Texas enjoys a high number of iconic, globally known cultural fixtures: cowboys, bluebonnets, the Alamo, Beyoncé. Unfortunately, the toll natives pay for such a well-stocked trophy room of state pride is the existence of its haunted basement.
Just watch any classic Texas-set western film—say, The Wild Bunch, Rio Bravo, West of the Pecos, or Texas Trail. For every white-hat sheriff or noble vigilante, there is a black-hat stranger lurking in the shadows. Or consider the success of director Robert Rodriguez’s action horror flicks, which pit heroes against zombies (Planet Terror) and bloodthirsty criminals (Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn) against a Texas backdrop. Skin-crawling themes of horror, violence, and science fiction have a prevalent role in some of the state’s best-loved works of art.
Below, we’ve curated a playlist of eerie, Lone Star–themed songs. While each one tells a different story, they all take place in a familiar, dark Texas setting evolved through generations of western comics, Southern Gothic novels, slasher films, and murder ballads.
Kenny Rogers — “Planet Texas”
The “The Gambler” singer sure rolled the dice with this one. Cut for his 1989 album, Something Inside So Strong, “Planet Texas” is sung from the perspective of a gunslinger abducted by aliens with cowboy likenesses and pressurized jeans.
Strapped onto a mechanical stallion, the narrator is launched into an intergalactic canter through comet tails and distant stars. The song ends with a twist, when its hero is returned home and asks about the aliens’ origin. They pull out a map and reveal “the biggest place in outer space / A planet known as Texas.” If the song itself doesn’t entertain you, just imagine Rogers onstage while touring the album, finishing his masterful heartbreak anthem, “If I Ever Fall in Love Again,” before vamping straight into a song about “high-tech horses.”
Concrete Blonde — “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man”
Also sung in first person, “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man” was the lead single and first track of Concrete Blonde’s fourth album, Walking in London. As a primo serving of early-nineties cowpunk, it is superb. As an addition to any Halloween playlist, Texas-themed or otherwise, it is essential.
Johnette Napolitano, lead vocalist of Concrete Blonde, retells an encounter with a spectral lothario when she was getting out of the shower. Her unmistakable voice soars above twangy lead guitar and a rapid train beat before the song closes with a choral outro of spooky, phased-out voices quavering the lead riff. Warning! If this is played at your Halloween party, guests may do the running man.
Johnny Cash — “Austin Prison”
The Man in Black can spin a story about murder better than anyone, save Cormac McCarthy. “Austin Prison,” his 1966 rockabilly tune, is narrated by an outlaw who may or may not have killed a woman. He’s sentenced to death and incarcerated in the Texas capital, where the jailer helps him escape.
Something about the lyrics, with their cold-blooded fatalism, paired with an upbeat, jaunty melody, gives the song an eerie tone, like Cash is glorifying manslaughter, or worse, getting away with it. But then again, J.R.’s dark edge is part of the reason we love him.
The Union Underground — “South Texas Deathride”
It’s hard to pin down the meaning of the Union Underground’s 2000 nu metal headbanger. True to the song’s title, its lyrics take many twists and turns: “Never forget your lies / Hypocrisize / Five million might change your mind.” But one thing’s for sure: I don’t want to get on this ride. Lead vocalist Bryan Scott bellows threatening lyrics atop heavily distorted guitars chugging an aggressive, tritone riff.
Despite its cryptic messages, “South Texas Deathride” is probably the most frightening song on this list, sonically and lyrically. If you forgot to buy candy this year, playing it on full blast is sure to keep trick-or-treaters at a lawn’s distance.
Night Beats — “Hell in Texas”
Part Gothic country ballad, part religious epic, “Hell in Texas” has it all: hellfire, UFOs, specters, tarantulas . . . so if you’re the kind of neighbor who hands out Twizzlers and Snickers and Warheads and popcorn balls, this one’s for you. Jokes aside, the song is extremely spooky.
Satan, evidently bored of the underworld and seeking “a hell his own,” anoints Texas as his home away from home. There, he “damn[s] the seeds,” “curs[es] the soil,” and unleashes a league of ghoulish agents, from steers with extralong horns to centipedes with poison feet. In short, things get weird.
Marty Robbins — “El Paso”
The gruesome violence of Robbins’s Grammy-winning 1959 ballad, “El Paso,” is often buried by its catchiness and icon status. A song about lust and homicide, it was one of the first number one hits of the 1960s, setting a fitting tone for popular music of that decade.
It’s hard to know whom to root for in this whimsical tale of murderous passion. Robbins’s hero falls in love with a maiden whose eyes are “blacker than night.” Enter his counter, a sultry West Texan cowboy who strolls into town and shares a drink with the same girl. That alone is enough to stir a murderous rage in the hero, who shoots his enemy down and escapes to the badlands of New Mexico. Legend has it he changed his name to Marty shortly after . . .
Texas Hippie Coalition — “El Diablo Rojo”
“El Diablo Rojo” (“The Red Devil” in English) is either sung from the perspective of Satan himself or of someone who’s spent way too much time on the dark net. The hard-rock track’s lead character self-identifies as “the pride of Texas” and claims to be capable of summoning hellfire that penetrates souls. Lyrically, the list continues: they “wear sunglasses,” “raise hell,” and “keep heads a spinnin’.” One imagines a fifth-grader talking about all the sick things they’re going to do when they get to college.
The Stone Coyotes — “Trouble Down in Texas”
One of the Stone Coyotes’ most popular tunes, “Trouble Down in Texas” warns of a cowboy-hunting serial killer named Betty Lou. Rocking a Texas blues groove redolent of ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” it follows an out-of-towner who’s chased around East Texas by Betty Lou, who was spurred to bloodlust after being jilted by her cowboy lover on their wedding day. Spoiler: the hunted stranger makes it out of Betty Lou’s clutches, but only after he crosses state lines.
This song is best served after a few tequilas. But if you play it while hosting a dinner party this Halloween, you may have couples looking at each other sideways.