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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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The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers
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After more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK's Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death.

There is something of a myth surrounding Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of October 30, 1938. As the decades have passed, accounts of how Welles used the H.G. Wells story to fool a nation into believing aliens had invaded have become embellished. Listeners had supposedly become so infused with terror that they leapt from windows and suffered nervous breakdowns. Major cities had streets crowded with people craning their necks and looking for signs of a violent galactic attack.

While it’s true a number of people may have been disturbed by the “accounts” of military forces being overwhelmed by aliens, it’s unlikely to have been as widespread as later accounts would have it. Newspapers eager to browbeat the competing medium of radio exaggerated the show’s effect, then quickly dropped the matter; it’s not likely all that many people were even listening in the first place, with the program going up against a popular comedy show airing at the same time.

As perpetrators of hoaxes go, only Stephen Volk seems to have lived up to the standard Welles is thought to have set. A screenwriter, Volk pitched the BBC on a six-part series in 1988 about a roving paranormal investigation crew that climaxes in a live tour of a supposedly haunted house.

The BBC, however, wasn’t that enthused about devoting that much time to the idea. Instead, the pitch was condensed down to the last episode—a kind of “mockumentary” take on a paranormal occurrence that the channel could air as a Halloween special.

For Volk, it represented an opportunity to explore what he felt was the relative comfort of a television broadcast. Audiences went to horror films, he believed, knowing what to expect, consenting to being scared. But television was more intimate and less predictable. Viewers who tuned in anticipating a spoof or anticlimactic, tongue-in-cheek exploration would be in for a surprise—and not a pleasant one.

To add to the program’s credibility, Volk and director Lesley Manning structured it so two BBC presenters—Sarah Greene and Craig Charles—would be installed at the Early house, while highly regarded broadcaster Michael Parkinson would anchor from a studio. (Both Charles and Greene frequently popped up on BBC children’s programming, which would prove to be a lure when it came to an adolescent audience.)

Actors portrayed members of the Early family: single mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim all reported instances of strange activity in their home, including rattling, mysterious cat noises, and smashed dishes. Suzanne would sport odd scratches on her face, which she claimed to be the work of Pipes, the ghost who refused to leave their home.

(In a testament to Volk’s commitment, he petitioned the BBC to allow him to try and insert a high-pitched warble on the soundtrack that would be audible to animals near televisions, hoping their bizarre behavior would unsettle viewers more. It proved to be technically impossible to do.)

Various ideas were batted around to reinforce the disclaimer, but few made it to the air. Mike Smith, Greene’s real-life husband and an on-air BBC correspondent who appeared on the special, once told the Radio Times that he suspected things might go south. “We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission,” he said. “And we told them that this was going to cause a fuss. They told us not to worry because it was being billed as a drama in the Radio Times complete with a cast list. But we felt that wasn't enough."

By the time Ghostwatch premiered at 9:25 p.m. on October 31, 1992, the special had already been filmed, showing Parkinson reacting to segments and taking calls—all staged—that invited the audience to discuss their experiences with paranormal activity. In the interests of fairness, he also included an interview with a (fake) skeptic dismissing the Earlys’ claims.

Only highly observant viewers would have done the same. While the show began with a title card indicating it was written “by” Volk, the graphic was onscreen for only a split second; the presence of established and familiar faces to BBC viewers added to the verisimilitude. So did the program’s slow burn. At 90 minutes, it took its time, showing only fleeting glimpses into the Early family’s experiences that were left purposely ambiguous.

In the show’s second half, things took a turn. A viewer called in to tell them that someone had once committed suicide in the home; a mutilated dog corpse was said to be recently found nearby; the Early children were depicted as increasingly upset over the home’s disturbances. Around an hour in, Parkinson even advised viewers they’d be pre-empting scheduled programming to remain with Greene due to the "extraordinary" events taking place: Suzanne speaking in a baritone voice, and unseen cats mewling behind the walls.

Ultimately, Greene disappeared in the crawl space under the home’s stairs while a paranormal expert proclaimed that the television audience had unwittingly participated in a mass séance that had further emboldened Pipes. At the end of the show, Parkinson was seen being apparently possessed by the ghost’s spirit.

The finale laid it on a little thick, but not everyone made it that far in. By the time Ghostwatch signed off, a not-insignificant portion of the show’s 11 million viewers were either convinced ghosts were real, extremely upset at the BBC for traumatizing their children, or both.

The broadcaster had just five operators standing by its phones [PDF] once the show went off air, a number that was quickly overcome by the thousands of calls that flooded in. One woman reportedly went into labor due to the stress caused by watching the program; another reported her husband had soiled himself. Within hours, the BBC aired a brief segment that reminded viewers the show was fictional. It was a little too late.

Public discourse—including on the BBC’s own viewer feedback show, Bite Back—criticized the station for using its reputation to fool viewers into thinking harm had come to both the Earlys and to their hosts. Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore later said that “It treated the audience unfairly. It can be exciting to play on the edge of fantasy and reality, or stretch the accepted norms of television conventions, but this was neither true to its format nor fun. It was horrid to watch the distress of the girls, real or faked. I found it over-long and occasionally disgusting … The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible.”

Greene quickly appeared on children’s shows to reassure younger viewers she had not been abducted or murdered by Pipes. Volk and Manning offered their own apologies, feeling that the BBC considered them pariahs. They had simply wanted to pay homage to Welles, never imagining the program could have the kind of effect it did.

In a report published in the British Medical Journal 18 months later, doctors in Coventry reported cases they classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder” from consumption of media—in this case, Ghostwatch. Two 10-year-old boys were suffering from panic attacks and sleep disturbances as a result of the broadcast. When the piece appeared, the Journal received correspondence from other doctors relating similar cases.

If not for his reported learning disabilities, 18-year-old Martin Denham might have been more psychologically equipped to deal with some transient nerves from the show. When he became distraught in the days following the broadcast, he began to grow concerned he might make contact with ghosts and committed suicide. His parents, Percy and April, blamed Ghostwatch, leading the Broadcasting Standards Council to rule that the show had been improperly labeled, with too few warnings that it was a fictitious premise.

Later, the handheld-camera, raw-footage approach would unnerve cinema audiences that flocked to films like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. While those films rarely resulted in any claims more serious than motion sickness, Ghostwatch successfully married the BBC’s credibility with an effective ghost story to create an experience that’s unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Not that the network wants to try. Since its original airing, the program has never again been broadcast in its entirety in the UK. (Though it is available to stream via Shudder.)

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8 Famous Séances
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For centuries, séances have provided entertainment for skeptics as well as solace for people hoping to catch a glimpse of their deceased loved ones. Here are a few notable times mediums have tried to contact the dead.

1. THE ANNUAL HOUDINI SÉANCE

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Before magician and famous skeptic Harry Houdini died in 1926, he said that he would send word of the afterlife, if there was one, once he was gone. He and his wife, Bess, even devised a code word that only they knew. Though Bess held séances on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, hoping to hear their secret word, nothing ever happened. Still, a variety of magicians, Houdini enthusiasts, and spiritualists have continued the tradition ever since.

2. JANE PIERCE’S WHITE HOUSE SÉANCES

Even if you don’t believe séances can produce spirits, you can’t blame First Lady Jane Pierce for trying. She had already lost two young sons before her husband, Franklin Pierce, was elected president in 1852, so she was particularly protective of Bennie, the only surviving child. Unfortunately, it didn’t do her much good—two months before Franklin Pierce was inaugurated, the family was involved in a train derailment that took 11-year-old Bennie’s life.

She wrote her deceased son a letter not long afterward, asking him to appear to her so she could apologize for failing him. To help him find his way, she hired the Fox sisters, famous mediums who did much to popularize séances. There’s no record as to what happened at the White House séance, but we do know Jane reported that Bennie had appeared to her in her dreams shortly thereafter.

3. LEVITATION SÉANCES

Starting in the 1880s, Daniel Dunglas Home convinced some people of his supernatural ability by levitating during séances. Though the stunts certainly generated publicity, Home's "abilities" were called into question when insiders said he simply stood between closely placed balconies or stood outside on wide windowsills. Home counted many celebrities among his fans, including Queen Sophia of the Netherlands, Napoleon III, and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but he didn't impress everyone. Houdini wasn't fooled, calling Home “the forerunner of the mediums whose forte is fleecing by presuming on the credulity of the public.”

4. THE SÉANCE THAT “RAISED” A JUDGE

Judge John W. Edmonds died on April 5, 1874. A month later, he allegedly gave a speech in London, thanks to medium Cora L.V. Tappan, a young woman who had been giving spiritualist performances since the age of 15. The eloquent speech helped bolster the medium's successful career; she became the pastor of a spiritualist church the following year, and helped found the National Spiritualist Association.

5. THE MARY TODD LINCOLN SÉANCES

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Like Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln’s interest in talking to the dead is pretty understandable. And, also like Pierce, Lincoln employed the Fox sisters to help her reach a loved one taken too soon—specifically, her assassinated husband. There are no reports as to whether she was satisfied with the result, but the Fox sisters later admitted that their method of communicating with the dead—rapping on tables and other objects—was created by cracking their joints and making noises with their feet.

In addition to Abe, Mary also tried to contact her sons via séance, using a variety of mediums—and was quite happy with how those turned out. “Willie lives,” she once reported. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

6. MUSEUM-WORTHY SÉANCES

Georgiana Houghton was an artist who became interested in spiritualism in the early 1860s after the death of her younger sister. It didn't take long for Houghton to combine her two interests, channeling creative spirits during séances to create watercolors and other works of art. Though she originally said that dead family members helped guide her hand, Houghton later claimed to have contacted Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio. Whether or not her works were the result of the afterlife, they're still relevant today—her art was exhibited at a prestigious London gallery just earlier this year.

7. THE BLACK HAWK SÉANCES

In 1913, Mother Leafy Anderson founded the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association in Chicago, an organization partly founded on the messages she brought from her spirit guide, Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe, during religious séances. Anderson never knew Black Hawk—he died in 1838, nearly 50 years before she was born. Anderson herself died in 1927, but the word she brought from Black Hawk stuck—some faiths still channel Black Hawk to this day.

8. THE PAY-PER-VIEW SÉANCE

Lest you think that séances are ancient history—a silly diversion for people unenlightened by technology—consider Spirit of Diana, a 2003 pay-per-view event in which British mediums Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker claimed to have contacted Princess Diana. The things Diana "revealed" weren’t exactly shocking or personal: The mediums claimed she said she was “having fun” in the afterlife, chilling with Mother Teresa. She had planned on marrying Dodi Fayed, and was still watching over her sons.

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