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Schlock Jocks: 12 of TV’s Coolest Horror Hosts

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In 1957, Universal Pictures leased a package of classic horror films and forgotten B-movies to television stations across the country. To promote the package, stations hired actors (and sometimes newscasters and weathermen) to play emcees in the guise of mad scientists, vampires, and ghouls. By the mid-1960s, almost every major American city had their own TV horror host. Invaders of the wee hour weekend airwaves, these colorful eccentrics guided young viewers through cinematic fare from Dracula to Robot Monster, yucking it up with goofy skits during commercial breaks. As one of the kings of horror hosting, John Zacherley, said, “I don't know of any host that was trying to be scary. We were just making fun of the movies, and it struck kids just right.”

1. Vampira

In 1954, Los Angeles station KABC picked struggling actress-model Maila Nurmi to be TV’s first horror host. Basing her character on a mix of “Snow White’s evil queen, cartoon vixen Morticia Addams and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond,” Vampira glided onto the screen every Saturday at midnight, announcing her show with a blood-curdling scream. After LIFE did a photo spread, the glamour ghoul became a national sensation, with fan clubs and personal appearances alongside horror legends Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. She was close friends with James Dean, and famously appeared in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. In 1989, Nurmi lost a $10 million lawsuit alleging that Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, had stolen her character. Nurmi died in 2008.

2. Zacherley

The west coast had Vampira, and the east had Zacherley. The host of Philadelphia station WCAU’s Shock Theater (and later Chiller Theater in New York), Zacherley—a.k.a. Roland and The Cool Ghoul—looked like a cadaverous undertaker and punctuated his cultured musings with a deep, rolling laugh. Zacherley often let the soundtrack of a film continue, while he cut to scenes of himself doing silly things like operating on a giant slimy blob or riding a tombstone. Zacherley was so popular that he even made the music charts with 1958’s novelty song “Dinner With Drac.” At age 97, this horror host legend still makes occasional personal appearances.

3. Sir Graves Ghastly

Say the name "Sir Graves Ghastly" to Detroit natives of a certain age, and you’ll get a nasally “Neeyaaaahahahaha!” From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Sir Graves Ghastly (played by Lawson Deming) and his signature braying laugh haunted station WJBK on Saturday afternoons. Among the supporting characters Deming played were the mute servant Baruba and The Glob, an apparition who appeared inside the moon above Graves’ cemetery to sing rockin’ songs with a ghoulish bent. Deming passed away in 2007, but lives on through a website and YouTube clips.

4. Morgus the Magnificent

This disheveled mad scientist and member of “the higher order” (played by former disc jockey Sid Noel) delighted New Orleans TV viewers from 1959 to 1989 with his shenanigans on House of Shock. Assisted by Chopsley, a slow-witted executioner, and a computerized talking skull named ERIC (Eon Research Infinity Computer), Morgus conducted ill-fated experiments with everything from thought implants to shrinking potions. Morgus was so popular that he even starred in his own movie, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus. Another New Orleans legend, Dr. John, wrote a tribute song to Noel called “Morgus and The 3 Ghouls.”

5. Count Gore De Vol

Count Gore De Vol (TV announcer Dick Dyszel) was Washington, DC and Baltimore’s top horror host during the 1970s and '80s. Given his location and news stories such as Watergate and Iran-Contra, the Count often poked fun at politics, along with the cheesy movies he hosted on Creature Feature. He was also a ladies’ man and sometimes had curvaceous Penthouse Pets on as guests. In 1998, long after many horror hosts had been forgotten, De Vol was the first to launch a show on the Internet. At 68, he maintains a busy schedule of horror convention appearances.

6. Bob Wilkins

A Bay Area Saturday night institution, Bob Wilkins had a different take on the horror hosting gig during his long run (1967-1981). With droll humor, horn-rimmed glasses, and an ever-present cigar, he held forth with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood monsters and mayhem. It was as if Dick Cavett had decided to become a horror host. Among the treasures Wilkins introduced was the first television showing of Night of the Living Dead. “Don’t stay up late, it’s not worth it,” Wilkins told his audience. But that only made them want to stay up even more. Wilkins passed away in 2009.

7. Ghoulardi

“This movie is so bad, you should just go to bed,” Ghoulardi (announcer Ernie Anderson) used to warn late night followers of Cleveland’s Shock Theater. But during his short run from 1963 to 1966, the lab-coated host was responsible for keeping more kids up past their bedtime than candy bars or Coca-Cola. A hipster with a Van Dyke beard, Ghoulardi improvised his shows, peppering phrases like “Cool it” and “Stay sick, knif (fink backwards)” in his patter, while spinning jazz and R&B records. After he left the show, he had a successful career in L.A. as a voiceover guy for ABC-TV in the 1970s. Anderson died in 1997.

8. Svengoolie

“Calling all stations. Clear the airlanes. Clear all the airlanes for the big broadcast!” For nearly 50 years, Svengoolie has been haunting Saturday nights in Chicago with corny jokes and campy creature features. Unusual among horror hosts, he may be the only one who has been played by two different actors, with different looks. The original Svengoolie (Jerry G. Bishop) was a hippie with a Transylvanian accent. A writer on his show, Rich Koz, eventually succeeded him in 1979 as Son of Svengoolie (in time he dropped the first part). With song parodies, rubber chickens and favorite skits like Mr. Robber’s Neighborhood, Svengoolie is still going strong every Saturday.

9. Chilly Billy

From 1963 to 1983, Bill Cardille, better known as “Chilly Billy,” was Pittsburgh’s smiling, cigarette-puffing emcee of Chiller Theater. Unlike other horror hosts, Chilly didn’t wear spooky make-up or garb; he simply relied on an easy, wise-cracking manner. In the mid-‘70s, the show expanded to include characters such as Norman The Castle Keeper, Terminal Stare, and Stefan The Castle Prankster. Until his retirement in 2014, Cardille could be heard on his daily radio show on WJAS. SCTV’s Joe Flaherty, a Pittsburgh native, acknowledged that Cardille was an inspiration for his Count Floyd character.

10. The Cool Ghoul

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“Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl . . .” was the Ghoul’s (Dick Von Hoene) signature tongue-fluttering call to viewers around the Cincinnati area for over three decades. With an orange pageboy wig and goblin make-up, he introduced movies, did a mean Boris Karloff impersonation, and sang parody songs like “Ten Foot Two, Eyes Of Glue (Has Anybody Seen My Ghoul).” Von Hoene passed away in 2004.

11. Joe Bob Briggs

By the early 1990s, horror hosts were an endangered species. Enter Joe Bob Briggs (real name John Irving Bloom) and his Monstervision program. Coming on like a slightly cynical Andy Griffith, Briggs’s charm lay in both his knowledge of cult horror movies and his straightforward take on the crappy ones. His “Drive-In Totals” would tally up the key stats of a film (“17 dead bodies, two breasts, tribal dancing ...”). The show went off the air in 2000, but Briggs has remained active. According to his Facebook page, his production company is “accepting spec scripts for horror and other genre films.”

12. Sammy Terry

I wonder how many kids in Indiana had nightmares about this guy. A Hoosier favorite since the early 1960s, Nightmare Theater host Sammy (Robert Carter) is more creepy than campy. With his pale round face, red skull cap, and ominous laugh, he’s like a freakish character out of a Poe story. Or maybe he’s just a good actor. Supporting characters George the Spider, Ghoulsbie, and Ghost Girl added some levity to the proceedings. Today, Carter’s son Mark continues to play the character.

Honorable mention: Count Floyd

I couldn’t pass up the chance to mention my own close encounter with a legendary horror host. While visiting Los Angeles, I spotted Joe Flaherty. As resident horror host of early 1980s sketch comedy show SCTV, Flaherty's Count Floyd was constantly trying to milk his young audience for money, hawking 3-D glasses for “the special price of $19.99.”

He couldn’t have been nicer. He answered all my nerdy questions, then let me grab a picture with him.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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