Do you believe in ghosts? Whether or not you think specters are real, you have to admit that ghosts have inspired a lot of great art. From ghost stories to movies to visual art, there are so many fascinating representations of the recently deceased. Ghosts have also been recurring motifs in music, and songs about ghosts have gone back thousands of years. The mysterious, timeless quality of ghosts makes them ideal musical subjects, and a ghost makes a powerful metaphor for mischief, loneliness, loss and heartbreak. (They can also make a really wonderful playlist for a Halloween party!)
With this in mind, we’ve gathered 20 great songs about ghosts — spanning eight decades and in genres from jazz to synth pop and emotions from serious to silly — these songs show us that, whether or not ghosts are real, they can inspire myriad musical forms.
1. “The Ghost of Smokey Joe” — Cab Calloway (1939)
This jazzy tune is sung from the perspective of a mischievous ghost. With lyrics like “I got a date on my estate down in Hades,” the song is both spooky and jaunty. Cab Calloway’s vaudeville-inspired showmanship comes through in the way he belts it out, and you can easily imagine some stylish old-timey types partying to this haunted bop.
2. “Ghost of Yesterday” — Billie Holiday (1940)
With her tragic, too-short life and hauntingly gorgeous voice, jazz legend Billie Holiday was something of a ghostly presence herself. It makes sense, then, that “Ghost of Yesterday” is one of her iconic songs. The lyrics “Ghost of yesterday/Every night you’re here/Whispering away/’Might have been, might have been, oh, my dear'” speak to a deep sense of loss.
3. “There’s a Ghost in My House” — R. Dean Taylor (1966)
Written by the famed Motown team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, in collaboration with singer R. Dean Taylor, “There’s a Ghost in My House” is an energetic burst of ’60s rock that makes having a ghost seem — dare we say? — fun. The song became a hit in the UK and its propulsive guitar riffs can still inspire listeners to get up and boogie.
4. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” — Johnny Cash (1979)
As “The Man in Black,” it’s no surprise that country king Johnny Cash would be drawn to the ghostly. “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” which sounds straight out of a classic Western movie, was originally written in 1948 by Stan Jones, and previously covered by musicians like Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee. With his signature low, dramatic vocal stylings, Cash made this old song about ghosts his own over 30 years after it was first released.
5. “Ghosts of Cape Horn” — Gordon Lightfoot (1979)
The Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was known for conveying evocative stories through his songs. “Ghosts of Cape Horn” was originally written for a documentary of the same name and details a haunted shipwreck. And this wasn’t even Lightfoot’s first shipwreck song! One of his most famous songs, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” from 1976, also tells the tale of a ship’s destruction.
6. “Ghost Town” — The Specials (1981)
This reggae-infused song about ghosts uses the image of a ghost town to convey the unrest that was occurring in British cities at the time. The instrumentation is both spooky and danceable and the political relevance made it a favorite of the UK press. While the “ghost town” descriptor speaks to a specific moment in time, it still feels relevant today, in a world of uncertainty and constant political division.
7. “Ghostbusters” — Ray Parker Jr. (1984)
Who you gonna call? Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song for the hit comedy is a certified ’80s classic. While it’s impossible to imagine the movie without the song, it may surprise you to know it didn’t come naturally to the musician. Director Ivan Reitman hired Parker at the last minute, and Parker recalled finding it “an impossible song to write.” Reitman insisted that the movie’s title be used in the song, leading Parker to say, “‘How am I going to sing ‘Ghostbusters’ in a song? I’m ruined here, it’s never going to happen!”
8. “The Ghost in You” — The Psychedelic Furs (1984)
While they were best-known for their iconic song “Pretty in Pink,” which was famously used in the John Hughes movie of the same name, The Psychedelic Furs had a number of other unforgettable new wave gems. “The Ghost in You” is a romantic lament that the Rolling Stone Album Guide described as a song about a “misunderstood girl with a heart of gold” — the fact that there’s a ghost in her only makes her more intoxicating.
9. “Ghostdancing” — Simple Minds (1985)
Like The Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds are also forever associated with a beloved John Hughes teen movie. Their song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is famously featured in The Breakfast Club, but the Scottish band had another classic ’80s moment when they performed “Ghostdancing” at Live Aid. “Ghostdancing” doesn’t sound haunted, but rather triumphant, though it does feature lyrics speaking of politic strife.
10. “Ghosts” — Stevie Nicks (1989)
Fleetwood Mac frontwoman Stevie Nicks is known for her witchy fashion sense and supernaturally-inspired lyrics, so it’s not surprising that she’d have a song about ghosts. In the song, she sings about ghosts of the pasts and ghosts of the future, and in interviews, she’s often spoken about her belief in spirits. In a 1982 interview, she said, “I feel there are good spirits everywhere when I am writing my songs, helping me. I just feel them and feel good. And it’s not stupid or mystical or weird.”
11. “Ghost in This House” — Shenandoah (1990)
This country song uses the ghostly image to convey deep sadness. With lines like “I’m just a ghost in this house/I’m just a shell of the man I was/A living proof of the damage heartbreak does,” the song captures the devastation of feeling like the familiar has become unfamiliar following a life-altering event. Songwriter Hugh Prestwood was inspired to write “Ghost in This House” when his wife was recovering from a car accident, causing him to contemplate mortality.
12. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” — Bruce Springsteen (1995)
This folky song about ghosts from The Boss was inspired by both the character of Tom Joad, from John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie’s song “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” which was based on the film adaptation of the book. Like many of Springsteen’s songs, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” paints an evocative picture of life on the fringes. While the song is bleak, Springsteen has said, “Even if the stuff is dark, even if there’s tragedy involved, it’s still exciting. The truth is always hopeful. It’s always inspiring, no matter what it is.”
13. “Ghost Behind My Eyes” — Ozzy Osbourne (1995)
Of course a metal musician like Ozzy Osbourne would embrace his ghostly side, and “Ghost Behind My Eyes” truly delivers the spooky goods. The lyrics don’t just talk about ghosts, but also demons, dungeons and spiders — eek! Osbourne is serious about his commitment to ghosts. He and his famous family even had a show, The Osbournes Want To Believe, devoted to the supernatural.
14. “Ghosts” — Michael Jackson (1997)
With “Thriller,” Michael Jackson proved his love of all things creepy and Halloween-y. In the ’90s, he was back at it with “Ghosts.” Much like “Thriller,” the song came with a lot of fanfare. It was released as part of a short film written by Stephen King and Mick Garris, which featured Jackson playing five roles. At the time, the 35-minute film was the most expensive music video ever made.
15. “Give Up the Ghost” — Radiohead (2011)
Many of Radiohead’s songs have a ghostly aura, and in “Give Up the Ghost,” they make it literal with simple, repetitive lyrics. A review of the song in Pitchfork called it an “evaporation song, one that seems to be exiting and entering your consciousness at the same moment.” It doesn’t get more haunted than that.
16. “Ghost” — Halsey (2014)
“Ghost” was the first song alt-pop princess Halsey ever wrote and recorded. She described the song as an “emotional whirlwind” and used the image of a ghost as a metaphor for being in a relationship with someone who’s emotionally distant and recognizing that you deserve better.
17. “Ghosttown” — Madonna (2015)
Madonna’s “Ghosttown” is a love song that conjures up a postapocalyptic scenario. The situation may be dark, but the song ultimately speaks to the power of relationships, with the lines “When it all falls down/We’ll be two souls in a ghost town.” As Madonna said in a Billboard interview, “we’ll all be in our version of a ‘Ghosttown’ or in a version of a ‘Ghosttown,’ and at the end of the day, all we’re going to have left is each other.”
18. “Living in a Ghost Town” — The Rolling Stones (2020)
This funky late-period number from The Rolling Stones was written in 2019, but the lyrics were so prescient that with just a few small tweaks, the band ended up releasing it in 2020 as a pandemic anthem. The song holds the sad distinction of being the final Stones track to feature the late, great drummer Charlie Watts.
19. “Ghost” — Justin Bieber (2021)
Justin Bieber and Diane Keaton? It sounds like a pretty weird pairing, but it works. In the video for “Ghost,” Keaton plays the popstar’s grandma. The video tells a story of her character’s husband’s passing and how she and Bieber subsequently deal with the loss. With the line “if I can’t get close to you, I’ll settle for the ghost of you,” the song shows how ghosts can bring us a sense of comfort in times of grief.
20. “Ghost Story” — Carrie Underwood (2022)
In “Ghost Story,” Carrie Underwood uses the image of a ghost to convey the rage of a woman scorned. Like her hit song “Before He Cheats,” “Ghost Story” also speaks of vengeance. In a statement, Underwood said, “Instead of smashing headlights, this scorned lover is letting her ex know that she will continue to haunt him no matter how hard he tries to forget her.” While Underwood didn’t write the song, she was drawn to it for its cinematic, dramatic quality.
A musical ghost story
Ghosts can take on many different meanings, which makes them endlessly versatile musical inspirations. And ghost songs aren’t just Halloween novelties — you can listen to them all year round. The diversity of songs about ghosts speaks to what a strong subject they are.
Think a ghost playlist is a little too scary? Check out other playlists like 15 Soul-Stirring Gospel Songs That Are Guaranteed To Lift Your Spirits or The Top 23 Disney Songs Guaranteed To Make You Feel Like a Kid Again.