Why Do We Monster Mash?
Clip from a Monster Mash (Reenactment)
YouTube Screen Capture
For many of us, every Halloween is signified by that one song we hear at least once every spooky harvest season. No matter what the neighborhood ghouls and goblins get into, few songs are as much of a rite of passage, hallmark and staple as Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash." Ubiquitous within the Halloween season, it seems to be mandated by law to appear in every "Halloween-episode" of every sitcom committed to tape, we as a society almost take for granted that "Monster Mash" will always be there. Whether you love it or hate Halloween (that venn diagram doesn't really seem to really intersect) chances are all you might know of the "Monster Mash" is #1 it's a graveyard smash and #2 it caught on in a flash. That's why I'd like to take a moment away from costume shopping to really examine why the "Mash" has managed to trick and treat listeners for over 50 years.
The year was 1962 and dance craze The Mashed Potato was the hit of the land. A variant on the 1920s Charleston, the popular steps made famous by James Brown were a social phenomenon, giving birth to tremendous hits like Brown's own "Mashed Potato USA" and Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potato Time," as well as being namedropped in instantly timeless classics like The Contours' "Do You Love Me" and Connie Francis' "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N." Just as there would later be countless variations on the "Macarena" and "Crank That," The Mashed Potato was practically begging for a novelty version to be conjured.
That cosmic prayer was answered by Pickett when, according to legend, he and Leonard Capizzi, wrote the song in one hour and recorded it in one spooktacular take. Inspired by Pickett's improv Boris Karloff impression during their group The Cordials' performances, they whipped the track up and proceeded to be rejected by record label after record label until finally finding release on Gary S. Paxton's Garpax Records. From there, it became the number one song in the country for two weeks, and years later would re-enter the Top 100 on two separate occasions.
While the song doesn't really explain how to do it, and should perhaps be retitled "(The Legend of the) Monster Mash," there is an actual "Monster" variant on the Mashed Potato. It involves acting like Frankenstein's monster while doing the dance, with one's extended appendages stiffly waving about. It's unclear how exactly "The Transylvania Twist," which the song mentions "is now the Mash," became the Mash as both The Twist and The Mashed Potato look nothing alike. Providing further confusion is '60s local television horror host Baron Daemon's single the next year "The Transylvania Twist" that only hints doing the twist "Transylvania style" is doing it while holding your partner close, which would either be wildly uncomfortable or require the synchronicity that can only come from the undead's centuries of practice. But "Transylvania Twist" isn't likely to be canon with the universe of "The Mash," so it's best we chalk it up to being Boris Pickett fan-fiction.
Yes, there is a certain universe that "The Monster Mash" exists in that doesn't necessarily fall in line with what we know of most horror legends. As Rifftrax Live pointed out two years ago before their live Night of the Living Dead riffing, the song mentions "Dracula and his Son" amongst the party's guests, who in 1962 didn't exist in the original Bram Stoker novel. But Pickett didn't keep his universe of monster get-togethers to just one amazing hit, he quickly followed up with the Christmas themed "Monster's Holiday" (which wasn't about a dance, but rather the monsters conspiring to rob Santa, but instead are greeted by Santa bringing them presents, and linking to the original near the end with Igor declaring "Santa Good!") and later "Blood Bank Blues," "Werewolf Watusi" and "The Monster Swim." If there's one thing Bobby "Boris" Pickett excelled at, it was penning songs about monsters having get-togethers.
But would monsters really party with each other? That's what beloved sketch comedy outfit Mr. Show investigated with their famed Monster Parties: Fact or Fiction sketch. A loving send-up of novelty song culture, as well as the 90s trend of Unsolved Mysteries-type programming, it's a must-see for anyone who the Mash has ever caught on in a flash with.
Whether the actual "Monster Mash" really happened or not doesn't necessarily have a bearing on how the song is truly one of those rare eternal hits. Even amongst seasonal novelty records, "Monster Mash" sits upon a very impressive throne. This year marks the 54th consecutive Halloween it will be played on every block with trick-or-treaters, in every movie with a Halloween party scene, and anywhere those orange and black color can be reached. But do we continue to mash because we love the monsters, or is it because we love Bobby "Boris" Pickett, whose sincere unapologetic zeal for singing about the classic characters of horror lore dancing together has brought out the Halloween spirit like no other recording in existence. Pickett continued to perform "Monster Mash" every year for the rest of his life until his death in April, 2007. But his classic with continue to be played long after we've all exited the land of the living. Perhaps it was Igor who said it best when he proclaimed "Mash good."
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