Darkness. Pure black. It was an excruciatingly quiet night as I laid in my bed, a little boy so young I’m fortunate to even still have the memory. I was curled up under my blankets, in the safety of my bedroom, merely 10 feet away from my parents’ room in our small house on our small street in our small town in east Tennessee. My bedroom was my refuge, my safe place. The walls were painted blue and in the days before bikini girl posters lined the walls, I had posters of my hero, Hulk Hogan. Flexing his muscles and sporting his championship belt, Hulk was an image of confidence and security that I didn’t realize I needed so much back then.
On the nights I was too afraid to go to sleep, I would close my eyes tight and make believe all of my favorite wrestlers were surrounding me and wouldn’t let anyone get to me. No boogeyman could enter my room, no villain could cross that threshold, not even the evil witch with the long fingernails that would often tap on my window outside (actually a bush that would blow up against the window when the wind blew) as long as Hulk Hogan, Sting, the Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man Randy Savage were there to protect me.
So what happens when the Hulkster takes the night off? What happens when Hulk decides he’s done protecting me or he’s off competing in another grueling match to defend his title? I’d find out that night I mentioned above. That night when all was serene and well, when all was quiet and I thought I needed no protection. That was the night my closet door flung open in the middle of the night and out stepped pure death, absolute horror, the very definition of fear: Freddy Krueger.
He was in my room. And he was after me.
I remember the look on his disfigured face as he popped out — he was mocking my fear with his expression. I quickly jumped out of the bed and began running through the house. First stop: my parents’ room. I busted their door open with little problem and found that Freddy had already gotten to them — they laid in their bed, not bloody but broken, almost as if they were portraying cubist art.
Sensing Fred was on my heels, I turned to run toward the basement. As I started to run down the wooden steps, a hand came out from between the stairs — a hand wearing a leather glove with sharp blades protruding from the fingertips. It grabbed my ankle and I fell down the stairs, my legs breaking. Back then we had a green rotary telephone at the bottom of the steps and at that moment the only thing I knew to do was try to call 911. So I reached out to make the call but was forced back down on my back. Freddy stood over me holding a box in one hand and as he slid the lid off I could see the was lined with eyeballs. He quickly dug his blades into the box and came up with an eyeball skewered on each finger. They were dripping with goo and he came closer and closer to me, laughing maniacally. He was going to feed them to me one by one. As he got closer to my face, I closed my eyes and began to wonder what had happened to Hulk Hogan that night …
… and then I woke up. It was morning, Hulk was still on my wall, and Freddy was nowhere to be found. It was a dream. A dream likely caused by a recent viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but also by my friend Carrie, an 8th grade boy that I was friends with at daycare, that had a magazine with Freddy on the cover. I thought I was super cool because Carrie liked me enough to let me hang out with him and his friends, even though I was so young. He shared his “big kid” stories with me, we talked about wrestling together and he showed me his magazine that depicted an image I’d never seen before — and didn’t want to see: Freddy Krueger with his hat off, exposing his sticky, scarred and bald head. And he was laughing in that photo, just like he was laughing at me as he brought those eyeballs down toward my face.
Fast forward to 2008. I met up with a friend to go to DragonCon in Atlanta. My first trip to this show, I was prepared for a whole weekend of cosplaying, photo taking, toy buying, comic shopping and celebrity meeting. On the first day, I cosplayed as Malcolm McDowell’s depiction of Alex DeLarge from the 1971 film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. In my costume, I got to meet the great Lloyd Kauffman of Troma Entertainment, had a particularly odd experience with Sean Astin and met “the man”, himself, Mr. Robert Englund.
I told Robert how I’ve had nightmares about other horror characters, including Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Chucky and the Leprechaun, but Freddy Krueger was my first. And not only the first but the scariest and the most remarkable. I told him I’m sure he hears that a lot and asked how he felt about it. He grinned a sadistic grin and growled “I love it!” before autographing a print, You’re MY girlfriend now!
Of course, I left out the details about him wanting to feed me eyeballs and my fantasy that Hulk Hogan should’ve been there to protect me. I also left out the little detail that as a (then) 24 year old man, I would still be equally terrified if I had the exact same dream that very night. Probably even moreso.
Fast forward again to 2016. At my old house, I had a little Freddy shrine built in my office that consisted of some fan art I’d picked up at other conventions I had attended, the aforementioned autograph, a replica glove, several action figures, a Living Dead Doll and a Nightmare 2 poster signed by the great male Screen Queen, Mark Patton. Freddy basically lived in my house at this point. He’d been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been equally petrified yet simultaneously intrigued by the character for just as long.
Horror is funny like that. If you’re terrified of something, why hang on to it? If something freaks you out and makes you feel uncomfortable, why put so much effort into it? Why spend your hard-earned money on it? Some of us have even made a living by creating horrific images that not only scare the living daylights out of our audience but also haunt us!
Lots of research has been done on the philosophy of horror, some dating all the way back to Greek philosopher, Aristotle. In his work Poetics, Aristotle theorized that people are able to purify themselves — or purge themselves — of their wickedness and perceived evil ways by listening to and telling stories that involved or ended with tragedy; a process called Catharsis. This was in the year 335 BC, so Freddy Krueger, Hollywood, cameras or celluloid didn’t exist or had even been thought of at the time. Tragic stories have been around for as long as time itself and while science has proven otherwise in modern times, I don’t think that the idea of watching horror movies as therapy for those with questionable interests is too far-fetched.
Another theory that I think holds merit is one proposed by film scholar Noel Carroll that states that horror exists because we, the audience, possess certain curiosities that are best catered to by the horror genre. Anything that isn’t “normal” in our society is horrific in some ways and there’s a large part of the population that is fascinated by such behavior, even if we do not necessarily partake in it, ourselves. There’s a sick, though genuine, interest we possess that wants to see this norm-defying behavior and, according to the Dispositional Alignment Theory, wants to see those defying said norm get what’s coming to them. We cheer when Jason takes out his aggression on a couple of college kids fornicating in their cabin and when Leatherface takes his chainsaw to a whining bimbo or when Otis B. Driftwood kisses the snotty young lady in House of 1000 Corpses while wearing her own father’s face as a mask…
…Okay, that last one was WAY extreme but the fact remains, we like playing the judge in these peoples’ lives and there’s a certain satisfaction we get in seeing them get what we wish people with these same qualities in our real lives deserve.
Some have more generalized theories for why we’re so into horror that involves a simple love for the extreme. Fast cars, extreme sports and thrill rides at theme parks all give us that wild sensation so many of us yearn for — the same sensation we can get from certain horror flicks. One idea that I’m particularly fond of, however, is that proposed by Mr. David Skal, American historian known for his work in the horror genre. Skal believes that our passion for horror comes from our love of exploiting our real-life societal fears. Citing examples like the rise of films depicting overgrown mutant creatures stomping cities around the globe at the same time the world was afraid of a real-life nuclear holocaust and how the zombie movie found its second wind through the likes of Zombie World and the Walking Dead during a time when we were overwhelmed with information about various plagues and diseases that we’re told to immunize ourselves from like the Swine and Bird flus. Could we be using overblown, caricatured versions of our real-life fears to overcome them?
It seems there’s no single definitive theory that best explains our love of horror but if there’s anything we can be sure of, it’s that horror stories have been told for centuries and we’re all about them. We’ve told them around campfires, we’ve read them in comics and penny dreadfuls, we’ve watched them in the cinemas for nearly 100 years and there are some Hollywood bigwigs that have made serious money putting watered-down and family friendly versions of this stuff on primetime television. There are conventions and gatherings all around the world that celebrate it, historians devote their studies to it, bands create identities around it and fans spend millions of dollars on it year-round.
In the late 1950s, Universal knew they had a product people would buy if it was put in front of them in a prime spot, and so came Shock Theater: a collection of classic horror flicks created by Universal Studios prior to 1948 that included the first monster celebrities like Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Boris Karloff in the Mummy and Frankenstein, Claude Rains as The Invisible Man and Lon Chaney, Jr as the Wolfman among others. These already popular films were to be shown on TV in a prime spot and presented by many hosts, not least of which was the original Shock host, Roland, portrayed by John Zacherle.
Roland came on to the scene when Shock Theater premiered on October 7, 1957 on Philadelphia’s WCAU. A harsh black and white picture greets you as Roland is shown performing humorous skits and telling corny jokes, a light-hearted juxtapositioning with his long undertaker’s coat and his appearance that is eerily reminiscent of Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom of the Opera before and after each film presented. Roland was a fan favorite and Shock Theater thrived under his reign from 1957-1958. Yes, there was an audience for this kind of television and yes Universal Studios saw it and served it, but it wasn’t Roland — or even Universal Studios — that first went after it.
No, Shock Theater merely picked up where Maila Nurmi, otherwise known as Vampira, left off. Nurmi’s character brought together two famous characters in Snow White’s evil queen and Morticia Addams, both in appearance and in character. The mending together of pure evil with a hint of humor and a lot of sex appeal came together to make Vampira a television force to be reckoned with. It was Vampira that started the horror host gig, and many would say set the bar higher than anyone else has been able to reach.
The Vampira Show was canceled a year after its premiere despite its popularity when Nurmi refused to sell the rights to her character to ABC. It’s also said that none of the original shows exist to this day because it was broadcast live and wasn’t preserved for future airings. Despite this, however, Vampira planted a seed in the American television public’s mind that would blossom over the years.
That seed would give life to the likes of Morgus the Magnificent in 1950s New Orleans, Sammy Terry in 1960s Indianapolis, John Stanley in 1970s San Francisco, Dr. Shock in 1970s Pennsylvania, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series and countless others the world over. Yes, horror hosts were huge and continue to be, though maybe in a different avenue (read: the internet) and some, like the voluptuous Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, have become internationally known.
Still, the allure of the horror host is the campiness their characters provide to lighten the mood before a scary story as well as their hometown-hero vibe. Especially in the early days of the horror host, it was very common for the host to not even be actual talent at all, but rather a member of a studio’s crew! Stories exist of news anchors and weathermen that would do their part on their local news broadcast then hustle offset to get a change of clothes and makeup before stepping into their role as local horror host for the late evening creature feature. Talk about dedication and passion!
I don’t intend to give a full history of horror as a genre or the horror host phenomenon — if you want a deep dive into those topics, I would suggest picking up I was a TV Horror Host by John Stanley — but I do want to illustrate that while horror may be a monster (pardon the pun) in the cinematic world with unlimited marketing capabilities, the passion of those little guys that were serving their local viewing area are where the heart of horror truly lies.
In this way, it was the local viewing area in Kingsport, Tennessee, that gave birth to horror host Shannon “The Cinema Warrior,” and his show was called Saturday Night Grindhouse.
*That’s all for this week! Come back next week to learn all about the show’s creator, then stick around for the coming weeks where we cover the history of the Cinema Warrior, where the concept of our show originated, how we produced it, how we fizzled out and what we’re working on next!