40 Fascinating Facts About Your Favorite Horror Movies

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Now's the time when we pull out all of the scary movies in our collections and pile them up in preparation for a Halloween horror movie marathon. But before you grab the popcorn and dim the lights, bone up on your horror knowledge with these 40 facts about some of your favorite scary movies.

1. COUNT ORLOCK ONLY BLINKS ONCE IN NOSFERATU.

In the nine minutes of screen time Max Schreck has as Count Orlock in F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922), he blinks only one time (near the end of part one).

2. THE EXORCIST WAS THE FIRST HORROR FILM TO BE NOMINATED FOR A BEST PICTURE OSCAR.

The horror genre has never gotten much love from the Academy. Though there still seems to be a bias against scary movies during awards season, The Exorcist earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1974, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Linda Blair, who was just 15 years old at the time.

3. ROBERT ENGLUND WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY FREDDY KRUEGER.


NEW LINE CINEMA

Wes Craven reportedly planned to have a stuntman play the seemingly immortal youth-hater known as Freddy Krueger, but (wisely) opted to go with an accomplished actor for the role instead. His first choice was the brilliant British character actor David Warner, who you'll no doubt recognize from Time Bandits, Titanic, and various incarnations of Star Trek. Warner had to pass on the project, which opened the door for the truly excellent Robert Englund.

4. PSYCHO IS THE FIRST AMERICAN FILM TO FEATURE A TOILET.

Psycho is the first American film to show a toilet on screen. It's also the first American film in which we hear a toilet being flushed. (That's just how repressed Americans were in the 1950s.)

5. STEPHEN KING WASN’T A FAN OF THE SHINING.

In 1983, Stephen King told Playboy, “I’d admired [Stanley] Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat.”

King didn’t like the casting of Jack Nicholson either, claiming, “Jack Nicholson, though a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. His last big role had been in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and between that and the manic grin, the audience automatically identified him as a loony from the first scene. But the book is about Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook—if the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”

6. JAWS DOESN’T FULLY APPEAR IN A SHOT UNTIL ONE HOUR AND 21 MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE.

While the lack of shark appearances works to heighten the tension in Jaws, the real reason the shark isn’t shown in full is because the mechanical shark that was built rarely worked during filming. Director Steven Spielberg had to create inventive ways (like Quint’s yellow barrels) to shoot around the non-functional movie shark. 

7. FAY WRAY THOUGHT SHE’D BE STARRING OPPOSITE CARY GRANT IN KING KONG.


WARNER HOME VIDEO

In his attempts to entice Fay Wray into starring in King Kong (1933), director Merian C. Cooper promised, “You're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” “While my thoughts were flying toward the hope that Cooper might be waiting for Cary's [Grant] arrival just as I was, Cooper went on to point at the giant ape and say, again, ‘The tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,’” Wray recalled.

8. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS TO GET ALIENS MADE.

Why did it take seven years to get a sequel made? Lawyers and money, of course. Talk of a sequel began shortly after the original Alien (1979) was a hit, but it was delayed because of a dispute between the film’s producers and 20th Century Fox over the distribution of the original movie’s profits. Fox, reluctant to make a sequel because it would be expensive, finally agreed to it as a way of settling the beef with the producers—basically, “We won’t give you any more of the first movie’s profits, but we’ll greenlight a sequel, and you can make money from that.” (Amusingly, the same producers plus James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd sued Fox again after Aliens, claiming the studio had used “creative accounting” techniques to avoid paying them.)

9. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN’T SEE SISSY SPACEK AS CARRIE.

Though Brian De Palma was a fan of Sissy Spacek’s work, he was convinced that he had already found his Carrie in another actress. His decision to let Spacek audition at all was mostly out of courtesy to her husband, Jack Fisk, the film’s art director. "He told me that if I wanted to, I could try out for the part of Carrie White,” Spacek recounted to Rolling Stone. "There was another girl that he was set on and unless he was really surprised, she was the one. I hung up and decided to go for it."

Spacek showed up at her audition in an old dress she hadn’t worn since grade school and with her hair slicked back with Vaseline. When she was done, she waited in the parking lot while her husband reviewed her audition with the rest of the production team. After Fisk came out to tell her that the part was hers, “We sped off before anybody could change his mind,” Spacek said.

10. ROMAN POLANSKI AND JOHN CASSAVETES HAD DIFFERENT IDEAS FOR ROSEMARY’S BABY.

In her 1997 autobiography, What Falls Away, Mia Farrow recounted the tense relationship between Roman Polanski and her Rosemary’s Baby co-star, writing that in the film’s climactic scene, “John became openly critical of Roman, who yelled, ‘John, shut up!’ and they moved toward each other,” and nearly came to blows. Apparently, it was Ruth Gordon and her “consummate professionalism” that calmed the situation down.

11. IN 2015, GEORGE ROMERO FOUND NINE MINUTES OF LOST FOOTAGE FROM NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Still from 'Night of the Living Dead'
Janus Films

While in Maryland for Monster-Mania Con in 2015, George Romeo revealed that he had unearthed a 16mm work print of Night of the Living Dead, which featured approximately nine minutes of previously thought-to-be-lost footage at the jump cut in the basement, including “the largest zombie scene in the film.”

12. SERIAL KILLER ED GEIN INSPIRED THREE MAJOR HORROR MOVIES.

You’ve likely heard of Ed Gein. His house of horrors made headlines for years after he was sent to a mental hospital for his actions. They were so memorable, in fact, that he inspired some of the most iconic thrillers of all time: Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Among the items discovered at his Plainfield, Wisconsin farm were four noses, nine masks made of human skin, numerous decapitated heads, lampshades and bowls made of skin, lips being used as a pull on a window shade, and a belt made from nipples. Gein later admitted to only two murders and said most of the items had come from late-night cemetery raids.

13. THE HALLOWEEN SCRIPT DIDN'T CALL FOR A SPECIFIC KIND OF MASK.

The mask for Michael Myers was only described as having “the pale, neutral features of a man,” and for the movie the design was boiled down to two options—both were cheap latex masks painted white and bought for under $2 apiece at local toy stores by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace. One was a replica mask of a clown character called “Weary Willie” popularized by actor Emmett Kelly, and the other was a stretched out Captain Kirk mask from Star Trek. Carpenter chose the whitewashed Kirk mask because of its eerily blank stare that fit perfectly with the Myers character. 

14. THE BABADOOK SCARED THE HELL OUT OF WILLIAM FRIEDKIN.


IFC Films

On November 30, 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook got a major publicity boost when The Exorcist director William Friedkin tweeted: “I've never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.”

15. A DOUBLE AMPUTEE WAS USED TO CREATE THE THING’S QUINTESSENTIAL SPECIAL EFFECT.

One of the most memorable scenes in John Carpenter's The Thing (often referred to as the “chest chomp”) occurs when Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive Norris (Charles Hallahan) with a defibrillator. As he presses the paddles to his patient’s skin, Norris’ chest opens up and Copper’s forearms disappear into the cavity, where they are severed below the elbow by a set of jaws inside Norris’ chest.

In order to pull this off, special makeup effects designer Rob Bottin (known for his work on RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, and Fight Club) found a man who had lost both of his arms below the elbow in an industrial accident. Bottin fit the man with two prosthetic forearms consisting of wax bones, rubber veins, and Jell-O. Then, for the wide-angle shot, he fit the man with a skin-like mask taken from a mold of Dysart’s face (à la Hannibal Lecter) and placed the ersatz arms into the chest cavity, where a set of mechanical jaws clamped down on them. As the actor pulled his arms away, the Jell-O arms severed below the elbows. The rest is practical effects history.

16. THE ORIGINAL ENDING OF FRIGHT NIGHT WAS MUCH DIFFERENT.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

17. THE STARS OF THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT USED GPS TRACKERS TO FIND THEIR INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE DAY.


Artisan Entertainment

Production programmed wait points in the GPS unit for the actors to locate milk crates with three little plastic canisters in them. Each plastic canister contained notes on where the story was going for each actor, who would not show the other two their paper. From that point they were free to improvise the dialogue, provided they followed the general instructions given to them.

18. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY IS THE MOST PROFITABLE FILM OF ALL TIME.

Often compared to The Blair Witch Project because of its low-budget nature and huge grosses, 10 years after The Blair Witch Project’s release, the original Paranormal Activity ousted the earlier horror film as the most profitable movie, based on return on investment (ROI). The Blair Witch Project cost about $60,000 to make whereas Paranormal Activity’s initial budget was just $15,000. Blair Witch grossed $248.6 million worldwide, which comes out to a 414,233 percent return on investment. After grossing $65 million, it was calculated that Paranormal Activity made a 433,900 percent ROI. Of course that doesn’t factor in its final worldwide gross of $193 million (which, if you do the math on that total, works out to a 1,286,566 percent ROI).

19. SCREAM WAS ORIGINALLY TITLED SCARY MOVIE.

The original title of the film was Scary Movie, but it was changed to Scream by the Weinstein brothers in the middle of production. They allegedly decided on the change because Harvey Weinstein was listening to the Michael Jackson song “Scream” in his car with his brother Bob. They both liked the title for a horror movie.

20. THE BLOB IS BASED ON A (SUPPOSEDLY) TRUE STORY.

On September 27, 1950, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article with the headline "Flying ‘Saucer’ Just Dissolves." The night before, police officers John Collins and Joe Keenen swore that they’d watched a mysterious object fall from the sky. Rushing towards the landing site, the men stumbled upon a purple, jelly-like mass. Collins and Keenen immediately summoned two of their colleagues, who arrived just in time to watch the material evaporate without a trace. The FBI was contacted, a press conference was held, and the whole mess became a national laughing stock.

Fast forward to 1957: That year, producer Jack H. Harris was looking to make a creature feature, but he couldn’t come up with a decent premise. So he asked his friend, Irvine H. Millgate, to try and devise one. "It’s gotta be a monster movie," Harris explained. "It’s gotta be in color instead of black and white. It can’t be a cheapy creepie, it’s gotta have some substance to it. It’s gotta have characters you can believe in. And there’s gotta be a unique monster—never been done before. And the method of killing the monster would have to be something that grandma could have cooked up on her stove." Millgate remembered the Philly incident and the rest is history.

21. JOEL COEN GOT HIS FIRST BREAK AS AN ASSISTANT EDITOR ON THE EVIL DEAD.

Before becoming the Oscar-winning filmmaking duo he and his brother Ethan are today, Joel Coen got his start as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead. Inspired by Raimi’s DIY filmmaking, Joel and his brother created a pitch trailer (much like Raimi’s Within the Woods) to raise money for their first feature, Blood Simple. While Dan Hedaya stars in the final film, Bruce Campbell plays the lead in the two-minute trailer.

22. TIM BURTON WAS IN CONTENTION TO DIRECT GREMLINS.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding Tim Burton after the success of his short film, Frankenweenie—so much so that Steven Spielberg considered him to direct Gremlins. But the fact that Burton had yet to direct a feature film worked against him, and the gig was given to Joe Dante. A year later, Burton released his first theatrical feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

23. BOB CLARK’S IDEA FOR A BLACK CHRISTMAS SEQUEL SOUNDS AWFULLY FAMILIAR.

A Christmas Story (1983) will be a lasting part of Bob Clark’s legacy, but for horror fans, the work he did in the 1970s is just as important. Films like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) and Deathdream (1974) got him notice, but Black Christmas (1974), one of the first slasher films, became a cult classic and earned him a dedicated following.

Clark said in an interview that John Carpenter asked him if he had considered making a sequel to Black Christmas. “I was through with horror," Clark explained. "I didn't come into the business to do just horror.” Carpenter asked him what the sequel would be like if he did want to make one, and Clark gave him an idea that should sound very familiar to fans of the genre: “I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween."

24. GENE HACKMAN WAS SLATED TO STAR IN—AND DIRECT—THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Gene Hackman and Orion Pictures split the $500,000 needed for the movie rights to the book. But Hackman dropped out days after he watched clips of himself at the 1989 Oscars as FBI Agent Alan Parker in the violent Mississippi Burning, deciding not to follow up a dark role with an even more unlikeable character.

25. CHILD’S PLAY WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL EVENT. (YES, CHILD'S PLAY.)


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1909, Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto claimed that one of his family's servants placed a voodoo curse on his childhood toy, Robert the Doll. Supposedly, the doll would mysteriously move from room to room, knock furniture over, and conduct conversations with Otto. Robert the Doll was left in the attic until Otto's death in 1974, when new owners moved into his Florida home. The new family also claimed mysterious activities would happen in the house connected to the doll. Today, Robert the Doll is on display at the Custom House and Old Post Office in Key West, Florida.

26. THE CONJURING’S ED AND LORRAINE WARREN ARE REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS.

The Conjuring is based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and their experience with the Perrons, a family who moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse and experienced ghostly and terrifying occurrences in 1971.

"When Insidious came out and was successful the story about the Warrens came to me and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is really cool,'” director James Wan told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. "But I didn’t just want to make another ghost story or another supernatural film. One thing I had never explored was the chance to tell a story that’s based on real-life characters, real-life people. So those were the things that led me to The Conjuring."

The Warrens also had a possessed Raggedy Ann doll that was the inspiration for the spin-off film Annabelle. Allegedly, a demon spirit possessed the Raggedy Ann doll, which is currently on display and under lock and key at the Warrens' Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut.

27. DAMIEN ORIGINALLY HAD A DIFFERENT NAME IN THE OMEN.

Screenwriter David Seltzer planned to name his antichrist Domlin after the “total obnoxious brat” child of a friend, until his wife convinced him that it would be a horrible thing to do to the kid. (Not to mention friendship-ending.) He landed on Damien after Father Damien, who started the first leper colony in the Hawaiian islands.

28. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON WAS MODELED AFTER THE OSCAR STATUETTE.

Universal managed to snag an up-and-coming filmmaker with a prestigious resume to direct Creature from the Black Lagoon: Jack Arnold, whose documentary With These Hands had received an Academy Award nomination. Though he didn’t get the Oscar, Arnold kept the souvenir certificate that the Academy always mailed to its nominees. The little card would go on to become an unexpected source of inspiration behind the scenes of Creature from the Black Lagoon.

As Arnold told Cinefantastique magazine in 1975, “There was a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. I said, ‘If we put a gilled head on [the figurine], plus fins and scales, that would look pretty much like the kind of creature we’re trying to get.’ So they made a mold out of rubber, and gradually the costume took shape.” At first, the creature had what leading lady Julie Adams (credited as Julia Adams) described as an “eel-like” physique. Slick and streamlined, the outfit didn’t come with much in the way of fins, ridges, or body armor. These were later enhanced to give the monster a more menacing appearance. 

29. BRUCE CAMPBELL MADE $93,000 FOR ARMY OF DARKNESS.


Scream Factory

To illustrate the plight of the working stiff actor, Bruce Campbell once provided a helpful breakdown of his salary for 1992’s second Evil Dead sequel, Army of Darkness. With a $500,000 salary nipped at by agents, managers, income taxes, and a now-ex wife, he figured he made roughly $93,000. But the film took two years to complete, meaning his net profit for portraying horror icon Ash in a major motion picture was less than $50,000 a year.

30. AN ACTUAL WITCH WAS HIRED TO HELP MAKE THE CRAFT MORE AUTHENTIC.

To make sure that the depiction of Wicca in The Craft was as close to real life as it could be, the filmmakers hired Pat Devin as a consultant. Devin is a member of one of the largest and oldest Wiccan religious organizations in United States, Covenant of the Goddess, and at the time she was the First Officer of the group’s Southern California Local Council. Devin played a big role in the production process and at times worked directly with the actresses. “A lot of my suggestions were acted upon and virtually all of my suggestions were given careful consideration,” Devin shared, “even if they didn’t all end up in the final version of the film.”

31. THE NAME OF THE DEMON IN THE EXORCIST IS PAZUZU.

Though it’s never stated in the film, the demon that takes possession of Regan MacNeil has a name: Pazuzu, which is taken from the name of the king of the demons in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. 

32. WES CRAVEN REGRETTED TEASING A SEQUEL IN A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Craven was rather staunchly opposed to any sort of "sequel tease" finale, but the big boss (that'd be New Line's Bob Shaye) insisted on one. “Bob wanted a hook for a sequel,” Craven told Vulture. “I felt that the film should end when Nancy turns her back on Freddy and his violence—that’s the one thing that kills him. Bob wanted to have Freddy pick up the kids in a car and drive off, which reversed everything I was trying to say—it suddenly presented Freddy as triumphant. I came up with a compromise, which was to have the kids get in the convertible, and when the roof comes down, we’d have Freddy’s red and green stripes on it. Do I regret changing the ending? I do, because it’s the one part of the film that isn’t me.”

33. STANLEY KUBRICK ALLEGEDLY TYPED ALL OF THOSE “ALL WORK” PAGES IN THE SHINING.

Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining' (1980)
Warner Home Video

No one is quite sure whether Kubrick typed 500 pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Kubrick didn’t go to the prop department with this task, using his own typewriter to make the pages. It was a typewriter that had built-in memory, so it could have turned out the pages without an actual person. But the individual pages in the film contain different layouts and mistakes. Some claim that it would have been characteristic of the director to individually prepare each page. Alas, we’ll never know—Kubrick never addressed this question before he died.

34. THE ENDING OF PSYCHO WAS SPOILED MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM'S RELEASE.

Despite Hitchcock's fervent and admirable attempts at keeping the project a secret, both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter published very thorough spoilers regarding the Psycho plot months before the film actually came out.

35. STEVEN SPIELBERG THOUGHT HIS DVD COPY OF PARANORMAL ACTIVITY WAS HAUNTED.

As the urban legend goes, Spielberg, whose DreamWorks Studios was considering distributing Paranormal Activity, took a DVD of the movie home to watch, but then got freaked out when the door to his bedroom locked by itself. “So the whole story about how the doors to his bedroom got locked from the inside ... personally I believe it,” Peli told Moviefone. “It’s not something the marketing department just came up with before releasing the movie.” Spielberg famously carried the DVD to work in a trash bag because he thought it was haunted. Despite the shock, Spielberg loved the movie and suggested a new ending that was used in the theatrical release.

36. DREW BARRYMORE WAS SLATED TO STAR IN SCREAM.

Barrymore changed her mind about playing the lead five weeks before production was set to begin. Barrymore instead suggested she play Casey Becker, the teen terrorized by the killer in the opening scene, to cleverly subvert audience expectations that a star of her stature would survive the movie. Casting directors approached Alicia Witt, Brittany Murphy, and Reese Witherspoon to take over the Sidney Prescott role before eventually casting Neve Campbell.

37. JAMES CAMERON HAD TO QUASH A MUTINY ON THE SET OF ALIENS.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Aliens was shot at England’s historic Pinewood Studios, which provided its own unionized crew members for productions using the facilities. Some of these workers resented the 14-hour days and, having no idea what James Cameron was capable of (The Terminator hadn’t opened yet), thought he was in over his head. In particular, the first assistant director thought he should be directing Aliens. He mocked Cameron, called him “guv’nor,” rolled his eyes at him ... and got himself fired for insubordination. The new first assistant director behaved respectfully, and things were better after that.

38. SISSY SPACEK WAS ADAMANT THAT HER OWN HAND APPEAR IN CARRIE’S FINAL SCENE.

Though Brian De Palma wanted to get a stunt person for the final scene, where Sue Snell visits Carrie’s grave, Spacek insisted that it needed to be her hand that was shown, which required her to be buried in the ground. “I laughed about that,” Spacek told NPR. "I do all my own foot and hand work, and always have."

39. BUFFALO BILL’S DANCE IN THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS WAS NOT IN THE SCRIPT.

But it was in the original book, and Ted Levine, the actor who played the serial killer Jame Gumb, insisted that the scene be included because it helped explain the demented character better.

40. JAWS ORIGINALLY ENDED JUST LIKE MOBY DICK.

The original ending in the script had the shark dying of harpoon injuries inflicted by Quint and Brody à la Moby Dick, but Spielberg thought the movie needed a crowd-pleasing finale and came up with the exploding tank as seen in the final film. The dialogue and foreshadowing of the tank were then dropped in as they shot the movie.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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