Halloween offers no shortage of ear candy. There’s Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” every Misfits song, Bobby (Boris) Pickett’s “The Monster Mash,” Jerkin’ James Whitcroft’s “Dracula’s Pajama Party.” All are worthy additions to a Halloween playlist most years, but not this year. This year, Halloween falls on a weekend.
Calling the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” the greatest song ever made about Halloween is like calling Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made about sledding—it sells it short, it misses the point, but on some level it’s also correct. Only one of the song’s four verses addresses the holiday and it’s the last one, delivered by Bushwick Bill, the eccentric and combustible dwarf who appeared on the cover of We Can’t Be Stopped photographed from a hospital gurney after he’d accidentally shot his own eye out. Released in summer of 1991 (not even close to Halloween), “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Rap charts and No. 23 on the Hot 100, making it the biggest hit of the Houston legends’ formidable career.
In the crypt of paranoiac Americana “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” belongs to the same spooky depths as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking,” Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It’s a gangsta rap masterpiece that doubles as a genre critique, a song about the psychic toll of being the Bad Man, the intersections of realness and the unreal, where vigilance spills into paranoia then into insanity. It quickly became a cultural touchstone: “Is my mind playing tricks/ like Scarface and Bushwick?” wondered the Notorious B.I.G. on his 1994 debut Ready to Die, while someone sings the iconic “Womp wa-wa womp womp womp womp womp, womp wa-wa womp womp womp womp womp” guitar hook the background, woefully off-key. In years since allusions to the track have popped up in the work of artists ranging from Outkast to Destiny’s Child to Clipse, haunting around like some dubiously-friendly ghost.
Bushwick Bill’s verse is probably the song’s most famous turn, but the leadup is all slow-building terror, from Scarface’s opening “I sit alone in my four-cornered room, staring at candles” (of course the room has four corners; of course he’s counting them,) to Willie D’s declaration that he “lives by the sword,” which he pronounces “suh-word,” slicing one syllable into two. “Now I’m feeling lonely/ My mind is playing tricks on me,” remarks Scarface at the end of the third verse, chillingly, and then there’s that guitar, courtesy of Isaac Hayes’ 1974 chestnut “Hung Up On My Baby.” Womp wa-wa womp womp womp womp womp, womp wa-wa womp womp womp womp womp.
And now it’s Bushwick’s turn. “This year Halloween fell on a weekend/ me and Geto Boys were trick-or-treatin’/ robbin’ little kids for bags,” he begins, and let’s just pause here. For starters, stealing candy from kids on Halloween is about as close to literally monstrous as one can get. Secondly, as wiser heads than mine have wondered: why does it matter that Halloween is on a weekend? Does Bushwick have a 9-to-5 at H&R Block? Does Bushwick have his own kids to get off to school? If so they’d do well to keep an eye on their candy.
Moving on. Bushwick suddenly notices that an “old man got behind our ass/ so we speeded up the pace.” Before we can savor the irony that Bushwick Bill, terrorizer of neighborhood children, is frightened of elderly people, Bushwick turns and discovers that his pursuer is now “right before our face.” At this point things start escalating fast: Bushwick punches the old man in the mouth; Bushwick realizes that the old man in fact stands “about six or seven feet” (a suspiciously large ballpark, although Bushwick is short and it is “dark as fuck,” by his own admission); and the next thing you know, Bushwick, Willie, and Scarface have “triple-teamed on him.”
Then things get really weird. “The more I swung, the more blood flew / then he disappeared and my boys disappeared too/ then I felt just like a fiend/ it wasn’t even close to Halloween.” Behold, a plot twist that makes M. Night Shyamalan seem like Karl Ove Knausgaard. “My hands were all bloody, from punching on the concrete,” laments Bushwick, which frankly seems like the least of his present concerns. It wasn’t even close to Halloween?! How did Bushwick Bill lose track of what time of year it was? Forget what he may or may not have been punching; who on earth had he been out robbing? “God damn, homey,” he sighs; “my mind is playing tricks on me.”
This all sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s also a perfect end to a perfect song. In the best Halloween tradition “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” brings you to the edge of terror and then rips off its mask, revealing something thrilling and funny and somehow still scary as hell. Tricks become treats become tricks, and all we can do is play it again. This much is true: God damn, homey.