directed by Austin Rich. Music by MKUltramegaphone.
Most likely this interest stems from the well known (and well loved) Chuck Jones cartoon, Duck Amuck, where it becomes very clear as the cartoon progresses (spoilers for people who haven’t seen a cartoon from 1953) that Daffy is being tortured by the artist illustrating his cartoon. The antagonistic relationship continues until the very end, where it is finally revealed that the cartoonist is none other than… (spoilers for the spoilers)… Bugs Bunny himself. (An almost Lost-ian ending, if I ever saw one.)
This cartoon was so unlike anything else I had seen as a child that I couldn’t believe it, and I tried to imagine some huge force outside of me that was dictating the world in which I lived, changing it on me randomly. (As a child raised by what you could ostensibly call atheist parents, I had no idea that most people were living in a world where this was true for them.) And while Chuck Jones might have introduced me to this world, when I sat down to study the animated oeuvre every Saturday, I started to realize that there were other guys who tackled similar subjects, but in other ways.
Bob Clampett‘s Porky In Wackyland is a tour de force of animated spectacle, with plenty of moments where the characters are just crazy enough to address the audience (a schtick he would deploy as needed in many of his cartoons). Tex Avery was also very good at throwing in gags that revealed the cartoon was being played in a theater where characters from the audience would stand up to offer advice or help. Avery loved to break other aspects of the fourth wall whenever he could, and used these gags as much as any other. As an avid cartoon fan, there were no other shows that did anything like this, and part of the genius of the Warner Bros. animated world was that, unlike Disney or other production companies, there was a manic insanity that was shared by the creators and the audience that you did not get from, say, a Pluto cartoon. (As cute and inoffensive as they might have been.)
Over the years I have come to realize that the golden era of Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies were head and shoulder’s above the competition, and Happy Harmonies, Color Rhapsodies and even Disney’s own Silly Symphony’s could compete with the overall form of the Warner Bros. work. The insanity and the brilliance of their shorts so completely synthesized “cartoon” as a visual format, and their sense of satire and caricature was leaps and bounds above the others. And I largely point to their sense of metatext – of being able to jarringly draw attention to the artifice of the work at hand – that made them far superior. They made jokes with tongue planted and cemented into cheek, and they felt that their own medium not only set them apart, but could be exploited to take audiences into places that other animation studios just couldn’t be bothered to visit.
It isn’t that I believed a child of the ’80’s could have been the first person to consider the meta-textual qualities of the media around him, and certainly I would have been a fool to consider that this kind of interplay didn’t exist in other mediums, either. But I was shocked when I would mention that it was these moments that I longed for, it was the instant Yosemite Sam turned to me and made a comment that took us both out of the story for a second, that I thought were the funniest moments. I didn’t have a name for it then, and most of my friends and family seemed to thing those scenes were usually boring. (This is like when you meet people who don’t like Holodeck episodes of Star Trek: TNG, or who found the mythology episodes of X-Files to be boring.)
The underlying idea that the artist and the audience could wink at each other and share a joke or a moment between only the two of them was very clearly a powerful tool, considering how much it affected me as a kid. Seeing the edges and peering through the reality that seeped through was always my favorite part of anything I saw around me, and it began to be the way in which I would look at TV and film, too. But I also noticed how it did not seem to have the same kind of effect of other. When most people were confronted with a meta-joke, they frown and shake their head. It just isn’t for them, no matter how funny the joke might be.
When I discovered comics as a teen, I was immediately attracted to the “funnier” and more comedy-inflected writing styles that was big business in the late ’80’s. DC was having a field day with style, largely influenced by Keith Giffen and his series, Ambush Bug. A lead character that is aware he is in the DC Universe, and plays with dead (or forgotten) bits of continuity that blew my mind as a 13 years old kid, (who, at the time, hadn’t been lucky enough to find Steve Gerber‘s work yet, who Giffen seems influenced by). Again, I seemed to be in the minority, but I would scan the racks at comics stores, looking for something that scratched that itch at a time when most comics had gotten very dark and “serious.” This led me to finding Giffen’s run on Justice League, which is not only one of the funniest comics produced in the late ’80’s / early ’90’s, but to this day stands as a source for much of my sense of humor, if not references and jokes that no one else around me seems to get.
And then, there was The Blasters. Where do you even begin with trying to tell that backstory? In the late ’80’s, Giffen had been given a number of books to work on as one of DC’s rising stars, and with his Justice League book a hit, he was allowed to expand his influence to a number of titles. This also led to him getting to write 1989’s annual all-company cross-over Invasion! Giffen used this end product as a way to cause his various Sci-Fi / outer space story lines hinted at in Omega Men, Justice League International, and Legion of Super-Heroes to converge in this company-wide event. DC’s goal (like it is for any event like this) was to launch some new titles, shake up some old titles, clean house elsewhere in the universe, and move some of the action that is usually contained entirely on Earth into outer space, thus opening up the DC Universe so that the word “universe” was actually on point these days. This was Giffen’s attempt to not only ape Marvel’s Cosmic titles that were doing very well over there (with stuff like Guardians of The Galaxy and Silver Surfer selling like gangbusters), but to try and do a modern version of Kirby’s Fourth World books from the ’70’s.
It also helped that in the old Justice League comics, there was a tendency to have to fight off an alien menace every other issue, and the one thing that “dark” and “modern” comics of the late ’80’s had been lacking was a good alien invasion. And with any good war story, you needed a band of mercenaries. To this end, Giffen organized a group of new and old characters to work as the catalyst for the Invasion! storyline. This group was loosely known as The Blasters for an actually terrifying reason (their powers all emerged when aliens lined them up and fired upon them, scaring the team senseless and causing their metagenes to activate).
In the wake of the Invasion! series, DC took chances on several new titles, one of which was a one-shot featuring this new team, to see if it might be a book they could add to their publishing roster. Being a Giffen property not only meant that the book had to be funny, but helmed by someone who got Giffen’s take on comics. He not only picked the team to write and draw it (Peter David and James Fry), but set the tone for the book with the comedy and meta-text that followed his particular interests. It also so happened that Peter and James like to produce the same kind of stuff, too.
Since almost none of you have even heard of this title, I’ll spoil everything now and save you the trouble of Lycos-ing or tracking down this story: there has been only one Blasters comic book published since 1989, a special release in the Spring of that year (that was panned by critics and very quickly forgotten). The story, typical of Peter David’s writing, is a mish-mash of Sci-Fi references (largely from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy… yes, vogons appear in this comic), and meta-textual references and gags where the captions for the book are destroyed and flown through by various space ships. (The lead character, Snapper Carr – have fun with that particular comics k-hole – finds out what to do next in the story by glancing at the panels that are ahead of him.) If I haven’t done a good enough job of describing what The Blasters is like to read, just imagine something that was written for nerds, and narrow the focus so incredibly that within their own ranks, only a small sub-set will find it up their alley. No matter how much I raved, and no matter who I loaned that book to, it always came back, largely unread, with a comment like, “I tried, but it just isn’t my thing.”
I have often wondered why I heard this phrase so often when I tried to get at my interest in this subject. “It just isn’t my thing.” It seemed like such a ripe area for reflection and narrative complexity to my young mind, and yet it was the element in every story I read that others seemed to skip over. The thing I learned from Warner Bros. cartoons growing up is that, unlike most schlock that is played straight and is absolutely saccharine with predicability and well-worn stories – ahem, Disney, coff coff – you can often get bigger reactions from something if it is unlike everything else around it. Even at a young age, television brought home the idea that there are basically two kinds of stories, and they are each the reverse side of the other. (Summarizing Jorge Borges, one is “A stranger came to town,” and the other, “Someone went off on a long journey.”) Repetition absolutely bred familiarity with me, and the welcome intrusion of characters and references that pointed to the artificiality of this repetition became the attractive element that I looked for in art and culture.
Let me pause my own story a brief moment to say a few words about Spaceballs, a film that spent many years on my list of favorite movies, and my very favorite by Mel Brooks (until I became more familiar with his other work as a teen and twenty-something years later). While all of his films use metatext as a platform to layer joke after joke (see, for instance, the last third of Blazing Saddles), Spaceballs was very close to home for me. I loved sci-fi (and Star Wars, of course), I loved comedy, and they had packaged both with a huge swath of self-awareness that I had not seen in a film before. This movie had my sense of humor written all over it, so much so that there is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg quality regarding which came first. If you had to distill an aspect of that film that moved me, pulled me aside and said, “kid, this is for you,” then I would have to point to Rick Moranis turning to the camera asking if, “Everybody got that?” It went so directly to the core of my being as a kid that it still works on me, even as an adult, and I am sure I quote this movie accidentally without realizing I am. It is possible, if one were so inclined, to make a Bowfinger-style recreation of Spaceballs without my knowledge, provided you followed me around long enough and waited for the appropriate scenes to play out.
As I got older and discovered a love of writing, my stories became full of characters that were my own in-narrative proxys. (A Grant Morrison kind of move before I even knew who he was. In fact, reading The Invisibles was painful for me only because periodically I would yell out, “That was my idea!” a problem that would recur when I started watching Lost.) As my big literary influence in those days were comics, and to another degree the DC Heroes Roleplaying Game that I’d gotten for Christmas one year, most of my early writing is littered with a thinly-veiled versions of myself in some sort of elaborate conceit or costume that made me into a superhero. I am fortunate enough that most of this material is still in either a hand-written form, or on typing paper (predating my first computer), and therefore I can’t share these stories with you as easily. (You’re welcome.) Suffice it to say, my Hitchcockian cameos in my own text began very early, and has continued ever since.
My first foray into my own fiction began with a story I wrote in High School, and was serialized in my zine A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., which was made and distributed between 1994 and 1995. In issue #2, the first installment of naaaaaahhhhghahahhk!!!!!!!! (oR, tHE rEALLY wEIRD sTORY tHAT i cAN’T rEMEMBER wHAT tHE tITLE iS) sees print, and I wish I could say nicer things about it considering I know the author fairly well. I made the decision to typeset the entire thing in what I called the “fIREHOSE” format, which made the story largely unreadable to most people save for myself and those with the highest constitutions when it comes to textual form.
The idea itself was fairly bland: I had written the story my neighbors appeared in, but they find out, get worried, and I have to stop them from learning more, and eventually give up and crumple the story, destroying their universe. Corny, yes, but it illustrates where my mind was in High School. Super heroes appear in this story, and I fight them, even. Most of the writing groups I would attend in the early days had people hashing out their fantasy novels, creating cryptic and impenetrable poetry, or just wanted to turn their journals into creative prose so we could all experience their pain. I was looking to do something that was sort of in-between all of these things, and would read stories like naaaaaahhhhghahahhk!!!!!!!! to puzzled audiences who didn’t know what to think.
When I settled into Eugene properly after High School, and started to immerse myself in the ’90s culture that surrounded us, I became the center of my own writing again. Between 1996 and 2005, I wrote a ‘zine called I’d Buy That For A Dollar. While this occasionally contained fiction, the bulk of it was an outlet for my incredibly solipsistic and emo ponderings, where I made my best efforts to made sense of life as a lonely young man. While I will cop to have written it all – even the awful bits – with hindsight it is not only unseemly at times, but as my friend Cheryl once said to me, “this is a little too revealing.”
I don’t regret it, because it was so much a part of my psyche at the time that I needed to get that out of my head, even if it wasn’t exactly helping. When I read it back, I don’t know if I feel the same way about the events this person was writing about, even though I am sure we are the same person. Of course, it is easy to say that when almost 20 years separates the earliest issues from now, but I think I let my own misery drive my creative impulses a little too much then, and with hindsight, I wish I had let other motivations steer me toward other material.
But even this reflectiveness was being shaped and molded by metatext. My roommate at the time, a tall linguist we called Sierra, introduced me to Flann O’Brien, an author who plays with the boundaries between literature and reality for fun and sport, in both his novels and his newspaper columns (which blur the line between journalism and fiction). Discovering Fight Club and Charlie Kaufman movies at this time did me no end of good when it came to plumbing the depths of this well. The Princess Bride was an obsession that started harmlessly enough when I saw it, but led to multiple re-readings and viewings where the genius therein was full revealed. And, let’s no forget re-reading Endgame over and over, which eventually led to a nice and comfortable interest in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a film that not only rewards with multiple viewings, but might be the funniest thing that has ever been written.
While I’d Buy That For A Dollar was far from metatext in intent, it became an ongoing story about my own life, and one that I recognized less and less as the years went on and I started changing and evolving, personally. Having been steeped in this world of reality and fiction blurring, my reality now read like fiction to me, not because the events hadn’t happened, but the lens through which I was seeing those same events was filtering for something entirely different. Already, even in offering context for this interest of mine, I have to relate to my own life and past through the narrative text I wrote, a breadcrumb trail that offers clues as to what was happening when, and where I have been, but in a form that seemed strange and unfamiliar to the adult I had become. Around 2005-ish this kind of personal writing migrated entirely to this blog – the one you’re reading now. I had been a character in this printed story that now seemed foreign and made up, and if my own life was going to sound that way anyway, then I should probably become comfortable with just making things up from the start in the first place.
It isn’t that my life changed or that things shifted dramatically in 2005. I was going to college, yes, and outside of radio and writing fiction, my only other interest at the time was girls. But something more subtle was going on that only made sense to me years later. The “me” that I had been writing about for my whole life was gone. I was an adult, interested in different things, talking about life in a different way, and looking for something that I could get excited about that wasn’t informed by my childhood. In many ways, I had become a Sci-Fi trope, where I was living in the body of someone else, a body that carried memories of someone that seemed familiar to me, but also seemed unrelated to the life that I was living now. The 30 year old I found myself being then was not only confused by the life I had led before, but it felt like a life I would have lived differently, had I known how most of it would turn out.
It was around 2005 that I started writing fiction again, much more of it than I had before. Short stories, yes, and very inspired by Borges and Calvino and Brautigan and Flann O’Brien, and some other material I’d absorbed through being on a college campus and having access to the larger world of ideas. And yet, in nearly all of these I insisted in making myself a character in the narrative, a gimmick that my influences were all very good at, true. But for me it seemed motivated by a different impulse. Since I had written the truth and it felt like fiction, inserting myself into fiction felt like a new way and defining truth for myself. Why did I see this other life as someone else’s, when it was clearly my own? Perhaps, if I wrote about another version of it enough, I could crack some of these puzzles that no amount of booze or girls or writing about it seemed to allow me to do.
Most of my work since 2005 has been centered around amplifying the idea that I could live comfortably within the stories that I write. And, to be fair, these fictions have been quite enjoyable to try on and waltz around within. I made a 2008 collection of these stories, Naked Trees Point To The North Star, and to this day, it remains the best collection of my written work that I have been able to get in print, and has re-defined who I was, both to myself and to the people who read it. The idea had been gestating since those earliest days at PSU: DIY publications and ‘zines are the perfect form to create experimental pieces of prose, and I envisioned that Naked Trees would look and feel like a ‘zine, would have a personal / journal-like quality at times, but the entirety of the package was a work of fiction, written and made by a version of myself that is almost, but not at all remotely, like the me that had been writing previously.
The reaction to this was, of course, mixed. Meta is just not for everyone, and while I felt that these stories really got at the heart of struggles that I was going through, I had a hard time talking about the work with anyone else, without resorting to the worst quality in every writer, making the statement, “So, did you ‘get it’?” While it remains the best written work I have produced in any format to date, and I have come to terms with how, in spite of my best efforts, it is more journalistic than fictional, in that it marked a serious shift in my own view of the universe. It was clear that once I imbued my text with any amount of reality from my world, the reality itself seemed further and further from the truth. After publishing that collection all I had left of my former live was this written collection and half-trusted memories to guide me. Something was about to give.
It isn’t that I decided to make my life reflect these vague and perplexing Sci-Fi and Fantasy tropes to add some spice or flavor to my own experiences. In observing my own interactions with the world – and the interactions of others – it is clear to me that you cannot capture the complexity of this existence, and the strangeness of the mundane, in anything but fantastic language and conceptual thinking. Is it possible to illustrate these kinds of experiences if you haven’t been through them yourself? You’re sharing some wine with some friends, and you’re quickly gobbling every snack you can, because of the night ahead of you.
Gathering everything you can imagine needing, you trundle en mass, passing fellow travelers and enemies, until you arrive at the bar. There is music and magic and libido and peacocking and every manner of horror and excitement on display, charging you, filling you with magic until you are casting conversational spells in every direction. You are filled with an experience you can barely explain, as your friends are performing and watching and drinking and fucking and exploring all manner of joy and pain in one dramatic and perplexing night. And, exhausted, wasted, with a kiss on your cheek and a song in your heart, you perform your last few tricks, produce a cigarette from somewhere, and zig zag through the alleys, to find yourself at home, the next day, perplexed and confused, but itching to do it all over again.
Is that not some sort of fantasy, full of the kind of strangeness and confusion that the best fiction fills us with as we turn pages? At what point does our own life contain a kind of importance that we choose to add it to the cannon, so we can romp through uncharted waters side-by-side with Odysseus? Are we all content to wallow in the banality of brushing our teeth and making lunch?
Three things happened in 2010 that had a huge effect on me. First, I finished college, a banality that I had put off for too long, and was only causing me to spin my tires and was getting in the way of my next phase in life. I moved in with a friend of mine (second thing), and when all of that was said and done, I had an experience that is difficult to explain, which I attempted to document in 2013’s acronyminc.blogpress.new.
Essentially, I lost 10 years of my life, and in processing that event, realized that not only was I living in a future that made little sense to me, but that the memories I did have were absolutely those of someone else I no longer connected with. It wasn’t exactly a sudden experience, and it didn’t come on over-night. But the span of time between the Millennium turning over and my own academic leveling-up had become dreamlike, and waking up on the other side of it created a world for me that was now actually full of technology and behavior that was ten years ahead of who I felt I was. Without intending to, the world around me began to fully resemble something straight out of my own fiction, and now I was the character who was just enough aware to question what kind of Duck Amok world of which I was now a part.
The best part about living within your own fiction is that, on the whole, things tend to work out okay. In spite of being a temporal mess, covered in magic and confusion, I managed to meet someone who has become so central to my own life, and we have found a place we can call our own. My efforts to capture this reality I’ve been inhabiting and communicate it to others has become a steady routine, a rhythm that I can count on to keep me focused and aware of what may lie ahead. And you get to enjoy these efforts, too, which is no small thing, I imagine. And usually, the hardships we face are handled together, so that neither of us has to take on too much of the burden this world presents us with.
But this doesn’t ease the strangeness we encounter every day. We look at TV, and it barely resembles the things we remember knowing. These computers in our pockets are straight out of a novel I read as a kid, and the social changes our world has gone through not only seem unreal, but were absolutely unobtainable when I was a child. (Open homosexuality? Gluten free restaurants? Reality TV Politics? Legal weed?)
For better or for worse, this world reads as more fictional than anything I can have come up with, at any time in my life, and for that alone I will continue to define the borders of this made-up universe, flesh out the parts that I can see and understand, and hope that when I hand it over to you, trembling, nervous, that the things I see are like what John Nada’s sunglasses reveal, that, hopefully, you can look at it, take it for what it is, and remember that this can’t be any crazier than the religious world most everyone else lives in, too.
The only difference is: I know I made this one up, and I’m absolutely willing to admit it.
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.
And The Rest!
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.
For the majority of my life, I was bothered by the sound design in a scene in Ghostbusters, when Dana answers the phone in her apartment. There is near silence, then a slightly distorted, very loud ring. It sounded so out of place, as if it was obviously artificial. When I heard the film was remastered, I was hoping they would fix this, not at all piecing together that it was the same ring tone in Tootsie, The Sting, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, WarGames, and most tellingly, the intro to every episode of The Rockford Files. You may even recognize it from elsewhere:
I didn’t even realize this sound effect had a name until I found myself going down a Wilhelm Scream wormhole one day online, when I found this to be the runner up in terms of audio sound gags that are inserted in films to the delight (and horror) of sound designers everywhere. Unlike The Wilhelm Scream, the origins of this telephone ring effect seems to have been lost to the ages. It seems to have been first used in early Leave It To Beaver episodes, but most likely was used then only because it was in the Universal Studios sound library at the time.
By the ’70’s, the effect became ubiquitous in Universal’s dramas, and you can hear it all over Six Million Dollar Man, The A-Team and Magnum P.I., along with countless other Universal Productions. In the ’80’s, the tone of television began to shift, and sound designers became much more sophisticated, making custom effects for most projects. A few jokes here and there slipped into the overall body of television and film, creating a sort of intra-designer code through the use of sounds like this one. As with all codes, it was only noticed by other sound-nerds, and much like razor tape editing, is largely unnoticed by the average listener.
Something about the Chickenman universe just screams for this kind of sound effect as part of its landscape, and since there are a number of phone-call conceits to the structure of the show, it seemed like the right move for this presentation. Something about this just feels right.