“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.”