Beloved Monsters: The Legacy of TV Horror Hosts

CreepyLA presents a creature feature on the black sheep of television hosts

L.A.'s own late night spook show host Vampira, aka Maila Nurmi, in a scene from "Plan 9 from Outerspace." Used under a Creative Commons license.

L.A.'s own late night spook show host Vampira, aka Maila Nurmi, in a scene from "Plan 9 from Outerspace." Used under a Creative Commons license

Throughout history, the horror genre has carved out a place for itself in every entertainment medium imaginable. Both European and Asian folklore are riddled with mysterious and terrifying creatures: spirits, sea monsters, ogres, and witches. The fathers and mothers of gothic literature – Stoker, Shelley, Poe – created the horror archetypes and classic monsters that pervade countless films and spawned numerous spin-off characters. These days, movies depicting senseless evildoings certainly occupy the top ten at the box office every October.

For all of its frightful and freakish features, there is one aspect of the horror subculture that is truly heartwarming. That is, without question, the legacy of the TV horror hosts…

For decades, these enthusiastic entertainers donned outrageous costumes, applied heavy make-up, and affected some sort of ghoulish persona for the purpose of presenting old movies. Families assembled in living rooms across the country to tune in to the weekly televised horror film, and from the 1950s until the ‘80s, millions of American kids were hooked on a host special to their location. Every viewer had a favorite, be it Cleveland’s zany and irreverent Ghoulardi (a.k.a Ernie Anderson) who crazed teens in the ‘60s, or television’s first horror host, Maila Nurmi, who introduced the oldest horror films as the comely Vampira in 1950s Hollywood. The horror host embodied everything cryptic and campy about bad monster movies and made an indelible impression on generations of television audiences.

The horror host model was developed in 1957, when Universal Pictures sold their “Shock!” package, a collection of old horror and sci-fi movies, to NBC, ABC, and the other major networks. Universal suggested that the television studios incorporate a host into their weekly horror program; a likeable monster-type figure that broke the fourth wall was sure to help build a steady audience for the weekly movie showcase.

Dick Dyszel, who presented b-grade horror in the ‘70s and early ‘80s as Washington, D.C.’s loveable vampire Count Gore De Vol, recalls the beginnings of the horror host tradition.

New York's legendary Zacherley.

New York's legendary Zacherley.

“Every station that bought the “Shock!” package got their staff announcer or the kids’ show host or somebody to do some sort of ghoul character and host the movies,” Dyszel says. “When I was growing up in Chicago, we had “Shock Theatre” with Marvin, who was sort of a beatnik character. You had Zacherley in New York, and Vampira in L.A., and it was just up and down [the country].”

Vampira predated “Shock!” and every other horror host of her day. “The Vampira Show” went on the air at KABC-TV in Los Angeles in 1954. At the start of each episode, the “Mistress of the Dark” would emerge from the mist, let out a shrill scream, and present horror films of the 1930s. Although the show was canceled the following year due to legal conflicts, audiences hadn’t seen the last of the femme fatale; Nurmi reprised the role in Ed Wood Jr.’s infamous “Plan 9 from Outer Space” a year later.

Actor John Zacherle’s grim, debonair Roland debuted on “Shock Theater” in WCAU Philadelphia, the same year the “Shock!” package was released. The pioneering host soon left the Philadelphia station for WABC in New York. He renamed his character Zacherley and began hosting WABC’s “Zacherley at Large.” Clothed in an undertaker’s coat, Zacherley presented movies from his crypt/laboratory, often incorporating two imaginary co-stars: his coffin-laden wife Isobel, and his son Gasport, who spent his time hanging around the set in a burlap bag.