Ten years ago on Halloween, Matt Geiler, a co-anchor at a local news station in Nebraska, danced for two minutes in a black unitard and a foam pumpkin mask to a budget cover of “Ghostbusters.” The original video has been viewed more than four million times, and that number ignores the countless re-uploads, manipulations, and memes published afterward. Since that day, whenever Geiler sees himself, arms flailing, on YouTube, in a GIF, set to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” or a still frame with his hands over his head, he remembers how he kept his Halloween avatar from selling out.
“There was no intention behind it,” Geiler told Inverse on the phone before the tenth birthday of his “Dancing Pumpkin Man.” “It wasn’t created for longevity, much less posterity.” So when the chance came to sell out, Geiler hesitated. “There’s a company in Hollywood that represents memes, which sounds insane. But I was approached.” The chance to cash in on his spontaneous persona born in an Omaha newsroom sent Geiler wrestling with the meaning of content creation.
“There are days where I’m like ‘Man, if I had a line of Pumpkin Man t-shirts or Halloween costumes…’ [But] you start thinking in cash. The circle I go through is like, is that satisfying? Do you want an official Pumpkin Man unitard?”
Today, Geiler lives in Los Angeles, 1,500 miles from Nebraska, but the vast internet can’t, or doesn’t want, to separate Geiler from his old self in that black onesie. When his dancing pops up on his social media, his reaction varies. On bad days: “Oh God, that thing.” On good days: “It’s cool, it’s just this thing people share this time of year.”
So how did he end up in a unitard, dancing for strangers? It was nine o’clock on Halloween night when Geiler and his coworkers were given orders to do anything, just waste two minutes of screen-time. “We were left to our devices,” Geiler remembers, “Nobody stepped in like, ‘Hey, please stop. That’s not a good idea.’”
With the clock ticking, Geiler dove into the station’s wardrobe (a coat-rack) and emerged with a black unitard and a wire hanger. He stole the pumpkin from a display in the lobby. Dressed like a supermarket specter, he told his producer, “I’ll dance around to ‘Ghostbusters.’” Again, no one said no.
At 10 p.m., the cameras rolled as Geiler grooved to a cover of “Ghostbusters” from “one of those Halloween compilations,” in front of a graveyard photo the crew found on Google image search. Watching it today, Geiler’s manifestation of the 21st century’s Halloween spirit engenders campy earnestness only a midwestern news station can muster. The video is perfect bait for the cynical, ironic internet hive — it’s the haphazard, low-budget look to the thing that makes it so memorable.
“Those moves click with thousands of songs,” Geiler flatly boasts. There’s proof: The meme, which first languished on KXVO’s YouTube before its viral emergence in 2009, had another burst this summer with remixes set Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” the Wii menu music, and the ‘90s techno punchline, “Sandstorm.”
“The same thing happens if your dad shows up at prom and starts dancing like [that]. It’s embarrassing, but you can’t stop watching,” Geiler says. “And there’s something hypnotic about your dad’s moves and the fact he’s doing them.”
Today, Geiler is a comedian and musician who made his children’s lit debut in September with The Adventures of Edison Matthews. He doesn’t live down or distance himself from his enduring Halloween ego. He just doesn’t bring it up.
“It’s a small piece of what I do,” Geiler said, comparing himself to a musician with one monster hit. “It’s not the only thing they did and it might not even be the most important thing but, it’s there.” Whether Geiler likes it or not, his Pumpkin Man was his “hit” that interacted with “something in the air, a zeitgeist,” and it’s now the biggest thing he’s done.
Geiler says he’s “loath” to brand because “the act of creating” is what you do in a moment, and he refuses to sell Pumpkin Man merch on his website. He turned down America’s Got Talent, saying he didn’t want to ruin the character’s “sanctity.” “At the time I was joking, but I also prefer to not jump in a unitard faceless behind a pumpkin mask on America’s Got Talent. “The show wanted the Pumpkin, not the Man.” So Geiler told them, “‘He can’t be bought.’”
Geiler is still telling jokes for a living, touring with Wayne Brady and working with the Whose Line pro on a “musical improv” project. He’s also a musician under the name Frederick Julius, a “lo-fi underground pop” ego born from his stand-up. It would take something special for Geiler to morph into Pumpkin Man again, and it’s not soda commercials. Like its origins, it’d be organic.
“I would show up to like a communal dance thing,” he says. “It would have just enough word of mouth. ‘Did you know the Pumpkin Guy danced on this grave?’ And there’s only two blurry photos most people missed it. That would be cool.”
Photos via Matt Geiler