spooked: after midnight

getting spooky. And it all began with Helena Blavatsky and her spiritualist movement, then assumed a distinct identity within popular American culture…

Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com):

What do the Cramps, Gwar, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, Blackstone the Magician, David Copperfield, penn & Teller, Criss Angel,( roger corman, john waters, ray dennis steckler, william castle, herschel gordon lewis, goth, garage, rockabilly, stephen king, rob zombie, elvira, vampira, ghoulardi, zacharley, wolfman jack, forrest j. ackerman,) Rocky Horror, halloween haunted houses and most of punk rock all have in common?

Spook shows were a phenomenon that emerged (strangely) out of Mdm. Blavatsky’s spiritualist movement, vaudeville magic and mesmerism (hypnotism), carnival side shows and (interestingly) television. The heyday of the spook show was that period of time when TV was new and was deeply cutting into movie theater profits. It was the period when movie houses started peculiar and bizarre technical advances like todd a-o vision, cinerama, 70 mm, family drive-in theaters and 3D to attempt to drag in the audiences for an ‘experience’ rather than a movie or sitcom at home.

AC: tip of an iceberg. go search "spook show" on ebay and see what pops up. this stuff is so instrumental to my way of graphic design think ing that it's like primal for me.

On the other end of the audience spectrum, the postwar teenager culture was still in it’s infancy. In fact, the whole concept of that strange period of time between childhood and adulthood that we now call a ‘teenager’ had just sort of been invented by american marketing geniuses. Prior to then, you went from childhood directly into “young adulthood”. It’s like you went from short pants to long pants without ever trying on blue jeans. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, teens has their own music, their own cars, their own fashions, their own language – everything. It was a huge new demographic created by ad madmen simply to create new market and new product to suck money out of.

The movie industry went after them directly. soon those ‘family’ drive-ins catered almost exclusively to the teen market. Kids went there not for the movies but for… well, you know. the walk-in theaters developed a whole slew of ideas to drag in kids with their newly disposable income. The ‘midnite movie’ developed out of this market that needed to be catered to. Along with the vast array of low budget b-movies made on the cheap to sell to near broke theater chains – the more sensational, the better.

At the same time, horror movies, fed by the new hungry near 24hr broadcast cycles and the new packaging of re-issued classic horror movies (frankenstien, dracula, the works) by universal. Combime that with the nuclear fears and the new flying saucers from outer space fad, well, it was a perfect breeding grounds for monster hysteria.

Out of this mess there emerged a slew of enterprising old school show biz hustlers that maybe (maybe not) used to find work on vaudeville as 3rd string magicians. They had names like ‘dr. zomb,’ or ‘dr. silkini’, or ‘rajah raboid’, or ‘ray-mond’, or even ‘francisco’ and ‘ali baba’. They began to hustle live stage shows conducted almost exclusively at midnight after the screening of a giant atomic bug movie or teenage werewolf flick.

It was sold with sensational and cheezy efforts – hearses parked on the sidewalk (with coffins inside), big bold banners, mondo showcard ads, fright insurance policies, skeletons in the ticket booth,the works. The performances usually were conducted by the master of ceremonies, (like “dr, ogre”, for instance) in full scary fright makeup and always seemed to have a beautiful scantily clad female assistant.


AC:here's great handbill that has a tie-in with herschel gordon lewis's "blood feat", the first of his trend setting 'gore' films.

The mad doctor would conjure up several scary effects (skeletons that flew over the audience, mystifying disappearances, lotsa fake blood, that sort of thing.) then the dr. would likely create a monster or summon a vampire. Sometimes they would use an electric chair or a guillotine to execute a monster (live on stage!) there would be a steadily building tension and mayhem until the big climax, where the execution (or whatever) would take place. then several LIVE MONSTERS (usually recruited local hi skool jocks in monster masks) actually invade the audience itself and ABDUCT PRETTY GIRLS!!! This would be followed by a sudden blackout and much much screaming. Everybody loved it!

The spook shows era spanned several decades, but the high point was in the late 50′s, and early-to-mid 60′s. Gradually, they died out as interest wanned. Enterprising movie makers like Ray Dennis Steckler (inventor of the monster musical), Herschel Gordon Lewis (the guy who invented gore movies) and especially the spectacularly inventive William Castle all adopted many of these same ideas into their film presentations. ANYTHING to drag in audiences! ANYTHING!!

AC:this is an ad i found in that 'scrap book' i mentioned yesterday. it's clipped from the tacoma news tribune daily newspaper back when i was a kid in the mid sixties. it's advertises an interesting amalgam of spook show and actual movie. 'teeenage psycho meets bloody mary" is actually one of the later alternate titles used for the ray dennis steckler film "the incredibly strange creatures who stopped living and became mixed-up zombies". it was the very first monster musical movie! go figger, eh? steckler used the spook show technique of having monster "come out of the screen" to invade the audience and abduct pretty girls. it's like the live action stage show became literally part of the movie on the screen. innovation? necessity is the mother of invention. anything for a buck!

Even old stalwart big time master magicians like Blackstone got in on the act. Often the promoters would get celebrities like (even!) Bela Lugosi in fill Dracula makeup to participate. They began to hold ‘magic’ seances that would bring dead Hollywood celebrities like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe back from the dead! it got really crazy! Huge crowds showed up and made these events big money makers.

Eventually the style these hucksters developed was absorbed into our mainstream pop culture. Horror movie hosts like Vampira and Elvira simply became the TV version of the mad “dr. dracula.” By the 1970′s, cheezy trash cinema “pioneers” like John Waters picked up where these folks left off and began the midnight movie craze. Then the Rocky Horror Picture Show soon followed and re-created the entire fun madness in a new modern way for decades.

AC:here's a mall collection of other spook show ads to sort of point how much and how wonderfully wild this visual material was (and is.)

‘Shock rock’ acts like alice cooper literally absorbed the spook show gimmicks directly into their acts. As punk and it’s trash culture obsessions took over the underground, groups like the Cramps and Gwar and Marilyn Manson became the living breathing embodiments of this bizarre subcultural nuance. Entire movements like goth owe their entire existence to this peculiar period phenom.

The graphics and paraphernalia associated with these old spook shows are widely collected (periodically check out ebay and watch the parade of cool items). So much of this imagery was created and then copied and downright stolen like clip art over and over again by so many different acts and advertisers that the images have entered the public domain. It became a visual warehouse of great monster clip, a grand tradition.

so, who actually MADE these images? mostly, it was classic DIY – do it yourself. If you needed a picture of a monster, you drew it. Often the movie theaters had small freelancers and ad agencies that would ‘handle’ their accounts (make the media purchases). The graphics were tossed in for free to get the media sales commissions. So, these images were pasted together by secretaries or sales staff. They’d take other samples and cut them up and make what ever they needed.

AC:finally, in case you didn't believe me about how popular this stuff was back in it's heyday, this is a photograph of the crowd waiting in line outside a theater at midnight in the early 1950's to see a spook show. mom? dad? izzat you?

The only real “author” I’ve ever found (outside of the imagery created by beistle company’s halloween decorations) is a fellow named Ben Nelsom. He was master stage magician and one of the guys who popularized the spook show craze. He also ran a mail order magic business (he had elaborate catalogs) and he sold “spook show kits” to amateurs to start their own businesses.

Ben Nelson illustrated his own catalogs. He apparently had some training (mail order courses?) because he had a wonderful eye and great style. His b&w line drawings peppered through out his catalogs and especially his promotions for DIY spook shows became the bedrock material that was used in the adverts. A certain percentage of every poster or advert you see advertising spook shows was lifted from his drawings in his magic catalogs and ‘how to’ booklets. So, I guess that makes him the father of spook show graphics.

Granted, this stuff existed loooong before Ben Nelson appeared on the scene. Classic professional spook shows were part of the regular vaudeville magic act back before the turn of the century. So, the actual authors of this materials is as diverse as it is lost. But, the spook show imagery now decorates Rob Zombie’s record covers and 90% of contemporary gigposters.

Some of my own record cover and poster designs are built out of bits and pieces of this clip material. I proudly admit that i’m a part of the spook show tradition, now. Trust me, it feels GOOOOOOOOOD!!!!

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