My friend, Deb, is part of the mystery writers group that blogs as Jungle Red Writers, and it was her turn at bat last week. When she turned to me, searching for ideas, we brainstormed our way through Halloween décor, pumpkin-centric agriculture, and spice cake recipes before I suggested she investigate Halloween music and the tradition of the monster’s ball.
She wasn’t sure what I was talking about, so I dragged Camille Saint-Saëns, Modest Mussorgsky, and Edvard Grieg into the conversation. That’s when she said, “Why don’t you write it?” Which earned me a guest gig on Jungle Red and gave me enough ideas for two separate blog posts here on The Weird Blog.
You want witches? We have a whole coven, including Donovan’s Season of the Witch, Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You, and Bobby Bare’s Marie Laveau. Monsters? Check out Sheb Wooley’s Purple People-Eater.
And ghosts? You need only dip into folk music’s murder ballads to find scores of those. My personal favorite ghost ballad is Long Black Veil, which is eerie enough, even before you realize that the ghost is not the woman in black. It’s the singer, watching her walk the hills.
But Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kickers must win some kind of prize for the most enduring goofball Halloween song of all time, Monster Mash. A novelty song written to play off Bobby Pickett’s amusing imitation of Boris Karloff, it tells the story of the living dead, including Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula, dancing their Halloween away, doing some reanimated form of the Mashed Potato. High art that combined satire, homage, and a catchy tune to become a number one hit and spend more than 60 years hanging out on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Pickett’s song might have had a lot of contemporary cultural references, but the idea of monsters, ghosts, witches and demons dancing the night away is very old.
Folklore from many lands speaks of a witches’ sabbath, held around All Hallows or sometimes Midsummer eve, where women and men, intent on evil, met up with their demonic overlord at midnight to dance and celebrate with horrible rituals. I should point out that there is no historical evidence that celebrations like this actually happened anywhere in Europe, Asia, or the Americas, although your friendly local pagan group will probably throw a fun party on Halloween night.
Facts don’t matter in folklore, though. Imagination rules the night, illuminated only by bonfire light, and by the late 1800s classical composers were turning to their national folklore for inspiration.
In January, 1875, two takes on the monster’s ball theme made their debut. Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King was part of a suite of music he wrote for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. It underscores a scene where the legendary folk hero and trickster Peer Gynt sneaks into the throne room of the Troll King, deep inside a mountain. There he is surrounded by partying goblins, trolls, and monsters, none of whom are all that happy to see him. He has to make a run for it if he ever hopes to survive.
That same month, French composer Camille Saint-Saëns debuted his take on the witches’ sabbath with Danse Macabre. In Saint-Saëns’ version, the clock strikes midnight, and the Devil lifts his bow to play a lovely violin solo which brings all the dead to life. They dance to the Devil’s music until the cock crows at dawn and they all go back to being dead again. Not so far off from Monster Mash after all.
The Ultimate Monster’s Ball
Maybe the scariest of classical takes on the all-night ghoulish dance party is Night on Bald Mountain. Written in 1865 by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, it was stuck into a whole range of plays, operas, and chorales that didn’t work or never got staged. Scholars believe Mussorgsky never heard it played in public. But after his death in 1881, friends got together to sort through his papers, doing what they could to preserve his music. Night on Bald Mountain fell into the hands of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who reworked it into the piece we know now, primarily as the scariest sequence in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic Fantasia.
All of which is to say that, if you have the urge to dance your Halloween night away with ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, go for it! You probably won’t summon the devil, but tales about the tradition are at least as old as Christmas and who knows? It might turn out to be a graveyard smash.
About Author G. S. Norwood
As we note in her Weird Sisters Publishing biography, author “G. S. Norwood was more or less doomed to a life as an arts professional.” Part of that sweet “doom” was being steeped in classical music from birth (and introduced early to the classical pieces mentioned in this Monster’s Ball post).
Throughout her life she frequently has worked or lived in musical, or music-adjacent, spaces. A radio station. The Van Cliburn Foundation. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Right up through her current position with The Dallas Winds, much of her professional career has been spent writing for and about musical organizations, and helping to run them.
Her late husband Warren C. Norwood learned to play a whole range of musical instruments after she bought him his first mountain dulcimer in 1987. She herself has played clarinet and lap harp, and is an avid concert-goer with a particular love for guitar music. Themes of music and musicians also play a major part in her published fiction to date: Both of the Deep Ellum Stories revolve around music. So does her novel-in-production Wrong Way Riley, which we hope to release in 2024.
Many thanks to Deborah Crombie and the Jungle red Writers blog for the inspiration of this post and to the blog’s website for the screen-grab of the page. The “Scottish prayer” is courtesy of the Episcopal Church’s Facebook Page. Featured image “Dance of Death” is one of a series of (public domain) illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), acquired via Wikipedia. Many thanks to all of the above! All of the videos are shared via YouTube.