The industrial grade slaughter wrought by World War I forced humanity to face the dark side of a century’s worth of technological innovation. As the real world became more honest about itself, horror films gained popularity, and grotesque creatures like the Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein’s monster were fantastic reactions to the thousands of soldiers who returned home carrying deep mental and physical scars.
Monsters languished in the ’50s as aliens and irradiated insects became the main cinematic movie threat. Atomic age paranoia gave rise to the Red Scare, and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver targeted horror comics as the main cause of juvenile delinquency. In 1957, Mark Voger writes in his entertaining and engrossing Monster Mash, a pre-Little House Michael Landon starred in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and Hammer Films released Curse of Frankenstein. These were the first rumblings of what would become a national craze, one which served as a gruesome shadow to the political and social upheaval of the ’60s.
This was the Monster Craze in America. It began, according to Voger, in October of 1957, when 52 Universal films, marketed as “Shock Theater” or simply “Shock!”, were sold to TV outlets across the US. Only half of these, Voger writes, were what can actually be called horror films. The rest were spy stories and thrillers, but there were still enough werewolves, ghouls, creeps, and mummies to seal the deal. Soon, the airwaves were flooded with monstrous content, and the America would never be the same.
Voger’s book is written in the same friendly, sometimes pleasantly corny tone as one of the giants of the Craze, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Like that magazine, Monster Mash is flooded with illustrations. From models to movies to magazines to comics and clothes and soap and puzzles, nearly every consumer good sold in America from 1957-1972 had some kind of monster on it at some point, and they’re all here: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Phantom, the Creature, Rat Fink, Barnabas Collins, and on and on. The book is a veritable catalogue of the damned.
There was more to the craze than just stuff, though. “Monster movies made us contemplate the big stuff: birth, death, life, love, man’s inhumanity to man, the afterlife, the immortal soul,” Voger writes, and America’s national obsession with them at a time when a president was assassinated, an unpopular war was raging, and people rioted in the streets is surely no coincidence. All throughout the craze parents were outraged with the products of monster culture, from the Aurora Plastics Corporation’s guillotine models to the death of a dog depicted on Topps’ “Mars Attacks” trading cards, these monsters and the monstrous created inroads to subversions. These new hobbies gave kids all sorts of ideas for new and exciting ways to freak out their parents.
Having not lived through this era, it can be difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see Famous Monsters on newsstands, or to tune into to the local creature feature to see a character like Zacherley, Vampira, or Ghoulardi introduce some seemingly ancient film. Seeing The Munsters on CBS and The Addams Family on ABC and not on some nostalgia-fueled rerun channel seems impossible, but both series premiered within a week of each other and ran from 1964-1966.
Reading this book and seeing all of these touchstones of pop culture in one place, it’s astonishing how much of it is devoted to monsters. Was this fascination with the macabre a relic left over from telling legends and myths around the campfire, or some vain attempt to recapture the innocence of an earlier age? Voger’s work doesn’t penetrate that deeply into the phenomenon, but it doesn’t make any claim to. Still, the question remains: what do our monsters, and our fascination with them, say about us?
The monster craze is a phenomenon of the TV era, a quickly made and easily digestible feast for the eyes, ears, and mind. It’s the kind of thing that could probably no longer happen because people are no longer forced to reckon with the parts of their culture which doesn’t interest them. Blogs, channels, and even online shopping use algorithms to cater to our every personal desire. During the monster craze, however, there were only so many places to turn. Now the fad would be reduced to a meme circulating on social media, or maybe a quirky news story to distract us from real world horrors.
All this monster stuff is still out there, though, still collected and curated and loved by successive generations on blogs and in books. Monster Mash is a great introduction, but only enter… if you dare.