The Curse of The Misfits Skull Logo

You may not know what it is, but chances are you've seen it - that leering, grinning skull you see popping up, not just on Halloween, but year round. Maybe you saw it downtown incorporated into a graffiti mural:

Mural art by Shephard Fairey

Image courtesy

Maybe you have a teenager that shops at Hot Topic and keeps bringing home merchandise covered in the darned thing:

Product pics: Hot Topic

Or, maybe you're a hard-core punk rocker who knows everything there is to know about the iconic Fiend skull, and the band it represents, the Misfits. Or so you thought! If you're a Misfits fan, number 3 on the list below just might make your eye pop out.

Without further ado, for your Halloween trivia pleasure, the following little-known factoids about the ubiquitous Fiend skull logo:

1. The Fiend Logo comes from the 1940s film serial The Crimson Ghost.

Still from the Crimson Ghost

Still from the Crimson Ghost

The villain in the 1940s film serial The Crimson Ghost was a mysterious and murderous figure who also somewhat inexplicably disguised himself as the creepiest cloaked skeleton ever. It was this striking and ghastly visage that Glenn Danzig chose in the late 70s to serve as the emblem for his Lodi, New Jersey-spawned gang of ghouls, the Misfits. The face of the Crimson Ghost became the foundation of the band’s famously macabre visual aesthetic.

Horror Business cover art

For some reason Republic Pictures and its successors (the rights holder to the Crimson Ghost series) never went after the Misfits for appropriating their character. At this point thanks to the legal doctrine of laches it is doubtful that they ever could. But it’s a little ironic that the horror punks were able to skate away from any legal controversy with the skull’s original owner in light of the intellectual property entanglements that have haunted the band ever since.

2. The Fiend Logo lies at the undead heart of punk rock's longest-running legal grudge match.

L- Jerry Only, R- Glenn Danzig

The original Misfits broke up in 1983, but their legend grew posthumously. Rabid fans were eager to get their cold dead hands on anything to do with the band. This set off lengthy litigation between Danzig and original bassist Jerry Only in the 1990s, disputing who had the rights to the Misfits' name and brand. While a settlement was nominally reached between the two in 1995, it involved an unusual (one might even say…unholy?) and ambiguous joint custody arrangement over the band’s trademarks and logos, virtually guaranteeing future strife.

Sure enough, the gruesome twosome have been sniping at each in legal venues ever since. Most recently we found Danzig and Only fighting over who has the right to sell Hot Topic evil bikinis. Only scored a summary judgment in April 2015, but don’t you dare think that this was the last nail in the coffin. Danzig has appealed Only’s summary judgment win to the 9th Circuit; opening briefs are due to be filed March 2016.

3. In 2015, the Misfits were THISCLOSE to a reunion.

Image credit: Eerie Vonn

Despite the lawsuits and bad blood, legions of fans still hold out hope that Danzig and Only will reunite. Fans have no idea how close this came to happening in 2015.

In an uncommon turn of events, usually confidential settlement communications were made public in the Hot Topic lawsuit. A discovery dispute resulted in a flurry of finger-pointing filings by both sides in February 2015. The documents show that Danzig and Only were ready to put aside their differences and start making nightmares come true - with a 40th anniversary Misfits reunion tour. You can see one of the proposed settlement drafts that was filed as an exhibit here.

Mournfully, the deal fell apart. And thus, the Fiend Skull litigation lives on, like so many zombie clichés. Will it ever end?

Mikhael Bortz is an intellectual property, media and business attorney based out of Chicago and Miami. Mikhael specializes her legal practice in worldwide intellectual property, fine art issues, licensing, merchandising, branded entertainment, technology, and social media.

Edited April 3, 2016: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the The Crimson Ghost dated to the 1930s, not the 1940s; The Crimson Ghost was first released in 1946. An incorrect image of The Crimson Ghost was also replaced with an accurate photo. Thanks to James Greene, Jr. for pointing out the errors.