Schlock Jocks: TV’s Coolest Horror Hosts
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 – aka 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 94, 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 60s to the early 80s, 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 1959-89 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 64, 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 (1967-81). 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.
Honorable mention: Count Floyd
“Ooh, scary stuff, eh, kids?” That was Count Floyd’s response after showing previews from decidedly un-scary movies like Tip O’ Neil’s 3-D House Of Representatives and Slinky: Toy From Hell. As resident horror host of early ‘80s sketch comedy show SCTV, the Count (played with howling gusto by Joe Flaherty) was constantly trying to milk his young audience for money, hawking 3-D glasses for “the special price of $19.99.”