From the 1950’s onwards, local TV networks would license or buy in bulk utterly worthless horror and genre films, but the content was reformatted to dress up the crappy films and make them feel even slightly curated. Enter the horror host: a heightened, spooky character who struck a balance between unironically loving the canon of unwatchable guff and mercilessly mocking its crappiness—the perfect horror fan surrogate. Through their costume, low production value sets, and a lot of dry ice, the experience of mocking B-movies at home with friends was visualized and condoned, and the accidental camp of these crappy films was made textual by the horror host.
But this version of the horror host is but one version of the character; they didn’t just curate existing narratives, they would also introduce their own original programming. In the latest example, Guillermo Del Toro has confirmed he will introduce each episode of Cabinet of Curiosities, a Netflix horror anthology series featuring the work of some world heavyweights in modern horror, in line with the great Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Night Gallery hosting.
With 70 years of various horror hosts, many have reached iconic status—but which set a spooky tone for the proceeding horrors best?
10. Bob Wilkins, Creature Features
When you first look at Bob Wilkins, you get the idea that he’s riffing on the stock, masculine conservative man; a stern, stiff, cigar-chomping family man who’s ready to instruct you on how to conduct yourself because he knows best—the twist being that he’s telling you to watch crappy horror films. But then you watch a clip of Bob Wilkins and you realize he’s the horror host version of Joe Pera. In my estimation, this is much preferable; what may at first feel meek and mild soon turns warm and inviting, there’s a strange companionship as you learn that the quiet guy from your Bay area hometown may in fact be the regional expert of the strangest and most useless field of expertise. There’s nothing spooky about him, but there is something charming.
9. Elvira, Elvira’s Midnight Madness
Inheriting the vampy seductress role from the iconic Vampira a few decades prior, Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira made a sizable dent on not only her contemporary horror world, but broader pop culture. Dressed to the nines in black, with huge hair and ghoulish make-up, she bursts forth with a shining charisma from her chaise lounge, bouncing between outrageous innuendos and acerbic digs at whatever trash she’s introducing. It’s impossible to be unaffected by Elvira’s charm; her attitude is infectious, and you’re likely to find yourself grinning at her intros no matter how groan-worthy her jokes are. In terms of spookiness, she ranks pretty low, but only because she inspires so much love and goodwill (Elvira says gay rights!). Others may find her more scary based on how intimidated they are by commanding, funny women.
8. Svengoolie, Svengoolie
In both his iterations, first as Jerry G. Bishop on Screaming Yellow Theater and then as Rich Koz, Svengoolie brings to life the full wonders of local Illinoisan television. A hippie, Jazz-trumpeting ghoul man, I’m fully convinced this man’s mission is to seed as much chaos into Chicagoan homes as possible, breaking into a slew of parody songs with his muted pianist, adorned with an enviable variety of themed headgear, and live-dubbing crappy movies, all with the energy of someone who’s been told to fill two hours of airtime with 20 minutes of prep. There is a floating skull that will often join in with all of the above. The whole thing feels like an exercise in trying to make an exhausted local television crew cry with laughter behind the cameras. Svengoolie isn’t scary in the traditional sense, but in terms of transmitting explosive anarchy into the homes of the good people of Chicago for decades, he’s terrifying.
7. Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone
There is no horror host without Rod Serling, and there certainly isn’t any of the type Guillermo Del Toro is emulating in his anthology show. What separates Rod Serling from someone like Svengoolie (the first time these two have ever been compared) is that Serling is introducing programming that originated in his show-often stories that he wrote himself. Serling would regularly introduce episodes of The Twilight Zone from inside the scene itself with a tautly pulled smirk and striking, bushy eyebrows; he always looked like he’s smiling through intense stomach cramps, or that he’s smugly indifferent to the misfortunes of the people we’re about to learn from. He’s more foreboding than scary, but keep an eye out for him starting to narrate your life, for wacky stuff may be about to happen to you in service of moral instruction for 1960s audiences.
6. Grandpa Munster, TBS Super Scary Saturday
Trust Warner Bros. to score a big name horror host to blow all the low-rent local networks out of the water. It’s unclear what the other Munsters were too busy with circa 1987-1989, but it’s surely nice of Grandpa to dedicate some time to showing crappy horror movies to everyone who had nothing better to do on a Saturday. Watching Grandpa’s intros is an unsettling experience; we are thrown into states of disorientation by him not addressing the correct camera in the multi-cam set-up, and he’s prone to fits of delirious, spiraling laughter—likely due to the cloudy gas being relentlessly pumped into the cellar we’re in. Unlike the opening of Tales from the Crypt, we are not led into the crypt to meet our haunted horror host, we are already inside and Grandpa comes down the stairs to meet us, implying he has trapped his audience there for his own amusement. The only non-scary part of Grandpa’s hosting is that a damp, dark crypt is actually a fairly good place to store the film reels he selects, although they could do without being tossed around so carelessly.
5. John Zacherle, Shock Theater / Zacherley At Large
The ghoulish make-up is effective, but John Zacherle could get by as a horror host on vibe alone. Bless him, he always dressed up for his Philadelphia (then subsequently New York) audience, never seen without his aristocratic suit complete with neat, slick hair, as he lurks around his crypt attending to all of the haunted apparitions and creatures who’d conveniently always be off-screen. Nicknamed “The Cool Ghoul” by Dick Clark, it’s difficult to see how he radiates coolness by any modern standard, but hey, maybe in the ‘50s, this stuffy gentleman with a penchant for ooze and secretions was impeccably trendy. It’s easier to understand this moniker if you watch the time he hosted a dance party, where the slightly chaotic atmosphere looks like a lot of deranged fun—if you exclude all the weird hand-kissing.
4. Vampira, The Vampira Show
Television’s first horror host had to effectively set the tone for the next seven decades, so thankfully the wickedly creepy Vampira was up to the task. Her intros began with a smoky hallway in dingy darkness, where a sharp hourglass figure paced towards the camera, and by the time the gaunt expression and arched eyebrows of Vampira appeared, she would let out a bloodcurdling scream. This is some of the only recorded evidence we have of The Vampira Show, as if you weren’t watching it on KABC-TV in the 1950s, there’s basically no recordings of it available now. There’s something hypnotic and unsettling about Vampira’s introductions, her jokes more dry, less goofy and campy than her successors. But that didn’t stop Vampira from suing one direct successor: the vampy Elvira. There’s nothing scarier than a litigious vampire and the complexities of US copyright law, so that alone puts Vampira high up on the list.
3. The Cryptkeeper, Tales from the Crypt
That’s right, we’re onto the puppet section of this list. There’s few horror hosts more iconic than the Cryptkeeper, a rotting corpse with an enlarged cranium and a perverse glee at recounting the misadventures of those unfortunate enough to appear on a premium cable anthology horror show in the early ‘90s. There’s a bit of confusion regarding the Cryptkeeper’s role; as his nomenclature suggests, he has domain over the whole crypt and is in charge of its upkeep, but he is a decomposing undead guy, and as the opening reveals, he starts every episode by getting out of his own coffin. How can he oversee the upkeep of a crypt if he’s one of the bodies being kept in it? It’s a real puzzler, one the Cryptkeeper hopes to distract us from with his high-pitched voice, his impressive array of costumes, and even his rap skills.
2. Nigel Honeybone, Schlocky Horror Picture Show
There’s low-budget, and then there’s local TV station low-budget—and then there’s Nigel Honeybone: an Australian skeleton who sits against a black tarp and makes you feel like you’re being held hostage in someone’s basement. The fact that you can’t see the human mouth explaining crappy genre movies to you adds a completely unshakable sense of unease. Is it his rotation of garish, tacky outfits? Is it the slideshow of pixelated images he uses as prompts? Or is it the intro of his coffin being carried around Sydney harbor by two punks in Benny Hill fashion? It’s difficult to tell, but if you ever want to simulate being kidnapped by a puppeteered Aussie skeleton, you can’t do much better than Nigel.
1. Sammy Terry, Nightmare Theater
Atmosphere and performance are crucial to scaring any audiences, and in the context of local television horror hosting, Sammy Terry is the scariest man to ever walk the earth—or at least to broadcast locally in Indianapolis. After a whispered, candlelit incantation, a ghoul dressed with Exorcist-demon make-up and a red cape straight out of the Suspiria remake appears to sneer and smirk at what horrors lie ahead. In terms of committing to the bit, Sammy takes the cake, and was no doubt a source of weekly distress for so many Indy residents. You can practically hear performer Bob Carter giggling in hair and make-up every week as he gets ready to once again chill his impressionable audience.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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