Last Halloween, students at the Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California, received a surprise performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band played two songs for the crowd of children. In addition to “Can’t Stop” off of their 2002 album By the Way, RHCP also played Andrew Gold’s 1996 song “Spooky Scary Skeletons.”
In the musical pantheon, there are relatively few Halloween pop hits. There’s Bobby Pickett’s “The Monster Mash” and Roy Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” probably counts, and though it wasn’t conceived for the holiday, Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” maybe counts too. Over the past few years, however, a perfect storm of internet trends has rocketed “Spooky Scary Skeletons” to classic status more than 20 years after its initial release.
“You meet a 13-year-old and they know him because of this song, which is fantastic,” Leslie Kogan, Gold’s widow, said in a phone interview. She has been in charge of Gold’s back catalogue since he died in 2011 at the age of 59. Born in California in 1951, Gold found early success as a musician in the late 1960s, playing backup for Linda Ronstadt’s band. He later found success on his own with hits like “Lonely Boy.” He also wrote the music and lyrics for “Thank You for Being a Friend,” the theme song to The Golden Girls.
Gold loved Halloween and he produced and performed much of Halloween Howls, the album featuring “Spooky Scary Skeletons,” by himself. As a self-taught musician proficient on many instruments, Kogan referred to him as “a one-man band.” He brought in friends and family to collaborate on certain tracks; Ronstadt sings backing vocals on a cover of “The Monster Mash.”
The song has a robust vocabulary for a track aimed at kids. A typical verse goes:
Spooky, scary skeletons
Shout startling, shrilly screams
They’ll sneak from their sarcophagus
And just won’t leave you be
Kogan herself stumbled over the word sarcophagus in discussing the song’s alliterative nature. “To me the song completely personifies his genius,” she professed. “It’s got that Beatlesesque elements, but it’s got those playfulness as well, like the clever lyrics.”
“We used to write a lot of stuff together, and it was very fast. It was just a blast working with him,” said Greg Prestopino. Prestopino co-wrote and sang lead vocals on “Gimme a Smile (The Pumpkin Song).”
“He was the only person I worked with who really qualified as a genius,” he recalled. “There was nothing he couldn’t do.”
“Spooky Scary Skeletons” was not an instant hit, and for some, it feels like the album came out a lifetime ago. Craig Schweitzer, credited with mastering the album, is now a pastor in Bismarck, North Dakota, and said he had little memory of the project. “Thanks again for the email and really fun flashback to another season of my life,” he wrote.
But it would’ve been foolish to expect skeletons to stay buried. A fortuitous chain of events has led “Spooky Scary Skeletons” become a megaviral TikTok meme. It even has its own dance, created by user @minecrafter2011. There are, as of now, 2,537,466 posts on TikTok featuring the track, and if you need help with the dance, you can find plenty of tutorials on YouTube.
The story of how the song grew from an obscure novelty track to a seasonal classic and TikTok meme begins in 2006, when it was included on “Disney Sing Along Songs: Happy Haunting,” a home-video release. In one segment, the children traversing the Haunted Mansion come across a group of chroma-keyed skeletons dancing to a cover of Gold’s song reminiscent of Kidz Bop.
Intercut with the low-rent skeleton boogie are shots from the 1929 short, “The Skeleton Dance,” a Disney classic constructed by famed animator Ub Iwerks.
In 2010, TJ Ski tried finding the segment online and came up short. “I scoured the internet and couldn’t find it, so I ended up just making it myself and splicing that Andrew Gold song with that video,” he recalled. “It paired up perfectly.” Ski’s reconstructed version syncs up music and visuals more literally. When Gold plays the xylophone on the track, the cartoon skeletons play their ribs in similar fashion.
The version is the earliest piece of viral media featuring “Spooky Scary Skeletons” and has garnered more than 31 million views over the last nine years.
“Right before Andrew died,” Kogan said, “I showed him the beginnings of this viral song and he was like ‘Oh my God.’ I’m so happy that he at least got that glimpse of what was happening.”
In 2013, remix artists the Living Tombstone remixed “Spooky Scary Skeletons,” adding some EDM flair and speeding up the tempo. It’s this version that’s probably the most well-known version of the song, which has garnered 94 million views on YouTube and gone viral on TikTok.
Neither the 2010 skeleton video nor the 2013 remix would’ve reached their current heights without the introduction of a concept known as the Skeleton War, as popularized in a single tweet from @Dril, the patron saint of Weird Twitter: “if your grave doesnt say ‘rest in peace’ on it you are automatically drafted into the skeleton war.”
Internet users have run with Dril’s idea, particularly on Tumblr. And when they do, they often make a reference to TJ Ski’s “Spooky Scary Skeletons” video, which received relatively little attention when it first went live, then started getting a lot more viewers. “During the rest of the year, it’s extremely popular,” he said. “It gets probably 10,000, 15,000 views per day, just in July or April. But then during October, it’ll get 100,000 views a day.”
People revisit Ski’s video like it’s a tradition, and nine years later, he still responds to comments, which shocks certain users. “People respond like, ‘Oh my God, from nine years ago! I thought you were dead!’” Ski doesn’t spend a lot of time making YouTube videos, but he has settled into his niche as having popularized “Spooky Scary Skeletons,” even going so far as to write a children’s book on the theme.
The song has become a meme of its own, grafted onto other Halloween internet ephemera, like the dancing pumpkin man. (“The one guy with the pumpkin head, it’s hilarious. He’s like a dork,” Kogan said with a laugh.) “Spooky scary skeletons send shivers down your spine” has become a stand-alone copy-pasta, joining other famous web-native Halloween jokes like “spoopy.”
Every year for the past five years or so, Kogan has seen streams of her husband’s song spike on YouTube and Spotify, and “it gets bigger and bigger every year.” Its surge on TikTok is a surprising resurrection for a song that by Kogan’s own account was “plucked out of obscurity.” On October 18, Concord Records, which now has the rights, will release an officially sanctioned version of the Living Tombstone remix.
Gold’s most famous song remains “Thank You for Being a Friend” … for now. Kogan learned about the popularity of “Spooky Scary Skeletons” on TikTok through her friends’ kids. It’s difficult to imagine that the person who wrote the Golden Girls theme song might become more famous for something else, but “this one is crawling up,” Kogan admitted. “Youth is probably the most important market to get. For this demographic, there’s no question that this is his biggest song.”