On television, way back in the 1950s, cowboys like Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and the Cisco Kid were all the rage as far as kid's programming was concerned. Stories of western heroes who were quick on the draw but only used their guns to protect and not to kill were considered wholesome entertainment suitable for us boomers. Postwar fascination with supersonic jet planes, the dawning space age, flying saucers and atomic weapons gave rise to a new batch of heroes who traversed the shores of outer space. Spacemen such as Captain Video, Tom Corbett Space Cadet and Rocky Jones Space Ranger meted out interplanetary justice vying for the attention of young viewers much like their earthbound range-riding brethren.
In the late ‘50s another form of entertainment trend on TV more closely related to science fiction rather than westerns appeared. At that time Universal Pictures released it’s classic horror films of the 1930s and 40s in a package branded as “Shock Theater” to television stations across the nation. Kids who were growing up watching horse and space operas were now exposed to the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman and their ghoulish associates, often to the dismay of their parents.
To be sure, monsters had been around in films and horror comics but the appearance of the iconic Universal monsters on late night Saturday evening TV launched a new entertainment sub-culture. Suddenly, monsters were IN! Riding the wave of this trend, “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, a magazine aimed mostly at us kids debuted in 1958. Wrapped in a lurid, slick , eye-catching color covers, featuring the portrait of some cinematic ghoul (often the work of illustrator Basil Gogos), FM, as we referred to it was otherwise rather cheaply printed on dull non-coated stock. The back of the mag was full of all kinds of horror related mail order merchandise such as these cool looking monster masks that could prolong Halloween into a year-long event. The editor of FM was non-other than Hollywood literary agent and horror/sci-fi expert Forrest J. Ackerman. “Forrey” as we knew him, filled the magazine with loads of cool, albeit grainy photos and stills from fantastic films of the present back to the dawn of cinema. Forrey’s enthusiastic description of rarely seen classics such as the original “Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and even lost films such as “London After Midnight” helped to foster this writer’s love for film of all kinds. And, oh yes, the puns- the awful puns that often punctuated Forrey’s photo captions and headlines( i.e. : “Happy forth of ghoul-eye} were all over the mag. All of us serious fans professed to loathe them but we really loved it!
Monster culture of the time blossomed in the 1960s with the appearance of the Aurora plastic monster model kits. A kid could build his or her own monster and paint it in as creative or gory manner as they wished (I built the Phantom of the Opera while my brother got the Wolfman). Then there was “The Monster Mash”, the pop anthem of all horror fans of the era. Released in 1962, the “Mash” was co-written and performed by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt Kickers and was Billboard’s number one hit for two weeks.
Network TV execs also read the trends and in the fall of 1964 the “Addams Family” debuted on ABC and week later “The Munsters” appeared on CBS. Both shows were sitcoms that featured American families who appeared to be ghouls and monsters living in macabre settings in the midst of suburbia. More silly and played for laughs rather than shock and shudders the kids and their parents loved it - for two seasons anyway.
Many kids who grew up immersed in monster culture became writers, such as Stephen King and film makers the likes of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Guillermo Del Toro to name a few. Through them and others the influence of the culture continues today.
Much of the above is based on personal experience and can be verified in “The Monster Show, a cultural history of Horror” by David J. Skal. All of Mr.Skal’s books are well written , scrupulously researched and presented with the love and sensitivity of a true aficionado and scholar. His book “Hollywood Gothic” dealing with the literary, cinematic and cultural aspects of the Dracula character is a masterpiece. ‘nuff said.
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