Still a Smash After Six Decades

“It caught on in a flash,” the Boris-Karloff-channeling Bobby Pickett prophetically croons about the “Monster Mash,” which soon became a smash hit with more than just cemetery residents. Just six weeks after its chart debut, the novelty song topped the Billboard Hot 100 on October 20th, 1962–sixty years ago today.

Given the early success the song enjoyed and its subsequent entrenchment in pop culture, one might suspect that the “Monster Mash” originated as a bit of savvy calculation. But the sensation the song created appears to have been both unlikely and unanticipated. An aspiring actor who moonlighted as the frontman for the band The Cordials, Pickett launched into a Karloff impersonation while covering The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin'” during a concert. Positive audience response led Pickett (who, as a child in the late 1940s, nursed himself on the revivals of Dracula and Frankenstein that played on the screens of his father’s movie-theater chain) and fellow bandmember Lenny Capizzi to try and expand upon the Karloff-voice gimmick. The pair sat down and composed the song in less than an hour (which perhaps accounts for a nonsensical lyric like “tennis shoe, wah-ooh”); state-of-the-art-sounding effects were in fact homemade (water bubbled by straw=boiling cauldron; rusty nail pulled from board=creaking coffin lid). Pickett has admitted that he thought the song would only circulate amongst his friends–and it did almost land in the musical graveyard when the major record labels roundly rejected it. “Monster Mash” producer Gary Paxton (whose own offbeat hit, “Alley Oop,” helped inspire Pickett) had to have 1,000 copies of the record privately pressed, many of which he then hand-delivered to radio stations across California in the hopes of securing airplay.

So how did the “Monster Mash” overcome its less-than-auspicious origins, and why has it remained so popular for so long? Surely the answer isn’t as simple as a kitschy subject (a mad scientist sparks the newest dance hit) being serendipitously paired with a catchy tune? Besides riffing on the then-current dance craze the Mashed Potato, Pickett’s surf-rock-style song rides the wave of  mid-20th Century Monster Culture (a time when TV screenings of horror-hosted Universal monster movies, the assemblage of Aurora model kits, and fanatic collection of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine prevailed). In his study The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, scholar David J. Skal considers that Pickett’s fantasy number provided a comic outlet for contemporary, real-world anxieties: “Throughout the Cuban nuclear threat, America’s favorite pop song celebrated a mad scientist who presided over a dance of death.”  At the end of the day (and six decades), timing seems to be everything. The song’s late-October 1962 peak and autumnal resurrection every year since speaks to its consonance with the Halloween sensibility–the perennial holiday endeavor to make light of the macabre and make friends with monstrosity.

Over the years, Pickett attempted to build upon the wonder of his one hit, releasing related songs such as “Monster’s Holiday,”  “Monster Swim,” and “Monster Rap.” In 1995, he adapted his co-written 1967 stage musical I’m Sorry the Bridge is Out, You’ll Have to Stay the Night as the feature-length Monster Mash: The Movie (Rocky Horror-esque, albeit far less transgressive in its campiness). The hit song itself has been covered by a broad range of artists, from The Beach Boys to Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Misfits and Mannheim Steamroller, horror icon Vincent Price and (appropriately) Boris Karloff–even Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But neither Pickett nor his various followers has ever matched the goofy glory of the original “Monster Mash.”

Horseman Hymns

While doing research for my new book, I was really surprised at the number of songs that the Headless Horseman has inspired (in an host of musical genres, but especially heavy metal). Here’s a Sleepy Hollow Playlist of some of the standouts:

🎃 Bing Crosby: “The Headless Horseman”


🎃 Joe Satriani: “The Headless Horseman”


🎃 Marcel Bontempi: “The Headless Horseman”


🎃 The Polecats: “Headless Horseman”


🎃 They Might Be Giants: “Headless”


🎃 Pigmy Love Circus: “Headless Horseman”


🎃 Attic: “The Headless Horseman”


🎃 Last Pharaoh: “The Headless Horseman”


🎃 Pegazus: “The Headless Horseman”


🎃 Deathless Legacy: “Headless Horseman”


🎃 William Allen Jones: “Here in the Hollow”


🎃 William Allen Jones: “Headless Horseman”


🎃 William Allen Jones: “The Galloping Hessian Rides”


Two More Killer Burton Works

In yesterday’s post, I counted down Tim Burton’s Ten Best Directorial Efforts, limiting the list to films (both short and feature-length) directed (not simply produced) by Burton. What many fans might not realize, though, is that Burton has also served as a director of music videos–most notably for a pair of songs by The Killers. In 2006’s “Bones,” the drive-in meets the danse macabre, resulting in some very special skeletal effects. And 2012’s “Here With Me” presents a wax horror museum (Winona Ryder plays a mannequin-turned-animate) and a seaside amusement park with some dark carnival overtones. Terrific tracks both, whose videos are enhanced by Burton’s signature macabre style.



Darkness in the Heart of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Most Haunting Songs

For over four decades now, Bruce Springsteen has fronted one of the country’s most rollicking rock bands. Starkly contrasting with the stadium-shaking anthems, though, are the more somber-toned and macabre-themed tunes Springsteen has penned and crooned over the course of his career. So as the year draws to a close (just like the run of Springsteen on Broadway earlier this month), here’s a top-ten-style list of my favorite musician’s darkest offerings…

  • “My Hometown”: Waxing nostalgic and melancholic at once, the song hearkens back to a birthplace that has since been marred by racial strife and economic plight. But to me, it’s the cyclic structure (as the speaker ends up repeating to his son the same lines his father had given him years earlier) that’s so subtly unnerving, suggesting that “getting out” is now a snuffed aspiration.
  • “American Skin (41 Shots)”The eerie refrain is fired off nearly as many times as the eponymous barrage (Springsteen’s pointed reference to the excessive force used by officers of the NYPD in gunning down an innocent Amadou Diallo). This protest song, though, transcends its racially-charged subject matter by reminding listeners that we all risk violent death as we move through our everyday lives.
  • “The Wrestler”A grappler’s account of his sacrifice to the bloody spectacle of professional wrestling–the physical and spiritual toll the sport has taken on him. The images employed (“one-legged dog,” “one-armed man,” “a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat”) reflect not only the speaker’s sense of having been broken down and hollowed out, but also a terrible self-awareness of his carnival-freakish status. Springsteen has laid elegiac tracks to other hit movies (PhiladelphiaDead Man Walking), but none match the tenor of their cinematic counterpart as pitch-perfectly as this Grammy nominee.
  • “Factory”Springsteen adopts a Gothic idiom (“mansions of fear,” “mansions of pain”) in this dirge about being turned into the walking dead by “the working life.” No less disconcerting than such reduction to soulless automatons, though, is the fact that these men have grown dangerously embittered by their blue-collar employment (and no doubt “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”).
  • “Atlantic City”: A song that highlights the darkness–the corruption and desperation–lying behind boardwalk glitz. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” the down-and-out speaker speculates on the return of luck; nevertheless, a hellish existence appears in store once he starts getting involved with the local underworld.
  • “We Are Alive”: Springsteen channels Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as he presents a chorus of voices from beyond the grave. Ultimately uplifting in both its beat and theme (the undying spirit of those who fight for social and economic justice), the song features some truly horrific imagery along the way–especially when the speaker awakens within the cold blackness of a worm-filled grave.
  • Devils and Dust”: In this bleak Springsteen masterpiece, a soldier in a desert country (a landscape just as evocative of the American West) is gripped by fear and shaken by a crisis of faith. The alliterative title pairing signals a damning spiritual desiccation–an inner wasteland to match the battlefield without.
  • “Nebraska”This unemotional, remorseless chronicle (based on the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate) of a couple’s interstate thrill-killing spree proves just as harrowing for the now-incarcerated speaker’s description of execution via electrocution. With his conclusion that “there’s just a meanness in this world,” the killer echoes the grimly philosophizing Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classic, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
  • “My Father’s House”A dream of return to the childhood sanctuary of family connection takes a nightmarish turn, as the speaker makes a frightful flight through a dark forest with ghosts not-far afield and the devil right on his heels. Matters grow even more haunting when he awakens and embarks on a trip back home, only to discover that he is too late (his father is gone, and the family domicile is now occupied by strangers). The slow, muted music here is well-suited to the song’s story of quiet tragedy.
  • “The River”This bittersweet ballad (inspired by the marriage of Springsteen’s sister Ginny and brother-in-law Mickey) expertly evokes the loss of youthful innocence–the crushing of hopes by the harsh realities of life. The lines “Now these memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?” rank among the most poignant ever sung by Springsteen. Undeniably powerful, “The River” floods the listener with mournful emotion.


Rush to Judgment

Rush’s “Witch Hunt” (from the group’s 1981 album Moving Pictures) arguably forms the greatest torch-and-pitchfork song in music history. The haunting aural experience begins with an ominous instrumental, complete with a chanting rabble in the background. Sizzling guitar licks then give way to Geddy Lee crooning Neal Peart’s lyrics, which blaze a condemnation of mob mentality–misguided self-righteousness, proscription of thought, intolerance of otherness, hasty vigilante justice. Described as moving “like demons possessed,” this irreligious hillttop mob might have emigrated straight from George Lippard’s The Quaker City (see yesterday’s post). Bewitchingly critical, Rush’s denunciation of presumptuous persecutors leaves quite a mark on the listener’s conscience.

Pop Gothic: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.

Apparently even Taylor Swift is at home in the Macabre Republic. Never has threatened vengeance sounded so catchy as in her latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Singing about rising from the dead, Swift invokes the horrific from the opening verses. The accompanying music video makes the imagery that much more graphic, depicting a raven-infested cemetery and Swift (or, technically, her personified Reputation) breaking ground as a moldering, reanimate corpse. More than a nod to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the Halloween-worthy scene signals that Swift is hardly looking to bury the hatchet as she comes back from the grave. In the figure of a zombie–a bogey known for its relentless aggression, Swift puts her enemies on grim notice.

The video subsequently fashions Swift as a Gothic monarch, vampirically-taloned, ensconced on a snake-swarmed throne. Dressed in uncheery cherry, she forebodes bloody comeuppance: “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.” After sounding a thoroughly antisocial note (“I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”), Swift insists on haunting nocturnal visitation: “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.”

In past performances, Swift has shown that she isn’t averse to publicly airing grievances via allusive lyrics.  Here, though, the rhetoric is stronger, the stance decidedly darker. Swift plays the deadly female, furious over her own scorning and hellbent on redressing perceived wrongs. With her coolly-delivered refrain, Swift channels the victim-blaming, violence-justifying demeanor and dubious composure of a classic Poe narrator. And while the media inevitably gets swept up in decoding Swift’s lines and the video’s symbolism, it’s less the “you” (whichever former lover or rival musician being referenced) than the disturbingly vague “what” of the song title that proves so arresting: what exactly has this questionably-driven speaker done?

At the very least, she has compelled me to write this post. Because all of the forced comedy of the video’s conclusion–in which Swift pokes fun at her previous images/personae–does nothing to diminish the sinister overtones of this surprisingly prickly piece of pop music.