As anyone who knows me well knows, I am not the biggest fan of anything scary or suspenseful; and I have a tough time watching horror movies, as I can suspend my disbelief only too quickly and have no real defense against anything that might occur on the screen. I don't think I'm alone in that, but for me it's such an acute state that I can't (unless someone is with me to coach me on when I can look - and even then, it's a rare event) watch them at all. I know for some people it's a catharsis, literally a cleansing thing, to watch these movies; but I just get itchy and jumpy and completely uncomfortable.*
Perhaps if I'd been shown old-school horror movies as a kid I would have grown up to be more comfortable with the genre; as a child Bobby Pickett got to see a lot of them for free as his dad ran a movie theater, and he was known for his spot-on imitations of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi from an early age. This song was the ultimate fruit of his experience, and in 1962 it got to #1 in the US just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was making it feel as if there really were monsters in the world, and that the world itself was about to end at any moment. Turning the horror into a new dance craze was the pop genius of this song; and since then it's always been around, a little bit dated but still witty, a girl group accompanies "Boris" as he tells his tale in a doleful, slightly sinister way. (It wouldn't work if it wasn't scary in some sense - I still get a little frightened when he says "Tell them Boris sent you.") It also works of course as no one expects figures of horror to be dancing and having a good time; if this time of year is when the dead and the living have the closest chance of contact (and it doesn't have to be frightening - Dias de los Muertos is about family togetherness, more than anything) then why not have a party in the graveyard?
That this wasn't a hit in the UK until '73 is something I'm not sure I can explain, but as I understand it, Noel Edmonds pushed it on his show and thus it became a hit (an NME #2). That the UK was suffering at this point, gearing down because of government policies and the oil crisis, is well known; for all I know this was a hit not just due to radio airplay but a sense of doom in the air, what with the IRA having now moved their bombing to London and Manchester, the three-day-week and gas rationing clearly ahead, and a strong sense that things were going to be worse in '74, not better...
...and while I can't remember when I first heard this song, it must have been on Dr. Demento's show in 1978 maybe; his show is a distillation of every strange, offensive, funny and just plain weird song that he can find, from pop hits like this one to more "outsider" type stuff like the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's "Paralyzed"** to Wild Man Fischer's "My Name Is Larry." Anything that was too much for ordinary radio would be fine for Dr. Demento, and I got a dose of this every Sunday evening, which no doubt helped to form my musical taste. With the belated success of "Monster Mash" the UK may have picked up - or at least some of the UK - that being odd or different or...genre-mashing was one way to get through this time, that the normalcy and optimism of even two years before was gone, and that now was the time for subversion, for arch imitations, for fun. Not fun in the Glam Slam sense but fun that could lead to something, a way out of The Fog, even. But that's for the future; for now Halloween approacheth, the ghouls and goblins dance, the souls of the departed touch down briefly to remind the living that they too once had fun and got through hard times. Time to rattle some chains and rebel...
Next up: it's a political song, because I say so.
*This said, I did manage to watch all of an early 90s Japanese anime movie once (Urotsukidoji) that was a total psycho-sexual freakout of epic proportions and got all the way through it, knowing what the basis of it was. (It's completely unsuitable for children, and most adults for that matter.) (I should also note that Don't Look Now came out around this time, and I did manage to get through that, thanks to seeing it on commercial tv. The Wicker Man also came out and even though I know how it ends, I can't watch it - the songs creep me out, quite frankly.)
**As featured on the closest thing to Dr. Demento in the UK, Kenny Everett's World's Worst Record Show compilation, alongside the immortal The Trashmen and many others. (This is completely unsuitable to anyone who doesn't understand the glory of music.)