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Every Halloween, ‘Monster Mash’ Comes Back to Haunt Us

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Every Halloween, ‘Monster Mash’ Comes Back to Haunt Us

Novelty songs come in two forms: the ones you love and the ones you want to drown in the river. There’s no in-between, which is the point: They’re meant to grab your attention by any means necessary, their cutesy cleverness barreling down on you like an oncoming tornado. You either succumb to their pleasures or recoil with disgust, destined to hate the song every single GODDAMN time it comes back into your life.

Just think: If Bobby Pickett had made it as an actor, we would have never been cursed with “Monster Mash.” Maybe you adore this Halloween staple, that goofy ditty about a bunch of monsters dancing the night away. For me, it’s the height of insipid — it’s everything that’s wrong with novelty songs. But others can’t get enough of “Monster Mash.” I hope the song brings them comfort and joy, even though these are clearly terrible people whose taste needs to be called into question.

Pickett, who died in 2007 at the age of 69, grew up in Massachusetts, serving in the Army and stationed in Korea before moving to Southern California to make his name. “I came to Los Angeles in 1960 to study acting and work in television and films,” he recalled. “I got an agent after many, many months — and after two weeks of being with him, he died of a heart attack. So, I was in trouble as an actor.”

Thankfully, he found a lifeline when two brothers from his hometown, Leonard and Bill Capizzi, reached out: They had started a vocal group with some friends, and maybe Pickett would like to join? The Cordials sang a cappella around town, covering popular favorites like the Diamonds’ 1957 smash “Little Darlin’.” For a laugh, Pickett started singing the song’s super-sincere spoken-word bridge — “My darling, I need you…” — in the rich, low voice of horror icon Boris Karloff, who became famous playing the monster in Universal’s classic Frankenstein pictures. (Later, Karloff would provide the narration for the beloved animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!) This wasn’t the first time Pickett had whipped out his Karloff impression: “I would enter these talent contests,” he explained. “I did this shtick about Boris Karloff … and every time I’d do it, I’d win.” Pickett’s Karloff bit killed for “Little Darlin’,” so Leonard Capizzi suggested something radical: They should do a novelty song that incorporated his imitation.

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“Lenny sat at the piano and started playing this four-chord progression,” Pickett said. “He said, ‘What do you think of this riff?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but maybe we should base something on the monster getting up and doing the latest dance.’ We were just kind of getting into the groove. We just started off with that.”

The early 1960s weren’t just a period of novelty songs but, also, an era in which hits could be generated by creating new dances, à la Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” Capizzi and Pickett took both trends and applied it to a horror context, imagining a humorous scenario in which Dr. Frankenstein brings his creature to life, only to discover the monster wants to get down:

He did the mash
He did the monster mash 
The monster mash
It was a graveyard smash 
He did the mash
It caught on in a flash 
He did the mash
He did the monster mash​​

“It came very easily and very fast,” Pickett said later. “In less than two hours we had the whole thing.” The only real snag was deciding what to call the song. Capizzi was partial to “Monster Mashed Potato.” Pickett liked “Monster Twist.” They settled on “Monster Mash.”

Pickett considered “Monster Mash” little more than a fun goof in which he got to play the main characters and the narrator, using that funny Karloff voice of his. (In a sense, this was his chance to keep alive his dream of being an actor.) But producer Gary S. Paxton, who’d turned another novelty song, “Alley Oop,” into a chart-topper, saw the potential of “Monster Mash,” bringing in the vocal group the Blossoms to lend backup vocals. The Blossoms were led by Darlene Love, who would soon emerge as one of the all-time great vocalists, although she didn’t have much faith in this jokey song they were working on.

“We had a hard time doing it because it was totally ridiculous,” Love said in 2017. “When you do a song like that, you never think you’re going to be famous or that it’ll be a hit. … We were like, ‘Oh, please. A Halloween song? Who’s gonna do a song about Halloween?’”

But Pickett grew more optimistic once they got into the studio. “It was an amazing time to be cutting records,” he recalled. “The day we cut ‘Monster Mash,’ Herb Alpert was in the same studio cutting ‘Brave Bull,’ and Jimmie Rodgers was recording his hit, ‘Honeycomb.’ … Gary Paxton did all the audio effects, like the straw in a glass of water to get that bubbling lab sound. Gary pulled the rusty nail out of a board to get the coffin creaking sound; he dragged chains across the linoleum floor to get the chain effects. My part of the record was done in a half hour.”

Incorporating those “spooky” sound effects and a breezy narrative in which Dracula, the Wolf Man and their scary buddies all come over to party, “Monster Mash” very much felt like a product of the carefree early-1960s pop environment, blending girl-group vocals with a clean, inoffensive musical arrangement. The song didn’t have the grit or sexual undercurrent of rock ‘n’ roll — it was something silly and harmless and catchy, just an amusing little bauble for the radio. Its chorus was annoyingly repetitive, but you couldn’t get it out of your head, the juxtaposition of the Blossoms’ bright voices and Pickett’s droopy Karloff tones an undeniably striking contrast. Humanizing the different monsters made them seem weirdly relatable — for instance, Dracula’s peeved his “Transylvania Twist” didn’t catch on — and the feel-good atmosphere allowed the song to work for kids and adults. (The lyrics were nursery-rhyme simple.) And yet, Pickett and his pals had trouble getting any labels to go for “Monster Mash,” with Paxton finally deciding to just drop it off at local radio stations. “By the time he drove back, they had played it,” Pickett said. “The phones lit up and he knew he had a hit.”

In late October of 1962, just in time for Halloween, “Monster Mash” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts, staying on top for two weeks. And although Pickett is thought of as being a one-hit wonder, he actually figured out how to capitalize on the novelty’s appeal, later crafting a Christmas-themed version called “Monster’s Holiday” that also landed in the Top 40. In subsequent years, Pickett would try to find more variations on “Monster Mash” — in the mid-1980s, he gave the world “Monster Rap” — and he was popular with Dr. Demento’s audience for his quirky tunes. But he eventually moved toward writing musicals, the random acting gig and occasionally serving as a disc jockey. “My recording days were not over,” he said, “just my No. 1, Top-10-hit recording days were over.” 

Over the years, “Monster Mash” would occasionally reappear on the charts, but its impact was more apparent by how quickly it became associated with Halloween. Every October, Pickett’s song is ubiquitous, the sort of hokey, dated novelty song that, now that all this time has passed, is embraced as kitsch, its old-fashioned corniness taking on a certain kind of charm. (Also, there’s a nostalgia factor at work: Parents play “Monster Mash” for their children, who enjoy its silly lyrics and sing-along chorus, growing up and later sharing it with their own children.) Much like the lame “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Monster Mash” is a bad song that myriad folks have a fondness for — its benign awfulness is synonymous with the holiday they cherish. Whether ironically or sincerely, they can’t imagine Halloween without it.

Pickett understood that he’d never fully get away from “Monster Mash.” And if he was embarrassed by his hit, he never let on — in fact, he was quite proud of it. In 1998, he noted, “I haven’t made millions, but I have been paying the rent for 36 years with just one song.” “Monster Mash” drew plenty of different responses, including from some of Pickett’s heroes. A friend of his told him that Elvis Presley had heard “Monster Mash.” Pickett was thrilled that the King was aware of his music, but the friend then said, “Well, he hates your record, Bobby. He thinks it’s the stupidest thing he ever heard.” But that didn’t keep bands like the Beach Boys from doing pretty reverent covers of “Monster Mash,” singer Mike Love really getting his Boris Karloff on.

To my mind, Presley’s assessment of “Monster Mash” is dead-on, but that’s how it is with all novelty songs: “Stupid” is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. I love Randy Newman’s “Short People” — as far as I’m concerned, calling it a novelty song is an insult — but your mileage may vary. What about Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling”? “Gangnam Style”? Is “Old Town Road” a novelty song? It all depends if you dig it or find it utterly disposable. “Novelty” has a negative connotation to it, suggesting something superficial, disposable, gimmicky. Not that many people listen to Christmas songs all year long, but it’s especially hard to imagine grooving to “Monster Mash” any month other than the one in which we now find ourselves. It’s a song that serves no purpose except as a tie-in to trick or treating.

Not surprisingly, like so much of Baby Boomer pop culture, “Monster Mash” has found its way into subsequent generations’ sitcoms and movies, often as parody or the butt of the joke. The Simpsons made it a running bit that Marty, Springfield’s hapless local DJ, always played “Monster Mash” on holidays that weren’t Halloween. (When he’s called out on it during Valentine’s Day, Marty meekly replies, “Well… it’s kind of a love song. All the monsters enjoying each other’s company, dancing, holding their evil in check.”) And because the song is so wholesome, dirty-minded comics like to insinuate that, really, “Monster Mash” is about a monster-filled orgy, although no one took that conceit to such deranged extremes as Nick Wiger, who showed up on Comedy Death-Ray Radio as “Leo Karpatze,” explaining to Scott Aukerman that he co-wrote the song with Pickett, his original version being rejected by the censors because it was too saucy. Without further ado, he unveiled his never-before-heard rendition, “Monster Fuck.” (Side note: If you’re a degenerate who finds this funny, proceed immediately to “Monster Fuck (Reboot),” Karpatze’s redone version for Comedy Bang! Bang! It’s just as filthy.)

But my favorite sendup of “Monster Mash” is one that’s way more indirect. On 30 Rock, we discover that Tracy once had a Halloween novelty hit called “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” On the show, we only see a brief clip from the accompanying video, which is a howlingly terrible “Thriller” knockoff. Blessedly, 30 Rock later released the full-length track, which indirectly parodies “Monster Mash” by aping its elemental musical structure, party atmosphere and supernatural-themed narrative. “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” is super-funny, especially when you consider that Donald Glover (a 30 Rock writer at the time) is doing all the Tracy Jordan parts. This is a great novelty song.

Then there are the endless covers. Everyone from the Misfits to Goofy has taken a stab at “Monster Mash,” but none are the inexplicable car wreck that Bobby Brown and Mike Tyson’s version is. Let me set the scene: It’s 2005, and Jimmy Kimmel is doing a Halloween edition of his late-night show. So he has this unlikely duo on, with Brown doing possibly the worst James Brown impression ever. Meanwhile, Tyson (dressed as Dracula) sorta just gyrates in place. Are they joking? Are they not? Can anyone say for sure?

Although many have made fun of his song, Pickett could rest easy knowing that Karloff himself liked “Monster Mash.” In his later years, Pickett would revise his signature hit for causes that mattered to him. Around Halloween of 2004, right before the presidential election, he released “Monster Slash,” an ecologically-themed twist on the original that condemned the incumbent, George W. Bush. “I decided to do this new recording because, like millions of people, I think this president has the worst environmental record in the history of our great nation,” Pickett said. A year later, he recorded “Climate Mash,” declaring, “Global warming is a huge problem, and Congress is acting like a bunch of zombies, just sleepwalking through it.”

He never got to be the full-fledged actor he’d hoped to be as a young man, but “Monster Mash” opened the door for him to have bit parts in several horror (and horror-comedy) films such as Strange InvadersFrankenstein General Hospital and Lobster Man From Mars. But in 1995, he was one of the stars of Monster Mash: The Movie, a horror/comedy/musical written and directed by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, inspired by “Monster Mash” and a musical Pickett had developed in the late 1960s called I’m Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night. Describing I’m Sorry, Pickett said, “(Sheldon Allman) and I wrote this thing in 1966. Way before Young Frankenstein, way before The Rocky Horror Picture Show. … (I)t’s A Chorus Line for monsters!” Pickett played Dr. Frankenstein alongside a cast that included Candace Cameron, Ian Bohen, Jimmie Walker and John Kassir, the voice of the Cryptkeeper in Tales From the Crypt. It sank without a trace and is hard to find these days, but I did appreciate one Letterboxd reviewer’s assessment: “This movie is about cinema’s classic monsters being horny for Candace Cameron.”

It’s possible we haven’t seen the last of “Monster Mash” on the big screen. Right before the pandemic hit in 2020, Universal announced it was packaging a big-screen musical called Monster Mash, and although the plot details were kept under wraps, some assumed it would draw from Pickett’s song. But when director Matt Stawski talked about the still-in-development film last year, it didn’t sound like the plot of Monster Mash had a lot to do with “Monster Mash.” “I can’t tell you much,” Stawski said. “I can tell you we are working on that script. I grew up in a Halloween town, Detroit just goes off for Halloween. It’s part of my DNA. … I’ve watched all those old 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, black-and-white Universal-Hammer (films), all the horror monster movies, hundreds of times. … So we’re really playing with the monsters and making sure that we can sort of subvert everyone’s expectations. And maybe they’re going to go into the theater expecting one thing, but we’re going to throw a curveball at you.”

In the meantime, another Halloween beckons, and so does endless spins of “Monster Mash” on the radio, in shops and around town if you’re taking costumed kids door-to-door. So much of Halloween is based around frightening people. We watch scary movies, we dress up in scary costumes — or sexy ones — and the idea is to tap into our most powerful, darkest emotions. “Monster Mash” is different. Nobody has ever been terrified by Pickett’s song. It’s more “Ghostbusters” than “Thriller,” more horror-comedy than horror. The song presents the zombies, vampires and other freaky beasts of Halloween as just harmless goofballs. It’s wild that, back when “Monster Mash” first came out, the BBC briefly banned the song, declaring it “too morbid.” Who ever associated ghoulishness with such a cheery tune?

Love or hate “Monster Mash,” we have Buddy Pickett and Leonard Capizzi to thank/blame. Not that long before his big hit, Pickett suffered from a bit of stage fright, which he dealt with by having a drink or two. He was out of the service and back in civilian life, thinking about the career he really wanted. That’s when his life changed, although not quite the way he expected. 

“The first time I went on stage in (Massachusetts) to do a five-minute stand-up comedy spoof of monsters,” he recalled, “which I had kind of ripped off from a guy I had seen do it on a boat when I was returning from Korea, in 1958, he did a spoof of monsters. I just watched him and thought that’s a great act. He was doing Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi impressions. I said, ‘You wrote the act?’ He said, ‘No, I stole it from Jack Carter. I saw it on TV.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay. Then you won’t mind if I use it.’”

That’s where he got the idea to do a Karloff. That’s what prompted Capizzi to think his impression would be perfect for a novelty song. And that’s why we’ve had “Monster Mash” rattling around in our brains for more than 60 years now. “​​My Monster Mash is the hit of the land,” Pickett sings as Karloff. He didn’t know how right he was. Come November, we’ll be free of it. Until then, though, be afraid, be very afraid.

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