by Jan Alan Henderson

The world we live in is full of turmoil - raging wars, a bankrupted world economy, global warming, the threat of asteroid collision, swine flu, bird flu, on and on, and on! If that ain't enough, it's all streaming live on the internet.

This update our great friend and ace writer Bruce Dettman is going to take us on a trip back through time, to a time where life was full of wonder, magic, and discovery - a world no less troubled, but one that traveled at a slower pace. A world where some of us were members of a secret society which became all too popular, in an age of innocence when all was possible and restrictions were few.

Sit back, relax, and dig The Monster Years.

By Bruce Dettman

The years 1957 and 1958 were eventful ones. The Russians launched Sputnik, the Hoola Hoop was introduced, the House On Un-American activities was still going after Hollywood, someone (I think it was San Francisco columnist Herb Caen) coined the word Beatnik, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest and Elvis, who would never be quite the same afterwards, was inducted into the army.

Something else happened during that two year span, not a single event, but rather a confluence of elements which set in motion a trend that went unnoticed by nearly every social critic, psychologist and cultural historian of the period.

Monsters arrived.

Had they been so inclined, these experts might have had a field day with the whole Monster Kid phenomenon, perhaps even eventually naming a new syndrome after it. Instead it was summarily dismissed as an insignificant, trite and unimportant development unworthy of clinical study. The reality was something different for it was a much bigger thing than most people cared to realize. It set in play, heightened and expanded upon the imaginations of a whole generation of children. Monsters provided a window to another world, the door to an alternate universe of the fantastic and the different. They gave all of us who were affected a realm beyond the tedium and predictability of school and chores and even other things we liked, sports and westerns. They suggested the infinite and the tantalizing unknown. They were the stuff of dreams.

And they were here to stay.

Prophetically, 1957, the year that launched monsters, saw the death of one-time director James Whale, the helmsman of what could arguably be called the greatest and most influential horror film in Hollywood history, Frankenstein produced in 1931. Frankenstein was not the first important horror picture of the talkies, that would be Dracula, produced earlier that same year. But in some ways Dracula, which starred Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (who died in 1956), was somewhat of a trial balloon in its depiction of an actual vampire. If it hadn't flown (no pun intended) -- and most horror vehicles of the earlier silent period had eschewed legitimate supernatural forces, relying instead on natural explanations for their terror ingredients -- the all-talking horror movie might have been delivered a staggering blow which could have taken considerable time to recover from. Frankenstein was not only a better film -- Dracula, save for the first couple of reels, suffers from an incredible staginess and rigidity -- but a more substantial one that easily lent itself to numerous sequels and imitators. Director Whale would go on to direct the most memorable of all follow-ups, The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 as well as The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House. How appropriate then that Whale should die in 1957, the year that set in motion the re-birth and re-discovery of his most well-known creation.

Other forces were at work in the Monster Years as well.

Perhaps most significantly was the release to television of the original so-called "Shock Theatre," a package of many of the early classic horror films from Universal Studios, heretofore never seen on the small screen. These were released not to the major networks but to individual local stations, sometimes affiliates, sometimes independent outfits. Each local channel, therefore, could air, market and label them anyway and any time they desired. Often these films were introduced by local talent, station personnel dressed up in all manner of bizarre costumes and strange make-ups and broadcasting on sets festooned with spider webs and cardboard skeletons, but the era also spawned the skull-faced Zacherley and Gothic enchantress Vampira, two over-the-top and irreverent hosts who quickly became national celebrities.

The response to all of this was huge with kids all across the country suddenly becoming aware -- and in some cases quickly obsessed -- with the cinematic monstrosities of earlier decades. The fiendish creations of our parents' early celluloid experiences, The Frankenstein Monster, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Werewolf of London and The Wolfman quickly became ours to covet and embrace. Not only did repeated television airings of these old movies serve as positive ratings for the stations, but our ability to view them over and over again (unlike those of an earlier pre-television generation who had only been able to see Dracula and Frankenstein once as kids in the theatre) created a constant and on-going association.

But there was more to come.

On both sides of the Atlantic a renewed interest in traditional monsters -- following a decade's worth of attention paid to science-fiction film themes featuring overfed insects gobbling up urban centers and outer space interlopers -- was growing. Hammer Studios in England began their series of remakes of many of Universal's most famous horror classics beginning in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The success of this film, coupled with that of their follow up Horror of Dracula, both of which introduced color, explicit bloodlettings and ample bosoms to the horror film, initiated a long and highly profitable string of terror pictures for the studio.

In addition, American International Pictures, heretofore a relatively little known film company, decided that the welding together of the burgeoning teenage pictures of the period -- which highlighted rock and roll and juvenile delinquency -- with horror elements could very well be a successful fit. And they were right. The year's I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which starred the then unknown Michael Landon as an angst ridden high schooler who scientist Whit Bissell turns into a salivating lycanthrope, might have been lampooned by comedic pundits of the period for what was then considered an absolutely absurd title and concept, but was nonetheless not only an enormous financial and popular success leading to a whole genre of kids and creatures (I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula and Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, to name just a few) but to be frank, was a lot better little film than any of the critics were willing to concede. AIP would eventually drop the fusion of teenagers and terror in favor of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations helmed by Roger Corman and usually featuring the overly ripe interpretations of Vincent Price, but it was 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf that provided much of the incentive for the popularity of their product.

With all of these factors in place and kids across the nation now becoming more and more immersed in horror films, it was only a matter of time before some marketing genius decided to tap into this rich source of potential revenue. The most obvious of this first wave of responders was the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, the brainchild of literary agent and sci-fi horror fan extraordinaire the late Forrest J. Ackerman in concert with publisher James Warren. FMOF was to have been a one-shot deal but it soon became obvious that the market for this material -- which included scads of stills of the classic monsters of the 1930s and 40s (often accompanied by corny and pun-drenched captions) punctuated with articles and fan letters -- was much larger than anyone had anticipated, so much so that copycat publications such as World Famous Creatures, Horror Monsters and Mad Monsters soon also hit the newsstands.

From then on the floodgates were wrenched open and a deluge of merchandise, new films and publications quickly followed. Double feature horror movies simultaneously hit theatres across the country nearly every week and the monster mags, as they were soon called, offered a huge array of material for the adolescent connoisseur and collector, from Mummy key chains to Wolfman lunch pails to Frankenstein three ring school binders.

Monsters were everywhere even if the kids who so supported them -- some of whom, like Steven Spieberg, John Landis and John Carpenter, would someday become famous filmmakers themselves -- were more often than not branded weird, oddball and strange. Not that any true Monster Kid cared. Such monikers were deemed the badges of an eccentricity and a unique and private devotion we coveted and revered. If the rest of the world could not understand our love and appreciation of monsters so be it. It made our devotion more intimate and cozy.

Eventually the kids of the 1950s, the Baby Boomers of that decade, grew up. While many still fostered a liking and interest for this sort of entertainment, this interest became more serious, more clinical and analytical. Book-length studies of horror and science-fiction films by people like Carlos Clarens, Ivan Butler and Dennis Gifford, began to be turned out in droves as did new magazines with meticulously researched articles on all aspects of fantasy cinema. The introduction of the VCR and later DVD allowed for these films to be scrutinized in a manner unheard of before.

Sadly, in a way, monsters suddenly became mainstream, totally accepted and legitimized by the general public. Everyone suddenly went to horror films. Vampires and werewolves were everywhere. Movies like The Exorcist and The Omen were big money makers and were imitated in droves. Monsters were no longer a private club. Everyone, it seemed, now had a membership card.

But popularity aside, it just wasn't the same. Ask any monster kid who was around in those magical years of 1957 and 1958 and they'll tell you so. They'll tell you about waiting outside the magazine store for the next issue of FMOF to be delivered. Ask about begging parents to stay up past bedtimes to see The Mummy's Tomb or The Mad Ghoul. Ask about practicing the Frankenstein's Monster's walk, the Wolfman's howl. Ask about standing in line at the local theatre to see The Revenge of Frankenstein teamed with Curse of the Demon or The Brain Eaters paired with The Screaming Skull. Ask about putting together Aurora models of The Creature from the Black Lagoon or Phantom of the Opera when you were supposed to be doing your fractions or drawing the Mummy or the Hunchback of Dame in class when you should have been diagramming sentences.

Just ask about The Monster Years.

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