Somewhere in the unfathomable depths of nothingness, born from fear of darkness and the ceaseless, slow churn of time, a creature emerged from the shadows. His crooked smile and pointed eyes shroud whatever mechanisms keep his jet-black, lanky body moving with distressing randomness.
He is Dancing Pumpkin Man, and this is his origin story.
It was 2006. Matt Geiler was a happy, goofy young man. He’d recently left Second City in Chicago to take a job anchoring the 10 o’clock KXVO newscast in Omaha, Nebraska. He didn’t have any training or interest in broadcast journalism, but it was an acting job, and it was on TV, so he went for it. Especially because, as he tells me, “It was a minute-and-a-half of news up front, and then a free for all. We had to do 22 minutes of television every night, so after that first minute, it was literally like, ‘What can we do to eat up time?’”
With zero supervision and a “dearth of resources,” says Geiler, the team did whatever it could to fill those subsequent 20 minutes. “It was pandemonium. I mean, we’d have ideas like, ‘Let’s go to Target, and I’ll fall into a display of DVDs. Maybe that’ll chew up a good eight minutes of airtime,’” he recalls.
Above all else — embarrassment, unprofessionalism, occasional viewer mail asking if the anchors were on drugs — Geiler and his team wanted to avoid dead air. “We weren’t concerned about anything other than having a gaping hole of black screen in the middle of the broadcast, and there wasn’t anyone there to step in and be like, ‘This isn’t a good idea for the branding of the station; this isn’t news anchor behavior,’” he explains.
Dancing Pumpkin Man: The Origin Story
“Honestly, there wasn’t much forethought to it at all,” Geiler tells me. “I was like, ‘Go grab that Hallmark Halloween CD, and put on the knock-off Ghostbusters theme. I’m going to jump into the black unitard and pumpkin mask and chew up some television time.’”
Next, Geiler danced, moving his body in whatever direction the voice deep inside his unconscious told him. “Whether it’s a wedding or in the studio, all my dance moves are spontaneous,” he says. “It becomes this weird conflux of movements, so rhythmically inept that they’re on-beat to everything ever created.”
“If you’re trying to do it, you can’t,” he continues. “But if you’re freeing yourself to the spirit of Halloween, then you’re creating something that can be mashed up with every possible track known to man.”
That first night, only a few people bore witness to the birth of Dancing Pumpkin Man. Geiler estimates, based on loose math of the Nielsen ratings the studio was getting at the time, that maybe 100 people were watching live. Later, though, in 2006, he says, “Some guys in the archives uploaded the video to YouTube,” Geiler says. “There wasn’t a plan for it. YouTube was still in its infancy, and they were just putting up a bunch of content simply for the sake of putting it up.”
And so, for three more years, Dancing Pumpkin Man lingered at the bottom of YouTube, cast off to the shadows as more and more videos buried him further. In 2009, though, he was rescued by a curious BuzzFeed employee, who was scrounging the depths of the internet for (what else?) potentially viral content. “I can’t remember the guy’s name [Scott Lamb], but he was like, ‘This is the greatest internet halloween video of all time,’ and that’s when it started getting its initial viral traction,” Geiler explains.
Dancing Pumpkin Man: The Dark Gourd Rises
By 2009, Geiler had moved to L.A. to once again pursue a comedy career. Most of his coworkers had moved on from the station as well. So when Dancing Pumpkin Man appeared all over social media, they were shocked. “My old producer was like, ‘You have to check out this link at BuzzFeed,’” Geiler recalls. “The previous week it had 90 views, and suddenly, it had like 58,000. We were like, ‘What the hell? Who dug around the internet enough to discover this very random thing?’”
Geiler reveled in the discovery, but figured that was it. Dancing Pumpkin Man finally had his moment in the sun, but like his pumpkin brethren, he reasoned that audiences would grow tired of his face once the Halloween scares ended, and the natural forces of earth would return him to the dirt.
But like Freddy Krueger traveling through people’s nightmares, Dancing Pumpkin Man had officially inserted himself into Halloween lore and thousands of different internet remixes. Case in point: In 2010, a producer from America’s Got Talent asked Geiler — or rather, Dancing Pumpkin Man — if he’d appear on the show. “I don’t know if this was ill-advised or whatever, but when the woman called, I decided it would be funny to be super cryptic,” Geiler tells me. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have to talk to him and see what he says. Because I don’t know how enthusiastic he’ll be about that idea.’
“She was like, ‘…Am I not talking to him?’
“I responded, ‘No we’re not the same person, but I’ll float the idea by him and get back to you.’
“She just goes, ‘Well, okay, here’s my number if he’s not too busy.’”
Dancing Pumpkin Man turned down the opportunity. As a new actor in L.A., Geiler was still trying to make a career for himself, and he feared going on America’s Got Talent as Dancing Pumpkin Man would define him. The same held true when they called again in 2012. Finally, in 2016, he relented. As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, he could receive his day rate, and requested being able to improvise with the judges a bit.
“At this point, I was doing a bunch of commercials, touring with Wayne Brady’s live show and doing musical improv. So to spend a few afternoons just dancing around like a maniac wasn’t a big deal — and they just wanted something to break up the legit acts, so it was funny. Dancing Pumpkin Man came to life to chew up TV time, once again.”
Surely, Geiler thought, that’d be the end of Dancing Pumpkin Man. But once more, he was wrong. Every year it comes back, and every year, it reaches a new height of cultural recognition. “It just won’t die,” he tells me. “It’s not like I tour around and do it, but here we are 13 years later, and people still bring Dancing Pumpkin Man back out and share it with more people.”
“So now I’m embracing it,” he continues. “So long as I don’t overexpose it and get too crazy with this silly little dance I did to fill time, I think it could continue to keep hitting new heights.”
And if there is to be overexposure, he’s been smart to ensure he’ll be the one to benefit from it, licensing his moves and trademarking the character. “We’d been getting so many inquiries about it, I figured it’d be wise to do,” he says. “Within the last couple of months, I finally went about doing the paperwork, and now I’ve turned into like an actual Halloween capitalist,” he says.
“There has to be a Dancing Pumpkin Man scented candle, a Dancing Pumpkin Man door decoration and maybe a Dancing Pumpkin Man pop-up animatronic for your yard that scares you with crappy freestyle dance moves.”
Laugh at your own peril. Within the last year, Epic Games approached Geiler to license Dancing Pumpkin Man’s moves for Fortnite. “That definitely got me some credibility for at least three months with my 10-year-old,” Geiler says.
He’s also licensed the moves out to Dunkin’ Donuts, as well as a chiptune maker “where Dancing Pumpkin Man pops up and does 8-bit dancing.”
Dancing Pumpkin Man: Pumpkin Forever
“Above all else, the real cool thing is that for kids, it’s a legit part of their Halloween now,” Geiler says. “So when I pick up my two sons from school, the other kids will be like, ‘Your dad’s Dancing Pumpkin Man?!’ People that age just know it as something that they see around the same time that the Great Pumpkin is on TV. That’s very cool.”
Still, there are times when Geiler asks himself why Dancing Pumpkin Man, of all his work, has proved ever-lasting. “Sometimes I wish the things that I actually care about had millions of views. But it was just total spontaneous ridiculousness, and perhaps that’s what people sense about it,” he tells me. “That’s the lesson in all this: Just make your stuff. Be passionate about it, and know that after it leaves your hands, you don’t have any idea what will happen.”