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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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Pop Culture
Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?
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Warner Bros.

With the box office-smashing success of the new adaptation of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the new PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explains the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

If you’re not completely spooked yet, watch the full story below.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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This Oregon-Based Nonprofit Creates Amazing Costumes for Children in Wheelchairs
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Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Ryan and Lana Weimer celebrate Halloween all year round: The couple from Keizer, Oregon, runs a nonprofit called Magic Wheelchair, which the two founded in early 2015 to build elaborate—and free—costumes for kids in wheelchairs.

The Weimers’ eldest son, Keaton, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) when he was 9 months old. The rare genetic disorder affects the control of muscle movement, so Keaton uses a wheelchair to get around. In 2008, the 3-year-old asked his parents if he could be a pirate for Halloween. It was then that Ryan had an idea: Instead of simply giving Keaton a tri-corner hat, why not build a pirate ship that fit around his wheelchair?

Weimer constructed the wooden ship, and “what happened when we went out trick-or-treating was really just a wonderful, wonderful experience for us,” Weimer tells Mental Floss. “There's this weird awkwardness around disability. People don't always look at the kid and say hi, or talk to him or look at him. Instead, they just pause, or stare … But with that [pirate ship] costume on [Keaton’s chair], his disability really seemed to disappear, and people saw him before they saw his wheelchair.”

Kids swarmed around Keaton as they admired his ship, and he even wound up getting his picture published on the front page of the local newspaper. An annual tradition was born: Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Weimer continued building Keaton elaborate, wheelchair-friendly Halloween costumes each year. When his younger son Bryce—who was also diagnosed with SMA—was born in 2011, he included him in the fun, too. The positive reactions they received, Weimer says, inspired him and Lana to eventually “create a nonprofit to duplicate the experience we had for other kiddos and other families.”

A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Magic Wheelchair—which is funded by individual and corporate donors—relies on teams of local volunteers around the country, who work together to build costumes for children in their communities. To be considered for a costume, families fill out an online application, which provides the nonprofit with a kid's biography and a description of their desired ensemble.

After receiving automatic email confirmation that Magic Wheelchair has received their materials, recipients are selected on a first-come, first-serve basis, although kids with life-threatening conditions do get priority. The rest are placed on a waitlist until a local volunteer team is able to complete their build. This process can take a few months or a few years, depending on whether there's an available team in the region.

Once kids make it off the waitlist, they meet with volunteers to discuss their vision. After that, the teams work anywhere from 100 to 500 hours, from start to finish, to construct the commissioned costume. The final product is kept under wraps so Magic Wheelchair can surprise the lucky recipient at a grand unveiling.

One of these kids was 13-year-old Cassie Hudson, a fan of comic books who hails from North Plains, Oregon. Cassie, who has spina bifida and other related health issues, first heard about Magic Wheelchair in 2015 when she noticed a flyer for the nonprofit hanging in the lobby of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

The non-profit was new at the time, so Cassie and her mother, Tess Hudson, figured they wouldn’t have the resources to provide the teen with her dream Halloween costume. But in 2016, Magic Wheelchair approached a physical therapist at Shriners and asked if they knew anyone at the hospital who would be interested in receiving one of their custom creations through a big reveal at the upcoming Rose City Comic-Con. “She was like, oh my goodness, I know exactly the kid!” Tess tells Mental Floss.

Cassie’s favorite fictional superhero is Green Arrow, who appears in comic books published by DC Comics. “I just think he’s super cool—he’s one of those superheroes that doesn’t have any powers and just wants to help people because he feels the need to,” Cassie says. She wanted Magic Wheelchair to transform her chair into his motorcycle. The costume the volunteers built lights up, makes noises, and looks so much like an actual motorcycle that at one comic-con Cassie attended, security teams initially said she couldn't bring it into the building.

A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Designing custom costumes for wheelchairs does pose a unique set of challenges: For one, "these kids need their chairs," Weimer says. "Our volunteer teams don't have the chair to build on, so they take measurements and pictures and build off of those."

Also, Weimer says, "you definitely have to consider what the kiddo is capable of, where [the costume] is going to be stored, and where it's going to be transported—because they're big." Costumes, which wrap around the wheelchairs, range anywhere from 2.5 feet by 4 feet to 5 feet by 8 feet and are sometimes constructed in pieces, which makes moving them around much easier. Like pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, these parts fit together on the wheelchair's base and are secured in place with brackets, plastic and metal pipes, zip ties, duct tape, and specially designed metal mounts.

These obstacles don't interfere with Magic Wheelchair's goal to build what Weimer calls the "biggest, baddest costumes" imaginable for kids. "The sky's the limit," he says. "The only limitations are what's OK with the family and the kiddo." One particularly ambitious recent build was for an Atlanta resident named Anthony. "He loves cooking, and so [the volunteers] built him this chef's kitchen around his wheelchair, with a stove," Weimer says. "There was even food—a turkey, and different dishes on the stovetop."

In just a few short years, Magic Wheelchair has grown from six volunteer teams, with anywhere from one to 10 members, to around 50 teams. This Halloween season, they plan on constructing around 50 costumes—a far cry from the seven or eight ensembles the nonprofit first produced in 2015. And it's poised to become just as big and bad as the costumes it creates. “We have a complete board of directors now,” Weimer says. “We were also able to get to the point where we have hired a fundraiser and some part-time staff. This just help us to keep on growing.”

For more information on volunteering with Magic Wheelchair, or to make a donation, visit their website.

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