Howard The Duck actually holds pretty great, and is funnier than I remember. Why did people hate it again?
Howard The Duck actually holds pretty great, and is funnier than I remember. Why did people hate it again?
Whew. What a season! I think I did some of my best work on both The Blog and on The Podcast this year, and the Spooktacular was the tacular-est of them all, thanks to everyone who has been following along. Please, check out All Our October Podcasts and All Our October Blog Posts if you’d like to catch up. But don’t worry too much about the past. There’s lots of cool stuff on the horizon, too, so whatever your relative “now” is, it is always a good time to jump on board with our stuff. To close I will ask, one last time, that you take a look and a listen at The Ways Of Ghosts one more time, and if you’re feeling generous, please pick up a copy. It’s a good way to support what we do, and a great piece of Halloween listening if I do say so myself. (End of plugs section.)
As much as I’ve enjoyed Halloween and the music associated with it for a long time, I have never obsessed too much over what I dress up as, or how I should decorate for the holiday. Sure, I would participate if I was going to a party, or had a pumpkin lying around, but it is only recently that I have gotten into collecting cool decorations for the holiday, and if I were to get very specific, it is only since I met my wife, who is also a big fan of vintage holiday ephemera. We have an aesthetic we’re trying to cultivate, and obviously we fudge things here and there for the sake of nostalgia, but try to keep it within reason. We don’t go all-out with crazy decorations, and “tasteful” is something we are constantly weighing when we put things up. But we do like to have fun, an we’re always looking out for something to add to our collection. To close out the season here on the blog, here’s a photo shoot of our decorations, and some highlights discussed below.
First, here’s a video of walking up to our house in the dark. I think it is rather charming.
We try to keep our lights simple, and limited to path lighting with a few accent strings here and there. Among them are a few strings of these flickering lights, that are supposed to replicate the look of candles. I’m quite fond of them, and the best part is that they are appropraite for both Halloween & Christmas. The path lights are only problematic because we have shitty people in the neighborhood who will stomp on them. Otherwise, they are so easy to install and store if you keep the original packaging, and replacement bulbs are easy to find.
I would also mention that many of the “electronic” candles that you can get in most stores have “timer” settings, where the light is on for five hours, and off for 19. (Some have even further settings to fine tune these times.) These can work really well to accent parts of the room, or light the inside of other decorations (like our stack of pumpkins). Lastly, I have all of my lights on one switch in the living room, so I don’t even have to go outside to turn everything off. I recommend this for anyone who wants to set up decorations. I used to just plug things in where ever I could, and really thought I wouldn’t mind going out to unplug things. Being able to shut it down with one switch is quite a luxury.
When we moved into our house last year, it was Spring, and throughout the summer we got to know our neighbors. But we were still very surprised when they offered this wreath to us last October, just before we were about to put our our decorations, as a gift. It was so incredibly thoughtful, and is such a great addition to the porch. I have since made a special box just for the wreath to store it during the off season, we are very proud of it. While we mostly keep to ourselves, that wreath really bonded us as neighbors.
My wife and I are fond of vintage blowmolds, and every time we’ve found one it’s been worth buying, no matter where you find them. Patience has paid off, and we have found four incredible pumpkins at various thrift stores. Each of these are designed to insert a light that plugs in, creating the effect that the entire plastic item is lighting up (you can see them in action in the video). These things are really awesome, and we get excited when we can put them out. As you can see, the biggest one is clearly sun-damaged with age, but the others are pretty fantastic. We’re hoping that we can find more to flesh out our entire porch as the years go on.
Among the other weird thrift scores that my wife has found was this plastic bag that you can fill with leaves. It is much grosser and harder to fill than you would think, and it is easy to damage or ruin the plastic, too. However, it has a bit of charm to it, and we have enjoyed putting it on the porch this year. There are four other versions of this same kind of thing, made by the same company (Kenley Corporation in Mason, Ohio), so it would be cool to complete the set.
Last year I made this mix of “scary” sounds from a variety of sources, and edited it to fit the length of an audio CD. I made a CD, and play it on my porch from a small, portable CD player that I purchased several years ago (you can see it in the video above). I put the CD on infinite repeat, and it works very well as an atmospheric sound for people who walk up to the porch.
While we have picked up a few things in stores (like these pumpkins that fold out), my wife has scored a variety of vintage cardboard and paper wall hangings, and you can tell by the designs that they are most likely the from the early ’80s or late ’70s. However, we have also acquired a folding witch lantern, a Halloween banner, and a stand up cat. While most of our paper crafts – like the Mummy – are fairly newish, this Pumpkin / Owl Fold-Out item is not only one of the oldest items we have, but by far the coolest. I added a spider to it this year for effect, but it does not need one. It is pretty great.
My mom used to make these tissue paper ghosts when I was a kid, and they are very much something I remember fondly. They’re incredibly easy to make, too. After you wad up a bit of paper or newspaper to create the “head,” wrap a piece of generic tissue paper around it. Tie a piece of thread around the tissue paper to keep the head in place, and cut off the thread at a reasonable length so you can hang it from somewhere (like, you’re ceiling). I call this part of our living room “Ghost Corner,” and I already have plans for creating little floating styrofoam headstones in the future. But for now these twenty are a good start to my collection. These are an easy craft project for kids, too, and is much less messy than carving a pumpkin.
My wife used to have a number of Blythe Dolls, and to this day is connected to a group that still interacts regularly. (She has two that she still keeps). This year she was invited to a Halloween Doll party, where other collectors brought their dolls dressed up in all sorts of costumes. To that end, she made the helmet using a styrofoam pumpkin she bought at a craft store. She cut the bottom out, and covered the surface of the pumpkin with glue, then glitter. Lastly, she added a coat of hairspray to help “set” the glitter. The overall effect was pretty great, as you can see.
* * * * * *
So, while we don’t cover every inch of our house with decorations, we like to have fun, and we like the stuff we have. We’ve only been together for a short time, and just got married, so our collection is pretty young. But given a few more years, we could amass some awesome stuff if we keep looking.
As Halloween began to get commodified more and more in the ’70’s and ’80’s, the kinds of music and recording that were hitting the market began to dabble in strange little nooks and crannies. Disney had established that narratives could work, and many people stuck with reading Edgar Allen Poe if they wanted a spooky story. But Caedmon Records expanded the scope of what they were willing to release, and with that they contacted Vincent Price to perform for their Halloween releases.
I’ve written at length about both Vincent Price and his relationship with Caedmon Records, so I won’t bore you too much with that, except to say that to me, he really is a Halloween character, through and through. My perception of him as a kid was very much that of a horror creature, and I would get pretty excited when I would hear his voice, or see him in a film. Having Vincent as a part of Halloween just makes sense, and I’m happy to hear him year-round.
Below are five links, that allow you to hear the five-part series I ran last October as part of our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular! These were delivered into the podcast feed on five consecutive days – Monday through Friday – at 11 AM each day. String all five of these together for a 25 minute tale that is a fantastic way to spend an evening if you’re looking for something seasonally appropriate to do.
There’s something really fun about serial entertainment, as the kinds of people who are prone to binge-watching any TV Show can easily attest to. We like being cut off at the height of the stories’ telling, knowing that we have to wait for the next segment to come a day, week, month or year later.
I’m not sure how many new fans got into the story as it was being doled out in five-minute chunks, but Vincent Price fans loved it, and I had a lot of fun making it, for sure, so much so that I even made a little commercial for the event.
(Originally podcast on 17 October 2014. Expanded for this presentation.)
Once “The Monster Mash” hit the scene in 1962, two things became clear for artists in the 1960’s: the combination of Monsters and Rock Music was perfect for any aspiring artist, and the “Christmas Effect” was now applicable to Halloween as this songs – not even a great song, to be sure – was starting to get guaranteed seasonal airplay. In the same way that cutting a Christmas Tune gave your group some longevity, if only because you would get yearly airplay), then anyone with a guitar and some friends could watch a few horror films late at night and cast around for their own novelty hit that might help launch their careers.
But it wasn’t just people like Bobby Pickett and Don Hinson that were cranking out monster songs, and in the early ’60’s, rock music was changing. Surf had hit the scene pretty hard in the early ’60’s, telegraphing psychedelia by a few years. Surf taught kids that, so long as your guitar player could solo and your rhythm section could play nice with each other, anyone could start one of these bands. Once The Beatles made their epic three week engagement on The Ed Sullivan Show, it seemed as if this version of Rock & Roll was not your parents version from the last decade. Focused on teenagers and their alienation from the rest of modern culture, Rock Music was no longer just about dancing and partying, but had a new range and sound that was electric, and LOUD.
It helped that there was a lot of cheaply made instruments for sale – both new and used – and was thus easy to distribute among the suburbs. Kids everywhere began to create bands with their friends, and by the end of 1964, hundreds of garage bands across the country started, all picking up instruments, picking up cues from the Rock Stars on TV, and picking up on this Monster Vibe that was reverberating through our Culture in Movies and The Late Late Show. Just because these groups were not famous, and were not well known outside of their own home town was irrelevant; if they could get a gig at the local armory, or at a house party, that was fine. And, if one of them had enough savings to sink into pressing up a 45, hey, that was cool, too. Teenagers – distracted by hormones and parties and the War in Vietnam and girls & boys and surfing – had never gotten together and planned to create a music movement. Instead, they were just looking for ways to pass the time.
Lenny Kaye was one of these teenagers, and started his own band in 1964 – The Vandals. As a fanzine writer and music enthusiast, this made sense, and as he got to know other bands and began traveling, he collected records by other garage groups – music that Kaye labeled “punk rock” – and found that many of these songs were in danger of getting lost in the cracks if action was not taken. In 1972 he assembled the original Nuggets compilation, which showcased music by groups that, while not representative of the entire movement, captured those with some pretty big regional hits: The Blues Project, The 13th Floor Elevators, The Amboy Dukes, and Nazz. As some would say, the rest in history: Nuggets has become a sort of cottage industry for Rhino Records, who released 14 sequels to Kaye’s original record in the late ’80’s, and assembled three 4-disc sets of other material, along with other 4-disc localized collections like the LA and San Francisco sets.
It is impossible to say if Kaye knew what was happening when he made that first collection in 1972, but before long he set off not only the modern Rock Record collector market, but a whole genre of compilation albums. The Pebbles series followed in 1978 (which seems to have stopped after 28 collected LPs of tunes), each collecting the lesser-known groups of the Garage Era. Crypt Records‘ very own Tim Warren started Back From The Grave in 1983, as series of comps that focused on some of the wilder, rawer, and crazier records from this same era. (Up to 10 volumes, at this point.)
But more importantly, these (and other) compilations that came out in the years since began to document an era that was beginning to be lost. Classic Rock Radio was the dominant format in America by the ’80’s, and it seemed as if the history of rock and roll was going from Elvis to Led Zeppelin, with little focus on the ’60’s outside of the psychedelic movement (that seemed to map over the political ideology of the counterculture). However, not everyone was into psyche rock. Most people in the ’60’s had grown up on Rock & Roll, and want to make something closer to The Troggs than to Jefferson Airplane. These compilations reclaimed the story of Rock Music from the one that was being heard on the radio, and helped document scenes that had otherwise disappeared once everyone went off to college.
It is ironic that a more complete picture of the ’60’s didn’t come together until the ’80’s, and even then seemed only appreciated by collectors and nerds who enjoyed doing the research. But people who had worked to assemble these kinds of comps also established an entire market for LPs that were not collections of Hit Songs. The idea that you could make a record that documents a time and and a place – wherever and whenever that might be – created the Punk Rock that Kaye had identified in Garage Music. Not only has the Killed By Death series done for punk what these other comps did for the ’60’s, but the larger idea of documenting these fragile (and quickly disintegrating music movements) gave the DIY movement the much needed juice to keep going when things seemed darkest, a tradition that has persisted into the 2010s.
In the early 2000s, S’more Entertainment was just another small record company looking for an angle, and noticed that the reissue market was one place that record sales were not dropping off. They began with re-issues of Black Oak Arkansas and Nazareth records, and hit gold with Dick Dale’s back catalog. They quickly assembled a collection – Surf-Age Nuggets – under the name RockBeat Records, hoping that if it bombed, they could quickly shed the name and keep going. However, Surf was still big money, and this collection (available on both CD and LP) but this new subsidiary on the map. Very quickly RockBeat, and the work they were doing in that office, subsumed the parent company.
RockBeat had hit on a formula, and went on to release collections of The Moving Sidewalks, Little Feat, The Blasters, Albert King, Django Reinhardt, and the very impressive Los Nuggetz Volume Uno, which assembled the previously-uncharted territory of Mexican Rock Music from the ’60’s and ’70’s. Armed with this success, they began casting around for something else they could put in the stores, and hit upon the idea of collecting old ’60’s Monster songs. Plenty of garage bands had recorded stuff like that, and with access to a number of artist’s catalogs, it appeared that they could even release a proper boxed set, music like the comps they were using as their inspiration.
Taking cues from the Wavy Gravy model, RockBeat inserted horror movie trailers into their three-disc set, in-between songs about partying in graveyards and hanging out with vampires. The the concentration (and quality) of the tunes here is what really sets this apart from the stuff you usually find in stores when September rolls around. Foregoing anything close to “The Monster Mash,” they really dug into the Nuggets of the past, and assembled almost 100 tracks of incredibly rockin’ songs, many of which had not been comped elsewhere. (There is some overlap with other sources, but not much.)
As a relatively new compilation – 2014, no less – it remains to be seen if this collection will gain the same kind of notoriety of the Nuggets predecessors that paved the way for this label. And, to be completely fair, RockBeat might not have a long-term future, either. (Having only been around for 10 years, and the increasingly declining state of the Record Industry, might make it hard to build a career on re-issues.) However, in our house, this collection is already a classic, and is absolutely essential listening this time of year. If you want to class up any party you’re throwing – and you still want to be on-point with seasonal treats – Halloween Nuggets is the only way to go.
* * * * * *
You can purchase the album at Amazon.com.
You can stream the entire thing at Spotify. (I think you need to be logged in for that link to work.)
It is also available in a number of other places, too.
Watusi Zombi * Jan Davis * Halloween Nuggets
Graveyard * The Phantom Five * Halloween Nuggets
Scream * Ralph Neilsen & The Chancellors * Halloween Nuggets
Mother Box 034
Frankie Stein And His Ghouls!
(Originally podcast on 14 October 2014. Expanded as a blog post for this presentation.)
Before The Cramps & The Misfits there was another Monster Themed rock band, made up of real monsters, that was blowing the socks off all the cool kids in mid-’60’s: Frankie Stein & His Ghouls! But the story of how these monsters came to be was so secretive that, for many years, it was completely unknown to most. The mystery behind Frankie Stein & His Ghouls is, for some, most of the charm, and in the summer of 1964 when their first record slipped out into stores, unannounced, it was pretty clear that the Synthetic Plastics Company (under the Power Records imprint) had a hit on their hands.
For those of you who don’t want the mystery of these recordings ruined for you, I completely understand. You might want to skip most of the rest of this essay. There is something amazing about the complete package you see in the album above. This was absolutely marketed to kids in every way, but also: to HIP kids. Kids who liked to dance, who understood how cool ghouls really were, and knew that having monsters at your party was the only way to be “cool.” If you grew up like this, you probably don’t want to know the truth about Frankie Stein. Who would? The band is better off as a group of unknowns. In a way, I like to think that these records really were made by the monsters you see on the covers.
It’s sort of lame, in this modern age of instant-information, to think that you have to know everything about everything. It’s the same problem when Jandek went from a genuine mystery to this guy who releases eccentric records that a fair number of people have now met. This group of monsters cutting rock and roll LPs is just as reasonable to any boring truth that would probably ruin the charm of these amazing recordings. So, please, feel free to skip the story below. I won’t be offended.
In 1950 the Synthetic Plastics company went from the premiere manufacturer of plastics that were used by the garment industry to the premiere manufacturer of children’s music entertainment, basically overnight. It was not a glamorous or financially solvent field to enter into, but from the perspective of the company, Children’s Entertainment could be produced in the same way that their assembly lines had produced plastic products for clothing. Turn your limitations into strengths, and hire good workers to produce quality materials. Then, find the right store to stock your product, and roll out the advertising. The ideas were basic business practices for decades now, and Synthetic Plastics went about creating a number of subsidiary companies throughout the ’50’s and ’60’s to release one kind or another of children’s LPs as a way to stay competitive.
While the idea that each of these different “labels” all had a traditional staff of record industry analogs is to even give the practice a Synthetic Plastics that much credit or planning. Each staff member at Synthetic Plastics headed “a label,” and they were each in charge of the releases that label put out. The company had a studio, and everyone learned how to run the gear on their own. Once a recording was finished and the covers were designed (again, by the one in-house self-taught design team), the company would ship these off to be pressed, after which the records were sent to their warehouse, where they shipped out their product to every store that carried their stock. Everyone was urged to get as many releases out as possible. Quantity was going to win this battle.
Story albums and collections of children’s rhymes and songs were instant hot sellers, but as the ’60’s began to start rocking, it was clear that the kiddie dance crazes were another market that Synthetic Plastics to fill. Kids were really enjoying these LPs of dance songs, each song catering to a dance that was popular. This wasn’t Rock and Roll per se, just a very watered down and “whitened” form that was popular everywhere now that groups like The Beatles and The Stones were starting to get going. These dance LPs (instrumental, of course) were safe ways that parents could let their children enjoy Rock music, and built in a guaranteed fan base for rock music as the kids got older. Synthetic Plastics began searching for some musicians that “got” this new sound, to produce records for them to release.
The found the perfect Duo in the pair Joel Herron & Fred Hertz. Joel had came out of radio, conducted his own band in the ’50’s, and had made a name for himself as a bit of a songwriter. Joel met Fred working on The Jimmy Dean Show, and they bonded over having grown up on jazz and swing, but having a love of the new R&B and Rock music that came with girls, dancing and drugs. Joel was approached by Synthetic Plastics to assemble an in-house band to record for some of these dance records they were planning, and the money was just good enough that he brought Fred Hertz (and some of his regular players) along with him. Joel and Fred bonded over pop culture, and loved talking about different creature features they had recently taken in, always making obtuse and crude references to bad horror tropes when the got together. Very quickly they developed a sense of humor that made them a perfect working partnership.
The idea was to lay down some tracks that Synthetic Plastic could use as “bed music.” With a set rhythm section recorded, the label could go back and have different “lead” musicians do different solos and bespoke licks over the same bed music. This gave Synthetic Plastics the opportunity to creating a number of “songs” without having to record the whole band every time. The more unique lead parts they could lay over the tracks, the better, and soon one session with a full band was paying off rather fruitfully for the label. Using different themes and cover designs, Synthetic Plastics managed to do very well for themselves with this idea, and by 1963 a number of these Dance Records has been making the rounds in stores, and sold fairly well.
It is hard to say who had the idea first, but after a night of getting loaded and goofing around in the studio, Joel & Fred took the sound effects from the studio archives and laid them over the dance tunes they had recorded, and made a tape for themselves that they would play around for friends. They knew they could outdo “The Monster Mash” in terms of performing, and the way they mixed the tracks, it sounded like real monsters were playing the tunes. Both Joel & Fred were well aware of the Shock Theater! monster book happening around them, and while the tape was started as a joke, once they got a cover mocked up and had made a few copies for friends in the radio industry (pressed under the amusing moniker “Power Records,”) it seemed as if the idea was crazy enough to actually work. In 1964, Synthetic Plastic tested “Introducing Frankie Stein and His Ghouls: Monster Sounds And Dance Music” (The Ideal Party Record!) to an unsuspecting America. It sold out in every store, and thus the “Power Records” label – which had not existed before – was handed over to Joel & Fred.
The next year was busy for Joel & Fred, and in the summer of 1965 they released four new Frankie Stein LPs, and re-issued the one from the previous year, all of which sold very well everywhere they were available. These were easily produced in the studio, again recycling other tracks they had cut for other dance records, then remixing them with the “Frankie Stein Sound,” and it seemed as if Joel & Fred had set up a cottage industry. But they also had other interests in Hollywood, and making kids fare all day, every day didn’t really appeal to them, especially given how cheaply Synthetic Plastics was producing them (skimping on things like studio time, and pay). Fred went on to be relatively unknown afterward, and Joel went back to radio and television, popping up here and there for the remainder of his life. Frankie Stein & His Ghouls would be a nice footnote to a small paycheck they had received from Synthetic Plastics, and wasn’t really thought about by either of them again.
As time went on, these records began to become quite collectable. The original print runs were the only time Synthetic Plastics put any money into the project, and when Fred & Joel left, both Frankie Stein (and Power Records) essentially stopped production, and the company moved on. Until some of these songs were reissued (incompletely) on a two-CD set in 2005, the primary way anyone heard this music was from a friend who had made a cassette transfer, and to this day LP rips float around online. Fans had no way of finding (or confirming) information about these records for decades, and while the value of the original LPs (like much of the Synthetic Plastics releases from their early days) skyrocketed in value on the resale market among people in the know, they were completely unheard of by most everyone else. For a long time, these albums seemed mythical.
This, in many ways, ushered in the modern era of Halloween Novelty records. Frankie Stein took the ideas of scary sounds LPs and “The Monster Mash,” and combined them in a way that punk bands have been doing every year since. And there is immense charm and genuine strangeness to these albums that qualifies as experimental at times, too. And, let’s not forget, they rock and roll was pretty good for 1964, when you get down to the playing. Frankie Stein did not invent the Monster Rock And Roll song, but in five albums over less than two years, he certainly perfected it, codified the sense of humor, and insisted on a good backbeat.
These days, these albums are virtually forgotten by the mainstream, and are rarely dusted off outside of record nerds like me. But the idea of music by monsters is so compelling that these albums deserve a second listen. These are albums made during the golden age of children’s albums, and in many ways, the perfect synthesis of a studio system creating the Casablanca of monster records, almost completely by accident, like some creature born in a lab.
It isn’t required that you know how these kinds of records get made. But it is important that you get to know them, anyway.
* * * * * *
Stoned (Monkey, Watusi) [Excerpt] * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Shock! Terror! Fear! (1964)
Mummy’s Little Boy (Monkey, Twist) * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Ghoul Music (1965)
Dance Of Doom (Monkey, Watusi) * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Monster Sounds And Dance Music (1965)
Their page on discogs.com
Roger’sBasement.com. (A fan site from the ’90’s / early ’00’s that details every scrap of information anyone can find / has / knows about Frankie Stein. This site is now defunct in the last year, but there are archived versions of the site at archive.org.
Amazon.com sometimes has a remastered CD containing most (but not all) of the Frankie Stein songs.
Afraid Of Nothing: The Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of The Haunted House!
(Originally podcast of 27 October 2014. Re-written and expanded for this presentation.)
This is, by far, my favorite Halloween Record. I currently have six copies, and I will usually buy another copy if I see one out in the wild, and at a reasonable price. In a lot of ways, it is the archetype for what Halloween Records became in the ’70’s and ’80’s, and these days this kind of album is a forgotten relic from a time since past. If anything, people are familiar with the dollar-store CD sound collages made to last up to 70 minutes, which was usually a rehashing of an ’80’s album that the CD Manufacturer has a deal with, transferred to digital from the master tape.
Monster Songs From the ’20’s to the ’80’s
But for the real deal, return with us, now, to the post-war Record Industry. As long as there has been recorded music, there have been novelty records, and even songs that could be called Halloween-adjacent in those days. As far back as the 1920’s there was a tradition of weird or funny songs slipping out among the serious endeavors, and scary songs were just as prevalent. An early “spooky” meme in records was a sort of whistle or instrumental “flourish” to indicate a ghost, and there was a fascination with “boogey” men, made for double-entendres when boogie music came about, but also allowed writers to be off-color with regard to racial stereotypes and still get it into a song. You even, occasionally, found scary sounds being added to a record, and most companies tried their hands at kids output from time to time. All the pieces of the puzzle where there, but no one had gone after the idea as relentlessly as they could have.
The 1950’s were a very curious time, and as a number of cultural forces met to mix and mash, the emerging market for records and recordings was aided by the standardization of the formats: the 7″, the 10″ and the 12″ for size, and 45, 78 and 33 1/3 for speed. With formats standardized, the production of records became cheaper and easier, and allowed for more and more experimentation. You could press records in bulk, and small runs of new types of sounds could be made, tested on the marketplace, and re-pressed if sales were good. Sound effects records of all types and shapes began to creep out into the market, as “found sounds” and other novel audio ephemera sold well among the newly-minted “audiophile” market. With the baby boom taking over every aspect of life, music for kids became much more demanded, and records like Spooky Music found their way to the market much more often. But the idea of making a living at Halloween Records was still a few years off, and again, was a result of a bigger cultural movement.
It wasn’t until 1957 – after the introduction of the Shock Theater package, that monster mania began in the US. Kids were dressing up like monsters for fun, horror movies were being acted out on the playground, and Halloween was becoming big business. Between ’57 and ’59, everyone was rushing out Halloween LPs to capitalize on this potentially passing fad: Dean Gitter releases a record of Ghost Ballads, Al Zanino releases his famous “The Vampire Speaks” 45, Hans Conried & Alice Pierce collaborated on their very strange “Monster Rally” LP (with cover art by Jack Davis, no less, and included mostly covers of strange novelty songs from previous years), Bob McFaddon & Rod McKune’s Songs Our Mummy Taught Us went the beatnik route, and Spike Jones with his incredible Spike Jones in Hi-Fi and A Spooktacular in Screaming Sound sort of mixed humor and a narrative for one hell of a record. The stage was set for 1962, when Bobby Pickett scored a hit with “The Monster Mash,” taking all of these ideas and synthesizing them into a band of monsters that was lead by a Boris Karloff impression and contained a Bela Lugosi interjector as a recurring gag, all with rattling chains and moans to seal the deal. Monster songs, for better or worse, were not going away.
Pretty song, rock, doo wop & country music were littered with monster gags, to not only capitalize, but to play with a well-worn metaphor: the monster as an outsider. Frankenstein (the novel) really nailed this idea perfectly, and monsters very quickly became to embody the outsider in every respect. As music was the generation gap for many, and monster became a proxy for someone “cool.” There are endless songs about going to Frankenstein’s party, or a monster ball, or hop. Graveyards became the hang-outs that kids would congregate in, and soon the lure of she-devils and women who could seduce and terrify were a very common theme. Monsters, and being scared, were the perfect stand-ins for teenage libido and the pains of falling in love. After 1962, Monster Metaphors become second only to UFOs and the Atomic Bomb as subjects for songs, and up until the early ’80’s there are hundreds of these songs, by a wide range of artists and songwriters.
The problem, of course, is that of popularity: nothing has “topped” Monster Mash in terms of a hit, with the only exception being “Thriller.” (A tame, and yet Vincent Price bejeweled, version of the same idea.) While many have tried, the archetype of a cool monster party that you have stumbled upon is hard to outdo, so much so that even bands like Whodini and Buck Owens have tried. But after “Monster Mash” and “Thriller,” it was clear that the subgenre has little depth. Once you find that monster party, the only thing left is to let Bob & David make fun of you.
Scary Sounds To Shock Your System
In 1964, Disney was not the place anyone looked for when they wanted something scary. While they had done the occasional scary cartoon, it was not what they were known for, in spite of what you heard about how scary the kids thought the witch was in Snow White. But they were looking for other ways that they could capitalize on the growing children’s market, and a scary record seemed to be in the consciousness of America, and everywhere. They hired Laura Olsher on to do a pair of other records for them (“The Little Engine That Could” and “Learning To Tell Time“), so they offered her the chance to voice “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of The Haunted House” for them as well. To an unassuming audience in the summer, they released this LP with a nearly Black and White cover, to see how well it did.
With Halloween just around the corner, they sold through instantly. Everyone reordered when the second printing was available.
Side A of the record contained a number of “Adventures In Sound” (as Disney called them) with sounds from their very famous Disney Effects Library. (Any Disney nerd can recognize voices and effects from any number of cartoons and shows.) In addition to title track, there’s “Chinese Water Torture” and “Your Pet Cat.” These 10 recordings are complemented on Side B with the raw sound recordings from the library. “Screams and Groans” or “A Collection of Crashes.” Half story LP an Half Effects Record, it lay somewhere in-between two different genres that were not quite one or the other, and was, in effect, it’s own thing, far from the monster songs that were gaining popularity. With great art that had a fantastic Haunted House on the front and back, the Liner Notes went on to talk about how you could have, “even greater enjoyment in creating sound stories of your own using the effects on this LP plus others you may do yourselves.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Here’s a huge, monolithic company like Disney inviting you to remix their media, with the addition of your own work, to create something new. While this could not have been their intention, it was none-the-less taken to heart by a number of companies in the following years. The ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s found a proliferation of “Halloween Sounds” LPs, with a story / narrative on one side, and raw sound effects on the other. In fact, it was such a formula that you rarely found records that were only one or the other. The “Halloween Sounds” genre of LPs was cemented in form and content by that original Disney album, and in the years that followed a number of copycats – including “Sounds To Make You Shiver” (1974) and “Haunted House” (1985) – directly copy this style. Most modern CDs of “scary sounds” are often just combining audio from albums from this era, and I think they have all (more or less) fallen into the public domain. Following the Disney model, a sub-genre of Ghost Stories with sound Effects followed, pioneered by Vincent Price on the Caedmon Label, most commonly with Edger Allen Poe short-stories being read, to great effect.
Much of this was, of course, Disney’s prelude to their interest in designing a Haunted House for Disneyland, which they launched in 1969. Disney finally understood that fun a casual horror was not only a healthy market, but could be taken advantage of in their park. The LP could not only market Halloween itself, but their new theme ride, too. Without this album, that amazing part of Disneyland may never have existed.
The overall decline in the way that vinyl is produced has made Halloween albums only affordable to make on CD, where the quality has dropped tremendously, both in terms of Halloween Novelty Music, and in terms of sound effects recordings. While they are readily available in any store with Halloween Accoutrements, most often they are cheaply made, and don’t sound as robust as the recordings you find in these older efforts. Disney unwittingly opened up pandoras box: by encouraging remixing, other companies realized there was a small market to be had in Halloween records, and people like Wade Denning and The Haunted House Co. found ways to make a name for themselves.
More importantly, this record taught people that you can make your own Halloween.
Here’s the sounds. Here’s the ideas.
All you need to do is have at it, and enjoy.
* * * * * *
This link will remain active for a short period of time.
And this link goes with the former.
A simple Google Search reveals a whole range of other listening options. (And I recommend the image search view to check out the variety of album covers over the years.)
I imagine I will be receiving some e-mail from some of you, so again: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For most of us these days, our exposure to the kind of localized television that Horror Hosts grew out of was an incredibly idiosyncratic, mid-western program that was as difficult to describe as it was to see early on. When I first heard about it in 1994, there was essentially one video tape – Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, recorded by a friend of mine – that I could use as a reference point. In spite of searching (and finding) plenty of people online who each had scores of these kinds of tapes in their personal collections, the idea that this was a show, and was on week after week, absolutely perplexed me.
It wasn’t much later that the local FOX affiliate in Eugene, OR ran The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Hour on Sunday’s, not only giving me a chance to actually see this show, but to become a fan, too. By the time the Movie came out a bit later, I was hooked. But I came into the show nearly at the end. By the time I was seeing new episodes as they were being aired in the late ’90’s, Mike was the host, the voices of all the bots had all changed, and the Mads were a whole new group of characters I was sort of unfamiliar with. And the clock was running out. Their riffs and jokes were not only so insular as to make it slightly impenetrable for people unfamiliar with the show and their many running gags and jokes. (Not to mention the rapid-fire pace they would lob jokes at you. It wasn’t long before they would be canceled, not even able to make it into the 21st Century, let alone to the 2990’s.
Still, MST3K managed to synthesize all the lessons of localized television and brought us a show with that kind of sensibility, which not only made it to cable and, to some degree, mainstream acceptance. It owes everything to the home-spun aesthetic that was pioneered by people like Ghoulardi & Vampire, but with their own sci-fi take on what is funny about shitty movies and TV. The sets were laughable. The robots were made out of junk-store parts. There were essentially three people making the show for most of the time it was on the air, with a handful of writers and crew members to make sure there were scripts and props and whatnot. This hand-made quality not only endeared fans, but spoke to the heart of the show: we are going to evoke huge, sci-fi concepts with a few cheap sets and a whole lot of imagination, just like the movies we show. In a sort of post-modern version of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, MST3K (somehow) managed to last for 11 seasons, almost 200 episodes, and spread out over three broadcast homes. It’s an impressive feat for such a unique show, born directly out of Horror Hosting and late night features.
While MST3K is not a Horror show in particular, nor is it even that scary of Halloweeny (their holiday of choice is Thanksgiving, where you can sit around and gorge yourself on bad movies), there is a long tradition of Science Fiction getting lumped in with horror, and I usually try to squeeze in at least one “invaders from space” movie ’round this time of year. Their dedication to the same kind of aesthetics and ideas of a Horror Host, however, are present in every aspect of the show, and they may well have been the last of their kind to start in cable access and make it to the big time.
For those who have not seen it, it’s premise is a sort of hybrid of Silent Running and Robinson Caruso (in Space). “Joel Robinson” works for Gizmonic Institute, a place largely managed by Mad Scientists, who then launch Joel into space in order to inflict terrible movies on him, in a search for the worst film imaginable, with which they can use to take over the world. Joel, to help beat the loneliness, has built four robots out of various things he found around the spaceship, tenderly named the Satellite Of Love. Joel turned this dire situation into a weekly show for the audience at home, and joining him are Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy & Cambot.
Each week, the Mads send a movie, and Joel and the bots watch it, cracking wise as the movie plays on from their silhouettes in the corner of the screen, using the occasional breaks they’re given to sing songs, act out skits, or otherwise pontificate on their plight and the movie they’re watching. People like Ghoulardi used to insert himself into movies he was showing, and people like Woody Allen were experimenting with a version of interacting with movies, to various degrees of success. But it was the MST3K crew that developed this style of “riffing” comedy, based on the idea that Joel and the robots would be hanging out together while the movie played, in the same way a group of friends would make dumb jokes as the movie went on in the same room. It was the crew at Best Brains that realized that the Horror Host was there throughout the whole movie, so why not have them joke around with the film? After all, who’s really watching the terrible movie that closely, really?
While certainly inspired by the kinds of Shock Theater! duds that would fall between the cracks of Frankenstein and Dracula, by the time the ’80’s had rolled around, an entire culture of people dedicated to “Bad Cinema” was starting to crop up. Kids raised on the kinds of late-night, drive-in style films that were being made in the ’60’s and ’70’s had grown up into a group of connoisseurs that understood what make movies truly bad. Filmmakers caught on, and production companies would rush something that might get a reputation for being terrible, and thus, might be a back-door into Hollywood for a desperate creator. And, for many, it worked; one only need to look at the work of people like Roger Corman – and the stars that grew out of working with him during his 60+ year history in cinema – for evidence. You might be in a real stinker today, but tomorrow you might be directing The Last Picture Show, and could become a creative sensation.
1980 saw the introduction of both The Golden Turkey and The Golden Raspberry Awards, born out of this same class of filmmakers who were willing to make things on a shoe-string and with no discernable stars, and by the ’80’s had rolled around, the US was steeped in Sci-Fi disasters, monsters where you could see the zippers, cheaply made thrillers, teenage schlock, and everything in between.
While the work of “horror hosts” had an influence on MST3K, there are three specific pre-cursors that are worth mentioning, as they had conceptual bits that this crew would use as the backbone of their work. CBS Children’s Film Festival ran from the late ’60’s to 1984 (in some form, often under a different name), and showed terrible movies (edited, of course), hosted by Kukla, Fran and Ollie (a puppet team). Still, no one was making fun of the movies full-time until Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection in 1985, which used the sort of Woody Allen style overdubbing to mock the duds they found. (Hosts would mock the films between the reels, but the LA Connection made jokes while the film was running). The Canned Film Festival in 1986 managed to feature comedic skits woven into (and between reels) of a longer film, another element that MST3K was particularly good at. But in all three cases, these elements were not used to their full potential, and more pointedly, only CBS Children’s Film Festival was actually seen by any of MST3K creators.
The essence of MST3K was born out of Joel Hodgson’s stand up routines, where much of the background material of Sci-Fi gags and prop-comedy elements were already at work. Joel was building contraptions and robot-type characters to use in his act, largely out of junk store bits he found here and there. When Joel met Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Jim Mallon and Kevin Murphy at KTMA, it was clear that his hare-brained comedy might be able to find a home at their station.
Joel had a number of ideas that were difficult to explain, and ultimately shot a pilot with them – The Green Slime – which involved a rough approximation of what he (and, now, they) had envisioned MST3K could be. The station was impressed enough by the cheap budget and the amount of time a show like this could fill, and give them free reign to make 13 episodes, all produced in house, to be shown when there was little else to interfere with their other programming. With a premier on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, there wasn’t much else to compete against, and KTMA didn’t see the harm in letting them air two episodes, back to back, as they had little else to offer. The show was an immediately hit, and grew to be so popular that what started as an experiment was expanded to 21 episodes. By the end of their first year on air, the show was being courted by cable TV.
The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) picked up the show, to be retooled for a first “official” season, with a modest budget and actual writers joining the team. As time wore on, Joel and the gang hit on a formula to maximize the jokes-per-episode ratio, and ironed out the production side of things to a well-oiled machine that lasted for a number of years. Their dedication to interacting with fans, keeping everything in-house, and making props themselves added to their reputation as something special, and even after Joel left and Mike transitioned from head writer to host, they managed to keep their grass roots (and fans), becoming one of the hippest shows on TV. Tapes were incessantly traded among fans in a pre-digital world, and with a movie contract on the horizon, it seemed as if they were on their way to an eternal hit.
In 1996 when Comedy Central canceled the show, it was clear that the future of the program was becoming uncertain. Fans rallied, started a letter writing campaign (in the tradition of other canceled Sci-Fi shows), and soon enough the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) showed interest. But this relationship did not start off well. Sci-Fi gave notes on the show – and the changes that they insisted on making signaled that there wasn’t much of a future for the team. Part of the problem was a dedication to the craft; the writers and producers – even at the very end – wanted to keep doing what they had been doing well, knowing a good thing when they saw it, playing to their strengths as the show changed and evolved. The Sci-Fi Channel, however, imposed a number of demands, scheduled the show at strange times, insisted that the bots have story arcs from episode to episode, and in the end made it difficult for the crew to work on MST3K the way they wanted to. When the word came down to cancel the show (again) in 1999, it seemed like a very natural place to end what they had begun, with almost 11 years of work under their belt.
While it has been a tough time learning to live in a world without new episodes of MST3K being made, the influence and impact of this show is immeasurable. We now live in a world where things like Sharknado are not only made, but celebrated, and our culture’s dedication to terrible movies has only increased in the years since. Both Joel and Mike have their own spin-offs – RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, and there are even rumors of a MST3K revival at some point. (Fingers crossed.)
More importantly, they kept alive this idea of home-made TV, something that could take a cable access aesthetic and bring it into the rest of the world. This persists now in a number of outlets online, and YouTube is littered with DIY type endeavors that are direct descendants of the chaotic (and charming) world. The technology has changed the way we see and interact with these kinds of shows, and their formats are very different than they used to be, for sure. But without seeing their dedication to both the idea and to the campiness of their craft, these creators and DIY makers would have had few inspirations available to help them see that any idea – no matter how crazy, could work. Your idea may be silly. It might even look ridiculous. But with a little love and care, that thing can be as hilarious as Tom Servo, and that’s an incredible feat for anyone.
I think I cry more often at 40 than I ever did the other 39 years.
Tarantula Ghoul & Her Gravediggers!
(Originally broadcast on 9 October 2014 as part of the Daily NewsBlas. Expanded blog entry written for this presentation.)
Tarantula Ghoul & Her Gravediggers! (discogs.com)
I can only imagine what it must of been like to tune in and see “House Of Horror” when it was first on KPTV on 9 October 1957. At the time, there was talk of this woman down in LA doing a show… Vampira or something… and there were a number of stations across the nation where the guy who ran the lights was dressing up as some monster, and introduced late-night horror movies. KPTV began to look around for someone to host their late-night Shock Theater package. They looked around and saw, at the radio station next door, Suzanne Waldron.
Suzanne was your typical post-WWII weirdo, who found herself feeling isolated and out of touch with her peers who were fairly “normal” and “average.” She did her best to play along, and while her morbid curiosity and interest in both the library and the movie theater kept her out of trouble, it led to a fairly lonely lifestyle. After school she caught the acting bug, and toured around with MacBeth until they returned to Portland, where she found a career doing voice-over work for local radio. Comfortable off-camera, she was happy to lend her voice – something she would change and manipulate for the air – and was rarely recognized outside of the station. The idea that she would be on camera, introducing the films seemed absurd at first. She never fancied herself as an actress. However, Tarantula Ghoul had other plans.
Once she got into costume, the personality was immediate and persistent. She mocked bad actors, had a fiery wit that made people think she was as vicious in person as her character was on screen. Her thin figure added to her lankiness when Tarantula was “on,” and between her time in prop coffins and posing with live snakes on her arms, she developed an other-worldly carriage, where she seemed both alive and dead in her movements. Her ability to improvise in this character was what really sold her to the station. Just turn on the camera, and point it in her directions, and she could make up something that was so spooky, and so very “Taranch” that scripts for her segments were rarely needed, unless there were other actors in the shot. She would take a look at the film in the studio for a few minutes before she get into costume, and suddenly Suzanne disappeared, and the Ghoul took over!
It is no wonder that within the year or so that she was on, both she and KPTV capitalized on her personality in a number of ways. Taranch was in demand to make public appearances whenever possible, and she milked these for all their were worth. When it was clear she was a hit on the radio, too, KPTV asked her to record a 45 of ghoulish rock songs which they could market. The single sold quickly and became a hit locally, but only dedicated fans knew of the record until the tunes were comped, sometime in the late ’80’s. Both “King Kong” and “Graveyard Rock” were big hits in Portland, and got plenty of air-play. She was the IT girl when it came to horror in the Northwest, and once she took the costume off, she was Suzanne again. A nice gig if you can get it.
And then, just as quickly, the fad was over. KPTV – and Suzanne herself – had moved on to other things, as the Shock Theater package was not getting great ratings locally, enough so for the station to move on to other things like Wrestling. Tarantula Ghoul was still well loved, locally, and Suzanne was always very proud of the way people remembered her when a fan would approach her in public. She passed away in 1982, and sadly, none of the broadcasts survived. (KPTV just didn’t archive their shows in those days, not realizing there was any historic value to them.) However, we do have her songs, which you can enjoy through the magic of modern technology.
I like to imagine what it was like to sit down with a very different kind of Cool Ghoul, one that understood not only The Pacific Northwest, but the monsters that roam around within it.
Tarantula Ghoul discussion board (with articles and links) (monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.c0)
“Pity the ghoul who’s never seen Tarantula Ghoul” (The Oregonian)
Tarantula Ghoul (facebook.com)
An Image Search for Tarantula Ghoul yields excellent results.
And yet another good Image Search turns up here.
House of Horror! (KPTV website detailing Tarantula Ghoul’s show.)
We’ve come a long way since Nanook Of The North was made in 1922. Where documentaries were previously left to the world of Public Broadcasting and overly enthusiastic teachers who think showing movies in class is an innovation, now documentaries are an artform so pervasive that there are few subjects that don’t have one or two films about it. Case in point, the world of Horror Hosts, where American Scary does a wonderful job of introducing you to, and showing clips of and interviews with, some of the most colorful characters in television history.
The story of the Horror Host is, essentially, a frame narrative, itself a device long associated with Horror Stories, with masterful examples of it being developed by Mary Shelly, Henry James, Washington Irving & Ambrose Bierce. It was clear that this story-within-a-story format worked very well for producing big scares. Radio and comics picked it up almost immediately, and shows like Inner Sanctum and EC’s horror line, where the gimmick was always that someone would prepare you for the shocks you were about to receive. As TV got up and running, it was pretty clear that the most instinctive form was to have a host, so it was only the question of having access to scary movies that led to the need for a Horror Host.
The world of regional horror hosts is one that is loved more than anything by local audiences, and is absolutely unknown to anyone outside of it. American Scary paints a magnificent pictures of these idiosyncratic characters with interviews and clips of these hosts doing what they do best, and is an excellent place for audiences unfamiliar with this kind of television to see what it was like, and meet some of the most fascinating characters in the genres. It should be noted that this tradition continues to this day. It isn’t that Horror Hosts have disappeared from the TV landscape, making them an antiquated piece of history. In fact, since the ’50’s, there has been a steady string of horror hosts in most regions in every year since the Shock Theater! package first dropped on viewers, and the turnover is actually pretty incredible. (Many only lasted a few years.) But as with all things, a little history lesson offers tremendous insight into this rich and impressive tradition in the US, and makes any of the people you might see as part of a longer tradition, handed down from generation to generation.
Early TV Was Nothing Like It Is Now.
Almost every city of any notable size has a local news show to this day, but imagine a time when almost all of your TV was locally made? For anyone who grew up in the Internet Age, it is hard to imagine that TV stations were once local, let alone that most of the shows you watched were not nationally syndicated. For for most, it is also hard to imagine a world before the addition of FOX to the three channel line up, let alone the pre-cable offerings that came many years before that world. Even my limited experience with the medium as a child was only a glimpse into the home-brewed universe of small-time television, and as I watched Ramblin’ Rod I had no idea that this wasn’t the same experience of every kid in the country. For all I knew, TV was the same everywhere, and how exactly wrong that was is almost impossible to convey.
As TV got going in the ’40’s, the model for running a station was lifted from that of radio: shows could be syndicated to other stations, but for the most part you made everything in-house. Big networks like Dupont or Mutual would get a really hot show that was produced locally somewhere, and then “sell” it to local stations across the country, with the idea that the local station was now part of the Dupont or Mutual network as an affiliate. But in those days, even a big network couldn’t provide your station with everything. You had to have on-air hosts and announcers to fill time between programs, news was only regional in those days, and sometimes the local station owner would still want to run a ball game or a special event in favor of the national shows at his fingertips, and that required local staff on sight to run the shows.
It must also be mentioned that TV didn’t have the same kind of traction as radio did when it was first on the market in the ’40’s and early ’50’s. TV cost a lot, didn’t go everywhere in the country, didn’t broadcast for as long during the day, and was a very new technology compared to radio. Radio already had a 30 year history in the US by 1950. Movie theaters were still a far superior viewing experience when judged by the size of the screen and the quality of the images, and the number of shows there were in the early days was very small on the earliest stations. Unless you were a nerd, rich, or an early adopter, TV seems like it might be a fad.
As the post-WWII boom of the early ’50’s began to really settle in, a couple of cultural shifts happened that had a huge impact on the country: American prosperity, the break-up of the American Studio System in Hollywood, the manufacture of cheap and long-lasting television sets that hit stores, and the expansion of the broadcast range for most stations as broadcast towers became better and more powerful. It was also helped by the development of a few bonafide hit TV shows on a national level, which managed to reverse TV’s bad reputation in less than a decade. Suddenly, staying at home and watching this this was affordable for nearly everyone, and with the movie business in the tubes, there was more of a reason to adjust the rabbit ears rather than go out and spend money. This created a demand for more televison programming, programming that only local stations could provide with local staff.
While a TV Station might seem like a huge thing, in reality they are often run by a handful of people on the tech side, with a few extra people in front of the camera, and in much the same way that cost savings are at the center of most conversations everywhere else, every station owner was of the opinion that any job you could hire for you could also have someone on staff do it for you, too. As a result of these shifts, the mid-’50’s saw a huge proliferation in locally produced shows to fill the on-air demand, hosted by people they already saw on the TV elsewhere: kids shows, talk shows, cooking shows & game shows, all with the weatherman running over after he finishes one segment to get in his Cowboy Costume to host the afternoon cartoons. Even as someone who had no relationship to that kind of television, I get a nostalgic glint in my eye when I try to imagine that every station in America was on the air and showing something different at any given time.
Shock Theater! Enters The Picture.
Certainly, TV stations toyed with late-night programming from the beginning, and the occasional suspense movie (from the station’s archives, most likely) would make it on the air from time to time. But it was Vampira and her show The Vampira Show that delivered to the world a taste of what late night programming could be, and what Horror Hosts in America would soon aspire to. Vampira was not just a local LA celebrity, but she had proved during the single year her show was on the air that horror was starting to catch on in a big way, and could draw big numbers at a reasonable cost. In 1954 the show not only launched her career, but was prescient of everything that would boom in the next few years.
Vampira used simple sets and “mood” lighting to achieve incredible effects, and her knockout figure, tight black dresses and graceful movements on screen were uncanny and breathtaking. Anyone with even the remotest interest in scary movies tuned in, and only partly to see the film. Her horror-puns, affinity for all things macabre, and knowledge of these cinematic offerings was something to behold, and people watched obsessively, even if the movies were bad and, more pointedly, not exactly “horror” films (in the mid-’50’s, few horror films had yet been sold to stations yet, leaving Vampira with things that were “suspenseful” at best). Enough viewers were excited about her that she became instantly famous around town, largely because she actually dressed like she did on screen in real life, too. (Something she’d been doing in LA for years previous, anyway.)
The editors at Life Magazine ran a photo essay on her, quickly turning her local late-nite movie show into a legend that people talked about across the country. It wasn’t just that she was stroke material for the repressed denizens of suburban america, although that was very much a part of her fame, too. Vampira had tapped into an interest in horror that had almost gone dormant since the Universal Horror Pictures were in a small slump. The problem, as she saw it, was presentation. “Double Features” were impersonal, and theaters were cutting costs everywhere, making the experience of going to one snot as interesting, or fun. But Television offered an intimate opportunity to enjoy a film in the comfort of your pajamas. If the quality of the film wasn’t that great, well, at lest you had her to look at during the breaks, and it didn’t cost you anything anyway.
Screen Gems was starting to pick up this thread that Vampira was weaving from too, and by 1957 had assembled the legendary 52 film package that they sold across the country on behalf of Universal Pictures. Since both Universal & Screen Gems had no network affiliations, and because the overall cost of these films was almost rock bottom by comparison, the package was a smash success across the country. It was either get a year of weekly programming for an incredible deal, or take a chance on another syndicated show that might not fly with audiences.
At first, stations would throw on a couple of the more well-known films in the package, to test the late-night waters. But it wasn’t until these stations started taking their cues from Vampira’s show, the trend really began to take off in a big way.
Zacherley for President! Let’s Put A Vampire In The White House Today!
At the same time Vampira’s show was on the air, John Zacherle began getting work on local TV in Philadelphia, who had previously made a name for himself playing bit parts in any show that needed extras. As a tall and pale man, he was cast as an undertaker in a western, which was a perfect fit for someone of his build, and became his defining role up until that point. It made sense, then, in 1957, when Philly got their Shock Theater! package, that they turned to the undertaker to fill the role of the host for these films, hoping that they could recreate some of the magic they had heard about with Vampira.
What started then led to a forty year career for Zacherle in TV, music, cartoons, film, books & radio, as John found out exactly how successful Vampira’s format was. His run as a horror host – first as Roland, then as Zacherle – made him an instant hit on the east coast, and when he moved to New York shortly afterward, put him on the map nationally. His success on TV let to movie roles and, of all things, music contracts, where he recorded a string of 45s and LPs in the early ’60’s of Halloween novelty hits that gave “Monster Mash” a near-run for its money.
He secured some cartoon voice work too, and edited a handful of collected of ghost stories, but when it seemed as if the horror hosting was beginning to fade, he moved to radio in the ’70s, making a name for himself as a progressive rock DJ, as well as a charming personality on and off the air, which always led to more work here and there. By the time the ’80’s rolled around, and Horror was coming back into vogue, he was in a fairly comfortable routine of showing up at conventions in costume as Zacherle, as well as taking on odd TV, movie and radio gig here and there to help pass the time and put money in his pocket. His last regular job – a radio gig in the mid-’90’s – ended when the Alternative Rock format hit in 1996, but by then Zacherle was in High Demand, given more exposure from appearing on Rob Zombie’s Halloween Hootenanny CD. To this day he has lived comfortably on public appearances and the royalties from his long career, and in terms of the golden age hosts, he is the one to beat.
Ernie Anderson was a strange dude to begin with. A bit of a Cleveland hipster in the late ’50’s, he held many jobs, most famously as a Top 40 DJ who hated playing the hits. Instead, Ernie dug R&B and rock ‘n’ roll 45s, and would listen to The Mad Daddy when he wasn’t on the air himself. But at Ernie’s station, it was always some pop pap that they would ask him to spin, and it drove him nuts. Ernie loudly complained about the suburbs – where he thought his broadcasts were being sent to – and imagined what it would be like to really terrify the squares around him with some actually good music. At every chance he could, he would slip into his show a record he liked, or recycle some old vaudeville routines or ethnic humor to help pass the time when he thought he could get away with it, but mostly he sat there, playing shitty music, bored.
As he would smoke cigarettes and light off firecrackers in the alley on his breaks (firecrackers were illegal in the late ’50’s in Cleveland, and he bought them any chance he could get from even the most disreputable street vendor) he tried to envision something that he could do other than the shit job he’d found himself in. It all came to a head when Ernie’s sense of humor did not go over well at a station cocktail party, and after the exchange of some well-timed but ill-intended four-letter-words directed toward the management, Ernie found himself unemployed in 1960, offering his services to a local TV station who needed an extra set of hands here and there to pick up the slack. He immediately found a friend in Tim Conway.
The two found that they had a comparable sense of humor, and began working as a comedy duo on a show called Ernie’s Place, where they would do skits and routines in a Kid Friendly form with shortened movies, in the style of Bob & Ray, who were incredibly popular at the time. It wasn’t exactly what Ernie wanted, but at least he was in control, and that worked. For a while, until Tim was very discovered by Hollywood through this show, and left Ohio for fame and fortune.
Since the show fell through, the network offered Ernie the chance to Host another movie show, but during their late night horror films they were showing as part of the Shock Theater package, until something else could be worked out that was more his speed. Ernie, who had seen Zacherley and was already feeling like the idea was a little played out, took the job on the condition that he had total control over these live shows. The station agreed (what have they got to loose with late night, more or less “untested” programming?). Ernie began to exaggerate his own hipster tendencies when he would host these movies, with a fake beard and other ridiculous clothes on the air, mocking himself, the movie, the audience, the commercials, hipsters, horror hosts, suburbia, and anything else in-between. When he ran out of ideas, he would blow up something with a firecracker (on air!) and smoke a cigarette. Ernie was convinced they would let him do the show twice, maybe, and once anyone actually saw it, it was all over.
Instead, audiences loved it.
Ghoulardi – as he became known – was everything that Ernie wanted television to be. Improvised, full of double-entendres and new slang that was gibberish to the squares in charge. The movies were always awful, and the station only ran them because they were cheap anyway. Ernie used this to his advantage, and called the turd a turd when that was the case. He wasn’t about to go around try to get an audience excited about a movie that was clearly gonna blow. He bad-mouthed the films relentlessly, and this bled over to the way he discussed other terrible media, where he mocked other TV personalities, radio DJs and station managers, while playing selections from his record collection, all in an effort to bring Cleveland the kind of show that Ernie so desperately wanted to watch. And, to his own astonishment, it became the biggest thing, ever.
The station immediately responded to his popularity, giving Ghoulardi three shows a week (!), and offering Ernie the chance to continue to work unimpeded on all of these shows. He developed a segment called Parma Place – a take off on the very popular Peyton Place – to skewer the boring people in the suburbs, and would fill time when the movies fell short with other routines and oddities, largely improvised. He would use the equipment used to superimpose sports graphics onto broadcasts, and insert himself into the terrible movies, running away from the monster, or interacting with the other characters by responding with jokes to their dialog. His connections with Tim Conway and the popularity of Ghoulardi led to a pilot for a show in Hollywood to be developed (!!), unheard of for regional hosts like Ernie. However, Ernie refused to compromise when it came to what the character of Ghoulardi was like, and his in-your-face attitude, inappropriate jokes and jabs full of insults, sex (and what he called “ethnic humor”) bombed in Hollywood, about the time he pulled out fire-crackers to use on the set. It seemed that Ohio was going to be the extent of his fame.
His dedication to the character was absolutely his undoing. Ghoulardi did not take notes, nor did he respond to the pressures to change the show in any way, and while he was an incredible hit with viewers, his fearlessness when it came to language and explosions began to cause the people at the station to get worried about this kind of “live” show going out to the public. Parents groups were already beginning to form in the US, concerned about the diet of television people were ingesting. After three years of absolute wanton chaos, Ernie’s show was canceled, on the grounds that going out “live” was too risky for a TV Station. (This was code for, “He might insult the Polish viewers and make too many sex jokes.”)
However, it seemed as if Hollywood wasn’t completely lost on his talents. When it was clear that Ghoulardi had ended, Tim convinced Ernie to follow him out to LA anyway, where Ernie was offered a tremendous number of voice over jobs. His reputation soon led to ABC asking if he could be the voice of their network, a job he kept throughout the ’70’s and the ’80’s. Once Ernie moved to Hollywood, he never looked back.
These are just my favorite hosts from American Scary, but there are almost 60 of these characters interviewed and mentioned during the film. The clips are incredible, and the view into the world of Horror Hosting is addictive. If this has piqued your interest, dig in. There is a treasure trove of clips and movies to watch that will not only introduce you to this phase of TV history, but it gives you a chance to see something that isn’t slick, and that isn’t produced.
Horror Hosts live in a world that is almost – but not quite – professional, and they linger on the mistakes as much as the successes, too. It’s an aesthetic that begs for you to participate, and to ignore the shortcomings and embrace the fun that is being had. Put up a sheet, wear a silly costume, and you too could be a star! What American Scary illustrates more than anything is that, if you want it, you can become a star, too, and on your terms.
All you have to do is try.
In 1957 Television Was Transformed By 52 Horror Films That Found Their Way To The Small Screen.
If you were a young kid in the mid 1950’s, the world around you was changing faster than the cars that breezed down the Highway at the then-incredible speed of 50 miles per hour. WWII was still fresh in the minds of your parents, but the sheen of suburban life was showing a world mired in pleasant, quite communities that spanned every inch of a country that was completely civilized at this late mid-century date. Rock ‘n’ Roll was taking the country by storm, comics had moved to war, love, western and horror stories, movie theaters had double and triple features that lasted all day long, and Television pumped a constant stream of entertainment into your home all day long. When you weren’t riding your bike around with your friends or hanging out in a tree fort, you were collecting baseball cards and going outside to “play.”
It was into this world that Universal Pictures dropped their “Shock Theater!” package on America, and in many ways, the world has never been the same. Imagine waiting until your parents were asleep, and then coming downstairs to explore this Television, this appliance in your home that provided a near endless font of things to watch and talk about. Imagine turning on the screen, late at night, to find The Frozen Ghost or Night Monster coming at you on this glowing, flickering box. It isn’t that kids were not familiar with horror, or even scary TV shows. But these films were always on late at night, when the moon was high, a cold fog had rolled in around your home, and everyone else in your house was asleep.
While there were plenty of reasons to lie awake at night, trembling, after 1957, at least you could point to Shock Theater! and know that they were at least sharing the same cultural nightmare.
As Universal Pictures began to compete with the Television in terms of making money, it was clear that the company would need to have an entire division – nay, separate business entity – to manage this new market. Companies were sending their films to up and coming TV Stations with the hope that their films would get more air time than anyone else’s. But most production companies didn’t understand this new technology, and learning how to navigate broadcast times and on-air “packages” was something better left to experts. Universal turned to a little business called Screen Gems, who not only specialized in selling films to TV, but had been doing into since the earliest days. Universal handed over the keys to their back-catalog, and asked that Screen Gems get them a good deal, an help them retain the foothold on the market of Horror Films.
While most TV Stations had a packed schedule that filled nearly the entire day, there were huge swaths of time – late at night, when most stations went “off the air” – that was difficult to program. Most “average viewers” were asleep during these hours. In most film-to-TV deals, the station would pay the film company for the “rights” to air something, and then run ads against the film to offset the cost. What kind of ads could you sell for late night shows, where it wasn’t even clear if anyone would be awake to watch it? Anything that you were going to show had to cost next-to-nothing, and yet couldn’t just be complete crap… could it?
With this “buy the rights” / “run ads” methodology to airing movies, another problem was coming up: no one wanted to buy potentially “bad” movies. This problem had been circumvented by movie theaters in the old Studio System days, when a studio would force a theater to buy a whole package of unrelated movies, with a couple of great films, and a huge slew of z-list garbage that they were all required to run. But TV Networks were a little too smart for this to work at first. If they wanted King Kong, they wanted to pay a price that was going to make it worth their time to air King Kong. The knew who was really helping who.
Screen Gems thought they could use this old tactic again, and combined the “package” sales idea of crap with few pieces of gold, and dropped the price incredibly for a 52 movie set. The Shock Theater! package included a number of really great movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy & The Wolf Man, and wrapped it all in an instantly marketable name. The basic idea of selling a shitty movie with a good movie was still at the core, but by marketing this package in a unified manner, and by counting on selling it to a larger number of stations at a dramatically lower price, Screen Gems stumbled upon an instant hit that paid off because of the bulk nature of the deals. Almost every station was interested in low-cost programming that could be cheaply recouped with only a few ads. And, with 52 movies in the initial package, you could run a weekly movie almost without any audience, and still make a killing.
With the success of the initial Shock Theater! package, Screen Gems assembled a new one – Son of Shock – which included 20 new films to complement the original 52. Within the year, Horror Hosts of every variety were bringing you late night movies, all within the comfort of your own home. The success of Shock not only solidified the idea of late-night movies on American television, but in the 60’s led to the development of Creature Features, which spread to even more stations across the country, and built upon the work that the Shock packages of the late ’50’s had laid down.
Within 10 years, midnight movies – usually hosted by a local talent that dressed up like a monster – went from unheard of to a standard at nearly every Station, a pretty radical shift in the landscape of American culture. The influence of Shock is really immeasurable. An interest in monsters not only launched magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, but gave American kids an appreciation of movies from the ’30’s that they would have never seen elsewhere, that in turn drew them into the theater for all sorts of revival shows. Bands like Frankie Stein & His Ghouls, The Cramps and The Misfits seem entirely born out of growing up on Shock Theater! broadcasts. Connecting late night TV with Halloween now gave everyone a reason to stay home at night, hopefully curtailing the problems that were developing as a result of Devil’s Night in the mid 20th Century. (City officials in Cleveland actually claimed that crime went down when Ghoulardi was on the air, something impossible to verify but absolutely believed.)
With Shock Theater! there a homogenizing effect on the US. Now, no matter where we lived, we were being exposed to the same movies, the same TV formats, and a sort of prurient access to narrative that was not the standard kind of thing we saw during the day. Horror Hosts presented these horror movies like a ghost story, framed with the same kind of logic and humor. It was a sort of unspoken agreement that we would all do this unacceptable thing late at night, and return in the morning tired, unnerved, but part of a shared experience we could discuss with our friends. (“Did you see The Hypnotic Eye last night? Crazy!”)
Where the ghost story connected us with the supernatural, Shock Theater! connected us with each other.
The Real Scene Is Around The Silver Screen.
It’s not that Universal was the only production company making monster movies in the 1920’s. But when you have Lon Chaney on your crew, your movie is just a little bit better than the rest, and a little more fondly remembered. Lon was not only an effects genius who understood the world of filmmaking better than most actors, but through a twist of fate Universal was also getting some pretty incredible properties when it came to their films: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of The Opera. It was very clear to all the heavy hitters in Hollywood then that, by the end of the decade, Universal had made a name for themselves as the place to deliver actual, terrifying horror, with good acting and believable effects that blew everyone else away. Their moody period pieces could really evoke the right kind of atmosphere for these stories that originated in the decades previous, steeped in nostalgia before audiences had even seen them. And, for the few misses they released, even a few well-timed scares and schlocky effects could draw in late night crowds. As other companies churned out no-name characters filmed by Z-level directors, it didn’t take being that much better than the rest for Universal to quietly take home the entire Fall movie box office.
In the ’30’s, they scored huge in securing Dracula and Frankenstein as properties, and getting Bela Legosi, Boris Karloff ,& Basil Rathbone in their roster set them off to the races. Universal’s reputation not only led to quality actors, directors and special effects artists wanting to work for the company, but innumerable revival showings of films that were even only a few years old proved that huge crowds turned out, even for something they remembered from the past. More franchises began to develop as they continued to find new scary works to mine: The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Pretty soon their horror films were doing better than their other projects. Not much, but enough for board members to care a little more about monsters than they ever had before.
Throughout the 1940’s Universal kept up this high level of monster movie production, largely aided by the addition of two key actors: Lon Chaney Jr. & John Carradine, not to mention the monster-prone comedy duo of Abbot & Costello, though many other folks drifted through their studios, too. As sequels and new properties began to pile up, it seemed as if Universal was on their way to maintaining that top position as a monster movie production house.
As the ’50’s started, Universal began to integrate Sci-Fi stories with their monster-de-jour scripts, and with their new comedic horror films, they were poised to move their success into other genres. They even hired a separate company to handle the Television broadcast rights, and closed out the decade by selling the Shock Theater! & Son of Shock packages to most television stations. Magazines began to pop up dedicated to their films, and horror junkies began to develop as the access to these films began to increase.
And, in a way, it was the new media that killed Universal’s stranglehold on the genre as time wore on. Famous Monsters of Filmland published so often that they would cover almost any half-decent monster movie, regardless of the company that released the film, moving Universal from first position to just another production house. Other companies were selling their films to TV as well, and now people could stay home on the weekends, pop some corn, and sit down to a double-feature of horror films while the viewer lounged around in their PJs. This reduced the number of people attending midnight showings, making the audience that showed up to see Universal Pictures smaller as well. This, on the heels of the breakdown of the Studio System in the late ’40’s, seemed to be the last nail in the coffin of a Hollywood where studios were associated with certain genres. From now on, any studio could release any kind of movie, eliminating the genre stranglehold. Now, in spite of your reputation, the movie actually had to be good.
For a while Universal backed off of the monster-heavy fare, and began to develop other genres and franchises they could work with in other areas. The ’60s saw a huge slowdown, and then the ’70’s saw them dip their toes back into the water. While Universal never stopped making monster movies, it was clear that their “Golden Age” was well behind them, and now anything they released was just another film among a sea of other releases.
In 2015, not only does Universal have an entire set of launch-dates for new entries into their ever-expanding cannon of films, a few of them are also Horror, featuring these old characters that are so well loved. More importantly, the idea of “classic” Universal monsters has also become a point of nostalgia itself. This has a lot to do with tradition: since the ’20’s, theaters have gone in for revival showings every so often, introducing a whole new batch of kids and adults to the films. (See also the Shock Theater effect.) In a way, more than the characters and the films, Universal discovered nearly instantaneous nostalgia, where the first exposure to something that started out old immediately makes you want to see more old scary movies to sate the need for “classic” horror.
If you really want to get at the heart of what makes Halloween great, telling Ghost Stories is pretty much the reason this holiday persists. We might tell our stories a little more abstractly – through blog posts, cosplay, or in rambling podcasts – but the basic idea is that you want to convey a story that has a “spooky” dimension to it, be it of the goriest horror, or the merest suggestion that it wasn’t wind they heard in the first place. Much has been written about Oral Tradition and the way that pre-literate culture has persisted into “today” through stories that are passed down. Ghost Stories historically persisted in the world of sitting around a fire, leaning in to get warm, and having someone in the group start with, “Did I ever tell you of the time I encountered the spook that haunted my Uncle’s barn?” (Or some other personal variant of a few different ghost notions.)
While the telling of any story is fairly compelling while in the right hands, Ghost Stories carry a particular weight because they refer (directly in some cases) to the kinds of pre-literate religions that featured ancestor worship. While many faiths include some form of the dead living on outside of their earthly vessel, the notion of a Ghost – the “spirit” of a person who has passed and is haunting a location / object / person – opens a world of the supernatural that is somewhat outside of the stories we hear as part of experiential reality or modern religion. So much of our lives can be explained through rational thought, or through supplication to God. But when we hear about a ghostly encounter, we are immediately outside of the acceptable discourse of every day life, and into something truly harrowing and unique.
In discussing the world of the supernatural as if it were something that actually happened – even as a lark or a fictive campfire pursuit – the speaker is asking the audience to put themselves into a different relationship with what we’re about to hear, one that is almost “forbidden” in many contexts. That experience alone makes a Ghost Story a rare and fascinating piece of narrative discourse, not to mention, chilling if taken at face value.
The Golden Age of Ghost Stories
Ghosts certainly show up in The Odyssey when Odysseus travels to the Underworld, they have made regular appearances in Shakespeare, had a hand in Gothic Literature, and have so many other antecedents that is would be impossible to claim that any one period had more or less Ghost Stories than any other. But Jack Sullivan makes a very strong case for the period between 1830 and 1914 being the unmistakable “Golden Age of Ghost Stories.” Not only are Edgar Allen Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu publishing during this period, but it is essentially sandwiched between two huge world-wide events that changed the world is massive ways: the end of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of WWI.
Life in the late 19th Century wasn’t exactly “easy,” and yet humanity lived in a post-Industrialized world that longed to ease the problems of the past. Newspapers were ubiquitous, but most people still read at home by creepy candle-light. Homes were not electrified, outhouses were still the most common solution to waste-management, people largely still traveled by foot or by horse, and the world still felt unexplored, boundless, and full or events and experiences that could not be explained. And yet, travel was becoming easier, roads were going to more and more places, clothes and food was more accessible for poor people and helped insulate you against the cold better, and families could now afford a few “luxuries,” but did not yet live in a “modernized world.” Most importantly, a central fire was still present in nearly all American homes, giving the family a place to gather and talk about the day when the Sun went down.
This period is also significant because many American traditions were becoming solidified in the cultural consciousness, all because of these new communication technologies that were sweeping the nation. New Holidays were being developed, new traditions were being celebrated and regionalized, and people began to share their stories with friends and neighbors that were living on in more than just a story told late at night. The precursors to Devil’s Night caught on quite a bit almost everywhere, and as costumes and trick-or-treating became huge parts of Halloween, the telling of Ghosts Stories – something that would happen at night throughout the Fall and Winter – became something that happened around the hearth.
Ghost Stories still exist, and will most likely never disappear, but the emphasis on the Oral Tradition has dropped off quite a bit as the years have wore on. With the development of recording technology and radio broadcasting, horror anthology shows intermixed with annual “Halloween” episodes moved the yearly Ghost Story from the hearth to the radio. Once film – and later television – replaced the radio, horror movies and TV programs became all the rage, and when Shock Theater! hit America in 1957, it was the glow of the screen late at night that signaled where you could hear a good scary story.
Record companies certainly tried to capitalize on this old-fashioned scary story in the ’60’s with the advent of Halloween LPs, containing “scary sounds” and Ghost Stories, and this trend seemed to last well into into the early ’80’s. But spoken Ghost Stories – in a ’round the campfire’ spirit – is not nearly as popular as it once was almost 200 years ago. This has not quieted those who are listening to Ghost Stories, but technological developments has transformed the nature of these stories tremendously. Ghost Hunting is still alive and well nearly everywhere in the country, and with franchises like Paranormal Activity and a slew of “haunted” house films raking in big bucks ever year, the desire to interact with Ghosts has not dropped off in the slightest. We still love being scared, and we look for more and more sophisticated ways to go about it with each generation.
However, for my money, I am captivated once the sun goes down and a fire gets started. Once someone starts in on a good Ghost Story – even a funny one – I lean in. As the flames dance on their face, and as the unbelievable tale unfolds, the cloak of night is enough to lend a crumb of credibility to what I’m hearing. For a moment, as a convinced atheist who has found no basis for supernatural reality, I get chills, and I like it. Perhaps it is the power of a good Ghost Story to convince us of something – in spite of our earnest beliefs – that is at the heart of their charm.
To quote Fox Mulder, “I Want To Believe.”
* (This story was published when I was on the staff of The Rearguard Newspaper, from 2005 – 2006. The editor at the time had a very specific vision for the paper, and had given us different “titles” & “sections” of the paper to manage and fill. I was the Arts & Culture Editor / KPSU Guru, and my section was “The Cultureostomy Bag.” The photo included next to my stories was this one from around The Rearguard office, sporting my very favorite Last of The Juanitas shirt, which I still have.
The “Halloween History Lesson” story appeared in the October 2005 issue of The Rearguard. Vol. 9, Issue 1. The version here is a longer draft than the one that was in the paper. I was told to turn in an almost 2500 word story, that was – for some reason – cut down to almost 1000 in the paper. Again, I’m not sure why, but the editor – Jesse Harrington – did a really good job on both the long and short version, and was really the heart and soul of the paper during that year I was there. To my knowledge, he and Josh Gross – The Editor – manually edited every word of every story in every issue, no small feat. The illustrations were done by a staff member, who I have since forgotten. Many apologies.
Anyway, here’s the story – with a few small edits for this presentation – regarding an overview of this holiday’s history. Enjoy.)
With October comes one of my favorite holidays, Halloween. I have fond memories of this time of year, littered with the Costumes, Parties, and “trick-or-treating” of years past. It seems that I am not alone in wanting to celebrate this wanton extravaganza of tooth rot, parties, and pretending to be someone you’re not. In the US alone, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday, bringing in for retailers roughly $7 Billion annually. Yes, with a B. Every year, Americans sink the equivalent cost of 213,000 Hummers into costumes, candy, pumpkins & horror films. Not bad for a holiday with curious and fear-based origins.
Most historians agree that the earliest versions of the holiday stem from the Celts, near or around fifth century BC. Then, it was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in, though try telling Danzig that). Samhain was the celebration of the New Year, marking the end of the summer and the harvest (falling on October 31st, more or less). Since winter was around the corner, the time of year was always a bit scary for most folk, as people invariably died during those dark and cold months where there was little food and insulated shelter.
As if that weren’t enough to bring you down, the Celts also believed that the dead could walk amongst the living on the New Year and would then cause mischief and mayhem in the village (often resulting in the damaging of crops, back then the only kind of mischief anyone got upset about). To help sate the spirits of the dead, villagers would leave food and wine out for the dead to consume, which never seemed to work; while the food and wine always wound up consumed, it did not seem to affect any noticeable change in the world around them. The only upshot to the dead walking among us seemed to be that the Druids (Celtic priests) were better at making inaccurate predictions about the coming future, instilling some amount of hope more fear to a culture that was only going to be able to survive the winter on a steady diet of worry and misery.
To get people’s spirits up, the Druids would have huge bonfires in the woods. The villagers would then put out all other fires in town, and come to dressed in animal skins and masks (so the ghosts that were wandering around would think the villagers were ghosts too). In the fire they burned crops (assumedly to beat the dead-walking-amongst-the-living to the punch of ruining them). Animal sacrifices & attempted fortune telling rounded out this fun-filled evening, and at the end of the night everyone would return to their homes, relight their fires using a piece of the sacred Druidic fire they attended, and spend the rest of the winter cowering in fear and hunger until the Sun mysteriously came back many months later. (This would be emulated years later by every teenager suffering from a medium-to-large breakup in the years to follow.)
While the Celts were happy with being frightened and miserable every year, the Romans (being Romans) were not. They decided to conquer the Celts around 43 AD so they could combine two of their own holidays with Samhain, encouraging the Celts to see their way of thinking. (Apparently the Romans felt guilty about having too many holidays, and wanted to combine them with someone else’s.) Feralia was one of those, a holiday dedicated to the dead (a common theme for holidays in those days). The other, known as Pomona, was a celebration for the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, which apparently introduced apples (for future “bobbing”) into the Samhain mythology. This new Roman “combined” holiday kept the name, but was moved to November 1st (shattering the traditions and culture of the Celts and making this much more fun and light-hearted for the Romans). This supposedly encouraged the Celts to follow Roman beliefs, creating the illusion that everyone was now content to maintain the status quo for another few hundred years after the bloodbath of being conquered (or, at least, to not talk about any discontentment that may have theoretically existed in public).
As is often the case with many things, Christianity was the catalyst for the next big deconstruction of a perfectly strange a creepy Pagan holiday. Since Christianity had spread like a virus to The Land Formerly Controlled By Celts (no relation to TAFKAP), most Former Celts were now considered Roman Catholics, in spite of their resistance against this. Around 800 AD, the king of the Catholics, Pope Boniface IV (named after the Patron Saint of Brewers and Germany) declared that Samhain was now called All Saints’ Day to further distance it from the Pagan rites, and it was now intended for honoring (wait for it) saints & martyrs (read = more dead people). Depending on where you lived, you might also call it All-hallows, or All-hallowmas (for you linguistic types out there, that comes from the Middle English word, alholowmesse, meaning, you guessed it, All Saints’ Day).
A few hundred years later the church also decided that there were too many saints and martyrs to celebrate, and added November 2nd to the list of days to honor the dead (this time called All Souls’ Day to differentiate it from the day before). All Souls’ day involved the usual celebratory kinds of things: bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes (this time in the guise of saints, angels or devils). And, since three is better than two, threw in October 31st as a pre-holiday holiday. To keep things straight, people began to refer to October 31st as All-hallows Eve, which was eventually shorted into the trademarked name companies now use to sell us plastic pumpkins and candy that tastes like wax.
During the All Soul’s Day parades, many poor people would beg for food from those who were better off. Traditionally, “soul cakes” were given to these poor people, in exchange for their prayers for the well off family members’ dead relatives. (“Soul cakes” are, sadly, just a simple piece of pastry, and has nothing to do with eating spiritual souls.) Eventually the transaction of “soul cakes” for prayer began to be called “going a-souling,” which should have been way more evil than it actually was. Soon enough other food, money, and even alcohol was given out when people went “a-souling,” and neighborhood kids began to join in on the act (beginning the time-honored tradition of underage drinking on Halloween). Of course, the Catholic Church dug these traditions much more than the ancient “lets leave food and wine out for the evil spirits” Celtic version, and endorsed “going a-souling” whole heartedly despite it’s emphasis on being considerate to kids and poor folk, and sort of resembling this Pagan practice anyway.
This version of the holiday was unchanged (for the most part) until America opened for business, and people started to rape and pillage a new land in an attempt to start new holidays. As Protestants controlled New England, so the primary foothold for Halloween began in the southern colonies. Not content to keep using an established tradition in a new world, the new Catholic version of this holiday meshed with all the various ethnic groups that made up the new American people, thus perverting the celebration further.
The primary American treatment of the holiday fell on All-Hallows Eve, and involved “play parties,” huge public events that celebrated town harvests and whatnot. Neighbors would drink (big surprise), tell Ghost Stories (that were much more effective when the story had been told the year before), dance (despite not having the benefit of things like Soul Train or MTV to teach them), and have fortunes read by strange wizened hags that cackled manically (using yarn, apple parings, and mirrors to divine things like “who you were going to marry” or, if you were a woman, “who was going to drunkenly decide you were their wife when they got horny”). People capped the night off by singing out-of-key, public-domain folk songs until everyone was tired. While the holiday took some time to get going full steam, when Irish immigrants began to flee the famine of 1846, the party really began to take off (probably because there was drinking involved). It was their idea to re-incorporate the Catholic focus on costumes and “going a-souling,” which was now called “trick-or-treating” in it’s American incarnation, supposedly to avoid copyright infringement.
We also have the Irish to thank for the introduction of the Jack-o-Lantern into the Halloween accouterments. The origin of the practice comes from the folk tale about “Stingy Jack,” a trickster who managed to best the devil at his own game of lies and deception in order to get things like free drinks at bars and apples to eat (making this the second “apple” reference in the historic account). When Jack finally died (according to the folk tale), he was not allowed into either Heaven or Hell, but instead was forced to roam the earth with a burning piece of coal to light his way. Jack, being the clever jack that he was, carved out a turnip and kept the piece of coal in it, so he could carry his source of light like a lantern. Jack, in his ghostly form, was thereafter known as “Jack of the Lantern.”
It became tradition to carve turnips or potatoes with scary faces and light them up in the hopes of scaring away Jack himself, or other ghosts that might wander by your house (and for anyone who’s tried to eat burned turnips, you know why he would be scared). These vegetables that were left on your porch became known as Jack-o-Lanterns, mostly because people weren’t that creative at the time. The English, who were good at stealing things from the Irish anyway, did pretty much the same thing, but used beets instead (assumedly just to be different). In the US, since no other holiday had claimed the fruit as it’s own, pumpkins made a prime target for this aspect of Irish culture.
“Mischief-making” was pretty common on Halloween too, something completely absent from modern culture thanks to worried parental groups and Mothers Against Anything Fun. Vandalism was extremely common at the time. Many hooligans would roam the streets at night, carousing, breaking everything in sight, and creating a truly frightening experience for anyone else trying to get a good night’s sleep. By the late 1800’s, a movement attempted to suck the remaining fun out of Halloween. Many people wanted to focus on the community-oriented aspects of the “play parties” instead of the ghosts and “scary” aspects of the holiday that seemed to appeal to hooligans so much.
By the 1930’s, the holiday began to take the secular shape it has now as a community-centered holiday. Parades were still a part of the celebration, but the “play parties” expanded to encompass civic centers rather than just neighborhoods. With most religious and scary aspects of the holiday censored and or eliminated by uncaring activist groups, the holiday was now much “safer” for kids. By the 1950’s, the holiday became focused entirely on them (thanks in part to the Post-WWII Baby Boom). With the focus on children, the “play parties” most often associated with Halloween moved back to neighborhood homes (so they could drink in peace). “Trick-or-treating,” which still consisted of asking complete strangers to give you something just because you asked for it, seemed to be the only unaffected aspect of the holiday. However, the violence and vandalism persisted on October 30th – “Devil’s Night” – well into the ’70’s, creating a combative environment in cities like Detroit. However, the ’80’s did a good job of stymying that sort of terror in our country.
These days, there are various permutations of Halloween all over the world, all more or less having their origins in the same creepy Celtic past, and all of them more complicated than an essay like this can quickly embrace. The American version has remained pretty much unchanged since the 50’s, with the exception of local variants and personal changes. Just to be different, the English now celebrate Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th, which consists of bonfires and the usual paraphernalia, but with a twist: the fires are used to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, a man who tried to blow up the parliament building in England in 1606. Not content to keep this kind of murderous tradition just for the adults, children walk around with miniature effigies on sticks, and go door to door asking for “a penny for the guy,” though they ironically keep the money for themselves when they get it. While this sounds remarkably like “trick-or-treating,” the English are too stubborn to claim this has any connection to Halloween, given that the country supposedly stopped celebrating the holiday around the time of the Protestant Reformation, and Halloween was Pope-o-centric.
The Irish incorporate “treasure hunts” and odd card games to the usual party games kids play, but more or less do things the same as their US counterparts. By far, the coolest adaptation is Dia De Los Muertos, the Latin American version of All Souls’ Day with origins that date back even further in South America, but are now heavily Catholoicised. This holiday lasts the historic three days, and more or less contains much of the same Catholic Functions that were creepy and fun. The biggest difference, however, is that families construct cool alters to honor their dead relatives, and use incense, candles, candy, flowers, food, booze, and photographs to decorate them. Next they have “grave picnics” on the final resting places of their family members. These picnics include food, tequila, and a mariachi band if you can afford it. Afterward they tidy up the site before they leave (which is very considerate). All of that, combined with the Day of The Dead skeletons that are a mainstay of all wonderful ’80’s animated rock videos and Tim Burton movies, make this holiday the single coolest version of Halloween around the world.
These days, with the heavily commercialized version reigning supreme, it’s hard to keep a positive attitude toward it when deciding what to celebrate, and how. The ghosts of consumerism, dental hygiene warnings, and frightened parents from the ’80’s warning you about razor blades and poisoned candy seem to haunt this time of year worse than the original Celtic spirits ever could. Fortunately for us, the holiday has evolved again in several cool ways.
Most modern adults have a nostalgic attachment to the time of year, who then throw parties that are just as wild at the early American ones before “vandals” supposedly ruined everything. Modern horror rock bands (The Murder Dolls, Misfits, Rob Zombie, etc.), coupled with the prevalence of the cheaply made horror movies that tattooed kids seems to love have helped return the themes of the holiday to the everyday person, rather than the entities that control the production of masks and individually wrapped pieces of sugar. And lets face it: people are just weirder these days. Now, a time of year that was dominated by choosing between being a ghost, skeleton, vampire or devil is now overtaken by hordes of adults dressing up in post-modern deconstructions of costumes, who then stay in character for days before (and after) the holiday, if not longer. (read = Goth people) While the holiday is still second only to Christmas in retail sales, the fans of this ghost and demon-centric celebration are doing all they can to wrest control away from the modern day Druids that want to tell you how to celebrate.
In 1993 I made my first ‘zine, which was distributed for free in my High School. In the years since then, I have taken on a number of hobbies that match the fun and excitement I felt when I sat down to layout that publication. My joy when it came to radio was almost matched by doing interviews, writing for the paper, video editing, playing in bands, and, most importantly, meeting other people with similar interests. I’ve really enjoyed all the work I’ve done in the last 20+ years, as it has not only been preparatory, it has been the most fun I’ve had in that time.
Strangely, I never considered myself an artist. Or even close to the world of Art. At best I called myself a DJ, and at worst, a writer. But I never made a profit, never found myself in a position to get work with what I was doing, and more importantly, never put myself in that mindset. I made ‘zines. I made radio. I made albums. But I saw it more as a hobby than anything else. In reality, I would have another job, and that would be my vocation. This is why I rarely collected money – if anything, a single dollar – for the stuff I created. The joy was in the making, and that was good for me then.
However, as I have honed and cultivated a set of skills since the early ’90’s, it occurred to me that the amount of hours I had put in were vastly surpassing anything else I’d done in my life. I couldn’t really call myself a retail clerk, and an office specialist seemed far from the truth. Dishwasher never set well, and farm hand was very short lived. If there was anything I could apply a title to, it was, in fact, artist. I’ve been making things for a long time now. It is the thing I have done the most, for the longest time, and with the biggest passion. Certainly more that IT Support.
Now I Have To Do The Hard Thing
Most of the things I make usually fall into the “free” category. Radio and podcasts are still things that are part of the media landscape around us, and blogging is usually not considered a “paid” position. And I’m not really interested in changing that dynamic. But as our world becomes more digitized, and traditional jobs are not longer a way of life, those of us that make things find ourselves in a position of asking – politely – for money. I’m not comfortable with it, and I’m sure you aren’t, either. I find most things involving money to be frustrating and difficult, and I would rather not have to go down that road. However, it also seems strange to put so much time and energy into making things, without at least breaking even so I can keep doing it. I’ve gone without earning much for so long, it seems awkward to change that now.
Still, this is my job. I am, for better or worse, an artist, with everything that comes with that understanding. And if I’m going to this much time into something, it should be worth my time to ask you to help support it. My promise is that I will keep making things that I like, and offer much of it for free. What I’m asking is that, when I make something new that does require a few dollars to enjoy, that you send a little support my way.
I promise to make it worth your while. I will put care and attention into all the things I offer for sale, and when you buy, I will make the thing something that feels like it is worth owning. As much as I am an artist, I am also a fan. I know what it is like to buy something, take it home, and appreciate it. I download music and podcasts like everyone else. For me, I want to make sure I’m not ripping you off, either.
So, What Have You Got, So Far?
I’m glad you asked. Right now, we have two albums that are available for you to purchase, in a digital format, for $5.00 each:
The Ways of Ghosts
This is a spoken word album of Halloween Ghost Stories, written by Ambrose Bierce, and read by Austin Rich, with music and sound effects by Austin Rich, too.
This compilation of music by 20 artists was a party favor at the 15th Anniversary Blas-travaganza that went down in 2013. Now you can pick this up and enjoy the best in punk, experimental, rock, electronic, and everything in-between.
We also have a two-disc set that you can pick up in either a digital or physical form for $10.00:
The Shindig Shakedown (Disc 1) (Disc 2)
With music, zines, photography & art by over 80 artists, this massive collection (affectionately referred to at the office as a “digital seven inch”) was a party favor for those who attended my 40th Birthday party in April. Now, you can pick up the collection and rock out to a vast array of friends & well-wishers of our work over the last 20 years. This is the cumulative work of the end of 2014 / beginning of 2015, and is a real compilation, in every sense of the word.
And, if you’re feeling very supportive, we have three albums available that are entirely free, and yet, as with all of these albums, you can pay what you’d like, and help keep up going:
Cathead – In Loving Memory Of Harold (Expanded Edition)
This avant-punk group – largely from the ’90’s – recorded varying qualities of songs and live gigs over their short existence, and with the magic of the digital age, more people can experience these recordings than every saw us live in the day. This is where “pay what you will” really comes in handy.
Moth Hunter – No Contact (Live)
Moth Hunter has been a friend for some time now, and performed live on our radio program to supply the backing music for our program “No Contact.” The music is available here without the mixing and editing of the other samples that were used in that program as a four piece suite of songs for you to enjoy.
Live At Habesha Lounge 13 April 2013
This contains all the music performed live at this amazing Ethiopian restaurant in 2013, where I first joined The Dead Air Fresheners on stage for a spoken word performance. This was an incredible show, of which there is video, too, and you can enjoy it all.
Really. Thanks. I would most likely continue to do this without you, but knowing that you are out there – and that you are willing to lend a hand – only adds to the joy of making music.
Keep up the support, and you’ll get to enjoy cool stuff like this more often.
Now available from our Bandcamp Page, it is The Ways of Ghosts, four short ghost stories from the late 19th Century. These have been produced as separate pieces, clocking in about about 20 minutes, with sound effects, music, and other tidbits to create an audio essay that is perfect for the holiday season. Now you can help support our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular and enjoy these ghostly encounters from a time long since past.
Ambrose Bierce was known for many things, including being a printing genius, his diverse political journalism, writing The Devil’s Dictionary (a book of definitions that he called “the cynics word book”), disappearing completely never to be heard from again while on a story in Mexico, and at times, writing ghost stories. Heavily inspired by Washington Irving – himself a satirist / journalist / horror writer – Bierce would regularly slip ghost stories that he had “overheard” into his columns at the San Francisco Examiner.
Not only did his “spooky” pieces get taken as “true” accounts by most who read them, but the humor of these made-up slices of “Americana” (a direct descendant of Irving’s own style, so Bierce thought) seemed to be lost on his readers. Bierce had always seen the ghost story as a satiric engine, and was floored to see that people were not looking for that with these stories. Regardless, he understood a good thing when he found one, and collected these stories from the paper together as “The Ways of Ghosts”, which itself was collected with other ghostly stories. The form of these collections seems to shift from publisher to publisher, but there’s an ebook version that is worth downloading for free, as these are in the public domain now.
In 2014, as part of our Halloween Spook-tacular!, a few of these appeared as part of our daily NewsBlas, and were available then. However, I’ve re-edited, re-mastered, and re-worked these, and recorded new pieces to complete the set.
I’m very proud of these, and they are not only a great way to kick-off a full month of great stuff, but buying these help us continue to make cool things for you to listen to and enjoy.
It’s four short ghosts stories, perfect for any Spook-tacular event in October.