ALL THINGS HORROR
RARE AND SPECIAL
I am undeniably middle-aged — I’m not ancient but I also no longer qualify for the category of “spry and virile.” That means my tender, youthful horror fan appetites were fed by monthly issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and spooky stories and sound effects on vinyl records. It also means catching televised fright flicks which, in those tender days, was a rare and special occasion. An event, you might say. Before the age of streaming video. In fact, roll it back a number of years, past the convenience of 24-hour cable broadcasts and portable media to be watched from the comfort of your sofa at any time… yes, past the era of the DVD. Keep going, get that clock spinning backward ever-faster. VHS tape? Not far enough. Keep it twirling back and back. Yes, right there. To the time of only three network stations, one public broadcasting station and sometimes an independent local station. These electronic conveyors of entertainment typically began their broadcasts at the crack of dawn and went off the air around 2am. When your favorite show, or an anxiously awaited Movie of the Week was slotted to air, you attended on time or you missed it. Simple as that. Rare and special.
Network TV abounded with high-polish shows and pop culture favorites. I remember a lot of teleplay sirens and racing engines and gunshots in the days when a 25 inch screen was a luxury. But what I loved best were the special, almost secret, hours long after the affiliate’s network commitment was over. A few hours in particular, on Friday or Saturday nights when a bizarre band of players took the stage. I’m talking, of course, about the late-night monster movies and the weird and often wacky characters who hosted them.
Why my local stations decided these films needed a studio performer in ghoulish makeup to fling out commentary about the movie (usually as a segue to commercial breaks) I can only guess. Perhaps the popularity of Zacherley (whose genesis predated the era of which I speak by at least ten years) placed some sort of mandate on what one does when one runs a horror film at midnight. For me this ritual of presentation provided a special niche, a defined dark corner reserved strictly for the horror films I loved. There was nothing else like it. We didn’t have Cowboy Pete drawling out movie trivia when the station showed a Western, after all. There was never a John and Marsha duo chatting it up over candlelight and champagne when a broadcast of Now Voyager took a commercial break. I reveled in the uniqueness of these local shows, the singularity of the hosts, and I fought my bleary-eyed way to the midnight hour as often as my childhood stamina would allow to be part of it.
Such midnight forays usually had appropriate show names such as Nightmare Theater or Ferdy’s Inferno. The cinematic fare was usually old, black-and-white and in middling condition (no digital restoration was to be had in those olden days, after all) so the films were sometimes choppy and scratched with audible hisses and crackles and a sort of tin-can quality to the audio at large. But I watched, cross-legged on my living room floor, riveted by the movie’s tale, grinning and groaning at the antics of the hosts who presented the movies each week like well-worn but also well-loved heirlooms.
Time moved on. That willful clock did its perpetual spinning trick, and syndicated horror hosts began to pop up. Elvira: the beehive bombshell with a Morticia Addams slink. Svengoolie: hapless and cozy like a lovable uncle. But I will always have a soft spot for the shoestring ghouls who walked me through many a classic horror film, providing me a much needed dose of ghastly silliness when my school-aged heart thudded with unbearable terror. Here’s to you, Dr. Cadaverino from Nightmare Theater, Alexander from Eerie Street and from a later time, when the adult me desired some of that unique, magical childhood levity, Ned the Dead. You were part of a precious time for many of us Wisconsin horror fans and we are glad to have spent countless witching hours with you.
SHADOWDANCES ARCHIVES: GROWING UP WITH HORROR