Shock Theater Book Review

I recently read a book titled Shock Theater: An Illustrated History by Jim Clatterbaugh, the editor and publisher of Monsters From The Vault magazine. I actually got this book from a friend shortly after its initial publishing in 2001, but it became lost among my tons of stuff during two successive moves around the Washington DC/Maryland area.

When I first looked at this book, it didn't sink in to me exactly what Shock Theater was and what it meant to the horror film fan community during the early years of TV and before the arrival of technologies such as VHS tapes and DVDs. However, upon reading Clatterbaugh's book, it became very clear just how important "horror hosts" and the wide distribution of horror movies on syndicated television during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s have been to the horror fan community. Read on for a complete review of this eye-opening book, which provides a detailed retrospective of a key moment in horror movie history that ensured its successful transition from the silver screen to the living room.

Mass media content consists of two essential, inescapable parts: production and distribution. It doesn't matter which medium about which you're talking (paintings, books, magazines, music, movies, etc.), no one will see or hear much of anything if the media content is not distributed to the masses. Every TV show, novel, comic book and movie you've ever seen and loved--or that have ever been seen and loved by anyone--simply would not have been if no one bothered to mass produce and distribute them. This is true for all media, including horror movies. Clatterbaugh's Shock Theater book reflects on the history of this horror movie distribution system, how it inspired the creation of horror hosts, and how it fostered new generations of horror fans for almost three decades.

The Shock Theater book is 136 pages long, and is filled with both color and black and white photos on glossy stock paper. The book consists of the following:
  • An introduction by the "Cool Ghoul" horror host himself, Zacherley (John Zacherle).
  • A complete reprint of the extremely rare promotional book for the Shock! TV package, which consisted of 52 horror films from Universal Studios. The book and TV package was distributed by Screen Gems, the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, in October 1957.
  • Various items from John Brunas' two-volume personal scrapbook of Shock Theater.
  • "Shock Treatment," Steve Kronenberg's personal tribute to Shock Theater and the effect it had on his life.
  • Memories of Shock Theater and its various iterations over the years from the writers of Monsters From The Vault magazine.
  • Pages of rare photos and promotional material.
The movie memories shared by the contributors to the Shock Theater book provide a snapshot of what it was like to grow up during a time when exposure to classic (and not so classic) horror movies was limited to late night weekend viewings ONLY--no home recordings, downloads or one night rentals for convenient viewing. With all of the different ways that media content has been digitized for distribution these days, it's easy to forget that there was a time when movies were only available at certain times and places. Here’s an excerpt from one of the book’s contributors, Richard Scrivani, who paints a simple but accurate picture of what it meant to be a monster movie fan when Shock Theater first hit the airwaves:

“Try to imagine the uptight, conformist, and slightly paranoid atmosphere in the decade following World War II, not a lot of room for things different and bizarre, and within a matter of weeks being drawn to a new, sometimes scary, but indescribably fun world of monster-mania. And, if you were fortunate enough to locate a friend who shared your enthusiasm for all of it, to form a fan club or the like, to trade monster pictures (lots of times newspaper ads) like baseball cards, and to have a sleep-over to watch the latest Shock Theater entry, it was a fringe benefit, a perk, the icing on the cake.”
Another noteworthy feature of Shock Theater is the complete reprint of Shock!, the promotional book that was distributed to television stations as part of the Shock Theater movie package. The Shock! book was a guidance manual for TV stations that instructed them how to encourage audience participation in and press coverage of their weekend broadcasts of the Universal horror movies. These recommendations were essentially the blueprints for the horror hosts who would later appear in TV markets across the country.

Interestingly, Vampira (Maila Nurmi), the first horror host to appear on TV, had nothing to do with Screen Gems’ Shock Theater; Vampira hosted horror movies on her own series, The Vampira Show, for the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles, CA between 1954 and 1955. However, what started with Vampira and her short-lived show was popularized across the country through the distribution of Shock Theater.

Each of the movies that were included in the Shock Theater syndication package had its own page within the Shock! promotional book, a page that included the movie’s synopsis and credits, 10 second and 20 second scripts for on-air promotions, a TV news release for local newspapers, and a short biography of one of the movie’s cast members.

If a TV station wanted to order additional promotion material for the movies they were showing, an order form was included that was organized by movie title.

Even though it was originally created as a way to distribute movies on syndicated TV, Shock Theater's legacy continues to this day. For example, horror hosts paved the way for similarly themed B-movie entertainment such as Mystery Science Theater 3000. Even though Shock Theater itself has faded into history, many horror hosts are still out there, still hosting horror movie viewings on the Internet and/or local public access television. I’ve even found a few of these hosts still doing their shtick in my own neck of the woods, hosts such as Count Gore De Vol and Dr. Sarcofiguy.

As I've posted before, most of my early encounters with classic movie monsters were through books, not TV, and I lived in TV markets that didn't have their own horror hosts. The only horror host that I knew of for a long time was Cassandra Peterson's alter ego--Elvira, Mistress of the Dark--but that was only through her appearance on TV shows and commercials, so the idea of what she did as a horror host was still pretty vague to me. Nevertheless, as the years passed, I remembered that most of my early monster movie memories had something to do with the weekend TV watching. My first viewings of classic monster movies, including The Mummy and Godzilla, happened during weekend, rainy day channel-surfs; that was also the same time when I got my first taste of less popular but no less interesting creature features such as The Car, Gorgo, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Phase IV.

Clatterbaugh's Shock Theater book put my past experiences into a wider context, rooting them in a tradition of sorts that started with Shock Theater. I’m sure that you too will see parts of your own horror movie experiences in a whole new light when reading this book, no matter how old you are. Unfortunately, this loving and thorough tribute to Shock Theater experienced some problems during its initial publication, so it is currently sold out and there are no plans for a second printing at this time. Your best bet it to try to find copies of the book online, or visit Clatterbaugh's Monsters From The Vault site for possible updates on the book’s publishing status. Regardless, Shock Theater: An Illustrated History is a great addition to any horror film fan’s library.


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