song has to be on the dance floor the entire time the song is playing. This often stops the “I know it’s not really a dance song but –” requests before they get too far, because the type of person who requests songs you can’t dance to often isn’t there to dance.)

When one is putting together a themed dance mix, the rule has to be: It doesn’t matter how “on theme” the song is, if you can’t dance to it, it can fuck off right into the sun. Because, again: It’s a dance. The only exceptions are songs that, if not strictly dance songs, are “dramatically emote with your all friends on the dance floor” songs, which often work just as well, especially if (as is often the case with me) your dance crowd is filled with nerds who are the next closest thing to theater kids in terms of having a total lack of shame on the dance floor.

As a (non-Halloween-themed) example, “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is not a dance song, but it goes over hugely at a dance because everyone can hang on each other and pretend they are Freddie Mercury and/or David Bowie for four minutes, and who doesn’t love that. Hard rock and heavy metal songs often work the same way (although they have to be really well-known, like AC/DC, Metallica, Van Halen and Def Leppard). I have Jonathan Coulton’s “Re: Your Brains” on my Halloween playlist — you can’t dance to it, but you sure can shuffle like a zombie to it. That will be fine, as long as you program a massively danceable song on either side of it.

4. Songs should be theme-ish. Now, what qualifies as a “Halloween” song? For the purposes of my playlist, here are the criteria:

a) It is explicitly Halloween-themed;
b) It has Halloween-ish themes, like zombies or vampires or mad scientists or ghosts or heaven and/or hell;
c) It concerns itself (or has a title that concerns itself) with spooky, scary, unsettling themes, very often but not limited to death and the consideration thereof;
d) The band/musician is themselves goth/emo/metal/otherwise spooky and/or lending themselves to themes that fit will with Halloween;
e) The song’s instrumentation is dark/spooky/all about that minor key vibe.

I give myself fairly wide latitude here and some songs are really only vaguely related to the theme, but at the end of the day I think they generally work in creating the mood of “dark and danceable,” which is what you want for a Halloween dance (although not all the songs are dark, but the ones that aren’t dark are themed and danceable, at least).

With that said:

5. Don’t put songs on the playlist just because they are theme-ish. For example, I did not put “Monster Mash” on the playlist, because one, I don’t like that song very much, and two, I don’t think anyone really does, it’s just one of those songs people think they should play because it’s Halloween and there’s, like, a law that you have to play it. You don’t have to! And I won’t! If you’re coming to the dance I’m DJing and want to hear it, play it for yourself just before you come into the room where the dance is happening!

This is not to say I don’t have some de rigueur songs on the playlist — I have “Thriller” and “Time Warp” and, yes, “Ghostbusters.” But the thing is, people actually like those songs. Fine! I’m not a huuuuuge fan of the song “Ghostbusters,” but I’m also not a snob about it, so if the vibe goes that direction, sure, I’ll put it on. I want the kids to have fun. Which is the point:

6. It’s supposed to be fun. I DJ mostly for nerds and the nerd-adjacent, which means the music that works best are big hits and accessible beats — nothing too niche or too obscure, or at least, if I do go niche and obscure for a song, I lead them right back to big hits and beats right after. I have my own tastes and I’m confident about what works on a dance floor and what doesn’t. But I’m not the “DJ-as-performance” sort of DJ, although there’s nothing wrong with that and people like it. I’m the “I’m playing you songs you can dance to, one after the other” type of DJ. It works for me, and so far at least people seem to like it. I like that they like it. I like DJing. I’m looking forward to DJing on Halloween, too.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering what’s on the playlist, I’ll publish it after the SFWA party. Until then, know the three songs featured in the entry are on the playlist.)

— JS

35 Comments on “How To Make a Halloween-Themed Dance Party Playlist — The Scalzi Way!”

  1. Can’t wait to see the list.
    I was listening to Little Steven’s Underground Garage Halloween a Go Go last night and thought it was cool that he included Dead Flowers by the Stones. Not your typical Halloween song (and not really danceable), but one of my favorites. So, I can see where you’re coming from.

  2. I don’t know if I agree with point 2…I would just put on 2 hours of 80s psychobilly. Then again, maybe there’s a reason no one asks me to DJ their dance…

  3. I love “Monster Mash”! But then, I was a kid when it came out. I danced to it then, I’d dance to it now. I guess you had to be there…

  4. Ha! I was going to ask if you had included Monster Mash, but you answered that halfway through! Good catch.

  5. I listened to Monster Mash several times when it first came out. Don’t feel a need to do that again. A song that strikes me as in the same general range musically would be Don’t put onions on your hamburger, which I actually did listen to again in the interim, voluntarily.

    Lately I put on the whole Twisted Sister Christmas album, which would probably work for Halloween as well. It has my favorite renditions of most of the songs on the album.
    Perhaps all of them, with the exception of 12 days of Christmas, for which I prefer the Chad Mitchell Trio.

    This year, it’s I’m only happy when it rains, straight through.

  6. I was going to suggest “Bury a Friend” by Billie Eilish. It has a haunting vibe.

  7. I found this fascinating. I will probably never be asked to DJ any event, but if I am, I will know how to plan for it! Useful knowledge! A close friend had a Halloween wedding – all guests in costume – and their DJ was not nearly this clever. Other than playing Thriller, obvs.

  8. I’ve definitely seen the reason behind point 1 in action.

    I don’t remember what early 80s song it was that quickly cleared the dance floor, but the DJ had no trouble switching to something else and not having to end early. (Admittedly, this was back in the dark ages when DJs lugged around physical media.)

  9. Your point about “not just because it fits the theme” is spot on. DJ’d a halloween party a few years ago, where the host liked to insert himself into the DJ booth periodically. He cues up Donovan “Season of the Witch”, which kills the dance floor dead.

    Him – “I guess no one wants to hear Halloween music.”

    I cue up “Ghostbusters” and the floor floods, people are throwing their hands up and shouting along.

    Me – “Yeah, I guess no one wants to hear Halloween music.”

  10. “It’s a Dead Man’s Party.” by Oingo Boingo! (I have fond memories of doing my first long run as a trucker right about this time of year in 1995 and counting the number of times the radio played “Monster Mash.” :)

  11. Never thought about the danceability, but there must be something off of The Evil One by Roky Erickson. You could certainly pose to “Stand for the Fire Demon” and how can you argue with “If you have ghosts, you have everything!” Pretty clear what to do when “I walked with a zombie” comes on.

  12. It’s not a party until Rob Zombie gets played…

    I’m looking forward to seeing the playlist.

  13. I don’t know if you can dance to it (I can, but I’m weird), but you can definitely “emote dramatically” to Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah”.

    I second “It’s a Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo.

  14. Well, actually, I think there are some covers of Monster Mash that are pretty rocking and quite danceable, but that’d be my list and not yours, so…

  15. I concede that Ministry isn’t as famous as Acca Dacca, Metallica, Van Halen et al. but wonder if “Every Day is Halloween” snuck onto the playlist anyway. Loving the retro-as-anything animation on this version.

  16. I like “Monster Mash”, but I’m only saying that to refute “one, I don’t like that song very much, and two, I don’t think anyone really does”, and not because I necessarily think you should include it. If it does get played, I’d rather it be because whoever’s playing it likes it, rather than to meet some arbitrary expectation.

    That said, if I were at a dance, and it were played at that dance (so, not yours, obvs ; ) ), it would probably one of the few songs I would dance to. But I know I’m an outlier, in a number of respects.

  17. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Superstition” is a monster jam and every bit as danceable as the original, especially if you play it very loud. Very loud indeed.

    And there are several versions that feature Prince playing along with Stevie Wonder, and once you’ve brought him on there are a lot of ways you could go with Prince.

  18. Pity none of the songs on Warren Zevon’s album “Excitable Boy” are danceable because they are very Halloweeney. “Werewolves of London”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner “ (which kills earworms dead), and the title track, which is about a psychotic murderer.

  19. Are you familiar with Halloween Party, by Halloween Junky Orchestra?
    It is somewhat in Japanese, but is pretty nice. I certainly danced to that. Though the song proper starts from about 1:30.

  20. I may be a little over-sensitive here, but I’m finding the YouTube screenshot of a decapitated woman (yes, I know it’s not real) being the first thing seen on this post to be kind of…offputting. Like, violence against women, such an amusing joke for Halloween!

    I know you’re not like that, John, and that you don’t control what YouTube uses to represent a video, and that it’s Halloween. But it’s exceeding my level of cope this week, especially with rising levels of violence in the USA and a decapitation-attack in France and a new SCOTUS Justice who might well have an 18th century attitude toward the acceptability of domestic violence.

  21. I see you subscribe to the Powell Doctrine: 5x as many troops as you need. Or as one of our friends put it, the Law of Excess: Twice the displacement and really wide tires. There’s no shame in being mightily overprepared, as long as it is situationally appropriate. If you’re going backpacking, yes to extra water, no to snowshoes, unless you’re hiking Yosemite in winter.

  22. Monster Mash was a hit in 1962, and made the charts again ten years later because it is Just That Good.

  23. I’m from the corner of fandom (which is a corner of the geek community) that is here hiding from the people who want me to dance. But, that said…if you’re DJing a dance, planning it around people dancing to your music seems to make quite a lot of sense. I’ll just go somewhere else, or sit and listen to the music and watch the dancers if that seems like fun at the time. (Or, in this *particular* case, won’t be at the party.)