After finding success with their marshmallow-infused Lucky Charms in the late 1960s, the cereal think tank at General Mills believed they had discovered the next great evolution in processed breakfast: Something so rich in chocolate flavor that it would turn a bowl of milk into mud.
The as-yet-unnamed cereal was developed at the same time as a similar marshmallow and grain concept that used a strawberry flavor. The company wanted to debut them at the same time and asked their advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, to come up with a commercial campaign that would personify the products in the same way Tony the Tiger and the Rice Krispies trio had become grocery aisle celebrities.
“My boss, Tony Jaffe, gave me the assignment,” Laura Levine, a former copywriter for the agency, tells mental_floss. “At the time, Cap’n Crunch was very popular, and Tony wanted something funny.”
It was 1969, and Levine had just been hired by Jaffe. Because there wasn’t yet a free office, she worked at a desk in the secretary’s area, coming up with—and often crossing out—a list of possible duos that could represent both cereals while playing off one another in commercial spots.
Levine doesn’t remember what suggestions she gave Jaffe other than the two he focused on: parodies of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, which Levine had dubbed Count Chocula and Franken Berry, respectively.
“The whole concept was monsters, but monsters who were scaredy cats,” she says. “They’d act tough, and then they’d be terrified by the sight of a little kitten.”
Jaffe brought the concept to General Mills, which had an enthusiastic response. Since late movies had started appearing on television, the Universal horror film monsters had become familiar to a new generation of fans, who embraced merchandise like Aurora model kits and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
Levine, illustrator George Cern, and animators Bill Tollis and Bill Melendez defanged them further, making them look and sound kid friendly. Still, Levine recalls that General Mills took nearly two years to refine her scripts, deliberating on wording and design before the cereals made their debut in March of 1971.
The products were an immediate hit: General Mills added Fruity Yummy Mummy, Boo Berry, and Fruit Brute in short order. But the “Monster Cereals,” as they came to be called, had more problems than their questionable nutrition.
In 1972, the press delighted in reporting some gastronomic difficulties suffered by children who ingested the red dye used in Franken Berry. While harmless, it had a tendency to turn their stool pink or red, leading anxious parents to believe their child might be suffering internal bleeding.
In 1972, the journal Pediatrics published a case study that dubbed the condition “Franken Berry stool.” After being hospitalized for four days with suspected rectal hemorrhaging, a boy was found to have been enjoying the cereal in the days prior. Physicians realized it was the culprit.
In 1987, with everyone’s bowels in order, the company came under fire once again when a commemorative cereal box featuring actor Bela Legosi as Dracula was perceived by some to feature the Star of David. Jewish groups protested, offended that a piece of religious iconography was adorning a vampire. General Mills apologized but didn’t recall the 4 million boxes that had been shipped.
Despite the occasional misstep—fans also cried foul when the company briefly made Chocula a live-action character in a vaguely disturbing ad—the cereals have become special attractions for Halloween. Since 2010, a rotation of horror mascots are distributed to stores in the fall, feeding the demand of nostalgic fans. Some even hoard boxes to resell on eBay; a man in Fort Collins, Colorado who made an unauthorized Chocula craft beer nearly emptied out his town’s supply.
Although Levine had moved on to another agency just before the cereals hit shelves, she's happy to be the originator of a character that has been a beloved cereal mascot for 45 years—and she's not the only one. “It comes up often,” she says. “I do the New York Times crossword every day and remember being very excited when Count Chocula was one of the answers.”
But with the cereals both a regional and seasonal affair, she doesn’t often come across them at home. “In Los Angeles, I don’t ever see them.”