When I was 12 or so: Hooked on horror

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By the time I was 12, I was hooked on horror. First it was grisly pulps like “Tales from the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror,” published from 1950-55 by EC/Entertaining Comics (though there was not much “comical” about them). Like so many kids then, I was addicted and couldn’t stop reading them - until they were censored by the Comics Code Authority (CCA).

 

A self-regulating publishers’ group, CCA was established in the wake of the 1954 U.S. Senate inquiry into the harmful effects of horror and crime comic books on young readers. The agency issued guidelines expressly forbidding, not only “lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations,” “smut,” and “nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures,” but also “scenes dealing with… walking dead… vampires…ghouls… and werewolfism.” Within a year “Vault of Horror” and “Tales from the Crypt” were history. The only EC publication to survive the censors’ bloodbath was another fave of mine, “Mad” magazine (which was founded in 1952 and continued its newsstand distribution through 2018).

Though not as gory as the horror mags, there were plenty of scary offerings on the radio. Weekly episodes of the series “Lights Out,” which aired 1934-47 (even this 30-second intro may give you the willies www.quietplease.org/clips/lo.mp3), “Inner Sanctum” (1941-52), and “Quiet, Please” (1947-49), featured performances by horror stars like Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. You can listen to many of these broadcasts - if you dare - on the “The Late Late Horror Show” YouTube channel.

In 1957, when I was 12 and we could finally afford our first television - a tiny black and white set - Universal Studios released its “Shock Theater” package of 52 horror movies from the 1930s and ‘40s for syndication to local TV stations. The shows were an instant hit across the U.S., prompting Universal and Columbia Pictures to distribute 20 more films the next year in another collection dubbed “Son of Shock.”

Kids like me, too young to have seen these flicks in the theater, and even adults who had, were enthralled watching them on the small screen. Among the offerings were classics like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” (both 1931), “The Mummy” (1932), and “The Wolf Man” (1941).

These “Friday Night Frights,” as they were sometimes called, were often hosted by local TV personalities. From 1954-55 the Los Angeles ABC affiliate KABC-TV ran its own series, hosted by actress Maila Nurmi as “Vampira,” the character Nurmi created for the show.

The idea of a horror-movie host quickly caught on, and copycat programs popped up across the country. Among the best-known horror emcees was John Zacherle, who hosted 92 shows during 1957-58 for WCAU in Philadelphia. In his role as an undertaker named “Roland” and dressed in a long black coat, Zacherle not only introduced the movies but also cut into some scenes with his own comic parodies of the action, often with the film’s soundtrack continuing in the background. In 1959 he moved to New York to host a similarly produced series for WABC, adding -y to the end of his name and titling the program “Zacherley at Large.”

In Norfolk, Virginia, where I grew up, our Channel 13 WVEC shock-master from 1959-64 was Jerry Sandford, who as a creepy-looking “Ronald the Ghoul” (the name, I’m guessing, chosen as an anagram of Zacherley’s “Roland”) served up vintage cinematic frights at 11:30 p.m. every Friday. Ronald began each show rising slowly from his coffin (which on one occasion was stolen from the studio by teen-aged pranksters) and greeting viewers with a ghoulishly intoned, “Good evening, friends.”

Horror-movie mania spread across the country, encouraging producers to crank out a whole new series of creature features for the big screen and spawning the horror-pic magazine, “Famous Monsters of Filmland” (FM). The first issue was published in 1958 and I subscribed straight through into my college days; though later resurrected, the final issue (#191) produced by legendary editor Forrest J. Ackerman appeared in 1983.

As a kid it was among my prospective career goals to become a monster actor, playing parts like Lugosi’s or Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, or Chaney’s wolfman. The closest I came back then was choreographing a troupe of buddies in monster outfits to stalk the stage of our high-school talent show, while I lip-synched the lyrics to Bobby (“Boris”) Pickett’s 1962 novelty hit “Monster Mash.” Pickett’s band, the Crypt-Kickers, featured Leon Russell on keyboard, and the 45-rpm record rose to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list for Oct. 20–27 the year of its release and charted again when it was re-released in the 70s. Later, as the parent of three young children, we got to costume them as mummies, witches, and such and host haunted houses in our home for Halloween.

Somewhere, sometime along the way, I tossed my whole FM collection (though not before my own young son, Jean-Paul, had the chance to fall in love with the mag too). But I never gave up my hope of playing a monster on the silver screen. When Athens, Georgia, filmmaker Benjamin Roberds asked me to play the Baron Frankenstein-like Mad Scientist in his 2018 music video, Don Broco’s “Come Out to L.A.,” I was ecstatic.

But even more monstrously exciting, a few years earlier Ben had advertised for extras for his feature-length zombie pic, “A Plague So Pleasant” (available on Amazon). I of course showed up ready for gore, inspired by memories of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). As it turned out, Alice and I were fortunate to serve among the indie film’s executive producers, Alice had a role as an office worker, and I, at long last, realized my lifelong dream, appearing in full flesh-dripping make-up among Roberds’ zombie horde. “It was a graveyard smash,” as Bobby Pickett might have put it, though no thanks to the CCA!

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books, both on Amazon, are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. His Facebook group, “Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World,” numbers over 4,100 members. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.

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