The Monster Decade: 1954-1964

There 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.

1954

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 public consciousness.

1955

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...

1956

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...

1957

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 first released, 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 many 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 for children.

1958

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!

1961

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.

1962

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 of Halloween.

1963

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."

1964

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, begins a couple 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 undeniable 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), and 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.

The inevitable decline

Scooby 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.



Update: 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 wish list.

   

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