On Still Slaps, we dive deep into a piece of maybe-forgotten pop culture to find out if it indeed continues to slap.
Novelty songs don’t always have a happy fate. Like comets, they burn fast and bright, illuminating our radio waves with their infectious melodies and catchy, dorky lyrics, then eventually dying off to become a blip in our pop culture consciousness, like “Barbie Girl” by Aqua and Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap.” Or, if they’re the dreaded holiday novelty songs, they continue plaguing us every year, like 1979’s “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” by Elmo & Patsy, which springs up without fail each Christmas season (particularly since a TV special based on the events in the song was made in 2000, and has aired every year since). Despite its longevity, most can agree the song is a boil on the butt of the concept known as music. It’s even played on repeat at parties in hell along with “She Hates Me” by Puddle of Mudd!
But there’s one holiday novelty song that doesn’t feel like the handiwork of Satan, and that song is “Monster Mash.” Yes, friends, “Monster Mash” still slaps. This Halloween, let’s take the time to explore how and why.
What’s the origin story of this old-ass novelty song?
Not sure if you’re aware, but “Monster Mash” was a graveyard smash that got the living world grinding like the creeps of your nightmares. Talk about a crossover! Released in 1962, the song became a chart-topping hit for Bobby “Boris” Pickett, a struggling actor who, during a gig fronting a band called The Cordials, did an impersonation of Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. When the crowd went apeshit over it, he decided to take that schtick to the bank. And it worked out.
“Monster Mash” tapped into three things Americans lost their goddamn minds over most at the time: the mashed potato dance, the various songs encouraging people to do said mashed potato dance, and monster movies that made drive-in theaters the lit-est spot in towns across the country. Fifty-seven years later, no one’s doing the mashed potato, instead putting their health and safety in peril while attempting the “In My Feelings” challenge or tearing up their backyards doing the “Cha-Cha Slide.” And monster movies have evolved from blobs, body snatchers, and 50-foot babes into more insidious dangers (nordic cults, racist hypnotists, and a tornado full of sharks, to name a few), but Pickett’s song is still a staple of our Halloweens in a way that brings us joy, not perennial pain.
OK, but why does it slap?
Musically, “Monster Mash” borrowed its style from the pop and R&B born out of the Motown Sound, Phil Spector-produced girl groups, and classic doo wop and vocal groups like Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Dion & the Belmonts—all genres and eras that shaped American popular music and culture thanks, in part, to the brilliant simplicity of their songwriting. The song’s arrangement mirrors that of Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” and The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and has the dance energy of “The Twist;” all chart-toppers in their time that have maintained a place in pop culture through film and television. Every instance of the backup singers calling out “he did the mash!” as well as the “wah-ooh’s” and hand-claps that pepper the track make it contagiously catchy. A novelty song didn’t have to go so hard, but “Monster Mash” did. It’s got groove! It’s got spunk! And in emulating these musical styles, “Monster Mash” has lived beyond the confines of the decade that saw its rise, because this era of music is timeless. If you removed the lyrics, the song would still be good. It’s perfect 60s pop simplicity.
And it’s is a Halloween song!
While the culture is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Christmas songs, there are very few songs that cater to Halloween lovers. “Thriller” now has its unfortunate connotations, and “Ghostbusters” and “Somebody’s Watching Me” feel a bit dated, even if they remain beloved. We’ll always have the Misfits’ songbook, and The Cramps, Alice Cooper, The Damned, and other artists have gifted their goth sensibilities to our Halloween playlists. But in terms of a classic jam, we’ve only got one. (And this one has the benefit of not being date rapey like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”)
The song basically tells the story of every cookout where someone throws on “Cupid Shuffle” or “No Rompas Mi Corazón” (if you, like me, are extremely Mexican), making it extremely relatable to people of all walks of life. Pickett leans heavily into his Karloff impersonation, spookily crooning about a mad scientist who’s posted up in his laboratory when—holy shit!—his monster rises from the grave and moves in such a way that it inadvertently incites a dance craze. Then a rager erupts, and everyone comes through: Wolfman, Dracula, Dracula’s kid, ghouls, Igor providing percussion with some chains, “coffin-bangers,” everybody—alive or dead. They heard that jam hit the boombox, and witnessed dope-ass dance moves (basically whatever era-specific dance plus stiff, protruding Frankenstein monster arms), and the power of the mash compelled them to boogie down. The beasts and baddies were united for three minutes and 12 seconds, and thus was born a graveyard (and chart) smash. If the “Monster Mash” was indeed based on true events, I bet whenever the Wolfman runs into Dracula he’s like, “Ay man, remember that one time we all went buck wild at the graveyard? That was the fucking best.” It honestly sounds like the best party ever, and who doesn’t want to go to the best party ever? At the time of its release, most critics were delighted; only the BBC were a bunch of haters, banning the song for being “too morbid.” Being that much of a dweeb is what gets your invitation to the Transylvania Twist lost in the mail.
But, really, does it still slap?
The song is, of course, corny, but that’s part of its beauty. “Monster Mash” is good, clean, Halloween fun. You can dance to it; you can sing along knowing no one’s getting their drink spiked; and you can revel in its dorky imagining of a dance party involving a back-up band called The Crypt-Kicker Five. It slaps, forever and always, all the way to the grave. Case closed.