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.
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