Film

The Gruesome Gazettes

Marco Lanzagorta
Various Covers from Famous Monsters of Filmland

In the first of a two part examination on the subject, our scholar of scares looks back at the role genre magazines played in the creation of the rabid macabre movie fanbase we see today.

Truth be told, horror enthusiasts are usually stereotyped as obsessive, compulsive, transgressive, and full of useless information regarding their favorite films. However in recent years, critics and scholars have recognized that the fan's knowledge is not worthless, but actually represents a viable form of "cultural capital". Indeed, in fandom, such wisdom is used to showcase a symbolic ownership of texts and narratives, forming hierarchies and establishing tight boundaries to determine who belongs and who is an outsider.

Such cultural capital is usually acquired, traded, and transmitted through horror film magazines. And perhaps this rather unique cultural market is one of the distinguishing features of horror cinema. Indeed, consider how horror and science fiction are the only two cinematic genres that have several periodical publications entirely devoted to their analysis, dissection, forecast, discussion, and glorification. As such, these magazines are interrelated to horror cinema and fandom in a rather profound way. In order to further appreciate such complexities, it is useful to take a look at the history of post-1950 fright cinema. But instead of dissecting a few landmark movies to describe the development of horror culture, this issue of Dread Reckoning will take the unorthodox approach of analyzing the evolution of the American horror film magazines that have chronicled the genre, and their intricate relationship to its enthusiasts.


Forrest J. Ackerman

It is perhaps revealing that the origins of the American horror film magazine can be traced to a '50s adult entertainment publication, After Hours, which blatantly tried to capitalize on the success of Playboy. Published by the young and indefatigable James Warren, and following a similar structure as Hugh Hefner's successful periodical, After Hours presented pictorials of scantly dressed ladies along with short fiction, lifestyle articles, political commentaries, and personality profiles. More important, After Hours also featured lavishly illustrated fantasy film essays with colorful titles such as "Girls from Science Fiction Movies" and "Scream-o-Scope is Here", that were favorably received by most readers. The man behind these articles was Forrest J. Ackerman, who, by this time in his life, was a respected author, editor, literary agent, and collector specializing in horror and science fiction. But even though After Hours was short-lived, lasting only four issues, it laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most enduring and influential horror film magazines ever.

In 1957, shortly before the collapse of After Hours, Ackerman visited Paris and found the French motion picture periodical Cinema57. It was perhaps fate that the cover featured a picture of Henry Hull as the Werewolf of London, and was a special issue devoted exclusively to horror films. Ackerman quickly realized the potential of this type of magazine tailored to American audiences. On his return to the US, Ackerman convinced Warren that he could use his extensive knowledge of the history of the genre, as well as his vast personal collection of 35,000 horror film stills, to create an illustrated monster movie magazine. And so Famous Monsters of Filmland was born.

The first issue of Famous Monsters was published on February 1958, and quite unexpectedly for Warren and Ackerman, it was an overwhelming success. The crucial difference between Famous Monsters and the special issue of Cinema57 was the approach to the subject matter, as well as the intended target audience. While the French magazine was written in a dry, academic language to appeal to the mature cinemagoer, Warren and Ackerman decided to make Famous Monsters informative and humorous, hiding the more macabre aspects of the subject matter and thereby attracting young teenagers and pre-adolescent kids.

The reason behind this change was, in part, because of the profound effect certain late-night TV shows were having on the industry during the era. In those years, Universal Studios had collected their classic horror films into a Shock Theatre package, and distributed them for syndication to TV stations across the country. Movies such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and their many subsequent sequels were often presented as part of a horror show hosted by some guy made up as a ghoul. And young kids just ate it up.

Equally surprising was the fact that, while these movie monsters were truly frightening to the '30s audiences, the kids in the '50s found them alluring, sympathetic, and mesmerizing. This was a rather profound change in the audience, as the foul fiends were no longer seen as movie villains, but as glamorous and misunderstood anti-heroes. Somehow, the moral deconstruction of the monstrous had diametrically changed during a relatively short span of two decades.

It is necessary to step back for a moment and discuss what could have caused such a profound cultural shift. First of all, the broad TV syndication of Shock Theatre meant that these classic horror films were widely available for steady consumption by the younger generations — most importantly, within the safety of their own homes. Also, these kids were born during the '40s, and one should not expect them to respond with fear and anxiety to the horror icons that were generated by the economic and social traumas of the '20s and '30s. Instead, '50s horror cinema was obsessed with technological mishaps, space invaders, and atomic mutants; exploiting preoccupations relevant to that historical moment.

Just as important are the infamously graphic EC Comic Books such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. They also appeared during the early '50s, and consistently placed the monsters within a rather complex moral structure. In these comics, because of their overt malice and selfishness, most of the human characters were invariably punished with a gruesome death at the hands of a creepy creature. Thus, monsters were much more than simple raging beasts bent on evil. Instead, they were framed as avenging icons that actually enforced and protected social and family codes.

In any event, it is impossible to downplay the importance and influence that EC Comic Books had on Famous Monsters, as both publications relied on macabre images of monsters, ghosts, and other unearthly creatures to boost their sales. Printed in black and white on low quality paper, each issue of Famous Monsters was lavishly illustrated with dozens of rare pictures. As a matter of fact, even though their actual textual content is practically useless for any serious study of the genre, and in spite of their cheap stock elements, old issues of Famous Monsters continue to be sought after because of their exceptional collection of images.

In spite of its title, Famous Monsters covered a wide variety of horror and science fiction flicks, old and new, good and bad, the legendary and the forgotten. Thus, the magazine was bent on helping its young readers to understand and appreciate the intricate history of fantasy cinema. This proved to be influential in the future development of the genre, as confessed avid readers of Famous Monsters included luminaries such as Stephen King, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Joe Dane, and John Landis.

But perhaps more important, Famous Monsters played a major role in transforming horror fandom into a noticeably social phenomenon. Thanks to Ackerman's welcoming attitude, hundreds of fans avidly wrote to him every month with the hope of seeing their letter published in the pages of the publication. For the first time ever, fans across the globe became aware of the large number of people sharing their love, passion, and serious interest in the horror genre. Arguably, Famous Monsters transcended geographical and social boundaries, forging horror culture not as a collection of films, but as the collective enthusiasm of thousands of fans.

Unfortunately, while Warren and Ackerman knew how to expertly exploit the '50s cultural transformation that made young kids and teenagers interested in the macabre, the major revolution in the horror genre during the late '60s and '70s proved to be fatal to Famous Monsters. In 1969, four landmark films completely changed the face of cinematic horror. Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey showcased a technical and artistic sophistication that had rarely been seen before in these types of films, and Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby shifted the interest of fright movies towards more mature audiences. In this breakthrough year, the genre essentially stopped being kid's stuff.

As a consequence, the simple and childlike articles of Famous Monsters failed to satisfy the demand for more detailed descriptions of the complex special effects and cinematographic techniques portrayed in the many films that flooded '70s cinema screens. Also, Warren and Ackerman proved to be unable, or unwilling, to present serious articles illustrated with gory images in the pages of their magazine. Thus, Famous Monsters failed to properly report on graphic extravaganzas such as The Exorcist, Alien and Dawn of the Dead, and quickly lost its appeal to adult readers. Young fans also found extremely difficult to catch these flicks at theaters because of their minority status. Discovering that it was as a magazine with the wrong business model for the era, and following bitter disputes between Ackerman and Warren, Famous Monsters ceased operations after the publication of Issue 191 in 1983.

However, publisher/editor Frederick S. Clarke knew exactly how to take advantage of the new times. In '70 he launched Cinefantastique, a magazine devoted to the serious discussion of horror, science fiction and fantasy. And from the moment of its inception, it immediately set itself apart from the formula that characterized Famous Monsters. Indeed, Cinefantastique was produced on glossy paper, showcased color pictures, and featured rather thoughtful and judicious reviews and articles. Arguably, Cinefantastique was the first publication to present a sophisticated analysis of the many technical and aesthetic aspects that surround the monster movie.


Cinefantastique's Planet of the Apes issue cover

As time went by, the magazine grew in size and quality, becoming a truly indispensable source of information during the late '70s and '80s. To date, some of Cinefantastique's lengthy articles on the making of landmark films are unsurpassed in their gross amount of information and satisfactory attention to minute details. The issues devoted to Forbidden Planet, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Planet of the Apes, The Exorcist, The Omen, Conan, Blade Runner, The Thing and Videodrome remain required reading for the serious horror connoisseur.

Unfortunately, during the '90s Cinefantastique progressively became less interested in these types of in-depth articles, and often delved into the level of superficiality. And then, after the tragic death of Clarke in 2000, Cinefantastique completely lost its edge. Even though Cinefantastique continues to be published, now under the name CFQ, it lacks the quality and seriousness that set it apart from its competitors during its early years. Today, CFQ is a mediocre publication, with poor customer service, and does not provide any insights or information that cannot be found somewhere else.

In any event, and in spite of its many virtues, Cinefantastique never attained the level of popularity that Famous Monsters enjoyed at its peak during the '60s. Arguably, Ackerman's warm attitude toward the genre successfully transformed horror culture into the social movement we know today. Still, Famous Monsters' juvenile stance was a definite reflection of its time. As we will see in the next installment of Dread Reckoning, by the late '70s, a gore-drenched magazine appropriately responded to the unparalleled mayhem that characterized the modern fright film, taking horror fandom to new heights while earning the revulsion of a renowned British Prime Minister.

Next Time: Fangoria and Beyond.

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