“Have You Seen The Ghost Of John” is a kids’ song that actually chills

“Have You Seen The Ghost Of John” is a kids’ song that actually chills

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: actually scary songs.

Growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I, like most kids my age, was obsessed with scary stuff. I read the Fear Street books and Goosebumps and anything Christopher Pike did. I thought Are You Afraid Of The Dark? was legitimately scary, too—especially that episode with an invisible monster in a pool. My brother, Jud, is about five years younger than me, so when I was 12 and charging headlong into terrifying tales of ghoulish clowns, his scares still had to be tempered a little. Somehow this manifested itself in him getting one of those cassette tapes of “scary” songs for kids, and because he was little and had only a few tapes, I heard that tape all day every day for the next two or three years.

I can’t remember all the songs on the tape, but I remember one really, really well. I’m sure someone wrote “Have You Seen The Ghost Of John,” but I have no idea who. It seems like one of those simple songs written for little kids that’s since become such a part of the Halloween canon it’s lost any of its original identity. And while there are a number of different versions of the song—some of them fairly jokey—the one I remember best is the one sung by a children’s choir (something that can make any song creepy) and punctuated with sounds of chilly, gusting winds. Given that it’s a children’s song, it’s not especially graphic, but something about the song’s few lines—“Have you seen the ghost of John? / Long white bones with the skin all gone / Ooh ooh ooh ooh / Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?” has always given me the willies. Yes, in fact, it would be chilly to be just a skeleton, long dead, and with animals having eaten off all my flesh. That would be pretty terrible, coy children’s song. The morbidity of it has always reminded me of other creepy children’s tracks like plague ditty “Ring A Ring O’ Roses” or “Come, Little Children,” which shouldn’t really be creepy but, in the right hands, absolutely gives me the chills.