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Stuart Hersh

A Graveyard Smash: Bobby Pickett, The Man Behind the 'Monster Mash'

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Stuart Hersh

Although these days we think of Bobby "Boris" Pickett as a one-hit wonder, had you referred to him as one while he was alive, he would have corrected you. "Since I had two hits and a hit album, I exclude myself from that club," Pickett fired back at a Washington Post reader when asked if he'd ever been to a "one-hit wonder party."

The brains behind "Monster Mash," which he wrote when he was just 24, Pickett would spend much of his music career at odds with the Halloween tune's popularity. Even after recording a handful of chart-topping follow-up singles, raking in 22 acting credits and a feature film writing credit (which, granted, was for a small part of 1995's Monster Mash: The Movie), he'd still be memorialized as the "Guy Lombardo of Halloween."

It was an unlikely career trajectory for Pickett, whose real passion had always been acting. Pickett grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, and as a young boy, he spent much of his time seeing horror movies at the local theater his father managed. After graduating from high school, he served three years in Korea in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Upon his return, Pickett finally made the westbound trek to Hollywood, where he performed in a band called The Cordials and would, from time to time, break into impersonations of famous movie actors. His impersonation of Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff was reportedly a major hit with audiences—and a turning point for Pickett's career.

That audience response set the events that would lead to "Monster Mash" in motion during the summer of 1962. Cheesy monster movies were all the rage, and bandmate Lenny Capizzi encouraged Pickett to use his Karloff voice to mock them in a new novelty song. Capizzi joined him in the studio and together the two decided to send up yet another red-hot fad: The Mashed Potato dance move (see: Dee Dee Sharp's chart-topping hit "Mashed Potato Time" from the debut album "It's Mashed Potato Time").

The eternal novelty tune took no time at all to create. "The song wrote itself in a half hour and it took less than a half hour to record it," Pickett told The Washington Post. The accompanying album—simply titled The Original Monster Mash—contained 15 tracks in total and was released through the short-lived label Garpax, named after its producer and musician, Gary S. Paxton.

Though valiant in his efforts, Paxton was turned down by every major label he brought the tracks to. Pickett told Jan Alan Henderson that after this discouraging turn of events, Paxton drove around handing out copies of "Monster Mash" to radio DJs in Ventura and Fresno counties. That's when things really started to turn around. "By the time Gary got back to Southern California, his phone had been lighting up like a Christmas tree," Pickett said.

London Records, which had originally shot down Paxton's guerrilla marketing efforts, eventually helped distribute the album when "Monster Mash" became a ubiquitous force on popular radio. By October 30, The Original Monster Mash had climbed the charts to become the number one hit record in the U.S., where it sold 1 million copies. A happy Halloween treat, indeed.

The rest of Pickett's music career wouldn't be quite as fruitful. While quick on his feet to leverage his cultural relevance with the "Monster Mash" follow-ups "Monster's Holiday" and its B-side, "Monster Motion"—not to mention a couple of appearances on American Bandstand —he remained largely off the grid. He appeared in a slew of television commercials including ads for Lipton Tea, Schlitz beer, and "all the cigarette commercials (which hadn't been banned yet)," according to Pickett. He also took small acting roles in television shows, including The Beverly Hillbillies (as a lieutenant) in 1967, Bonanza in 1969, and in a little-seen film called Deathmaster—about a vampire who lures in a devout following of hippies—in 1972. He popped up on the music scene again in 1975 with a Star Trek parody called "Star Drek" and, 10 years later, released yet another spin on his debut classic called "Monster Rap." Neither song would measure up to Pickett's much-buzzed-about debut hit.

All was not lost, though. Just like the Halloween monsters Pickett lampooned in his songs, "Monster Mash" never truly died. Year after year, that goofy Boris Karloff impression has come back to haunt the world with a new vigor. Nearly a decade after its release, the song inexplicably crept up the charts to the Top 10 (in August, no less). Three years later, in May 1973, it charted again. More recently, Paste reported that, in 2008, it climbed as high as No. 60 on the British charts. To date, the tune has been listened to over a combined 5 million times on Spotify.

"Let's just say that it has paid the rent for 43 years," Pickett told The Washington Post when asked whether the royalties from his single would be enough even if he never worked another day in his life. It wasn't until 1989, under the direction of his longtime manager Stuart Hersh, that Pickett finally licensed the song for film and television use.

As for the secret to the tune's longevity? The jury's still out. "What fascinates me about 'Monster Mash' is the fact that this record, created to cash in on not one but two then-current fads, managed to transcend them both to stand on its own as a classic of sorts, even as those two fads evaporated into the mists of cultural obscurity," Grammy-winning producer Steve Greenberg wrote in a Billboard tribute to the Halloween hit.

Bobby Pickett (left) and Stuart Hersh (right) / Photo courtesy of Stuart Hersh

Hersh disagrees. He tells mental_floss that he believes the only thing dated about "Monster Mash" is the Mashed Potato fad that inspired it.

"There's nothing in the song itself that's dated; funny is funny," Hersh says. "In my opinion, the song was so cute—it wasn't like [Senator Bobby's] novelty record, 'Wild Thing,' which has been forgotten. It was utilizing Boris Karloff and monsters. The longevity of monster movies and actors like Karloff have helped sustain it."

Hersh adds that "everyone growing up" goes back to those original movie references, discovers "Monster Mash," and, in turn, keeps the hit alive.

Which is not to say that the earworm has been met with universal praise. Pickett once said that Dick Clark didn't particularly enjoy his music. "As much as he was amiable and friendly, [he] was not a big fan of the record. He thought it was kind of silly I think," Pickett said. On several occasions—including during live performances—Pickett also made mention of his most high-profile nemesis: Elvis Presley. According to Pickett, The King called "Monster Mash" "the dumbest thing he'd ever heard."

Apart from its ubiquity in pop culture (see: Parks and Recreation, Hotel Transylvania 2, Silver Linings Playbook, True Blood, The Office, etc.), "Monster Mash" found new life in the 2000s as political protest. In 2004, Pickett spoke out against President George W. Bush's environmental policies, renaming the track "Monster Slash." He gave the lyrics a good retooling, too: "They did the forest slash / (He did the slash)/ It was brutally brash." His 2005 rendering, "Climate Mash," was an effort to combat global warming; it was downloaded almost 500,000 times during Halloween 2005 alone, according to The Guardian.

Pickett never stopped performing. His last performance on record was in November 2006, five months before he died of leukemia. But as long as that graveyard smash gets play around Halloween, Pickett's memory will live on.

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How to Carve a Pumpkin—And Not Injure Yourself in the Process
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Wielding a sharp knife with slippery hands around open flames and nearby children doesn't sound like the best idea—but that's exactly what millions of Halloween celebrations entail. While pumpkin carving is a fun tradition, it can also bring the risk of serious hand injuries. According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH), some wounds sustained from pumpkin misadventure can result in surgery and months of rehabilitation.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to minimize trauma. Both ASSH and CTV News have compiled safety tips for pumpkin carvers intended to reduce the chances of a trip to the emergency room.

First, it's recommended that carvers tackle their design with knives made specifically for carving. Kitchen knives are sharp and provide a poor grip when trying to puncture tough pumpkin skin: Pumpkin carving knives have slip-resistant handles and aren't quite as sharp, while kitchen knives can get wedged in, requiring force to pull them out.

Carvers should also keep the pumpkin intact while carving, cleaning out the insides later. Why? Once a pumpkin has been gutted, you’re likely to stick your free hand inside to brace it, opening yourself up to an inadvertent stab from your knife hand. When you do open it up, it's better to cut from the bottom: That way, the pumpkin can be lowered over a light source rather than risk a burn dropping one in from the top.

Most importantly, parents would be wise to never let their kids assist in carving without supervision, and should always work in a brightly-lit area. Adults should handle the knife, while children can draw patterns and scoop out innards. According to Consumer Reports, kids ages 10 to 14 tend to suffer the most Halloween-related accidents, so keeping carving duties to ages 14 and above is a safe bet.

If all else fails and your carving has gone awry, have a first aid kit handy and apply pressure to any wound to staunch bleeding. With some common sense, however, it's unlikely your Halloween celebration will turn into a blood sacrifice.

[h/t CTV News]

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13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers
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For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $9.1 billion this year on spooky goods, including a record $3.4 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, CEO of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a costume doesn’t always work.

1. SOME COSTUMES ARE JUST TOO OUTRAGEOUS FOR RETAIL

A woman models a scary nun costume for Halloween
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For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … BUT THERE ARE SOME LINES THEY WON’T CROSS.

Homeowners are scared by trick-or-treaters on Halloween
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Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta, a business that broke into the industry on the strength of their fake dreadlock wig in 1992. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. THEY CAN DESIGN AND PRODUCE A COSTUME IN A MATTER OF DAYS.

A man models a costume in front of a mirror
Rob Stothard/Getty Images

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. BEYONCE CAN HELP MOVE STALE INVENTORY.

A screen shot from Formation, a music video featuring Beyonce
beyonceVEVO, YouTube

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “Last year, we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. WOMEN DON’T USUALLY WEAR MASKS.

A man tries on a Joker mask at a retail store
Rhona Wise/Getty Images

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage last year.

6. FOOD COSTUMES ARE ALWAYS A HIT.

A dog wears a hot dog costume for Halloween
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At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.” Demand for these faux-edible costumes can occasionally get ugly: Rasta is currently suing Sears and Kmart for selling a banana costume that they allege infringes on Rasta’s copyrighted version, which has blackened ends and a vertical stripe.

7. ADDING ”SEXY” TO EVERYTHING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK.

A packaged Halloween costume hangs on a store rack
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. PEOPLE ASK FOR SOME WEIRD STUFF.

A person appears in a skull costume with glowing eyes for Halloween
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. THEY HAVE WORKAROUNDS FOR BIG PROPERTIES.

Go out to a party this year and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. PEOPLE LOVE SHARKS.

Singer Katy Perry appears on stage with two dancing sharks
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. DEAD CELEBRITIES MEAN SALES.

A portrait of Hugh Hefner hangs in the Playboy Mansion
Hector Mata/Getty Images

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.” This year, designers expect Hugh Hefner to fuel costume ideas—unless something else pops up suddenly to grab their attention. “Last year, when Prince died, that was almost trumped by [presidential debate audience member] Ken Bone,” Berman says. “He became almost more popular than Prince.”

12. THEY PROFIT FROM PEOPLE SHOPPING AT THE LAST MINUTE.

A man shops for Halloween costumes in a retail store
Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. IT’S NOT ACTUALLY A SEASONAL BUSINESS.

A woman shops for costumes in a retail store
Rhona Wise/Getty Images

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.” Weeks says he'll begin planning in May 2018—for Halloween 2019.

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