It's the "Auld Lang Syne" of Halloween, the signature song of the evening:
I was working in the lab late one night
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
For my monster from his slab began to rise
And suddenly to my surprise . . . Breathes there a man or woman who doesn't know what comes next?
Of course. He did the Mash--the "Monster Mash" that has been the enduring pop soundtrack of Halloween for more than a generation. Every year, for three or four days, the 1962 novelty turns up again, theme music for young trick-or-treaters and costumed adults alike. It pours from oldies radio stations, from just about every Halloween compilation album ever made.
And then at dawn, like Dracula, it slinks away to slumber--only in the song's case, it does so for another year.
The tune was a career-definer for Bobby "Boris" Pickett, an aspiring actor and singer who did a passable Boris Karloff impression. Pickett co-wrote "Monster Mash" with a friend, Leonard Capizzi, as a takeoff on the Mashed Potato, one of the dance crazes of the time.
He never foresaw what would come next. Released in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis that October, the song caught on, as it were, in a flash. It became the nation's top-selling single for two weeks. (That's--hold on to your candy corn--Leon Russell on piano on the original single.) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers recorded a slightly updated version that re-surfaced briefly on the charts in 1970. And in a strange back-from-the-dead act, it again hit the Top 10 in 1973.
Now 61 and living in Los Angeles, Pickett doesn't mind the one-hit wonder tag, especially since royalties from the song have exceeded $300,000 over the years. He still plays nostalgia concerts this time of year, usually outfitted in a lab coat stained with fake blood while "performing a medley of my hit," as he once put it. Pickett subsequently recorded other novelty songs--"Transylvania Twist," "Sinister Stomp" and "Me & My Mummy," among them--but none came close to his original monster. A film adaption of "Monster Mash," with Pickett as Dr. Frankenstein, went straight to video in 1995.
Much rereleased, much parodied (radio station WJFK-FM this week promoted its Redskins broadcast with a variation), "Monster Mash's" endurance suggests several larger themes.
First, there's the vacuum it fills. As national bacchanals go, Halloween seems particularly deficient in great popular musical accompaniments. It's no Fourth of July, with its effusions of patriotic oom-pah-pah; it's not in Easter's league and it doesn't even come close to those rousing year-ending crowd pleasers, Hanukah and Christmas. (On the other hand, it beats Thanksgiving and April Fool's Day.)
You could certainly name a few tunes appropriate for a Halloween soundtrack--"I Put a Spell on You," "Ghostbusters," the "Addams Family" theme, a pipe-organ version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. But none of those were actually written for the occasion. Not like "Monster Mash," which was made for Halloween.
"There are plenty of songs that are dark, that pick up on the imagery of Halloween," says Howard Kramer, associate curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. But these are, he concedes, the product of "a sub-genre of garage bands," such as the Cramps and Rob Zombie. By and large, he says, Halloween "has been off the pop radar."
That may not be so odd, he suggests, because popular music tends toward the light and romantic. Indeed, despite its ghoulish subtext, "Monster Mash" is cheerfully cartoonish, and eminently singable. This is about as Goth as it gets:
From my laboratory in the castle east
To the master bedroom where the vampires feast
The ghouls all came from their humble abodes
To get a jolt of my electrodes.
"It's enduring because it crosses all age groups," says Kramer. "Everyone can sing it--all you really have to know is the chorus. And it's entirely harmless," which means parents are happy to share it with their children.
But "Monster Mash's" ample shelf life suggests that it's become a touchstone for grown-ups, too, particularly as Halloween has been transformed from an occasion for children into an excuse for adults to loosen their inhibitions, shake off their responsibilities and party.
Some statistics: A full 32 percent of North American adults will dress up in costumes, compared with 36 percent of all children, according to the International Mass Retail Association (IMRA). On average, U.S. households will spend $98 on candy, costumes, alcohol and party decorations this year, according to a survey by American Express Corp.
All that makes Halloween the second biggest retail holiday after Christmas, according to the IMRA. And the third most popular occasion for parties after New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday, according to Seagram, the liquor company.
So whatever happened to the Transylvania Tvist? It's now following the cash.
(To listen to "Monster Mash" on Post-Haste, call 202-334-9000 and enter code 8151.)