Beloved Monsters: The Legacy of TV Horror Hosts

The first hosted horror shows were wildly successful, and Universal released a follow-up package, Son of Shock, to television in 1958. Hosts sprang up in local markets through the late ‘50s and ‘60s: Gregory Grave in Kansas City, Dr. Shock in Philadelphia, and the hooded, alien-like Sammy Terry in Indiana. Each came with his own bag of tricks: props, catch-phrases (Ghoulardi’s curious “stay sick” and “cool it”), and supporting characters. The hosts, who were especially popular with younger viewers, often crossed over to their station’s kids’ show.  Many hosts pulled double-duty throughout the years, hosting the kids’ show during the weekdays and the late night horror program on the weekend.

Crematia, used under a Creative Commons license.

Crematia, used under a Creative Commons license.

Roberta Solomon, who played the delightfully wicked Crematia Mortem on “Creature Features” in Kansas City in the ‘80s, credits the early kids’ show hosts with being monumentally inspirational to horror hosts over the years.

“I grew up watching the kids’ shows in St. Louis, and that was where I got the idea that there were people who did this kind of thing,” Solomon says. “It was so incredibly cool, and when I started hosting the creature feature, I really felt a sense of continuity with these people who had gone before.”

While most hosts were harvested from the kids’ show or the news staff, some people made the jump into horror hosting from unlikely places.

Bob Wilkins hosted “Creature Features” in the San Francisco-Bay Area during the ‘70s. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, the wry Wilkins presented horror and sci-fi features as himself. Each week, the be-spectacled host would sit in his rocking chair, pipe in hand, and ridicule the evening’s feature, closing each segment with the peculiar phrase: “Watch horror films…keep America strong.”

John Stanley

Mainstream journalist John Stanley replaced "Creature Features" host Bob Stanley in the Bay Area. Both portrayed themselves without makeup or pseudonyms.

During his final years as the “Creature Features” host, Wilkins invited local entertainment writer John Stanley onto the program at different times to promote various books and films he had released. The time Stanley had spent at the San Francisco Chronicle, in addition to the endless amount of comics and movies he had consumed in his youth, made the journalist a rich resource of pop culture knowledge. Although Stanley had interviewed filmmakers and reviewed movies for years, he never would have fancied himself a TV personality. When Wilkins announced in 1978 that he would be leaving the show, Stanley was surprised when the host suggested he audition for the part. The journalist took a chance and tried out for the role; he was amazed when, a few weeks later, he was informed he had got the job.

“To this day, nobody at the station ever told me exactly why they chose me over all the others,” says Stanley. “I’ll just have to live with it!”

Stanley continued to host “Creature Features” in true Wilkins fashion. His producers did not want him to diverge from the straight man persona that his predecessor had established, so Stanley applied his skills as an entertainment reporter while on camera. The journalist interviewed an array of entertainers for both newspaper and television over the five years he hosted the show, ranging from British horror star Christopher Lee to sex symbol Edy Williams. Stanley shares these experiences in his 2007 book “I was a TV Horror Host,” which takes a retrospective look at the horror host tradition.

Stanley also created “minimovies” for his audience – short, dramatized segments that tied into the weekly feature.

“We did ‘Return to Casablanca’ at a restaurant called The Casablanca,” Stanley recalls. “There was a haunted museum, so we did a haunted goldmine thing where a dead prospector comes back to life and takes me into the mine…We really tried to do things that were different.”