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What’s Halloween Without the Monster Mash?

What’s Halloween Without the Monster Mash?

By Dave Price

If you’re a Baby Boomer and you have a favorite Halloween song, chances are that tune is the self-proclaimed graveyard smash “The Monster Mash.”

Of course, in the 55 years since it was first released, Halloween enthusiasts and music fans of all generations have learned to love the creepily classic performance of Bobby “Boris” Pickett, the Coffin Bangers, and their vocal group The Crypt-Kicker Five.

So just how popular is “The Monster Mash,” which has been labeled the national anthem of Halloween?

Well, over 360 covers of the song by other artists currently exist. And the tune still receives the biggest seasonal spike of any song in the data base of the streaming service Spotify.

For example, in 2015, records show that the world collectively listened to 43,253 hours of the 2:57-second song on Spotify alone. On YouTube, “The Monster Mash” is searched for as much as 50 percent more than average around Halloween. It has also been used not once, but twice, as background for The Simpsons, as well as at least a dozen popular TV shows.

In addition to being the haunted season’s most popular song ever recorded, “The Monster Mash” also has a notable chart history. Initially released in 1962, it spent the two weeks before Halloween as America’s No. 1 song. However, it re-charted in August 1970 and in May 1973, once again becoming a Top 10 hit and actually making it to No. 1 in Australia and No. 3 in England during its final run.

The origin story of The Monster Mash focuses on its singer and co-writer Bobby Pickett, an early 60s revival of interest in the classic Universal Studios monsters of the 1930s, and two early 1960s dance crazes – the twist and the mashed potatoes.

Born on the East Coast, Pickett moved to Los Angeles in 1960 to become an actor. However, with acting jobs difficult to come by, he joined a singing group The Cordials, who featured the 1957 hit “Little Darlin’’’ in their stage act. The song included a monologue in the middle and Pickett began using his Boris Karloff voice for that break.

His bandmate Lenny Capizzi suggested that he and Pickett try to put the spot-on Karloff impression to work in a novelty record they would write. So, on a Saturday in 1962, the duo sat down at a piano in an LA recording studio and knocked out the song in about two hours. The entire recording process took only two days.

The songs eerie sound effects were low-budget bits of studio improvisation. For example, the coffin door sound is a rusty nail being pulled out of a board and the noise of the witches’ cauldron is water being bubbled through a straw.

“The Monster Mash” was released on August 25, 1962, and the rest, as they say, is Halloween history.

But a further exploration of how the song came to be reveals it is a perfect reflection of the pop culture times in which it was created.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, America experienced a revival of the movie monster craze initially unleashed during the 1930s and 1940s with the classic monster films by Universal Studios, starring iconic horror actors such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney.

Versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and their various offspring became a staple on late-night local TV shows, many named “Shock Theatre.” The new Baby Boom generation, which had never seen the original movies in theaters, rapidly took to the half-scary, half-sick-humor shows hosted by actors (Dr. Shock) or actresses (Elvira, Queen of the Darkness) and the classic horror films they offered.

The burgeoning monster craze was further fueled by the decision of the Aurora model company to release a series of monster models you could paint and make in your own home. In fact, the Aurora Frankenstein was one of the most popular Christmas gifts for boys in 1961. Aurora, under licensing from Universal, continued releasing the monster kits for the next few years. At the same time, to feed American boys’ hunger for all things horror, companies began releasing monster trading cards, posters, and even lunch boxes.

But while younger Baby Boomers were into monsters, their older sisters and brothers were being swept up in another craze – dancing to the latest pop hit tunes of the day.

In 1961, Chubby Checker, a Philadelphia protégé of American Bandstand host Dick Clark, released his version of a cover of Hank Ballard’s song “The Twist.”

Suddenly all of North America was twisting the night away. The twist craze even hip-swiveled into the White House, where First Lady Jackie Kennedy was joined by Washington’s young political elite turning 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into a late-night twisting disco.

A year later, a second dance craze – the mashed potatoes – joined the twist as the must-do dances of the moment. The new dance sensation – originally a move used by soul icon James Brown in his live concerts – was sparked with the release of “Mashed Potato Time,” a huge hit for Philly artist Dee Dee Sharp. Sharp immediately followed up with a second hit “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes).

When they were creating their novelty Halloween song, Pickett and Capizzi were obviously aware of the monster and the dance crazes. In fact, studio lore contends that the song was going to be called “Monster Twist.” That was changed to “The Monster Mashed Potato” before the duo finally settled on the short, but alliterative “The Monster Mash”.

Of course, while all this background might help clarify the song’s initial success, it doesn’t explain its incredible lasting power.

For that, we must turn to scholars and scientists who work to find scientific underpinnings for the popularity of certain songs.

According to Ethan Hein, a doctoral fellow in music education at New York University, part of what makes “The Monster Mash” stand out from other Halloween songs is that it is the opposite of what you would expect in a spooky-season song. While there are elements of horror in the song – the ghoulish narrator’s voice, the creepy special effects, the litany of allusions to Frankenstein, Dracula, and other famous monsters – the structure of the song is quite playful, making it appropriate for listeners of almost any age.

(Author’s note of personal experience: I remember first playing an animated video version of “The Monster Mash” for my granddaughter and grandson when they were 4 and 3 and their imploring pleas to “play that Monster song again, Grandpop.”)

Hein further contends that some of the popularity of the song arises from its wildly popular chord progression, which in music terms is labeled “the ice cream progression” for its naturally appealing effects to the human ear.

The chord progression I-vi-IV-V (C-Am-F-G, F-Dm-Bb-C etc.) has been used in some of the biggest hits in pop music including such songs as “Duke of Earl,” “Stand By Me,” “Please, Mr. Postman” and hundreds of others.

Probably, much of the popularity of song stems from the fact that it is a music heirloom, passed down from generation to generation, just like I did with my son and then my grandchildren.

Amy Belfi, a neuroscientist at NYU agrees with that theory. “Something I have studied a bit in my research is the associations between music and autobiographical memories – the thing that happens when you hear a song and it takes you back to a previous memory of a time in your life,” Belfi told Rae Poletta of Inverse: Science and Chill earlier this month.

I think that might be one reason why people enjoy ‘The Monster Mash’,” Belfi added. “I know, at least for me, when I hear that song it reminds me of being a little kid around Halloween time. I’m guessing a lot of people have similar associations with this song, and Halloween is so fun that the memories associated with it are likely to be positive ones.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to recreate something – which in today’s terminology would be labeled viral – like “The Monster Mash” while working from any pre-planned script. But that didn’t mean Bobby Pickett, who performed until he died in 2007, didn’t try. But his other attempts – “Monsters’ Holiday” (1962), (“Monster Rap” (1985) and “Climate Mash” (2005) – all failed to chart.

But those very failures led to a success that only Bobby “Boris” Pickett will ever achieve – he is recognized as a one-hit wonder who is responsible not only for the world’s top Halloween hit, but also the number one novelty rock record of all time.

Pickett, who in his career took to the stage wearing a bloodied lab coat with spiders on its shoulders, clearly understood his role in the world of pop music. “I’d like to play a medley of my hit,” he would often say before breaking into the rollicking Halloween anthem he gave the world.

In a 1996 interview with People magazine, Pickett expressed his gratefulness for the lighting flashing luck he was able to capture with his “monstrous” creation. “I’m truly glad I did the song because some people never get to do anything,” he said.

Here’s Bobby Pickett singing “The Monster Mash” – Happy Halloween!

A Booming Encore Encore
Some “Frightening” Fun Facts About “The Monster Mash” You Probably Don’t Know.

• The band behind the song featured some key figures in rock and roll. There was Leon Russell, later one of the truly great pianists and composers in all of classic rock, but then just a session man trying to pay his bills. Some say he was late for the session and didn’t play on “The Monster Mash,” but others say he did. Russell was definitely playing piano on the B side of the single, however. One of rock’s greatest backup singers, Darlene Love, sang as part of the girl group on the tune.
• Of the 360 covers of the song, the most famous is by The Beach Boys, who loved to play it in their live shows. Later, the Halloween-themed punk band The Misfits would make it a staple of their live performances as well.
• The song was briefly banned in the United Kingdom during its initial release because censors there found it “too morbid.”
• The horror actor Boris Karloff loved the song and actually performed it on a Halloween special edition of the TV show “Shindig!” in 1965.
• Elvis Presley, however, hated the song, calling it the “stupidest” song he had ever heard.
• When the song rose to the top of the charts for a final time in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia in 1973, Pickett was driving a cab in New York City to make ends meet.
• In his 50-year career, Pickett appeared as an actor in such (not) noteworthy films as It’s a Bikini World (1967), Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), Deathmaster (1972) and Lobster Man from Mars (1989). He also starred in the 1995 movie The Monster Mash, playing Doctor Frankenstein.
• Pickett also composed a couple other not-so-well known novelty songs – “Star Drek” and “King Kong (Your Song)”.
• In 2007, Dr. Demento aired a documentary about Pickett on his popular show. As far as we know, even though everything’s cool and Drac’s a part of the band, he still hasn’t found out “whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.