World’s Strangest

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Are You Afraid of the Park? Ghosts, Conspiracies and Other Weird Happenings in Central Park

For a while, Central Park, the 770-acre green oasis in the middle of Manhattan, wasn’t considered a place you really wanted to go. In the early 1980s, there were 1,000+ crimes of various types committed in the park every year, but muggers and vandals aren’t the only creeps that have run rampant there. From its opening in 1857 through today, the park has played host to all sorts of scary things going bump in the night.

A Secret and a Mysterious Death
The weirdness starts at the very beginning with Calvert Vaux, co-designer of the park. If a letter apparently written by Vaux in 1895 is to be believed, he possessed knowledge of a secret of historical importance hidden in the park, as well as a set of papers that could aid in discovering that secret when deciphered. Vaux said in the letter that there were those who wished for the secret to remain hidden and that he feared for his life. He was found drowned in Brooklyn’s Gravesend Bay two months later. Vaux wanted other people to be aware of the secret in the park and the distribution of the “Central Park Papers” is currently administered by David Wise, who sells copies of them through his website.

Are the letter and the secret real, or this is an elaborate game? No one knows, as those who have purchased the papers and discovered the secret are bound by a contract that requires them to fulfill Vaux’s wish to keep their discovery confidential. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to figure out the truth for yourself.

The Monsters take Manhattan
Over an entrance to Belvedere Castle is a cockatrice, a legendary creature resembling an oversized rooster with a reptilian tail, designed by sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould. While these legendary beasts haven’t been found in the castle, New York City or anywhere else in the world, the park does have it’s share of monsters.

Nick Redfern, author of several books on the paranormal, tells a story about a strange, bipedal humanoid creature spotted at the edge of the park. The thing was covered with rust-colored hair and stood no more than three feet tall. One eyewitness claims the creature charged at him, stopped, stared right into his eyes for several seconds and then disappeared under a bridge.

Not all the park’s monsters are mythical, though. There have been several alligator sightings in and around the park dating back to at least the 1930s, when the New York Times reported that police were searching for a “swarm” of gators seen by two children. In 2007, as part of a restoration project, the park’s lake was dredged and a three-foot-long koi carp and a few 50lb snapping turtles were discovered.

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood…
The Dakota building, located at Central Park West at 72nd St., was named such because when it was first built in the 1880s, the Upper West Side was still “rural” and referred to as “The Dakota Territory.” The Dakota is where Rosemary gave birth to the Antichrist and has been called home by horror master Boris Karloff and at least three ghosts. The first is that of a little boy, first seen by construction workers during a renovation in the early 60s. A few years later, the second ghost, girl dressed in early 20th clothing, was reportedly seen by painters a few years later. Both of these apparitions have made several appearances since then, but no clues as to their identities or reasons for haunting the building are available. The final ghost spotted around the Dakota is that of John Lennon, who lived there for a time and was murdered outside building in 1980. Several people have claimed to see his figure near one of the gated entrances to the park.

From “Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer” to Adam Sandler’s “Thanksgiving Song,” holiday novelty songs are always a fun way to celebrate, but they are rarely considered good music in their own right. “The Monster Mash” is a rare exception, reaching number one on the Billboard charts and becoming a Halloween classic ever since. Whether you love the song or hate it, it’s hard to deny that it is the most successful holiday novelty song ever. And here’s how it got that way.

Becoming Bobby “Boris” Pickett

Robert George Pickett, the lead creator of the song, grew up in a movie theater in Massachusetts where his father was the manager. Unsurprisingly, he became infatuated with the films shown and developed a lifelong desire to star on the sliver screen. This childhood experience also gave him a chance to practice celebrity impressions, and his best impression was of Boris Karloff.

Upon turning 21, he immediately moved to Hollywood to live his dreams of stardom. While his acting career never really took off, he did get involved with rock music and started playing with a doo-wop group called the Cordials. During performances, he would often bust out his Karloff impression, much to the pleasure of audience members.

Developing A Hit

One day in 1962, band member Lenny Capizzi encouraged Pickett to do more with his impression than a silly skit during performances. The two men then started working on a humorous dance song based around the narration of a Boris Karloff character. Originally, they thought of working with the twist, but that dance craze was out of fashion, so instead they opted to make the song work with the Mashed Potato. They titled the track the “Monster Mash” and recorded it under the band name “The Crypt Kickers.”

To enhance the setting of the tune, the band added in a number of sound effects, such as rattling chains and a creaking coffin. Because the recorded the track themselves, they had to do these effects themselves and the coffin noise was made by pulling a rusty nail from a board, the bubbling cauldron was created by bubbling water through a straw and the chains were just chains dropped on the floor.

Aside from the main Boris Karloff impression, Pickett enhanced the song’s imaginary star power by adding his impression of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula when he asks, “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”

While the boys knew their record was a hit, the record labels disagreed. Every label they shipped the song to rejected it. So the record producer, Gary S. Paxton, printed one thousand copies and then delivered them to every radio station he could find. The stations loved it and within eight weeks, the song was at the top of the Billboard charts, peaking on October 20. These days, it still receives a quite a bit of airplay every Halloween.

Dancing The Monster Mash

If you’ve ever wanted to dance along with the song, the foot movements are the same as the Mashed Potato, but wish spooky hand movements impersonating Frankenstein and Dracula.

The Mash Impact

The song was re-released a number of times and appeared on the Billboard charts three more times after its original release, once in December 1962, once in August 1970 and once in May of 1973. Interestingly, none of these re-releases made it on the charts around Halloween. The song didn’t make it onto the BBC charts until 1973, though, because the censors refused to release it in 1962, claiming it was too morbid. In 1973, it peaked at #3. It reentered the British charts in 2008, peaking at #60.

To follow up on his success, Pickett released a Christmas themed “Monster’s Holiday” in 1962 that reached #30 on the charts. Decades later, he tried to capitalize on the growing trend of rap music by releasing “Monster Rap” in 1985. This song dealt with the scientist being frustrated that he couldn’t teach his monster to talk. In the end, he solves the problem by getting the monster to rap.

Eventually, the song actually inspired a movie musical called Monster Mash: The Movie. It finally let Bobby “Boris” Pickett live out his acting fantasies as he stared in the role of Doctor Frankenstein. The movie was released to theaters in 1995. Have any of you seen it? I imagine it’s pretty bad (they never even put it on DVD), but I’d love to hear some of your reviews.

Most recently, Pickett tried to adapt his song to bring awareness to global climate change with a 2005 version called “Climate Mash.”

Monstrous Covers

With a song this silly and this successful, it’s not surprising that the tune has been covered by so many notable artists. Including:

  • Only two years after its original release, the Beach Boys covered it on their album, “Beach Boys Concert.
  • Boris Karloff covered the song in a 1965 episode of Shindig!
  • Horror icon Vincent Price also took notice and recorded a version that was released in 1977.
  • In 1994, Alvin and the Chipmunks did the song in their Halloween special “Trick or Treason.
  • Rush used samples of the song in their 1996 album “Test for Echo.”
  • The Misfits released a music video covering the song live in 1997. In 1999, they released a studio recorded version.
  • In 2003, Disney released a version of Goofy singing the song for the album “Mickey’s Monster Bash.
  • Most recently, the Smashing Pumpkins released a live version of the song for their album “Live Smashing Pumpkins.”

I know a lot of people can’t stand the song because it’s so darn catchy (it’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this), but others love the tune for its silliness. What do you think? Is it a great classic or should it have died shortly after conception?

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