The spookiest day of the year is just around the corner. Kids are picking out their favorite Halloween masks and outfits (Black Panther's big this year). Here at Lincoln Center we decided to get into the eerie mood by rounding up the scariest, freakiest, most macabre plays, operas, films, dances, and music that have been performed on the campus. These masterpieces from various disciplines have audiences screaming for joy—or is that horror?


The classic tragedy by William Shakespeare has it all: witches, ghosts, bloody murderers, spooky sleepwalkers and—get this—a forest that uproots itself and marches on a castle (okay, that last one is a fake-out). Shakespeare's play is so steeped in centuries of evil, it's believed to be cursed. Actors refer to it as the "Scottish Play" because uttering its title or any of its lines inside a theater is considered bad luck. Last time this hair-raising work was seen on campus, it was Japanese master director Yukio Ninagawa's spellbinding version in the Mostly Mozart Festival this summer. Before that there was a terrifying revival at Lincoln Center Theater in 2013, starring Ethan Hawke.

Halloween Special: The Scariest Lincoln Center Shows Ever!
Piet Defossez

Scary Movies at Film Society of Lincoln Center

There are countless horror movies out there—from Clouzot's Diabolique to Kubrick's The Shining and this year's Hereditary—picking a single classic is next to impossible. Film Society of Lincoln Center has you covered. Each year FSLC hosts the Scary Movies festival, a harrowing smorgasbord of mostly new but also classic fright flicks. The series had its 11th iteration recently, but don't worry: You can toss your popcorn in horror when it returns next August. Best thing about this festival is that it's truly global: You get a chance to see what's curdling the blood of viewers in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and every other corner of the world. The most recent series opened with the Scottish zombie musical comedy, Anna and the Apocalypse, in which a plucky high-schooler and her mates fight off undead hordes. Also included: buckets of blood and kicky musical numbers.


A bored teenage princess with no moral compass becomes obsessed with a religious zealot and eventually does a striptease for her father, in exchange for which she demands the zealot's head. She gets her gory wish and proceeds to make out with the severed head. From this sleazy grindhouse premise, Richard Strauss spun a huge succès de scandale with his first opera (based on the Oscar Wilde play). If the plot doesn't produce shivers, then Strauss's swooshing, decadent, erotically charged music will. "The Dance of the Seven Veils" will make your hair stand on end! This is one of the 20th century's greatest operas, and frequently returns to The Met Opera.   

The Rite of Spring

When this groundbreaking piece for ballet and orchestra premiered in 1913 as part of the Ballet Russes's season in Paris, the audience turned ugly. People shouted and beat each other; the orchestra was pelted with objects; 40 spectators were ejected by police. Was it Igor Stravinski's driving, pounding music? Nijinksi's sensuous, savage choreography? Or was it the shock of the new, a modern dance that depicted human sexuality and cruelty in a way no one thought was permissible? Although much has changed in the century since its birth, The Rite of Spring—set in "pagan Russia," and showing a virgin girl chosen for a fertility ritual who dances herself to death—remains a work of primordial power. It's part of American Ballet Theatre's repertoire and master puppeteer Basil Twist used the score to create an eye-popping spectacle four years ago for the White Light Festival. This month, the dance, reconstructed by Wayne McGregor as AFTERITE, will be part of ABT's fall season at the Koch Theater.

"In the Hall of the Mountain King"

The iconic orchestral piece by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg often pops up in movie trailers or on TV shows to suggest nefariousness or monster-related danger. Grieg wrote the piece as part of incidental music for his friend Henrik Ibsen's play, Peer Gynt. In the play, irrepressible fabulist Peer describes his skin-crawling visit to the hall of a troll king in a mountain. Peer has befriended a woman in green who claims to be the troll king's daughter. The troll king tells Peer that his daughter is pregnant, and Peer's the father. Our hero is justifiably frightened—shotgun wedding to trolls?!? Grieg's piece is less than three minutes, whipping itself into a whirling orchestral frenzy. He collected it and other earwormy sections in his Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, which the New York Philharmonic will perform in concerts next February and March featuring the great French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Halloween Special: The Scariest Lincoln Center Shows Ever!
Chris Lee
Le Grand Macabre with the New York Philharmonic, 2010

Le Grand Macabre

Hungarian composer György Ligeti's only opera took some time to finish. He wrote it in the 1970s, then revised it in 1996. Since the theme is death, decay, pollution, and the sustainability of the human race, we can assume he was constantly being inspired by current events. (One wonders what he would have made of the truly chilling news about current climate change predictions.) The story of Le Grand Macabre is a nightmarish, satirical fable. Death visits a fantasy realm called Breughelland (after the painter) and declares a plan to destroy the world at midnight. Accompanied by a drunkard and an astrologer, Death visits the court of one Prince Go-Go and soon we're wondering if indeed we're watching apocalypse or a farce—and is there any difference? This is definitely highbrow horror, a self-described "anti-anti-opera" written with post-atonal pastiche techniques that call to mind Rossini, Beethoven, and Verdi. And given the outlandish location and archetypal characters, it's a playground for designers and directors to create surreal, unnerving visuals. Alan Gilbert conducted a rare, semi-staged version with the New York Philharmonic in 2010—and you can stream the recording here.

Dialogues des Carmelites

Nuns are not usually scary (unless you went to Catholic school), but you've probably seen posters for that recent horror movie ($347 million box office; 28% on Rotten Tomatoes; meh). Sorry, but composer Francis Poulenc got there first. No, the sisters in his 1956 opera aren't possessed by demons, but terrible things happen to them. Terrible like the Terror—as in the French Revolution. The opera follows the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne. A convent of Carmelite nuns refused to renounce their vows in 1794 during the bloody final spasms of Robespierre's Reign of Terror. And they were guillotined in Paris for their piety. The opera closes with a dreadful series of offstage whooshes and chomps, as one by one the singing Carmelites leave the stage and go to their doom. It's a classic example of how some things are scarier when they happen in the wings. The Metropolitan Opera is bringing back its stark and bone-chilling production this season.

Halloween Special: The Scariest Lincoln Center Shows Ever!
Matthew Thompson
Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan in Druid's Waiting for Godot, in White Light Festival 2018

Waiting for Godot

If the meaninglessness of life, the ignominy of decay, and the unfathomable cruelty of humans keep you up at night, you fully understand why Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic is on this list. Waiting for Godot is funny, yes, full of slapstick and clowning. But these are not happy clowns you might hire for your kid's birthday party. They are the sort of clowns who shuffle about muttering, "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." The potent imagery of this line suggests a pregnant woman delivering her newborn directly into an open grave. Not even Guillermo del Toro would try that. You can savor Beckett's existential horror this November in the Druid theater company production at the White Light Festival


Not every fright involves goblins or werewolves or other supernatural baddies. Sometimes the deeply disturbing thing is buried in the recesses of memory. This Halloween, some will be trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods; others will be streaming their favorite monster movie. But some of us will be at the Metropolitan Opera to see Nico Muhly's latest work, Marnie, a tense and disorienting psychological thriller starring the ravishing Isabel Leonard. The title character is a woman who is a mystery to herself and to those around her. She steals money, falsifies her identity, has phobic breakdowns, and can't bear to be touched by a man. When we learn the origin of Marnie's mental torments, it's bound to be bloody and shocking.

Halloween Special: The Scariest Lincoln Center Shows Ever!
Chris Lee
Emma Thompson, left, and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd, with the New York Philharmonic, 2014

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

There aren't a ton of Broadway musicals about a serial killer who bakes his victims into popular meat pies—but this one is the best. The1979 instant classic by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler concerns a London barber whose young wife is stolen from him by a corrupt and lascivious judge, who then banishes the barber to Australia. Sweeney returns, with vengeance in his heart and two straight razors in his hands. Partnering with the amoral pie-shop proprietress Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney proceeds to murder his way through hapless customers to get to the evil judge. The score is gorgeous, one of Sondheim's most complex and glorious. And the thrills are first-rate: shameless melodrama meets Grand Guignol. A concert performance in 2014 by the New York Philharmonic featured the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Sweeney, movie royalty Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett, and multiple Tony Award–winner Audra McDonald as the mad beggarwoman. It was a lip-smacking, full-course meal. Just don't ask how it was prepared.

David Cote is Content Coordinator at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.