Monster Mash

There were two more Frankenstein records that year. The first was actually a re-release, one of those rare cases of a long-dead novelty tune brought back to life. The 1962 “Monster Mash,” by Bobby Boris Pickett - for reasons never revealed - appeared again on the U.S. charts in the summer of ’73. Doing a cheesy imitation of Karloff, Pickett had jumped on the early sixties fad-wagon of Everything Monsters: two hit TV shows (The Munsters and The Addams Family), the Aurora model kits (the first of which was of course Frankenstein’s monster), lunch boxes, stickers, board games and toys. Like the James Bond spy craze and Beatlemania that followed it, the wave of new-old monsters swept over American pop culture. The fad came and went, before the first man had put his boot on the moon. Why did it then return a decade later, as the last Saturn rocket was being prepared to put the last sons of Apollo on the moon?

“Monster Mash” is musically negligible. And the lyrics are barely above the level of a seventh grader’s high concept: “Hey, what if that Frankenstein guy from the movies was the front man for a rock and roll combo?” It has the requisite references to the lab and the undertaker’s slab, ghouls coming to “get a jolt from my electrodes,” chains, graveyards, coffin-bangers and crypt-kickers. But pulling apart the strands of the backstory, we find a far more complex tangle of knots. Here’s a nonentity American singer imitating a British actor who’d changed his name to the Germanic “Karloff” and who played both the berserking monster and the mad scientist maker. The tune comes out at the height of the craze, then disappears for ten years. Clearly, someone’s electrodes were clamped onto this musical corpse. Someone’s life-giving electro-juice ran through it and brought it back to life.

“Frankenstein,” as he first appears, is not the creature but the creator. Plays, films, and knockoff novels blurred the name’s use. Eventually, it’s the monster (a term almost never used in Mary Shelley’s book) that gets the moniker. But we do not forget that the original Frankenstein is a man, not a man-made being. He’s a scientist, a seeker, a wild-eyed Romantic Germanic hero. Shelley’s subtitle - “A Modern Prometheus” - captures the essence of his story. This is now, not the ancient days, and still there are heroes willing to risk all to grasp the torch of secret knowledge. Stealing fire from heaven and bringing it back to earth, Prometheus gained himself the eternal hatred of the gods. For his crime, he was chained to a rock, with an eagle picking out his liver. Celestial fire is for the gods, not humans, and those who dare to think otherwise will be punished forever. Yes indeed, as Neil Armstrong said when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, “the eagle has landed.”

Perhaps linking this doomy grandeur to idiotic schlock-and-roll is simply too much. But, Shelley’s creature tells us at the end of the novel, “the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at and kicked and trampled on.” Songs are creatures too, with a life and a death, and an afterlife. Recordings live on in the heavens, though there’s nothing much lower in the musical hierarchy than a fad-riding novelty tune. Is the “Monster Mash” an abortion, a divine portent of misfortune, a piece of Top Forty drivel or an Opener of the Way? We are convinced that it can be all of these. Listen then, to the last lines of the song: “For you, the living, this mash was meant too. When you get to my door tell them Boris sent you.”