by RICH SCRIVANI
In the year 1956, there were very few respectable horror films on New York television. Movie theaters were running science-fiction double features by the carload, especially on Kiddie Matinee weekends. But on the tube, if you were lucky, you might get a glimpse of films like THE MAD MONSTER (1942) or THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943) running on a local station, then not see anything for months. The groundbreaking debut of KING KONG on Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie had not happened yet, so these films were my first peek at monsters on TV. The two I mentioned were on during the early evening and had no special late-night time slot or ballyhoo to alert you to their presence. They served as a primer for me, never having even heard of werewolves or vampires, much less the name "Dracula" at that point in my life!
No matter - they scared me, and left me wanting more.
September, 1957. I was sitting on the thick brown carpet of our living room watching the old RCA black-and-white TV when my older brother shoved the current issue of TV Guide under my nose, uttering words I would never forget: "This looks like it might be right up your alley!" Staring out at me was the white pasty face of Boris Karloff from a now familiar still from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and in the lower right corner a profile shot of the Wolf Man, howling at something, the moon or his destiny. The text - "Coming Weeks on "The Night Show" (not "Shock Theater" yet, they didn't even bother to change the name of the show for the horror weekends), DRACULA - FRANKENSTEIN - THE MUMMY - and many other all-time great 'shockers'.
And scrawled along the bottom, the magic word, "SHOCK!" As I think back to that magical day, part of me winces at the question I asked my brother, pointing straight to Karloff's famous visage, "Is that Frankenstein?" To which he answered, "No, I think that's Dracula."
I'll skip the details involving the endless pleading I had to do to even catch a glimpse of these films, suffice it to say that horror films of the type about to be unleashed on a generation of innocent would-be Monster Kids were looked upon by parents and the public at large as one step short of pornography, dubious as healthy entertainment, and outright unsavory and mind-rotting for children. Don't forget, only two years before, the government had banned the production of horror comic books with titles like "Vault of Horror" and "Tales from the Crypt". Strange as it seems in light of today's sensibilities, it would be a decade before these Gothic classics would be even considered worthy of discussion as literate tales of mystery and imagination.
Besides, they were on too late. Thursday and Friday nights at 11:15 P.M. and Saturdays at 10:30 P.M. My only chance of seeing ANYTHING in those first two weeks in October was to stretch my bedtime routine past 10:00 on Saturday, which was fairly easy. Stay up a little bit later to study church catechism ( I was in a Confirmation class) and before you knew it it's 10:30. Make my way into the little back room that held the second TV set, turn the dial to WABC channel 7, and out of the dusty tube came my first look at the Frankenstein Monster creeping up on an unsuspecting Mae Clarke - until I was ordered to get to bed.
The trailer for FRANKENSTEIN (they always ran the trailer for whatever was being shown that night) fueled me enough for a frontal assault on my parents that continued through the week until that fabulous Friday afternoon I rode my bike home from school realizing that the battle was over and I had won. In the dead of night I was going to see THE MUMMY.
It's hard to put into words what it was like being so young and impressionable in those days, the ground floor of baby boomer horror consciousness. There was nothing to compare it with, it just seemed to come out of nowhere. Many of us started collecting pictures wherever we could find them, some of us creating scrapbooks (in this case, it became my beloved "Shock" book) so that we didn't have to depend on just that one night a week to see our favorite monsters. Aside from ads in the local papers, there was no resource for information about them, no books, no Monster Magazines! None of us knew it then, but all of that was just around the corner.
One of the rituals of the time was checking out TV Guide each week, turning quickly to the Thursday night listings and that ad in the corner of the page. Many times the pictures didn't match the movies - for the New York debut of THE MUMMY, a still of Lon Chaney, Jr. from THE MUMMY'S TOMB was used. A shot of the Monster from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN adorned the half-page ad for the Friday night showing of FRANKENSTEIN. It didn't matter. Putting together the pieces as the series progressed was part of the fun (Oh, THIS is the one where the Monster wears that woolly vest!). The newspapers weren't much more accurate, but at least the ads were bigger and the mistakes were different! The important thing was: new pictures for your collection.
The Night Show in New York officially changed to "Shock Theater", and double bills were started, a repeat from Monday through Wednesday, and a brand-new shocker the following Thursday through Saturday. The stations didn't seem to care what order they were shown in, and in my case, the first Frankenstein I experienced was SON. In retrospect, not the worst as an introduction to the character of the Monster. For some strange reason (probably because the first photo I had seen was a closeup of Lugosi as Ygor) I assumed that Ygor was the Monster's son - a 12-year-old mind at work, you understand. I remember the second of the series I saw was FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN and how disappointed I was at Bela in the role. To see the Monster, who had demonstrated superhuman strength in SON, needing help from Chaney, Jr. to open a drawer was a distinct comedown. If only they had shown them in order, but THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN would not make its TV debut for another year, when the remainder of the series would unspool the following season via the "Son of Shock" package.
Occasionally the supernatural aura of 1958 would be dispelled when some questionable entries would run: titles like CHINATOWN SQUAD (1935), THE SPY RING (1937), REPORTED MISSING (1937) and THE WITNESS VANISHES (1939) padded out the series. While we can enjoy them for their place in Universal history now, they were unwanted intruders at the time, tepid "B" mysteries, holding no interest whatsoever for kids who wanted monsters.
It wasn't long before another product of the era, the horror host, would be thrown into the witch's cauldron of frenetic creativity and fun that was bursting forth upon us in those years. In my area, actor John Zacherle ("Roland" in Philadelphia, "Zacherley" in New York) added something refreshingly new to the mix: humor and wit. Just when we were all prepared to be frightened by the ghoul with the cavernous voice, we found instead a friend who would act as our guide and companion throughout the wee hours of the night. Each major city had its own host: Ghoulardi in Cleveland, Vampira in Los Angeles, M.T. Graves in Miami, and so on.
The Shock Theater era opened up a whole new world of music for me, as I'd hear snatches of melodies on the radio or TV and realize, "Hey, THAT'S the theme from DRACULA!" Or, "I remember that from THE BLACK CAT!" I soon began collecting classical works such as Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake", Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Liszt's "Les Preludes" in order to conjure up the images of Karloff and Lugosi. Unfortunately for me, it would be almost 40 years before the real scores from the Frankenstein films would be available on records or CDs.
Soon the entire Monster Kid scene would be enhanced by the introduction of Forrest Ackerman and James Warren's "Famous Monsters of Filmland", a wonderland of new pictures (for me, to be snipped out for my ever-growing "Shock" book) and stories about the backgrounds of our favorite new old horror films. FM was soon followed by a stable of others, not as popular and not nearly as long-lasting: World Famous Creatures, Monster Parade, Monsters and Things, Modern Monsters, Horror Monsters, and, in 1962, the first serious gift to horror film history, the wonderful Castle of Frankenstein, really in a class by itself.
Try to imagine the uptight, conformist and slightly paranoid atmosphere in the decade following World War II, not a lot of room for things different and bizarre, and within a matter of weeks being drawn into a new, sometimes scary, but indescribably fun world of monster-mania. And if you were fortunate enough to locate a friend who shared your enthusiasm for all of it, maybe form a fan club or the like, trade monster pictures (lots of times the newspaper ads) like baseball cards, and have a sleepover to watch the latest Shock Theater entry, it was a fringe benefit, a perk, the icing on the cake.
If you are too young to have experienced it from the beginning, no matter - memories of your first exposure to all things monster are just as important, and I'm sure just as special. But there are some of us who will always remember how wondrous it was when the TV horror boom of the '50s gave us Shock Theater.
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