The Monster Decade:
have been a number of eras in the history of horror and sci-fi in pop
culture, but these ten years from '54 to '64 represent a period where
there was a unique boom in retro cinema. As a result of the
overlapping effects of that look backward, this period established many
staples of entertainment and merchandising traditions that reverberate
all the way through to the present and likely for decades to come.
Several important events occurred during this
time. Sometimes they're independent of one another, sometimes in
sequence, but they collectively begin interacting to revisit the
theatrical monster movies of the '30s and deliver them into homes to a
new generation growing up in the '50s.
I mark the
beginning of the "monster decade" by the premier of The Vampira Show. Even though
it wasn't a monster series, the show was the first horror host series, and it set the
standard most others were to follow from that point forward.
While Vampira was played mostly straight, there is a wry comedic angle
in that actress Maila Nurmi viewed her character as a normal (i.e., not
supernatural) person who believed she really was a vampire.
Even though The Vampira Show was never
broadcast outside of Los Angeles, it received a lot of attention
nationally. It was nominated for an Emmy, and several national
magazines did articles on the show and Vampira/Nurmi. It even
spawned fan clubs around the world.
Many see a direct lineage to Elvira's
Movie Macabre (1981), although Cassandra Peterson/Elvira has
said she never saw the series (which is likely true, considering she
grew up in Kansas where it never aired, and the series has never been
re-run anywhere else). There are many other hosts who more
closely followed Vampira's approach in the next few years after her
series, but a couple more things had to occur before horror hosting
became a phenomenon and the classic movie monsters returned to the
Mounting pressure from censors over the
last decade (and particularly over the previous couple years) results
in EC Comics canceling their horror line, which included titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. The paucity
of horror material likely lead to a media vacuum that caused kids to
turn to their televisions. For example...
The second major event leading to the rise
of the horror host was that the film King
Kong was sold to television after the conclusion of its 1956
re-release to theaters. One channel in New York showed the film
seventeen times in a single week, with each showing topping the
ratings. It is likely this unexpected popularity that either
inspired or at least fueled Universal to embark on the third and most
important event in this sequence...
The definitive development that kicked off
horror hosting and the monster generation was the creation of "Shock Theater," the package of
monster movies sold to tv stations around the country. This set
included 52 films released between 1931 and 1946, including the classic
Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy movies (and some
sequels). This the first time many of these films were available
to a young audience who were now able to view these in their own homes,
provided their parents let them stay up late enough on Saturday nights.
Following Vampira's lead, and now with a
ready-made collection of monster movies assembled to feature each week,
local tv stations then began developing hosts for their respective
horror programs. Perhaps the most famous of these was Zacherley,
(though he was originally known as Roland... accent on the 2nd
syllable) when he was in Philadelphia before moving to New York.
Stations all around the country had similarly gothic hosts who
introduced the movie and performed bits of sketch comedy between
commercial breaks and when the film resumed.
Another package of films, "The Son of
Shock," was sold to stations the next year, which fleshed out the
library they could offer, thus ensuring that young viewers were caught
up on all the important monster films of the previous era.
Also in 1957 - Hammer
Films began revisiting the classic monsters at the core of
Universal's movies. Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was the
starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who went on to appear in
many other Hammer features/sequels. Subsequent films revisited Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and Curse of the Wolf Man (1961), with
sequels to follow. These were much more gruesome than the
original series of films, and I'm inclined to think this made the
Universal monster movies seem tamer by comparison and thus appropriate
The popularity of the classic monsters
inspired now-legendary writer/editor Forrest J Ackerman to put together
a one-shot magazine: Famous Monsters
of Filmland. The issue was so successful that it
immediately shifted to a regular publication. The witty text and
fun images helped introduce kids to classic monster movies as well as
promoting science fiction films. It also actively encouraged
their readers to explore costumes and make-up effects through costume
contests and promotions. Even amateur film contests were staged
which encouraged young filmmakers.
Many other copycat monster magazines
followed over the next few years such as Castle of Frankenstein, but none
lasted as long or were as successful as FMoF. The magazine ran until
1983 with the Ackermonster at the helm throughout, but it has been
resurrected a couple times since then and continues to this day.
Also in 1958 - The single "Dinner With
Drac" by Zacherley was
released. The success of this novelty song spawned a series of
horror-themed albums over the next few years by the horror host, along
with additional singles, and even a couple horror anthologies of short
stories. This collectively demonstrated that monster-mania was a
phenomenon that could successfully spread into other media beyond film
and tv. In fact, it soon spread to the toy aisles as well!
By this point monster merchandise has
already been flying off the shelves for some time. But this year
a classic line is introduced: Aurora Models creates the first of its
monster model kits: Frankenstein. Over the next five years, a
whole series of monster kits followed: Dracula and The Wolf Man in
1962; The Mummy, The Creature, and The Phantom of the Opera in 1963;
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and
Godzilla plus The Salem Witch and Bride of Frankenstein 1964; then The
Forgotten Prisoner in 1966. The box artwork itself is classic,
and the kits are still sought after by collectors and have been
re-issued many times over the years since they were first introduced.
In the wake of Zacherley's "Dinner with
Drac," many other novelty songs about monsters are released. The
most famous of these hits the airwaves this year: "The Monster Mash" by Bobby
"Boris" Pickett. The impressions of Karloff and Lugosi performed
by Pickett reference the classic monster movies, albeit in a safe and
humorous light. The song goes on to become the unofficial anthem
Don Post Masks becomes the first Universal
Monsters licensee with its Frankenstein mask. These were often
advertised in the pages of Famous
Monsters of Filmland magazine and are frequently remembered in
conjunction with that publication. Post himself is dubbed by many
as "The Godfather of Halloween."
The first issue of the horror magazine Creepy is published by
Warren. The demand for monsters and horror media is great enough
that its sister publication, Eerie,
years later in 1966 and both continue to run through
the end of Warren Publishing in 1983.
Two monster-themed families premier on tv
in their respective shows on competing networks: The Addams Family and The Munsters. The former is
based on Charles Addams' comic characters. However, the latter
(produced by Universal) draws from the designs of the classic Universal
Monsters. The competing characters appear on the cover of TV
Guide in battle, as they will in the ratings for the next couple years
until cancellation. The two shows collectively mark the
point where monsters are now family, and they are so tame that they
elicit laughs rather than horror. Rather than parents turning off
their tvs to spare their little ones potential nightmares, they watch
the shows together. The cultural cycle is complete.
Whereas horror comics were driven off the
racks in the mid-'50s, the first reprints of the EC Comics came out by
the end of this period (i.e., 1964). Monsters were on the toy
aisle, on tv, in comic books (e.g., The Munsters had their own series),
everywhere else. They had been tamed. They weren't
something to shield your children from; they were the cereal you fed
them in the morning while they watched cartoons about monsters.
Doo, Where Are You? premiered in 1969, showing in episode after
episode that monsters -however scary they may appear- were just people
in disguise to scare away the good guys. There was nothing to be
afraid of. The Groovie Goolies
appeared the next year with a gang of monsters like Frankie, Wolfie,
and Drac who were all so friendly that we distilled them down to
nicknames. The aforementioned monster cereals started coming to
cupboards in 1971, again based not just on the monsters, but even
mimicking the iconic performances by Karloff and Lugosi. By 1974,
we had Mel Brooks tackling the Frankenstein film mythos with Young Frankenstein. It was
clear that the resurgence was over, and we were collectively ready for new eras of horror.
I've recently learned of a book that covers in greater depth the
cultural phenomenon outlined above: Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky
Monster Craze In America 1957-1972 by Mark Voger. I haven't
had a chance to get it yet (Sooooo much else to read!), but it's on my