If These Walls Could Bark: Fort Monroe Pet Cemetery

September 30, 2015 — It was a Black Friday. I was in a 180-year-old fort in Virginia trying to find a mannequin dressed as Edgar Allan Poe. I climbed to the top of the fort wall, looked down, and realized I was stepping on dead animals.

If I had any bravado whatsoever, I’d leave the article at that. But here’s the long explanation.

I was traveling for my book Poe-Land, visiting Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, because Poe was stationed there for a few months during his two-year stint in the military. It’s a massive fort. The largest stone one in America, in fact. Inside its walls is an entire town—office buildings, parks, residences. The place had only just been decommissioned in 2011. And so much had happened here over the course of its military service.

Inside one of its walls is the long, meandering, subterranean-feeling Casement Museum, which tracks all that history from back when it was the site of a wooden fort called Algernourne in 1609 all the way through to when Jefferson Davis was held prisoner there after the Civil War and on to the shiny-gun-metal of present day. It also has a corner exhibit on Poe’s time at the base, which consisted of a mannequin at a desk and a large placard. I adored it.

But, like you’re inclined to do at a historic coastal fort, I wanted to see the vantage point from the walls, so I ascended a set of steps near the entrance of the museum. At the top, I expected a few replica cannons, maybe some flags, perhaps a view of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead I found graves. Pet graves.

The grassy top of the rampart was lined with stones inscribed with names like Tippy and Dusty and Tinkie and Toodles and Dutchie, Goldie and Blacky and Red and Mitzy and all the condescending stuff we usually do to these once-wolves and -lions. At least, they were either pet graves or Virginia went through a real dark time in its maternity wards.

So there I was, on a Poe mission, inadvertently finding cats in walls.

The tombstones were in a line on the wall as far as I could see, like they were defending it. The styles varied, and I saw some that dated to the 1930s. I followed the line, treating them like paving stones. Every once in a while they wended across the remnants of batteries.

Eventually, after getting to the point where I was wondering if they’d circle the entire wall, they stopped. I found the nearest set of stairs down and headed back to my car to catch the tail end of all the holiday sales. It wouldn’t be until later that I learned exactly what I had explored.

It was, in fact, the pet cemetery for the fort, as well as some of the surrounding residential areas. Like I said, the walls encompassed an entire town. Lives were spent there, both human and animal. They say more than 400 animals ended up in those walls, with the oldest marker dating to 1936, although it’s surmised that interments go further back than that. The current fort structure goes back to 1834, after all.

It officially stopped being an active pet cemetery in 1988, about six years after Stephen King made those things creepy. However, the presence of some 21st century markers indicates that people still sneak their dead pets up there.

As long as they don’t try to come back for them, I guess.

Book Announcement: A Witch City "Stay-a-logue"

September 29, 2015 — I'm giving an early announcement for my next book, a currently un-named firsthand travelogue of Salem, Massachusetts, where we'll live downtown for the entire month of October, during the height of its witchery, and talk to everyone from historians to street performers to witches to government officials to attraction owners, all to see why Salem is so weird.

It's not for the reasons you think. 

Well, not just for the reasons you think.

Trick-or-Treating the Web: 25 Links to Halloween 2015

September 28, 2015 — The Halloween Season may be mostly defined by weather and harvest and changing leaves, but often the best place to find the season is in the cold, sterile software of the Internet. Below, I've corralled links to recent news stories, upcoming events, random blog posts, and media from across the web, all related to This Dark Season.  So—as inappropriate a verb as it is for this time of year—let's surf some Halloween:

1. This year, the General Mill's monster cereals come with one of three box gimmicks (phone game, glow-in-the-dark masks, or a building a castle from the boxes), depending on where you buy them.

2. Check out these New Yorker Halloween covers over the years.

3. There's a Halloween Book Festival on October 3 in Massachusetts.

4. The Frankenstein light switch will make you scream, "It's Alive!" every time you flick it.

5. The Onion skewers Fall people.

6. "Now That's What I Call Music" unveils its first ever Halloween album. And it's pretty good.

7. For Halloween, an Amsterdam club is having a Blade-style blood shower rave.

8. ABC Family's 13 Nights of Halloween is...what it always is.

9. The Purple Stuff, a short, laid-back Halloween podcast worth checking.

10. Guy goes in search of the new Starburst Halloween Mix.

11. Halloween is catching on in Japan.

12. Vincent Price's cook book has been reissued and timed with Halloween.

13. Halloween at The Stanley Hotel (of The Shining infame) looks like a blast.

14. A photo tour of this year's Scare L.A. Halloween convention.

15. Del Monte is actively promoting its bananas as a "healthy alternative to candy." Ha.

16. The director behind the in-production Halloween Returns talks all things Michael Myers.

17. I'm just going to use the original headline here: "9,000-Year-Old Decapitated Skull Covered in Amputated Hands."

18. A look at the English town where Bram Stoker started Dracula.

19. Universal Studios Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights is 25 years old.

20. Check out this NASA photo of the Witch Head Nebula.

21. Here's a Kickstarter for what seems an extremely legit Hollywood Horror Museum.

22. The full story of the disappearance and return of Disney's Hatbox Ghost.

23. The Chicago Field Museum is touring its mummies for the first time in its history.

24. The Wall Street Journal, of all places, gets in on the Halloween fun with tips for turning your home into a haunt.

25. The Villain Spelltacular Show at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, featuring the Sanderson Sisters of Hocus Pocus.

Falling at 65 MPH

September 27, 2015 — I love a day trip any time of year, but, man, the Autumn ones are something special. We did our first of the season yesterday here in the home state. Actually, probably the only one of the season. The rest of our time in the Samhain Zone will be experienced almost completely within the confines of Salem, Massachusetts. So this road trip was important, even if we were taking it before any of the famous White Mountain foliage had changed colors.

And, of course, I completely mis-planned it. Normally for our road trips, I plot out oddities and then more or less take the back roads to get to them, seeing what else we can see on the way. But for some reason, I didn’t plan this one well at all.

But it started out decently enough. A stop at the gas station to fill up ended with me buying a scratcher (the first time I’ve ever done that) just because it had an evil clown on it. We ended up winning the price of the ticket, which we then cashed during another pit stop for another evil clown, which again netted us the price of the ticket. I assume I’ll be doing that the rest of the season. I also learned that a great road trip tip is to give your kids a coin and some scratchers. You get some quiet out of the backseat and, if you’re lucky, they might earn you a retirement nest egg.

But things went relatively awry soon after that. For instance, we realized pretty early that we weren’t going to make it to what I assumed would have been the highlight of the trip, the remnants of a WWII German POW camp in northern New Hampshire. That was a bummer, but I will get there one day.

My next mis-plan was not doing enough research on Kimball Castle in Gilford, New Hampshire, a more-than-century-old medieval-looking residence that’s been abandoned for years and is currently on the market. I knew it was on private property, but was hoping for a nice vantage point on it from somewhere legal. We got within sight of its tessellated tops, but that’s it. I’m chalking it up to field research for a future jaunt.

We did successfully hit one oddity, the Great Wall of Sandwich, New Hampshire. A strange tale, that one. And, since I have no idea when I’ll get around to telling you my version, I’ll send you here instead.

Obviously we hit a graveyard. No Autumn road trip is worth its name without one. The one whose tombstones we found ourselves among was a completely random stop. I don’t even know its name. See, in New England, you don’t have to bother with actually planning to visit an old cemetery, you’ll just naturally pass a dozen of them. It’s one of the reasons I love this area.

Next, we hit the nearest New England covered bridge, just like a good tourist is supposed to do (and we did run into tourists from both New York and New Jersey while we were there). It was the 19th century Durgin Bridge in North Sandwich. We caught some frogs underneath, played some Headless Horseman inside of it, and wondered if our Photoshop skills could warm up the colors of all the green leaves surrounding it. So it was a great time, but I’m only now realizing as I write this piece that I had a chance to see this bridge instead, because it was nearby. The reason I missed it is because I hadn’t yet updated my OTIS Map of New England Oddities with that particular oddity. So another slight mis-plan.

Finally we hit a random corn maze at Moulton Farm in Meredith. Didn’t mean to. Just pulled into the farm stand to look at pumpkins and pet cows and peek into lobster tanks (New England, guys). But they had a four-acre maze out back. So we did it. And I had my annual lesson that I absolutely stink at them. So bad, in fact, that I had to settle for finding the entrance again and hoping nobody outside was looking at me as we nonchalantly walked out through the in-door like we meant it. They gave us a sheet with 20 questions on it, the answers to which were spread throughout the maze. We found about a third of them.

But I take heart knowing that I overheard a family a couple of rows away asking Siri for the answers to the trivia.

So it was a relatively uneventful trip, but this is what an uneventful trip looks like in New England in the Fall. It’s comforting to know that even if you mis-plan as badly as I did, Fall covers all ills.

Frankenweenie on a Sheet

September 22, 2015 — Some Halloween Season moments I’m unsure if I should post about. There are so many that I love, but I don’t know if they’re interesting enough to put in front of an audience...even though it’s technically too early in this season of daily posts for me to turn down any possible topic.

Like the other night, when we watched Frankenweenie in the barn attic.

It’s a great tradition. We throw a sheet over the rafters for a screen, lay out in dusty pool chairs, drink ciders and eat candy corn mixed with popcorn, and watch a creepy flick. But I’ve written about the tradition before. Like here. And here. And I feel like I post about the barn too much in general, honestly. It’s getting to the point that I should just move my family into it during the Halloween Season. I guess I need to start exploring my house attic instead. Or attics. Somehow we have two.

I wasn’t planning on writing about the night. I threw a bad-quality phone pic on the socials and that was going to be the extent of contentizing it. Nothing much happened. We had some technical difficulties, of course. That’s almost part of the tradition. Something about iTunes not letting me spit HD through a projector I bought six years ago when I was invited to give my first book talk. I eventually figured out a solution. It just took me disappearing back into the cozy bubble of wifi we sometimes call “the house” to do some research.

The upside to the glitch is we burned some daylight and got to watch the movie in pitch darkness with all our cricket friends. The downside is we couldn’t finish the movie until the next day because apparently responsible parents make their kids go to bed at a reasonable hour for school the next day.

But it was fun. Frankenweenie, which I hadn’t watched since its theatrical debut, seemed particularly apt, especially the point where the main character Victor is projecting a movie on a sheet, giving us the strange reality-vertigo of watching a movie on a sheet that’s in a movie on a sheet, or when he slips into an attic that looked very much like the one in which we were sitting and watching him. Minus the junior mad scientist equipment.

I always loved the original live-action short film it was based on, but I remember finding the stop-motion, full-length movie kind of cold and stiff (sorry, didn’t have the energy to actively avoid that pun) when I first watched it. Granted, I was also fresh off watching the amazing ParaNorman in theaters just a few weeks previously and that’s a hard act to follow. But on this rewatch I liked it a lot more. The smell of old wood and candy corn helped, I think.

Still, even after we returned back to wifi sweet wifi, I wasn’t planning on writing about it. Then my wife told me, “I took some pictures. I’ll Dropbox them to you.”

When I took a look at them, I realized that while I was in the house cursing iTunes and fretting over messing up plans that we’d built up to our oldest daughter all day, I saw that they had a blast, dancing with skeletons and taking pictures of dust motes and generally not worrying about whether I’d passed the point of being too old to figure modern technology out. For the record, I am very, very close.

So I wanted to post the photos. And to do that I gotta wrap some words around them. And these are those words. And those are vague pronouns.

Still, I’m not sure if this is interesting to you. But I finally decided that I wanted to post the photos and record this memory so that next summer or the summer after that or the summer after that, I’ll be able to read this article and remember this night. To feel the coolness of the cross breeze fluttering the movie screen. To laugh at the annoyance of having to shoo our toddler away from the exposed wires over and over again. To glory in the fact that we’re to the point in pop culture that a story about grave robbing and dead animals is great children’s fare.

Plus, if I’m finding reason to write about dog food this season, all bets are off that I know what my readership wants anyway.

But know this: If I invited all of you over to my house, this is where and how we would party.

Tracking Satan: The Devil’s Hoofprints

September 25, 2015 — Sometimes the Devil really puts his foot down. You can tell because it leaves a mark.

Devil’s footprints (or hoofprints, depending on your personal beliefs regarding the biology of Satan), are rock indentations that are vaguely foot- or hoof-shaped and at some point got a story of damnation attached to them. Often, it’s a story about a deal with the Devil and every once in a while of his defeat (not a pun), each one ending with, “And the next day, all that was left was the Devil’s footprint.”

And they’re all over New England, which probably says a lot about the place.

I’ve heard of maybe a dozen of these demonic rock divots, and have seen two so far in my treks around the six states.

The first one I saw was in Manchester, Maine, near Augusta. It was a drizzly day at the end of August. You could almost feel the Fall fighting with the Summer. We found ourselves at an old rock wall dividing an old cemetery from an old church. There, within that rock wall, was the evidence philosophers and theologians and heavy metal acts have striven ages for.

The old church is the North Manchester Meeting House at Scribner Hill Road. It was built in 1793 at the location of what is now Case Cemetery in nearby Readfield and moved to its current spot in 1839 where it got a new graveyard. And then it got the Devil’s autograph.

The story goes that during a construction project to lay, I guess Scribner Hill Road, the crew hit a boulder that couldn’t be removed. One of the workers jumped up on it and said he’d sell his soul to get rid of that thing. Everybody laughed and made jokes about overtime and then punched out for the day. The next day that worker who was so casual about his soul was gone. Disappeared. And that rock? Moved right out of the path of the roadway. Basically, in a modern analogy, the guy sold his soul because his Outlook froze.

Oh, and all that was left was where the Devil had set his foot.

Well, actually, there might be a couple of footprints. One looked like a pair of human feet close together, the other was suspiciously angular. I've seen different accounts call either one the Devil's footprint. I guess it really doesn't matter.

The fossilized chase scene is still in the rock. It forms a section of the cemetery fence that faces the church, as do the evil indentations themselves. On our visit someone had spray-painted them demon red, to help stragglers like me know for sure that I was seeing more than just a couple of random pockmarks. The rock was probably five feet wide, three feet tall, so certainly big, but not of a size that couldn’t be moved—not counting spiritual shenanigans, of course.

The second time I found myself on the Devil’s cold trail was in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Again, near a church.

The site of Ipswich’s first meeting house is on a rocky hill in the historic Meeting House Green downtown. Today, the First Church of Ipswich stands atop it, the fifth building to do so, in fact, after the fourth was struck by lightning in 1965 and burned to the ground. And on that ground, off to the side in front of the church, is a large section of exposed bedrock. There, there is the tell-tale toeprint.

This mark, too, was spray-painted. Circled in green with a green arrow pointing to it. The shape of the hoof is a long rectangle, like the Devil wears thick ice skates. And it was a single print, like the Devil went Rumpelstiltskin at the end of this particular forked tale.

And I guess that’s sort of what happened, although instead of stamping his foot in disappointment, it was more out of fear. In this story, the famous Reverend George Whitefield was preaching at a previous incarnation of the church on the hill. Apparently, he raised such hell that he Devil was driven right up to the roof of the church, leaping from it to escape like the whole thing was on fire. Or whatever the Devil is scared of. Like the whole thing was on charity, maybe. Where he landed is that strange narrow depression.

And all that was left was where the Devil had set his foot.

You know what I love the most about these Devil’s footprints? That mere dents in rocks can rise about their stations and become mythic. You know what I hate about them? That they always seem to just be a single print, instead of a pair.

Maybe the devil’s a pirate.

Strange Stuff From My Study, Episode 4: Ray Bradbury's Halloween Decorations

September 24, 2015 — 
For this fourth episode of Strange Stuff From My Study, I dig into my collection to show you a pair of extremely special and extremely relevant-to-the-season items: Halloween decorations that once belonged to the Great Scribe of Halloween himself, Ray Bradbury.

Watch Episode 1: A shrunken head by Thomas Kuebler and a Headless Horseman hoodie.

Watch Episode 2: A glow-in-the-dark Elvira/Psycho cup and the death mask of Vincent Price

Watch Episode 3: A 100-year-old Printing of Edgar Allan Poe's Raven and Edgar Allan Poe Mask from The Following.

Gerry Was a Hearse Car Driver

September 23, 2015 — It was a Friday night. Mid-September. We didn’t have any plans, so we decided to head to Target to pick up some necessities. Ostensibly. Really, we were going to see if the department store had rolled out its wonderland of a Halloween section yet. But we weren’t prepared to run into Halloween in its parking lot.

I knew vaguely that every Friday night at our Target there’s a local car show in the parking lot. It’s pretty casual, anybody with an antique or otherwise interesting vehicle pulls up into the far end of the lot, grabs a space, pops their hood, and just hangs out.

And then I remembered that a friend had told me about a horror-themed ride she’d seen there about a week previously.

It didn’t take us long to find it, parked there on the outskirts of the show. Like it didn’t quite belong. Or maybe everybody else was keeping a safe distance from it. Perhaps both. After all, this car would be the last ride of every single grease monkey and gawker on that asphalt.

It was a hearse.

I know a few Hearse Heads. I feel the pull myself. I love the idea of hearses. I mean, we designed an entire vehicle for the sole purpose of carrying the dead. That’s style points. What has always stopped me from acting on it is my general apathy toward cars of any sort. I know, I know, I’m a road trip guy. I love the freedom of owning a car. But I hate keeping it running and washing it and throwing away all the McDonald’s bags in the backseat and caring about every ding in its hood. I want to trash my cars, not love them. My humble, little decade-old Honda Civic has been rear-ended three times in the past two years, and each time I didn’t even ask for driver’s insurance, just mumbled something about scars giving character, and told them to get back into traffic.

But all that last paragraph is to say I don’t know anything about cars, and in this particular case I had no idea what the year or make or model of this particular death-mobile we were looking at was. I googled some of the words in chrome on the body and came up with a Cadillac Fleetwood. A reader more knowledgeable about hearses will have to educate me on the rest.

What I saw, was a gray hearse with purple flames and a chrome skull ornament on its hood, and license plates that read “D-O-A.” Again, style points.

Now, had this been just your normal hearse in a normal Target parking lot, you wouldn’t be reading this post right now. Actually, knowing my hit count, you probably aren’t reading it right now anyway. But had that been the case, I at most would have thrown something on Instagram or Twitter, but that’s all.

But, you see, this hearse was completely Halloween’d out.

A two-foot-tall Universal Studios Wolfman toy was in the driver’s seat. His passenger was an adult-sized Chucky shoving a knife into a decapitated mannequin head. Ghouls peered out of the side windows. Skulls adorned the dashboard. In the back, which was open and corpse-empty, perched the head of Gary Oldman’s old man Dracula, generized and chubbified. Behind the hearse, on a gurney, was a thin, homemade coffin full of bones and human face-skin and Spanish moss and snakes. A seven foot tall statue that looked like a cross between a vampire, an evil leprechaun, and a goblin stood honor guard at the back. Dog skeletons obediently surrounded his ankles.

I walked right up to it with my family. “Can I take a few pictures?” I asked. This was a braver question than you realize. The person to whom I directed the question, and the indisputable owner of the coffin carrier, had massive stainless steel rings on every finger, a flowing white shirt, black-lacquered nails, a walking stick, and little regard for differentiating between sideburns and moustaches. But of all those features, it was the set of fangs in his mouth that were the most distinguishing.

“Sure. There’s candy in the back,” he said between his pointy teeth, motioning with his cane to a pair of plastic drums on either side of generic Gary Oldman, one full of Dum-Dums and the other of Halloween-packaged pretzels. And that, folks, is the time I failed to teach my children the lesson of not taking candy from strangers in a parking lot.

Turns out the guy's name his Gerry. But I didn’t learn too much more about him. He was really friendly, but not too talkative, just like I like my vampire hearse drivers.

He did tell me that he has a few friends that have hearses as well, and sometimes thy take them out joyriding in an impromptu funeral procession. Although I’ve never seen the deranged convoy, it makes me happy to know that it’s happening somewhere nearby while I’m sitting warm and drunk in front of my television.

And then he told me, “I didn’t want to scare the kids, but check this out.” His hand moved to a hidden switch on the coffin and out popped through the Spanish moss a hissing snake with glowing eyes. I like that way of communicating so much better than “What do you do for a living?” or “Where are you from?”

We didn’t go too deep, me and Gerry. Just long enough for me to fully document that moment of existence and to get a couple Dum-Dums for my kids. But man, did I dig that moment.

Every so often, in these days of a thoroughly mainstream Halloween that’s a bit too slick sometimes (and not with blood), I often miss the pure weirdness of the season. But, Gerry, he’s got that pure Halloween weirdness down. Not because he’s a man who owns a hearse. And not because he drapes Halloween all over it instead of waxing it like all the other car crazies. And not because he likes to show it off in a Target parking lot. Not even because he wears fangs. But all of that together. So, thanks, Gerry. I wish you many more awesome hearse rides before your final one.

And then my family and I went into Target and checked out normal and suddenly a-little-more-hollow Halloween, wherein I tried to talk myself into buying a werewolf rug and out of buying 15 packs of caramel apple Twizzlers. Because ain’t nothing wrong with mainstream Halloween, either. Not yet, anyway.

Not Your Average Scooby Snacks: Halloween Dog Food

September 22, 2015 — I have a black cat that I dig very much. Right now, she’s behind me in my study chasing a cricket. But even with that, we’re still not exactly on PetSmart terms. I don’t really ever shop for her. She just texts me what she needs when I’m out at the human grocery store (ain’t that fresh).

And apparently, we’re both missing out. At least during the Halloween Season.

A couple of weeks back, we were dogsitting for friends. The dog’s name is Bailey and she’s a Lab mix something or other. Her owners brought all the things a dog needs for a weekend stay: Bed, leash, crate, water and food bowls, toys, treats, and those little plastic baggies for walking that might be the only reason I don’t own a dog. Basically more than I send along with my kid for sleepovers. But one thing Bailey brought with him that more than made up for those little plastic bags: Halloween dog food.

Not Bailey. But reasonably close enough.

Yup, that’s how far our country’s Halloween madness has metastasized. But you know what? I cannot call this a gimmick. Just can’t. Let me show you why with these photos…that I took while Bailey looked at me in absolute confusion.

First are a couple of products from a company called Blue Buffalo, which offers dog edibles with names like Blue’s Stew and Blue Bars. For Halloween, they rechristened these brands as Boo Stew and Boo Bars. And then they packaged it like trick-or-treaters held toilet-paper rolls to their heads. I mean, look at that packaging. It’s more Halloween than a Target candy aisle. Besides the buffalo sheet ghost, there’s a witch on a broom, a haunted house, a jack-o-lantern, a bat, some cobwebs, an owl. I mean, they threw some real Halloween on there. Didn’t mess around at all, almost like they anticipated some serious Halloween competition in the doggy aisle.

And I guess they do have some competition because something else Bailey brought with her in addition to a longsuffering attitude with how hard my toddler pets is a treat by a company called Zuke’s. Their offering to the Halloween gods is Mini Naturals Ghosts, give or take a trademark symbol. We’ll get to that name in a second, but what I want to point out here is that they went more the Fall route than the spooky route, with Autumn-colored trees and a treat being handed to a dog from a hand that it’s hard to imagine isn’t extending from a sweater sleeve. They also threw a couple of ghosts on their package, of the sort that usually represent souls of the damned. Again, we’ll get to that in a second.

But these companies went further, the mad pet food scientists that they are. Not only did they give their products spooky names and throw a Halloween costume on them, they flavored the food for the season.

The Boo Bars are pumpkin and cinnamon flavored, while the Mini Naturals Ghosts are turkey and pumpkin. And the Boo Stew is called a “Halloween Feast,” although I have no idea what that means. I didn’t taste any of them. I’d need a far larger readership to induce me to do something like that. Like at least 10 more OTIS Facebook Page likes.

But not only did they rename, redesign, and reflavor their usual products, they gave those products seasonal shapes. The Boo Bars have pumpkins stamped into them. The Mini-Natural Ghosts are ghost-shaped. And there’s that explanation on that name that you’ve been waiting patiently for.

So you see? That’s too much commitment for a gimmick. There are massive food corporations with entire subsidiaries dedicated to children’s treats that don’t go this far at Halloween.

Blue Buffalo explains it with a little story on the back of the Boo Bars package about the founder’s dog and how much it loved Halloween. It has a nice little illustration of a dog in a devil costume. Of course, we all know that this marketing (including Beelzebub Blue himself) is completely for pet owners. Anything to make the ones with opposable digits grab this brand off the shelf instead of a competitor’s.

But in a season where every pet is potentially a familiar, it makes sense on other levels, too.

Oh, and then I saw this at Target.
That's right. It says "Limited Edition Package."

Hey, Hey, We’re the Monsters: The Monstrous Monkee Mash

September 21, 2015 — I used to work at a video store. It was during that awkward, but exciting phase when VHS was still being made, but both new and old movies were coming out every week on DVD. Basically, it was a time of explaining the benefits of letterbox 20 times a day. I had this regular customer, a child-like woman who would come in and buy every episode of The Monkees in VHS that we had on the shelves, and then the two of us would pore over the tiny print of the preorder titles in the binder behind the counter and she’d reserve more episodes. I think about her sometimes, and man, I think she had it right.

The Monkees was a 1960s sitcom about a four-man pop band— Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones—that would end up evolving into a real-life, legitimate pop band, one that outlived the show’s 58 episodes with songs like Last Train to Clarksville and I’m a Believer. The story of the show was that the band just wanted to play music, but would constantly find itself in the middle of slapsticky situations—spy rings, hillbilly feuds, criminal capers…and monster mashes.

They didn’t have Halloween episodes, per se, but they had their share of spook-flavored shows. Like the time they spent the night in a creepy mansion full of wackiness. Or when they beat back an alien invasion with wackiness. Or when a monkey’s paw they find unleashes wackiness. Or when one of them inadvertently sells his soul to the devil for wackiness. Then there was the episode where a mad scientist kidnaps the band, not to steal their brains for his monster, but to steal their musical talent for it. This ends up in an amazing scene in which a monster played by Richard Kiel, dressed in 60s hippy chic, lip-and-guitar syncs a Monkees tune. The moment makes the ep. Possibly the era.

But of all the Halloween-ish episodes, the one you should watch this season is The Monstrous Monkee Mash.

It’s one of the later episodes and is typical of the show in many ways. See, every Monkees episode seemed like a rehearsal for a real episode that was never filmed: lines were delivered casually, first takes and non-takes seemed to be used with glee, and everybody acted like they had somewhere important to get to fast after the scene wrapped. They even eventually ditched the laugh track while still keeping the tempo of a laugh-tracked show. Even better, the shows featured lots of fourth-wall-breaking, meta-joking, classic set ups and punchlines, and so many running gags it was like their writers were being chased by an angry mob.

So this episode is that, plus monsters. It was directed by James Frawley, the man who directed The Muppet Movie, and it guest-starred Ron Masaks and Arlene Martel (aka, Spock's bride) as vampires.

The story begins with a spooky oceancliff castle, a lightning strike, and some theremin. Davy Jones, the only British member of the band, has been on the prowl and “Your place or mine,” ended him up here with a vamp named Lorelei, whom he would soon learn is actually a vampire. His bandmates come to the rescue, only to find a castle full of monsters. We’re talking vampire, mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and a werewolf. Four monsters, four band members. That’s the exact equation Einstein worked out for Halloween comedy.

I’d summarize the story further, but it’s a Monkees episode. Instead of plot, they just kind of swing from joke to joke until it all crescendos in a music video that gets them to the end credits even if they have to insert previously filmed footage in which their outfits don't match continuity to do so. Here are some of the highlights:

1) Micky Dolenz redoing a scream take after talking with somebody off camera. The editor who decided to keep it in deserves an Emmy and a sandwich named after him.

2) The running gag about warning the wolfman to cut its hair else it won’t be let into Disneyland, which turned me onto this delightful little bit of Disney trivia.

3) Finally remarking on an obviously fake backdrop after establishing it for the scene.

4) The phrase, “Better composition.”

5) Spoofing the ending of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It ain’t a perfect episode, but if it was, it wouldn’t be The Monkees. It’s on YouTube, as are most of the show’s episodes. I’ve embedded it below, so grab yourself a hard cider and some candy corn and stay as long as you’d like.

I never want to write the word episode ever again.