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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.