From the late 1920s through the 1970s, theaters across America were haunted by performers with names like Dr. Evil, Dr. Silkini, Chan Loo and His Horrors of the Orient, and Ray-Mond's Zombie Jamboree. Descended from spiritualistic entertainers like the Davenport Brothers, Midnight Spook Shows are an obscure footnote to film history.
In his book Ghostmasters (Cool Hand Communications, ISBN 1-56790-146-8), Mark Walker traces the colorful history of this vanished entertainment form. Beginning with the ghost shows of El-Wyn in the early 1930s, through spectacular traveling productions in the late 40s and 50s, to the last practitioners of the art levitating teeny boppers atop drive-in concession stands, dozens of spook-showmen worked the heartland.
Besides one or two horror films, the typical spook- show performance featured a stage magic show == sometimes including gore effects borrowed from the Grand Guignol == interlaced with comedy, hypnosis routines, and costumed ghosts and monsters. The actual contents changed with the decades. With spiritualism still fresh in the American consciousness, the earliest shows featured ghosts, slates, cabinets, and other mediumistic effects. Voodoo and zombies were popular themes of the 1930s, following the publication of William Seabrook's *The Magic Island.*
By the 1940s, most of the shows had become Monster Shows, with "live" appearances by Hollywood creatures like the Frankenstein monster and Count Dracula, sometimes played by real actors like Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange. At least one of the torture shows of the late 1940s purported to show what happened in a Soviet prison. Materializations of James Dean were common in the late fifties.
While most of the mechanisms were those of the stage magician, the highlight of all these events was the "blackout," when the theater would be plunged into absolute darkness, usually after the audience was warned monsters or ghosts would walk among them. With the lights out, luminous shapes filled the theater: ghosts, bats, UFOs in the 50s, sometimes huge eight and 10-foot tall monsters, accompanied by shrieks, gunshots, and total pandemonium. The blackout usually ended as the feature film began. Blackout effects were achieved with phosphorescent figures on extended poles, projectors, and confederates hidden among the audience.
Wilson's book is filled with great anecdotes of crazed audiences and drunken magicians and illustrated with demented ads and mementos of the age. There was a trade publication, "The Ghost," and a supply house, run by Bob Nelson, who also ran a radio psychic scam on Mexican super station XEPN under the name of Dr. Korda Ramayne.
One of the later showmen, Joe Karston, produced two horror films == "Monsters Crash the Pajama Party" and "Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary" == that featured "HorrorVision," a technique that apparently allowed monsters from the film to emerge from the screen, snatch a girl from the audience, and re-enter the film.
Spook Shows fell victim to the usual suspects == dangerously rowdy audiences, growing liability insurance rates, and a populace with burgeoning home entertainment. Their descendants include Halloween "haunted houses," Rocky Horror midnighters, and maybe the S&M stage shows that are becoming more common at music clubs.
At a matinee in 1962, I had the privilege of seeing one of the greatest late masters of the field, Philip Morris, Dr. Evil himself, at an old theater in Sulfur Springs, Texas. The show offered magic, live appearances by the Mummy and King Kong, and a twist contest, with a "real dead body" as a prize. The lucky winner was blindfolded and presented with her prize == a chicken carcass. The blackout was brief but spectacular, with an explosion of ghosts and skeletons, like something from a Dave Fleischer cartoon. It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
Bill Wallace (email@example.com)