In a pre-literate society, people sat around fires while bards sang or recited long narratives to them. Songs were more than something to dance to; they were another form of storytelling.
We still have a tradition of "story songs," but they're unusual enough now that we notice it when a song tells a story, or when lyrics are coherent at all. I had to think a while about which songs in my own iTunes library evoked the same creepy feeling as a book or a movie, and this is the best list I could come up with. Suggest your own creepy songs in the comments.
1. "Angel of Death," Hank Williams. This one's an obvious choice. Hank Williams first recorded it at home, then cut a version of it with the Drifting Cowboys. You can listen to both versions here, and I don't know which is creepier; Hank's doomed solo, or the weirdly lilting single. "In the great book of John, you're warned of the day/When you'll be laid beneath the cold clay/The Angel of Death will come from the sky/And claim your poor soul when the time comes to die."
2. "Gloomy Sunday," Sinead O'Connor. Also known as "the Hungarian Suicide Song," this song comes with a ghost story attached. Its composer, Reszo Seress, did kill himself — in 1968, 35 years after he wrote the song — but the song was blamed for any number of suicides in the 1930s. That seems to be an urban legend, a twisted marketing ploy to sell a sad song in the middle of the Depression, but the song is creepy enough on its own. Billie Holiday's version is the most famous, but it's been covered by everyone from Paul Robeson to The Smithereens.
3. "Long Black Veil," Mick Jagger & The Chieftains. It feels like an old folk song; it's not. Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill wrote it in 1959, and Lefty Frizzell was the first to record it. It's since been covered by dozens, if not hundreds, of singers, from Joan Baez to Johnny Cash to the Dave Matthews Band. It's the story of a man who goes to the gallows rather than give his alibi: he was sleeping with his best friend's wife. I like this version because I believe Mick's voice.
4. "Mercy Street," Peter Gabriel. An idiosyncratic choice, but something about this song has always felt menacing to me. "Let's take the boat out, wait until darkness . . ." The song is inspired by and dedicated to the poet Anne Sexton, who killed herself at the age of 45.
5. "Tomorrow, Wendy," Concrete Blonde. This entire album (Bloodletting) is self-consciously spooky, from the first song, "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" to this one, which closes the set. I bought this CD for the single "Joey," but this song is the only one that achieves the feeling of threat they seem to be trying for. "Hey, hey, goodbye/Tomorrow, Wendy's going to die." Yikes, man.