Old Hollywood

How Universal Horror Made A Chilling Comeback In The 1950s and ’60s 

Jacob Shelton
Updated April 16, 2019 1.5k views

You can’t go anywhere these days without getting scared, especially the theater. In 2019, prestige horror films release alongside costume dramas, with pulpy stories about witches and ghouls all over streaming services and the top 10 grossing horror films in 2018 pulling in nearly $1 billion at the box office. However the popularity of horror comes in waves.

Each era has its own boom and bust period for the genre, but prior to 1957 filmmakers and studio heads believed horror movies were dead and buried. They were no longer box office draws, and the filmmakers producing them weren’t spending a lot of money on their art. However, that all changed in 1957 that when the Universal Monsters made a comeback and brought horror into the mainstream, ushering in a decade of classic scares.


By the '50s, The Universal Horror Monsters Were Out Of Fashion

Article ImageIn the 1930s horror films were exciting. They may have been considered B-pictures, but it was an era when the Universal Monsters were at the forefront of cinema, right alongside film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. Movies like Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein are still considered among the best horror films ever made, not only because they still inflict fear on their viewers, but because there’s a craftsmanship to their productions.

By 1950 studios had exhausted their intellectual property, and the horror films from the first half of the decade bordered on self-parody. Movies like The Son of Dr. Jekyll and Bride of the Gorilla were copies of copies of art that once titillated and horrified. Even actors integral to the original wave of horror had been reduced to playing minor roles in schlocky films.

The years creeped on, and 1957 saw the confluence of three major events that probably felt disparate at the time, but in retrospect clearly paved the way for the horror boom of the mid-century. In a two-week, back-to-back release, American International Pictures put out I Was A Teenage Werewolf and Hammer Films put out The Curse of Frankenstein. Both of these films were quickly made on miniscule budgets, and they both performed beyond their producer’s wildest dreams at the box office.

By the end of the 1950s horror boom this ‘make ‘em fast and make ‘em cheap’ style of production became a monkey’s paw for filmmakers. - as time went on, it offered smaller and smaller average returns on investment, but it nonetheless shaped horror filmmaking for the rest of the century and into the present day. The horror resurgence wasn’t just due to a new Teenage Werewolf on the block, he had some help from a few friends.


'Shock!' Brings Terror To Suburban America 


The same year Hammer and AIP released their watershed films, Screen Gems (a freshly-minted television distribution company) acquired the rights to Shock!, a collection of 52 Universal horror films. Once Screen Gems released the films to local markets in October of ‘57, homes were invaded by a new breed of vampires, ghouls, and creatures from the beyond the grave.

The Shock! films weren’t just shown on local television, they were presented by a crop of weirdos unlike anything the viewing public had seen before. Regional horror hosts cropped across the country faster than the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. They were both an inexpensive way to take up air time - many of the Shock! films are shorter than an hour and a half, even with commercials - and people loved them. Initially the horror hosts followed Vampira’s lead (she premiered in 1954) by donning spooky outfits and tossing off barbs at their films, but as each host progressed they developed their own individual styles. Even if you’re too young to remember hosts like Zacherley, Ghoulardi, Dr. Shock, or Dr. Lucifer you’ve probably seen their influence in everything from the Crypt Keeper to House of 1000 Corpses’s Dr. Wolfenstein.

By 1958 the horror revival was in full swing, and people outside the film and television industries were taking notice. James Warren, a small-time newspaper publisher collaborated with Forrest J. Ackerman, a memorabilia collector and writer to start Famous Monsters of Filmland. Before Fangoria or Rue Morgue, FMM was the only publication that gave young horror fans the gruesome details they craved. One faithful reader, author Stephen King, remembers the magazine fondly:

I didn’t just read my first issue of Famous Monsters... I inhaled it… I poured over it… I... near[ly] memorized that magazine and it seemed eons until the next one. Ask anyone who has been associated with the fantasy-horror-science fiction genres in the last 30 years about this magazine and you’ll get a laugh, a flash of the eyes, and a stream of bright memories - I practically guarantee it.

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Horror Hits Big On Music And Merchandise

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As the ‘50s became the ‘60s the horror boom showed no signs of slowing down. Auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Georges Franju were putting their own spins on horror films, creating what we might now refer to as “elevated horror” with films like Psycho and Eyes Without A Face right alongside inexpensive B-movies like The Brides of Dracula.

By the early ‘60s the only people who hadn’t noticed the horror trend were living in a crypt, and musicians began crafting novelty songs as a way to cash in on horror-mania. The most popular of these spooky novelty songs is obviously “The Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett. The song - with its description of a graveyard dance party attended by the Wolfman, Dracula, and his son - is based on dance craze songs like the “Alley Oop” and the “Mashed Potato.” Despite its less than inspired inspiration the song has become a legitimate American classic. What “Jingle Bells” is to Christmas, “The Monster Mash” is to Halloween.

Even though Pickett was just trying to ride a wave and get some easy money in an era where novelty hits were big business, he tapped into something in listeners’ subconscious that made them want to hear about these creatures. We may be terrified of monsters, but we can’t deny our morbid desire to see them act like us. “The Monster Mash” has regularly been at the top of the Billboard charts since 1962, but at the time of its release it signaled the end of the second wave of Universal Horror.

While novelty songs like “The Monster Mash” and “The Purple People Eater” helped dilute the horror genre, there was still money on the table. Companies weren’t going to stop producing horror tie-ins out of fear of lessening the impact of the genre - in fact they didn’t stop until it was run into the ground. Aurora model kits were initially released as gimmicks to satiate young fans, but have since become artifacts of the time and genuine collector’s items. In 1961, Aurora rolled out a model kit of Frankenstein’s Monster. This item was such a hot seller that Aurora had to create a second set of Article Imagemolds in order to bump up production and push out around 8,000 kits a day.

Along with the sale of models came monster masks. The early ‘60s saw every company with a spooky mold release child-sized disguises for Halloween. Rubber mask company Topstone released a series of inexpensive, generic masks that are still pretty cool to look at, while Don Post Studios created some of the most realistic and creepy masks of the decade. If you were a kid who wanted to look like Frankenstein’s Monster on Halloween, Don Post had you covered.

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your television, two ghoulish families arrived on the small screen in the same week in September 1964. The Munsters and The Addams Family both took the idea of the nuclear family and combined it with social commentary about “the other” to create macabre versions of Leave It To Beaver. These are families who don’t go to the beach without SPF 666, and it’s always raining outside their homes. While both shows offer their own comedic look at the gloomy world of things that go bump in the night, it’s most clear from The Munsters - a family made up of creatures based on the Universal Monsters - that the American public was no longer afraid of werewolves or vampires. Their fears were becoming less abstract, and as the very real horrors of the Vietnam War were playing out on the news; people were no longer worried about the undead seduction of a vampire.


A New Era Of Horror


As the 1960s coughed its last gasp, the horror boom inspired by the 1957 re-release of Universal’s monster films came to an end. Filmmakers found themselves in the same rut they’d been in during the 1950s, with a slate of sequels and barely watchable B-movies like Monster-a-Go-Go. However, as one era of horror ended another began. 1968 saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby, an adult-oriented horror film that acted as the natural successor to the work of Hitchcock and Michael Powell (Peeping Tom).

At the end of the decade Hammer Films continued releasing low budget horror movies based on the Universal Monsters, but they’d grown campy and tired. By 1973 fans had moved on to more “realistic” horror films like The Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, and The Wicker Man. Even though the ‘70s ushered in a more practical form of horror, Universal-inspired vampires and werewolves returned to the big screen in the ‘90s, proving it’s hard to keep a good ghoul down.