“Nothing seems more important to me at the moment than the strange goings-on in this house.”
And so the afternoons wear on, Monday through Friday, and day by day, everyone’s getting a little bit older and a little bit wiser. That’s the usual arrangement, of course, and it generally works out okay, but it’s something of a problem for a television show like Dark Shadows, whose market share is determined by the audience’s appetite for the deeply unwise.
There’s been a steady drumbeat of cultural warning signs over the last year, signaling that the space that Dark Shadows occupies in the American consciousness is destined to be rezoned. There was that push for non-toxic children’s television, which resulted in the fall 1969 debuts of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and Sesame Street. There was the disaster at the Altamont free music festival in December ’69, when everyone discovered, to the surprise of an entire generation, that an enormous crowd of drug-addled young people is not innately loving and peaceful. There was the embarrassing string of House of Dark Shadows ads over the summer promising a “bizarre act of unnatural love,” and the shift in public opinion around April 1970 that made people start to classify Dark Shadows viewers as perverts, dabblers and scag freaks.
And then there’s another case study to consider, as we tumble towards 1971: the fall of Aurora’s Monster Scenes.
We haven’t really talked about the “monster craze” of the late 50s and 60s in this blog, which is probably my fault. I came into this project knowing a lot about soap operas, science fiction and lit crit, and hardly anything about horror films. So I didn’t really know there was such a thing as a monster craze, and nobody ever mentioned it, and here we are in late 1970, at the hind end of a fifteen-year pop culture trend that actually explains a lot about Dark Shadows’ appeal to the young set, and what’s going to happen to it over the next 19 weeks or so.
The story starts with television, as so many stories do. In 1957, Screen Gems put together a 52-film package of classic Universal Pictures horror films, and offered them for weekly TV syndication under the name Shock! The package included the great Universal Monsters films from the 1930s and 40s — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man — as well as some of the not-great films, like The Invisible Ray, Horror Island and Pillow of Death. It was a bit of an odd assortment, actually, leaving out some obvious favorites like Bride of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein, and including some crime films like Chinatown Squad and Sealed Lips.
But it had a big impact, bringing the classic monsters to television for the first time, and terrifying children nationwide. It was a huge success, and the next year they released 20 more films as Son of Shock, including all the Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy movies they had left, plus The Boogie Man Will Get You and Captive Wild Woman.
Best of all, Shock Theater was presented by local “horror hosts”, stylized characters who would introduce the film from a set dressed to look like a crypt, or a mad science laboratory. The best-known of the original hosts was John Zacherle, the Philadelphia host who pioneered the technique of inserting himself into the film — cutting away from the movie for a shot of the host, as if he were participating in the scene. Zacherle’s character was called Roland in Philadelphia and then Zacherley, when he moved to a New York City station. Before and after commercial breaks, Zacherle would perform skits, talking to his wife My Dear — who was only seen as a hand coming out of a coffin — or scolding his assistant Igor, who was housed in an off-screen cage.
There were horror hosts in every city — Marvin in Chicago, Dr. Lucifer in Baltimore, Gorgon in Fort Worth, Ghoulardi in Cleveland — and they created a campy frame for the movies that reassured kids that it was all for fun. If the movie wasn’t very good, the host would liven things up by mocking its flaws, and the viewers quickly became horror aficionados, able to discuss the good points and bad points of all the classic films.
In 1958, a new magazine was published for the growing audience of young monster movie fans — Famous Monsters of Filmland, a fan magazine initially in the style of Hollywood mags like Photoplay and Modern Screen. The magazine offered a wealth of photos and information on the classic horror movies, as well as the actors and filmmakers. The intended audience was middle school and high school kids, and the writing style was playful, with a dose of campy, self-deprecating humor along with the terror and chills.
That turned out to be an important element of the new monster craze — exploring the dark areas of the imagination with tongue in cheek, always semi-aware that the scares were make-believe. Kids loved it, and the parents were comfortable with letting their kids read about murder and grave robbing, because it was clear that it was all for fun. That’s why Zacherley had a family in his horror-host crypt — with a wife in the coffin and a servant/son in a cage, he offered a safe, domestic space to contain the madness and mayhem.
So the kids who were fascinated by cowboys and spacemen in the early to mid 50s started shifting allegiances, turning to monsters for playtime inspiration. There was a rush of monster merchandise in the early 60s aimed at kids, eagerly promoted by Famous Monsters of Filmland.
There was a series of 8 mm home movie reels produced by Castle Films, which offered silent versions of the Universal Monsters movies edited down to 15 minutes…
a Famous Monsters record album, called Famous Monsters Speak…
a line of monster bubble bath containers…
a collection of board games including The Frankenstein Mystery Game, The Mummy Mystery Game, The Munsters Drag Race Game, Boris Karloff’s Monster Game and Monster Old Maid…
And then there was this popular series of plastic model kits from Aurora Plastics Co, which allowed kids to assemble and paint their own 1/8 scale Universal Monsters.
Aurora started making monster kits in 1962 with a Frankenstein kit, and continued releasing new kits for five years — Dracula and the Wolf Man in 1962; the Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1963; the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, King Kong and Godzilla in 1964; the Bride of Frankenstein and the Witch in 1965; and a Famous Monsters original character, the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré, bringing the total to an even 13 in 1966.
And yes, Famous Monsters was part of this too, obviously; they have their skeletal hands all over this trend. The magazine was a major promoter of the Aurora monsters line, and in 1964, they collaborated on a Master Monster Maker Contest, which asked model makers to produce original dioramas using Aurora model kits and their own custom-built materials. There was a three-round competition, from local hobby store to state-wide to national winner, and the winners were announced in a Famous Monsters cover story. They ended up selling 40 million monster model kits in less than a decade.
So kids really liked monsters in the 1960s is what I’m saying, and maybe adding a vampire to Dark Shadows in 1967 wasn’t as much of a shot in the dark as DS lore would have you believe. It came with a built-in fan base that was home in the afternoon. With monsters on primetime TV with The Munsters and The Addams Family, and on late nights and weekends with Shock Theater, maybe it was only a matter of time until they invaded daytime programming.
Unsurprisingly, Famous Monsters embraced Dark Shadows, and Barnabas appeared on the cover three times: once in October 1968, the second in November 1969, and then a House of Dark Shadows feature in February 1971, followed by a Night of Dark Shadows feature in January 1972.
Barnabas and the (Chris Jennings) Werewolf even got their own 1/8 scale model kits in 1968 — although these were produced by MPC, a rival to Aurora.
By 1970, the interest in Aurora’s monster kits was declining — they’d been out for eight years at that point, and a set of glow-in-the-dark “Frightening Lightning” versions in 1969 didn’t attract a lot of new business. So they decided to try something different, inspired by the excitement of the 1964 Master Monster Maker Contest — a new set of fully customizable monster model kits called Monster Scenes.
Monster Scenes would allow young model makers to create a full monster movie set — a cast of characters, and kits with scenery and props that all fit together into a complete environment. If the idea caught on, Aurora could keep expanding the line with more characters and more scenery, providing more opportunities for creativity and imaginative play. This was a really cool idea which did not pan out well at all.
They needed a monster movie-type setting for model makers to construct, with a lot of individual pieces that could come together to form a coherent scene. Inspired by the 1939 Universal pic Son of Frankenstein, they decided on a mad science laboratory, which would include a big operating table that you could strap a monster to, as well as electrical equipment, control panels, a hanging skeleton, and tables strewn with beakers and test tubes and what-all.
They also decided, for reasons that are still not clear to me even after reading a whole book on the subject, that the set should also include some medieval-dungeon torture devices. It kind of makes sense, because your traditional Frankenstein lab is located in the spooky basement of an old castle, with stone floors and big arches and staircases and so on, which is also a prime location for some Spanish Inquisition-style iron maidens and thumbscrews.
Aurora had dipped their toes into the torture-toy biz back in 1964, when they produced a Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors Guillotine model that actually worked, and cut off the 1/15 scale prisoner’s plastic head. They had plans for a whole line of these models, including a Rack, a Gallows, an Electric Chair and a Hanging Tree, but they scrapped these plans when parents objected that the Guillotine model kit was gruesome and inappropriate for kids. Still, that was seven years earlier, and in the bright new dawn of the early 70s, it was probably totally fine.
So the original plan for Monster Scenes was to have eight kits, with five characters and three sets. Obviously, the laboratory setting called for a Frankenstein and a Mad Scientist, and they’d also include Dracula for another classic tentpole monster. These nasties needed somebody to terrorize, so the set would also feature a female Victim, who could be carried around by Frankenstein and menaced by Dracula, as well as a male Hero, who could save the day or be operated on, subject to the model assembler’s taste.
The second set would be the Hanging Cage, inspired by Roger Corman’s 1963 Edgar Allen Poe horror-comedy The Raven, which you’ve never heard of before and good for you. This kit had a cage suspended from a scaffold, and you could fit one of the characters inside it. The kit also included a brazier with tongs and hot coals, for extra torture fun.
The final set would be the Pendulum, inspired by another Roger Corman film which was inspired by another Edgar Allen Poe story, because hurting people is such a staple of monster movie fun-time adventure. I seriously do not understand the purpose of including the torture devices.
Then they made some more bad choices. James Warren, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, introduced a new comic book in late 1969 called Vampirella, about a busty and nearly-nude vampire vixen created by Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman. Warren wanted Aurora to produce a Vampirella model kit, which would be cross-promoted in both magazines.
Aurora had reservations about including what is essentially a naked bondage-fantasy character in their new toy line, but Famous Monsters was an important vehicle for Aurora to reach their target market, and they didn’t want to lose Warren’s support. They’d already lost the Dark Shadows characters to MPC, and they didn’t want another horror-themed license to go to another model company. So they agreed to take Dracula out of the Monster Scenes lineup, and swap in Vampirella.
There were various reshuffles as Aurora developed the kits — at one point, they thought they’d need to cut the initial line down from eight kits to six, which meant they had to cut two characters. They couldn’t lose the monsters, so they dropped the Mad Scientist and the Hero, leaving Frankenstein, Vampirella and the Victim as the new cast. Later, they expanded back to eight kits, but by that time it was too late to sculpt the Hero figure, so they split the Lab set into two kits — the Pain Parlor and Gruesome Goodies — and left the Victim to fend for herself.
So these are the four characters they had at launch, which they released in early 1971 — Frankenstein, Dr. Deadly, Vampirella and the Victim. That’s two grotesque guys, and two partly-clothed sexualized females, which is super appropriate and fun for the whole family.
Unfortunately, the marketing department got a little over-enthusiastic, and added this thrilling pitch line to all of the boxes: “Mix ‘Em and Match ‘Em Monster Scenes — Get all 8! Rated X… for Excitement”!
With no Hero in sight, the three monsters have pretty much nothing to do but torture the Victim, so that’s what kids made with these model kits. The girl could be strapped to the lab table, hung in the cage, cut in half by the pendulum, carried off by Frankenstein, or involved in girl-on-girl bondage play with Vampirella. It’s the kind of plan where you can see what they were going for, but what they ultimately made was a do-it-yourself sadism kit, rated X for excitement.
Then they ran this insane full-page ad in comic books, which introduced “The Weird World of Aurora”. The ad suggests a somewhat coherent story for the characters — Dr. Deadly wants a subject for his mad science experiments, so he enlists Frankenstein and Vampirella to capture and subdue the Victim — although it doesn’t account for the Hanging Cage and Pendulum sets, which just kind of sit there and make everything worse.
There’s also a super-dark reference to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in the middle panel: Dr. Deadly tells Frankenstein to keep the girl quiet, and Vampirella pipes up, “Don’t worry, this is New York. No one will help her.”
So you know how we’ve been looking at some of the more outré moments on Dark Shadows and asking, how did they get away with this? Well, 1971 is the point where people stopped getting away with this.
Edward M. Swartz, a lawyer who specialized in product liability law, wrote a book in 1971 called Toys That Don’t Care about the toy industry’s wanton disregard for the safety and well-being of their consumers. And he had a lot to write about — toys with sharp edges and hard points, toys with small parts that kids could swallow, plastic model-maker toys that were basically exposed metal hot plates. The government wasn’t doing enough to regulate the industry, and the industry figured that they could just blame the parents for not watching their kids.
Monster Scenes weren’t physically dangerous to kids, but Swartz was paying attention to potential psychological harm as well, and the toy pictured in the July 1971 New York Times article was Aurora’s Pendulum kit, described as an “assemble-it-yourself guillotine”.
By November 1971, the company was getting picketed by the National Organization of Women, who carried signs that said “Sick Toys for Children Make a Sick Society!” And the picketers didn’t show up at Aurora — they went to the headquarters of Nabisco Inc, the cookie company that had just acquired Aurora in May.
“Gov. Ronald Reagan last week signed into law a bill that will prohibit, after July 1, the manufacture or sale in California of sadistic “torture toys”, as well as toy bombs and hand grenades.”
Now, if that effort really took six years, then obviously it couldn’t have involved Aurora’s Monster Scenes, which were released in spring 1971. But once again, Monster Scenes were used as the perfect example:
“However, there are holdout stores that still offer either a few or a full assortment of the plastic Frankensteins, vampires, Dr. Deadlies, mad scientists and “victim dolls”, torture chambers, guillotines, and battlefields wth dead and dying soldiers.”
There are eight items listed in that sentence, and seven of them are directly related to Monster Scenes. Aurora had released the wrong toy kits for the times.
So they tried cleaning things up a bit, to see if it would help. They renamed “the Victim” as “Dr. Deadly’s Daughter” and took the “Rated X for Excitement” slogan off the box. The Pendulum was getting a lot of negative attention, so that kit was discontinued.
Some critics were complaining about Vampirella and the Victim being “naked” because they were molded in pink flesh-colored plastic, and their clothes needed to be painted on. To make it clear that the clothes were already molded onto the figures, Aurora changed the Vampirella molds to red, and Dr. Deadly’s Daughter was molded in hot pink.
But that wasn’t enough to quell the protests, and Nabisco wanted to stop hearing about it, so Aurora pulled all the existing Monster Scenes product, and sold it in Canada, where nobody cared.
So the implications for Dark Shadows are pretty obvious here. 1971 was the year that parents were pushed too far, and they started wondering if they really wanted their kids to enjoy a steady diet of witchcraft, murder, suicide and generalized blasphemy. Dark Shadows never stripped their governesses down to their short-shorts before trying to twist their heads off — in fact, they did the opposite, moving the show back in time to the 1840s and covering the ladies from neck to shoelace in long gowns.
But Aurora calculated that the guillotine toys that were unacceptable in 1964 would be perfectly fine in 1971 because it was seven years later and everybody was less uptight, and the mothers and product liability lawyers showed up to inform them that this was not actually the case. For better and for worse, the pop culture environment of 1971 was tightening back up, and children’s television was getting a whole lot less murdery.
Monday: Wherever You Will Be.
There are a couple great books that served as source material for today’s post, and I’d recommend them both.
Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America, 1957-1972 is a fun, colorful deep dive into the monster craze in all of its forms — movies, TV, toys, magazines, comic books, Halloween costumes, records, model kits, and lots more. It includes 16 pages on Dark Shadows, with some nice cast interviews and cool photos, and that’s just a small part of what Monster Mash has to offer. Every page of the book is a joy.
Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation tells the story that I’m covering in this blog post, but in way more detail, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s written by a super-fan who was a kid when the models came out, and contacted all of the players at Aurora to find out exactly what happened, and how it all developed. It turns out there’s a lot to say about this weird little pop culture curiosity, and this book has it all.
Want to be part of the Night of Dark Shadows post?
The Night of Dark Shadows post is coming up on the next pre-emption day, and you’re invited! The comments have become a really important part of the blog, so I’d like to do a crowdsourced commentary on Dan Curtis’ 1971 feature film. All you have to do is watch the movie, write down your observations and send them to me at: Dannyhornmail at gmail dot com. Please don’t write a structured review, just brief thoughts as the movie goes on, and then I’ll stitch them together into a bizarre Frankenstein blog post that I’m excited to put together. Thanks to the folks who have sent comments already, and for everyone else: there’s still time to send yours in!
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
They must have been low on set space today. When Julia wakes up in the middle of act 1, her bed is just in front of a black painted flat.
Trask growls, “May the poor child rest in peace now — and may we discover the heretic that caused her to be that way!” He pronounces heretic with a stress on the second syllable, where it doesn’t belong.
In act 3, after Julia says, “Besides, if Barnabas is back, I’d like to talk to him,” you can see yellow marking tape on the floor behind her.
Randall tells Julia, “Barnabas knows more about the knowledge of vampires than he is willing to let on.”
Behind the Scenes:
The silhouette who appears at the end of the show is Barbara Tracey, a stand-in who appears in three episodes — today and tomorrow as Joanna Mills’ ghost, and as a stand-in for Samantha in December.
Monday: Wherever You Will Be.
— Danny Horn