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Bell & Howell Information and Leaming 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Ml 48106-1346 USA UMJ 800-521-0600




Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for

the Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate

School of the Ohio State University


Beth A. Kattelman, B.A., M.A.


The Ohio State University 1999

Dissertation Committee :

Approved by Professor Alan Woods, Adviser

Professor Esther Beth Sullivan

Professor Joy Reilly Adviser Theatre Graduate Program UMI Number 9951674


UMI Microform 9951674 Copyright 2000 by Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. This microform edition is protected against unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.

Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company 300 North Zeeb Road P.O. Box 1346 Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346 ABSTRACT

Midnight ghost shows were shows presented on the stages of movie theatres across America from approximately 1930 to the mid-1960s. They reached their

heyday during the forties and early fifties and then

declined steadily due to the advent of new media

technologies. The early shows capitalized on the

spiritualism craze by featuring illusions and effects

that centered around séances, mindreading and the production of apparitions. Later ghost shows evolved

into shows that presented horrific illusions, such as decapitations and buzz saw effects, and monsters

borrowed from the popular horror films of the day. Most ghost shows followed a strict formula and even those

that deviated somewhat contained important traits common to all of these performances : the show was part of a

double-bill with a horror , was performed at midnight, and contained a blackout sequence in which luminous spirits and monsters would appear onstage and in the audience. Several historical tangents converged to produce a time in which midnight ghost shows could flourish. These tangents include : the spiritualism craze of the late 1800s, the rise of motion pictures, the social anxiety precipitated by World War I, World War II and the Great Depression, and the influence of technological innovations. By examining this popular entertainment through the works of cultural theorists John Fiske, Pierre Bourdieu and Mikhail Bakhtin insight is gained into the societal forces and social milieu surrounding the phenomenon.

lU Dedicated to my parents and grandparents. To Dee Shepherd. And to all of those masters of mystery and legerdemain who continue to keep the tradition alive.


I'd like to thank ray adviser. Dr. Alan Woods, for

his encouragement and guidance in the completion of this dissertation. Thanks also go to members of my committee. Dr. Esther Beth Sullivan and Dr. Joy Reilly for their

insight and thoughtful comments.

I wish to thank Lee Jacobs and Dick Newton for their willingness to share memories and stories. I am

also grateful to Eugene Burger for helping me to contact fellow magicians and for the inspiration his work has provided.

I thank Dee Shepherd for her patience and support during the writing of this dissertation. I ' d also like to thank my parents and grandparents for their support, encouragement and inspiration throughout the years. VITA

April 1, 1959...... B o m - Cincinnati, Ohio

1981 - 82...... Company Member, The ArtReach Touring Theatre, Cincinnati, Ohio

1982 -. 83...... House Manager, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

1983 -. 86...... Supervisor of Performing Arts, The Jewish Community Center of Cincinnati

1984 - 89...... Managing Director, Madcap Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio

1989 - 90...... University Fellow, The Ohio State University

1990 - 91...... Graduate Teaching and Research Associate, The Ohio State University

199 1 ...... Company Member, The Omaha Magic Theatre, Omaha, Nebraska

199 1 ...... M.A. Theatre, The Ohio State University

1992 - 93 ...... Graduate Teaching and Research Associate, The Ohio State University

1993 - 95...... Editor, Theatre Studies

1992 - 96...... Artistic Director, New Venture Theatre, Columbus, Ohio

vi 1998 - present...... General Manager, Borders Books and Music, Columbus, Ohio


1. Beth Kattelman, "Rita Mae Brown, " The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, ed. Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt, 1995)

2. Beth Kattelman, "Jane Chambers, "The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, ed. Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt, 1995)

3. Beth Kattelman, "Review of Woman’s Theatrical Space, " Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Spring, 1996: 121-23.

4. Beth Kattelman, "Charles Ludlam, " Gay and Lesbian Biography, ed. Michael J. Tyrkus (Detroit: St. James Press, 1996) 303-304.

5 . Beth Kattelman, "Megan Terry, " Gay and Lesbian Literature, vol. 2, ed. Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (Detroit: St. James Press, 1997)

6. Beth Kattelman, "JoAnn Loulan, " Gay and Lesbian Literature, vol. 2, ed. Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (New York: St. James Press, 1997)

7. Beth Kattelman, "Spike Jones," American national Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) 246-247.


Major Field: Theatre



Dedication...... iv

AcJcnowledgments...... v

Vita...... vi


1. Introduction...... 1

2. War and the ...... 17

3. Spiritualism...... 35

4. Format and Effects...... 55

5 . The Performers...... 79

6 . Ghost Show and Film...... 101

7 . Technology...... 121

8. Promotion and Ballyhoo...... 138

9 . The Audience...... 171

10. Conclusion...... 185

Appendix: Telephone interview with Dick Newton...... 190

Bibiliography...... 207



This study explores the phenomenon of performances known as midnight ghost shows. Midnight ghost shows were magic shows presented on the stages of movie theatres across America from approximately 1930 to the mid-1960s. They reached their heyday during the forties and early fifties and then declined steadily due to the advent of new media technologies. The early shows capitalized on the spiritualism craze by featuring illusions and effects which centered around séances, mindreading and the production of apparitions. Later ghost shows evolved into performances which presented horrific illusions, such as decapitations and buzz saw effects, and monsters borrowed from the popular horror films of the day. Most ghost shows followed a strict formula and even those that deviated somewhat contained important traits common to all of these performances : the show was part of a double-bill with a horror film, was performed at midnight, and contained a blackout sequence in which

1 luminous spirits and monsters would appear onstage and in the audience.

In examining the midnight ghost show phenomenon, I will trace several historical tangents which converged to produce a time in which ghost shows could flourish. The interest in spiritualism, the rise of motion pictures, the social anxiety precipitated by World War

I, World War II and the Great Depression, and the influence of technological innovations were all factors which helped to bring about and sustain the genre. While these are not the only factors which found their nexus in the ghost show performances, they are the most significant influences which lead to the creation and popularity of these productions. These same factors were also influential in the lives of the audience who attended and found relevance in the productions. As John

Fiske states "popular culture has to be above all else, relevant to the immediate social situation of the people."! Therefore, when researching a fad, or a popular entertainment, one must look at the social conditions which underpin the interest of the populace. If careful consideration is given to what a text might represent, or to how the product is used by the

IJohn Fiske, Understanding' Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 198 9) 25. consumer, insight can. be gained, as to what social forces

are at play. Analyses which examine the context

surrounding the rise, zenith and decline of a particular

type of entertainment serve to position the performances in a specific cultural and historic time :

Ideological analysis is based on the assumption that cultural artifacts are produced in specific historical contexts, by and for specific social groups. It aims to understand culture as a form of social expression. Because they are created in socially and historically specific contexts, cultural artifacts are seen as expressing and promoting values, beliefs, and ideas in relation to the contexts in which they are produced, distributed and received. Ideological analysis aims to understand how a cultural text specifically embodies and enacts particular ranges of values, beliefs and ideas.2

Context and societal forces must be considered if one is to gain the most insight into a cultural entity. Chapter 2 begins the exploration of context by tracing the cultural anxiety brought about by World War I and by examining the way this anxiety manifested itself in an increased interest in horror. This interest

2Mimi White, "Ideological Analysis" Channels of Discourse, Reassembled' Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina, 1992) 163 . was a catalyst for artistic works which centered around distortion and the fascination with the grotesque. This fascination was also reflected in the American filmmaking industry. Studios began to produce films which featured characters who exhibited a "monstrous" physical defoinnity or monstrous behavior. Monsters became a lightning-rod for cultural anxiety produced by the rise of new technologies and the growing realization of man's capacity for evil:

Horror, a genre which may typically only command a limited following- -due to its basic powers of attraction--can command mass attention when its iconography and structures are deployed in such a way that they articulate the widespread anxiety of times of stress.3

World War I precipitated a rise in the fascination with horror, and as horror-films flourished, so did the midnight ghost shows. Chapter 3 looks at the advent and development of the Spiritualism Movement from its beginnings in

Hydesville, New York in 1848 through its rise to prominence during the nineteenth century. The chapter examines some of the mediums who used the opportunity to

3Noêl Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror : or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) 214. exploit an unwary public and also some of the attempts to bring these frauds to light. It also notes how the

spiritualism movement became of great concern to the

Society of American Magicians because of the taint it put upon the reputation of honest showmen who were willing to admit their feats were accomplished through skilled craft and dexterity. The Spiritualism Movement stands as another cultural influence magicians drew upon to create the midnight ghost show. The genre's originator Elwin-Charles Peck, began his career as a stage mentalist, and many of the early ghost shows used effects and illusions inspired by the spiritualism phenomenon.

Chapter 4 presents a look at the sequence of a ghost show performance and provides a description of the effects used. While this chapter temporarily suspends the cultural critique, it is included to give readers a more thorough understanding of the illusions and effects which were used in these performances. Because of the scarcity of documentation of these productions, this chapter is included to provide more insight into what one might experience when attending such a show.

Chapter 5 presents a brief portrait of a few of the premier ghostmasters. It draws on firsthand accounts and anecdotal evidence to give the reader a snapshot of the performers who toured with these productions and of the effects contained in their shows. It traces the history

of the genre from its creation in the 193 0s to its decline during the 1950s and eventual demise.

Chapter 6 looks at the film industry and the rise

in the popularity of the horror film, a very important component of the midnight ghost show phenomenon. Ghost shows were always presented as part of a double bill

with a horror film, and many of the characters made

famous on celluloid found their way into the

ghostmasters' repertoire. 's monster, Dracula, the hunchback and the mad doctor were all used

liberally in the ghost shows and their inclusion gave an added boost to the genre's popularity. This use of famous visages of film monsters created problems for

some ghostmasters, however, when the studios learned of their misappropriation. The chapter also looks at two unique films. David L. Hewitt's Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (1965) is the only known example of an attempt to actually recreate the ghost show format on film. Ray Dennis Steckler also used some elements of the ghost show in his 1965 film The Thrill Killers (a.k.a.

Maniacs on the Loose.) These were clever attempts to adapt the ghost show to keep up with the changing times. chapter 7 examines how technology influences

performance by presenting three examples of technologies

which played a role in the rise and development of the midnight ghost show: the magic lantern, the Pepper's Ghost illusion, and luminous paint. The magic lantern is prominent in both stage and film history as it was the

light source used by the pioneer filmmakers, the Lumière

Brothers in their early motion picture device the Cinematographe. It also figures strongly in the histoiy of stage perfoirmances which presented supernatural illusions to the audience under the guise of producing real spirits and manifestations. Etienne-Gaspard Robertson's Phantasmagoria ('1798) stands as a prime example of a production which thrilled and terrified audiences through its clever use of a concealed magic lantern. The discussions of Pepper's Ghost and luminous paint serve as other examples of technological influence upon stage performances and production.

Chapter 8 explores the promotion and ballyhoo used by the producers of ghost shows to entice an audience.

It provides examples of the ghost shows ' strong link to vaudeville, as many of the advertising techniques and publicity stunts used were standard fare of vaudevillians. It also notes how ghostmasters played upon associations with horror films to set up audience expectations to create an aura of anticipation surrounding the shows.

Chapter 9 takes a look at the audience. Although it is impossible to know exactly what audience members read into these productions and what they meant to each individual, one can posit some of the ways audience members made use of these shows by examining audience demographics and reception. It explores how the primarily teenage audience used the productions as an opportunity for identity-format ion and as an escape from the societal forces which kept them subordinate. As John Fiske notes, "The activity of production involves a recognition of social difference and an assertion of the subcultural rights and identities of those on the subordinate end of these stzructures of difference. "4

Teenagers found an opportunity to form a subcultural identity as part of a midnight ghost show audience.

The performances which are the subject of this study were known by various names including: "midnight ghost show," "midnight horror show," "midnight spook show" and "spookers." While the designation "ghost show" refers primarily to those productions prior to World War

II which concentrated on spiritualism effects and the

4 F i s ke, Unders tandincf 5 8 teirm "horror show" describes the post-war productions

which featured gory effects and monsters, for purposes

of this study, the terms will be used interchangeably.

While the terms suggest a slightly different emphasis in content and historical context, there is no clear line of demarcation between them. The commonalities among

productions are of primary interest to the present discussion and any attempt to designate specific categories within the ghost show genre would only add confusion.

This study will draw extensively upon the works of John Fiske and his theories of popular culture. Fiske ' s

work provides a solid point of departure for the study

of texts which have been denigrated or ignored by the academic community. His work shows how popular texts can illuminate social forces at work during the time of

their creation and reception. I will also look to the

theories of Pierre Bourdieu and Mikhail Bakhtin for

added insight into the way these cultural products

functioned. Bakhtin's concept of "carnival" provides a

useful springboard for examining what the midnight ghost show offered its audience. Bakhtin's discussion of carnival in his book Rabelais and His World takes up the medieval carnival as its point of departure, but Bakhtin acknowledges that the concept can be applied to other events as well:

But even in its narrow sense, carnival is far from being a simple phenomenon with only one meaning. This word combined in a single concept a number of local feasts of different origin and scheduled at different dates but bearing the common traits of popular merriment.5

Thus, the concept can be extrapolated to include the

midnight ghost show phenomenon because it too functioned as a "popular merriment" by providing an outlet for laughter, revelry and social anxiety.

There has been little written about the midnight ghost shows. The most comprehensive text to date is Mark Walker's Ghostmasters which grew out of an earlier

compilation entitled Spook Shows on Parade. Spook Shows is composed of a series of articles written by the men who performed midnight ghost shows. It is a compilation of firsthand accounts which provides insight into the productions through anecdotal evidence. Ghostmasters is a more comprehensive study of the ghost show phenomenon.

In it Walker profiles the major ghost show operators through interviews, photographs and supporting historical evidence. Each chapter is devoted to a

^Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World , trans Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984) 218.

10 different performer or major aspect of the ghost show. While Walker touches upon show content, circumstances of performances and audience reception, he does so in only a rudimentary way. His primary focus is biographical. Also, Walker's book only tangentially deals with the historical context of the performances. Other information on ghost shows can be gained from booklets and videos produced by the ghostmasters themselves. A video to Walker's Ghostmasters is available which contains various trailers which were used to promote the performances in movie theatres. J im Ridenour, a former ghost show performer, has produced a video entitled Spooks-a-Popp in ' : The Ghost Show Racket

Laid Bare which is a compilation of Ridenour's comments, intezrviews with other performers and show trailers. It contains a great deal of information and is invaluable in providing a behind-the-scenes look at the ghost show circuit and performers. Bob Nelson, a ghost show operator and owner of Nelson Enterprises, a supply-house for magic effects and materials, also self-published several booklets on how to operate ghost and shows. In his Ghost Book of Dark Secrets, Nelson gives step-by-step instructions on how to create and promote a successful ghost show. He also published a Manual of Publicity and Exploitation for the Mentalist which gives

11 tips on how to ballyhoo a ghost or magic show, and his

The Last Book of Nelson provides a fascinating look at his career as a promoter, mentalist and ghostmaster. Although some of these texts touch upon the cultural forces surrounding the proliferation of midnight ghost shows, there has been no text to date that provides a thorough ideological and cultural analysis of the phenomenon.

This study positions midnight ghost shows as part of the continuum of the history of magic. Magic shows fall under the rubric of popular culture and therefore have been largely neglected in academic study. As a subcategory of magic shows, midnight ghost shows have been given even less attention. Very few theatre scholars are familiar with these performances even though they grew out of the tradition of vaudeville and were an important grassroots entertainment which was enjoyed by many people throughout America. By the forties and fifties touring ghost shows were criss­ crossing the country playing to large audiences, "It was very common to see lines two and three blocks long."6 The most successful of the ghostmasters toured the large

6Philip Morris, interview. Spooks-a-Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, dir. and ed. Jim Ridenour, n.d.

12 theatre circuits and broke box-office records in many of the houses they played. These productions provided escapist entertainment for the audience and were created primarily for profit. This does not mean, however, they are devoid of cultural value:

Our culture is a commodity culture, and it is fruitless to argue against it on the basis that culture and profit are mutually exclusive terms--that what is profitable for some cannot be cultural for others.^

For a long time there has been a tradition of academic bias against the study of popular culture. Until recently popular culture was considered low-brow, vulgar, common, and not worthy of study. As a result of this bias there have been relatively few studies of forms of entertainment which are traditionally considered in this category such as the circus, ten-in- one shows, vaudeville and magic shows. Cultural critique addresses this omission, however, by pointing out the useful insight that can be gained from studying popular forms. In Understanding' Popular Culture, John Fiske argues that popular entertainments also serve an important purpose and are therefore worthy of study:

7John Fiske, Reading the Popular (New York: Routledge, 1989) 4.

13 One starting point for the popular analyst then, is to investigate what traditional critics ignore or denigrate in popular texts and to concentrate on those texts that have either escaped critical attention altogether or have been noticed only to be denigrated. The combination of widespread consumption with widespread critical disapproval is a fairly certain sign that a cultural commodity or practice is popular.&

While popular forms may not qualify as "high art" they

have relevance to the social situation of the audience.

Fiske notes that the critic who judges a work of art solely on aesthetic criteria is missing part of the

picture. He posits that works should also be evaluated

by looking at the reaction of the reader who is situated in a particular time and place:

Unlike aesthetic criteria, those of relevance can be located only in the social situation of the reader; they can reside in the text only as a potential, not as a quality. Relevance is a quality determined by and activated in the specifics of each moment of reading; unlike aesthetics, relevance is time- and place- bound . 9

Resources used in this study focus upon a number of ghostmasters with ties to the midwest and, therefore.

8 Fiske, Under s tanding- 106.

9 F i s ke, Unders tanding 13 0.

14 the study exhibits a midwestem bias. Ghost shows were

performed throughout the entire contiguous forty-eight

states, however, and a comparison of activity in the

midwest and on the coasts remains fertile ground for further study. Also, while beyond the scope of this text, a study which documents the complete touring

schedules of the ghostmasters would be extremely useful in conveying the full extent of ghost show activity and in offering a road map for future research.

One of my main purposes in writing this document is to reanimate these performances for the reader. Many audiences had a wonderful time attending these productions. Although this experience is no longer available, I hope to give the reader some sense of what it was like. I also hope to illuminate the ghost show's appeal, ingenuity and importance as a link between the days of vaudeville and the heyday of film as popular entertainment. The midnight ghost shows were a reflection of America's fascination with death, spiritualism and the bizarre. They also represent the resourcefulness of performers who needed to seek new venues in a changing marketplace. When the vaudeville houses began to close or to convert to movie houses, performers who could not adapt were quickly out of business. Many vaudevillians took up a career in radio.

15 Because magicians rely primarily upon visual impact in their performances, however, radio was not an option for most of them. By finding a way to intermingle their productions with the new technology of film, a few enterprising magicians were able to continue a very lucrative business at a time when others were finding their opportunities steadily diminishing.



Popular culture is not created in a vacuum.; it is a reflection of societal forces and resources which converge to bring it forth. "All popular culture is a process of struggle, of struggle over the meanings of social experience, of one's personhood and its relations to the social order and of the texts and commodities of that order."i Therefore, major changes in the social order often bring about major changes in popular culture. An examination of popular culture texts can give insight into cultural anxieties and the historical forces at play during the times of their popularity. By examining the factors present during the development and rise of the midnight ghost show, insight can be gained into its genesis and into the underlying events and forces influencing the populace.

IJohn Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989) 28.

17 An important factor in the development of the

midnight ghost show was the rise of the horror film, and this trend was set in motion by World War I. Film historian, David Skal, who has done extensive research

on the cultural history of horror, finds a direct

correlation between the returning war veterans and America's rising fascination with the grotesque, "You

had unprecedented numbers of maimed and mutilated soldiers returning from the Great War. . . . The same

advances in technology that made the destruction possible also brought about advances in medicine that

let these men live . "2 These visual reminders of man's

inhumanity to man were both fearful and fascinating. Americans were intrigued and repulsed by these men who had been both victimized and "saved" by technology, and this fascination found its way into many modes of artistic expression. The 1920s saw a steady rise in the desire for cultural artifacts which centered around the horrific and grotesque, and which featured images of maimed and distorted bodies. The pulp Weird Tales began publication in 1923. That same year the Théâtre du Grand

2 David Skal, interview. Universal Horror, narr. Kenneth Branagh, ed. Kenneth Brownlow, dir. Kenneth Brownlow, Universal Television Enterprises, 1998.

18 Guignol of Paris presented a season in New York City.

One of the most popular of his day, Lon Chaney had a string of successes with portraying characters hampered by severe physical deformities which mirrored

those of the maimed war veterans :

The makeup for Chaney ' s two most celebrated characterizations. The Hunchba.ck of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) both bore more than a passing resemblance to the faces of the mutilés des guerre that haunted Europe and America, with smashed features, missing noses, cind mouths full of broken teeth.3

Throughout the decade of the 1920s, filmmakers also fed audiences ' fascination with the visual image of "man as monster." Monsters provided a societal safety valve, functioning as scapegoats for the fear and anger rampant

in post-war society, "Through the body of the monster,

fantasies of aggression, domination, and inversion are allowed safe expression in a clearly delimited and permanently liminal space.These mutilated beings were

3David ij. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (New York: Penguin Books, 1994) 66.

^Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Monster Culture (Seven Theses) , " Monster Theory, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996) 17.

19 the perfect embodiment of the attraction/repulsion dichotomy many Americans felt toward the "real" monster - - the knowledge and fear of man's capability for cruelty as exemplified by the War. Noël Carroll terms this dual response elicited by monsters and the monstrous the

"paradox of horror:"

Monsters, the objects of art-horror, are themselves sources of ambivalent responses, for as violations of standing cultural categories, they are disturbing and disgusting, but, at the same time, they are also objects of fascination--again, just because they transgress standing categories of thought. That is, the ambivalence, that bespeaks the paradox of horror is already to be found in the very objects of art-horror which are disgusting and fascinating, repelling and attractive due to their anomalous nature.5

By attending performances which produced fear, audiences could experience this paradox and exorcise some of their anxiety and pent-up aggression in a safe and sanctioned environment.

In 1929 the stock market crashed, and America was sent headlong into the throes of the Great Depression. People felt unproductive, powerless and frightened and

5 Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) 188

20 they continued, to look Eor outlets which would give them a sense of power and control, and which would allow them to escape their problems. Many found this respite in the darkness of the movie houses, "The massive shared hardship of the Depression galvanized motion pictures as a dominant form of cultural expression. "6 The bleakest years of the Depression were an extremely productive time for many types of film genres, including: the musical, the gangster film and the "screwball comedy." It was also an important time in the history of the horror film. In 1931 Universal Studios made a profit for the first time in two years due to the success of Dracula.f Later in 1931, Universal released Frankenstein which again drew a sizeable audience and started a trend which established Universal as the "major producer of macabre motion pictures for the next quarter of a century. "8. Other studios quickly realized the earnings potential of the horror genre and began to try and tap

Gskal, Monster Show 115.

7uavid J. Skal, Hollywood Gothic: The Tang-led Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990) 147.

8Les Daniels, Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975) 13 0.

21 into the growing interest, " [Frankenstein] was an

enormous success, and deservedly so. And coming right

after Lugosi's Dracula., it inspired Hollywood's imitators to create a whole cycle of horror movies."9 it

was during the brief period from 193 0 to 1933 that

Hollywood released the films which would give us the most famous film monsters of all time : Dracula, Frankenstein's monster. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the

Mummy. The confrontation with these monsters allowed

audiences to revel in fictional fears and escape the

real problems that waited for them outside :

The horror film strikes at the primal fears of human beings in the face of the unknown and the super-powerful, conjuring up dangers that made the real needs of the audience seem comparatively harmless. The inevitable re­ establishment of order at the end of the classical horror film points optimistically to a better future, which helps explain what experience has proven true: The horror film flourishes especially in bad times. lO

90tto Friedrich, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's (New York: Harper and Row, 1986) 201.

10Andrea Gronemeyer, Film: An Illustrated Historical Overview (Hauppauge, New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1998) 83.

22 The genre flourished during the Depression, and it was also at this time that the midnight ghost show got its start.

In the beginning, ghostmasters did not capitalize

upon the popularity of monsters in film by including these creatures in their productions. Ghostmasters would share the bill with the famous monsters of filmland, but

it would not be until later that they would "borrow" the

visages of Hollywood's icons of horror and include them

in their stage shows. Prior to World War II, ghost show content was centered around effects and illusions borrowed from the spiritualism craze [See chapter III] . These shows concentrated on mindreading, hypnosis, ghostly happenings and apparitions. The performers used mysterious-sounding stage names such as "Ali Baba" or "Rajah Raboid" to connect themselves with an "other­ worldliness" in the audience's mind. Some of these performers passed themselves off as actual psychics, doing readings, giving predictions, or writing horoscope columns in local newspapers. The primary illusions presented in their ghost shows were those which were in wide use by the "mediums" of the day, including floating tables, ghostly rappings, invisible forces, luminous apparitions. Thus, the ghost show's original connection

23 with the film industry was not so much in content, but primarily as a business alliance. The early ghostmasters were enterprising magicians who found a way to

"piggyback" their performances onto the popularity of horror f ilms. Because midnight was a time when movie theatres were usually dark, ghost shows presented an opportunity for theatre owners to make extra profit with little financial outlay. This made the format very appealing, and was one of the factors which helped the shows flourish during the Depression. At the height of the interest in horror films an element came into play which would eventually cause a brief disruption in their popularity, and thus the popularity of the ghost show. In 1930 The Hollywood

Production Code was drafted by the Motion Picture

Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and this was to eventually cause serious trouble for motion picture producers and directors. n The Code was a loose set of standards designed to assure morality and decency in motion pictures and it was administered by the office of Will H. Hays, president of the MPPDA. The Hays Office

llGerald Mast, A Short History of , 1971, 5th ed. , rev. by Bruce F. Kawin (New York: Macmillan, 1992) 225.

24 quickly became concerned with, the iconography and content of horror films, and in January of 1932, Colonel Jason S. Joy, assistant to Hays, wrote the following, "If something. . . could be done about the so-called horror pictures we ' d be very much, happier than we are. "

The Production Code Administration began demanding early prints of horror films for approval, and generally made life difficult for many of the studio executives.

Producers and directors tried to find ways to get around the Production Code by subtly encoding their own subtext into the films :

The production industry had to find ways of appealing to both " innocent " and "sophisticated" sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which "innocence" was inscribed into the text while " sophisticated" viewers were able to " read into" movies whatever meanings they pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there.

12colonel Jason S. Joy, Letter to Will H. Hays, 11 Jan. 1932, MPPDA case files. Special Collections, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, Beverly Hills, California, in David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (New York: Penguin Books, 1993) 162.

13Richard Maltby, "Censorship and Self-Régulâtion," The Oxford History of World Cinema: The Definitive

25 The pressure, continued to mount, however, and the situation became extremely bad in September of 1932 when

Hays was replaced as president of the MPPDA by , "who took a more restrictive view of what was permitted under the code. " studios continued to produce horror films, but it became increasingly difficult to obtain script approval. In order to get around restrictions, horror films had to avoid many of the horrific elements and iconography which had made them popular. The "horrors" in the films became much more subtle and psychological, and the genre lost its shock value and appeal:

The Bride of Frankenstein (193 5) marked the climax of the Depression's Hollywood horror cycle and the beginning of the end as well. Its horrors were too fully humanized, and while such a technique might work once, it became self-defeating when employed as operating procedure. 15

By 1936 it became almost impossible to gain approval for a script which might fall into the horror

History of Cinema Worldwide, ed. Geoffrey Howell-Smith (New York: Oxford UP, 1996) 242.

14skal, The Monster Show, 171.

iSDaniels 140.

26 genre. In January of 193 6 Breen warned Universal associate producer E. M. Asher that "the making of a horror picture at this time is a very hazardous undertaking from the standpoint of political censorship

g e n e r a l l y 16 studios and theatre-owners had to look for

another way to capitalize on the public ' s appetite for monsters. They found it in 1938 when theatres began playing Dracula and Frankenstein as a double bill, "In 1936 the movie monsters crawled back into their crypts, only to be resurrected three [sic] years later when a revival of the original Dracula and Frankenstein demonstrated that the right kind of macabre motion picture was more popular than ever. "u The audience response was strong and there was a resurgence in the horror genre's popularity. Hollywood had again found a way to capitalize upon the populace's fears. A 1938 trade advertisement touted:

Throw Away the Books ! Forget All You Ever Knew About Showmanship ! Because Horror is paying off again. Smart showman all over the country

16Joseph Breen, Memo to E.M. Adler, 14 Jan. 1936, MPPDA case files. Special Collections, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, Beverly Hills, California in Skal, Monster Show 199.

l^Daniels 142.

27 are cashing in on it . . . Dracula, and Frankenstein, You play them together! You dare them to see it! And then the crowds break down your doors ! "

As the horror pictures surged in popularity, so did the

midnight ghost shows. Ghost shows (also known as "spookers") sprang up all over the country, and this new entertainment form began to really take hold. The wave

of the midnight ghost show lasted until the outbreak of World War II. During World War II there was a dormant period in

the history of the ghost show. Although the film industry continued to thrive, live stage performances-- especially touring performances--were adversely affected

by the war. A few performers still took their shows on the road, but the amount of performance activity was

severely diminished because the resources necessary to produce the shows became difficult to obtain. All available resources were going toward the war effort :

Gasoline, tires, metal, and food were not readily available. Due to a shortage of magnesium, flash powder for special effects was nowhere to be found. Even paper, which was needed for expendable items such as posters

18 Advertisement sheet. The Free Library of Philadelphia Theatre Collection, reprinted in Skal, Monster Show 204.

28 and. heralds became a scarce commodity. Moreover, who needed a theater blackout when air raid wardens were calling for lights out in neighborhoods throughout the countzry?

After World War II, however, the midnight ghost

show experienced another resurgence, and a major

transformation. By this time, the horror genre in film was well established and film monsters had become

popular-culture icons. Young audiences were well acquainted with Frankenstein, Dracula and , and expected to see these types of monsters in any sort of

horrific entertainment. They also wanted entertainment

which was fast-paced and graphic. In order to appeal to this younger, more demanding audience, ghost shows

transformed themselves into monster shows. They no longer concentrated on spooky happenings and unseen forces inspired by spiritualism, but instead

incorporated monsters, gore and mayhem. The mentalist was replaced by the mad doctor, and séance effects were replaced by decapitations, buzz-saw effects, hangings, and immolations. With the addition of monsters to their programs, the "midnight ghost show" became the "midnight horror show. "20

19Mark Walker, Ghostmasters , rev. ed. (Boca Raton, Florida: Cool Hand Communications, 1994) 56.

20Walker, Ghostmasters 57.

29 The mid-194Os to the mid-1950s were the heyday of

the midnight horror shows. During this period, dozens of

ghostmasters crisscrossed the country, playing one- night -stands for the major theatre chains. Producers

often had multiple units of their show, sending out a

featured performer to head up each one. The shows were extremely lucrative for both the magicians and the theatre-owners, and the spooker industry flourished. The

three most prolific ghostmasters, Philip Morris, Jack

Baker and Joe Kars ton, toured their productions during this time. Then, in the late 1950s, the midnight ghost

show began to decline for several reasons. The advent of new film technologies was one factor which reduced the

viability of the midnight ghost show. Cinerama was introduced in 1952 and it required a wide, curved screen

to be installed in the theatre, which closed off access to the stage. Even though many theatres could not afford

to make the changes necessary to accommodate the new

technology, the few that did were able to draw sizeable audiences. The first Cinerama feature. This is Cinerama.

(1952), grossed over $32 million.21 Then, in 1953, 20th

21John Belton, "Technology and Innovation, " KTowell- Smith 266.

30 Century-Fox introduced Cinemascope. It quickly became veiry popular because it did not require special projectors or special film. This made it possible for a great number of theatres to show the films because they could be pro j ected with the equipment already available :

The action was recorded by a single, conventional movie camera on conventional 35mm film. A special anamorphic lens squeezed the images horizontally to fit the width of the standard film. When projected with a corresponding anamorphic lens on the projector, the distortions disappeared and a huge, wide image stretched across the curved theatre screen. 22

Now only the screen had to be altered. Cinemascope quickly became the industry standard, and by 1957 eighty-five percent of all Ü.S. and Canadian theatres had been equipped to show Cinemascope f i l m s . 23 Also, television was becoming an important player in the entertainment industry. By 1954, sixty-five percent of all United States households already had a television set, and movie theatre attendance began to d e c l i n e . 24

22Gerald Mast A Short History of the Movies, 1971, 5th ed., rev. by Bruce F. Kawin (New York: Macmillan, 1992) 281.

23Belton 266.

24Gronemeyer, appendix, 181.

31 At this time, the horror genre began to take hold

on television. In 1956 Presents premiered, and in 1957 Screen Gems acquired the rights to the backlog of Universal's monster movie classics (and their numerous sequels) which were released to the

television-viewing public as "Shock Theatre":

These films, seen by millions more than in their original appearances, established a permanent monster mythology for the mass audience. At the same time, they provided a platform for dozens of new performers in the genre. The hideous host or hostess had become a staple ingredient in broadcasts of this character, and a multitude of characters found employment introducing the old movies to new audiences. 25

Shock Theatre provided many of the same components as the midnight ghost shows. It provided a horror film and a creepy, yet comic host to address the audience, give commentary, and perform silly gags. Ghostmaster Philip Morris actually hosted one such show, "Dr. Evil's Horror

Theatre" which was seen on the east coast from 1960 to

19 6 8 . 2 6 Americans could now watch their own personal

25Daniels 199

26philip Morris and Dennis Phillips, How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House (Pittsburgh: Imagine Inc., 1987) preface, n.p.

32 "midnight ghost show" in the comfort of their own homes.

They did not need to attend movie theatres to see monsters and ghouls. While some ghost show operators attempted to hang on by adapting their performances to drive-in theatres, the heyday of the spooker was over.

Popular culture is never stagnant, but is constantly changing and evolving with the times, and as society changes, popular culture follows suit. John Fiske notes :

Popular culture is always in process; its meanings can never be identified in a text for texts are activated, or made meaningful, only in social relations and in intertextual relations. This activation of the meaning potential of a text can occur only in the social and cultural relationships into which it enters.27

For three decades midnight ghost shows were able to activate an important meaning for those in America who had experienced a loss of innocence and economic despair as a result of the world wars. As the social context changed, these forms of entertainment evolved and transformed, but still remained a viable choice for those seeking thrills and excitement. Eventually,

27John Fiske, Rsadlng the Popular (New York: Routledge, 1989) 3.

33 however, they were superceded by new forms which became popular due to their activation of more pertinent meanings for the American public. Ghost shows ceased to serve the function that had made them so popular during the post-war years, and so they died out.



This chapter traces another important historical/societal trend which ultimately contributed to the creation of the midnight ghost show. A direct influence can be found in the spiritualism craze, begun in America in the mid-1800s. Spiritualism became a prominent part of the entertainment industry as mentalists and hypnotists began booking their acts into vaudeville and lecture circuits. Séances and the exploration of psychic phenomena became a popular pastime and many Americans rushed to seers and psychics to have their fortune told or to try to contact departed loved-ones. Well-known stage magicians and illusionists also capitalized on the trend by including mindreading or mentalism in their acts, and this was how many of the early ghostmasters got their start. Throughout history there have been some magicians who used their skills and technical know-how to present

35 illusions to the general public as true evidence of

psychic phenomena. This was true of all early magicians. Until the late eighteenth century the terms "magician"

and "conjurer" referred to one who was believed to have true supernatural powers. As magic historian Edwin Dawes notes :

The application of the words 'conjuring' and 'magic' to sleight-of-hand entertainment was not established until the later part of the eighteenth century. The first use of 'conjurer' in this sense was probably in the title of the book The Conjurer Unma.sked, published in 1785. Prior to this time the words had supernatural connotations. i

The public has long had a fascination with things supernatural, and a desire to attend performances which presented the unusual and bizarre. Magicians were able to use their craft to satisfy this desire. One such performer was Etienne-Gaspard Robertson. In 1798 he premiered Phanta.sma.g’oria, a performance in which he called forth spirits and demons for his astounded audiences. The production was presented in the chapel of what was once a Capuchin monastery in Paris. This, of course, added to its mystery and believability.

lEdwin A. Dawes, The Great Illusionists (Seacaucus: Chartwell Books, 1979) 16.

36 Robertson was a skilled entertainer and knew how to take advantage of atmospheric and technical effects to create a stunning, sensory performance:

Attired in a long cloak, he poured blood, vitriol, and an inflammable fluid on a fire. As a bell tolled, thunder rolled, and lightning flashed, clouds of smoke rose from the fire, and terrifying images of the dead and demons appeared in the a i r . 2

The performance caused quite a sensation, and there were reports of some audience members screaming, fainting, or running terrified from the room. Unbeknownst to his audience, of course, Robertson was making use of a new device known as the magic lantern.^ Phantasmagoria became quite popular and was subsequently presented throughout Europe and the United States.

While there has always been a fascination with spirits and the afterlife, the m o d e m spiritualism movement was begun on March 31, 1848 in Hydesville, New

York, by Margaret and Kate Fox. On that day eight-year- old Margaret and six-year-old Kate were playing, when

2Milboume Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973) 95.

3See Chapter 7 for further discussion of the magic lantern.

37 they began to experience ghostly rappings :

Kate, the youngest daughter was playing when the noises began. Innocently, she looked about the room, snapped her fingers together a number of times and shouted into the empty space : 'Here Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do.' Almost immediately, as if in response to the sounds that Kate made, there occurred an identical number of raps. Mrs. Fox, who was in the room, was stunned. Neighbors were eventually called in to witness the miraculous events. Questions such as "How old am I?" and "How many children do I have?" were answered with the correct number of raps. A code was worked out so the spirit could answer more than just numerical questions: one rap for "no," two for "yes." Following this innovation, the spirit's story slowly unfolded. The "presence" in the Fox cottage responsible for these strange rapping noises was the ghost of a dead man, a peddler named Charles B . Rosma who had been murdered some years earlier and was buried in the c e l l a r .4

Word of the girls ' strange gift spread quickly and people soon flocked to Hydesville to witness the spirit manifestations for themselves. Because the girls were so young, no one ever suspected trickery was involved. The girls duped the public and would continue to do so for many years.

4Eugene Burger, Spirit Theater.- Reflections on the History and Performance of Seances (Washington D.C.: Kaufman and Greenberg, 1986) 38.

38 With the sudden popularity of her younger sisters.

The eldest Fox sister, Leah, aged thirty-one, saw an opportunity for profit and quickly set herself up as their manager and promoter:

She seems to have grasped instantly the possibilities in the "occult" powers of her little sisters and to have taken complete command of the Fox family's affairs at once. Her first move was to organize a "Society of Spiritualists" and encourage crowds to come to the house to see the children. Hydesville became famous almost overnight.5

Leah soon took her young sisters to Rochester, Hew York and began arranging for them to give séances and exhibitions. While in Rochester, Leah "discovered" that she too had psychic powers and began to promote herself as a medium as well.

In 1850 the sisters were invited to Hew York City by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who arranged séances for many of his famous friends. Greeley was convinced of the Fox sisters' credibility and declared their manifestations genuine. This gave their career an added boost, and throughout the following years they

5Harry Houdini, Houdini: A Magician Among the Spirits (1924; No. Stratford, New Hampshire : Ayer Co., 1998) 2.

39 continued to capitalize upon their growing reputation.

Their sphere of influence expanded and they eventually

could count many famous people among their followers.

Over the years the Fox sisters' had numerous well-known sitters at their séances including: Mary Todd Lincoln,

Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant.6

Building upon the success of the Fox sisters, the

spiritualist movement quickly spread throughout the

United States. In 1850 spiritualist groups extended from

Canada to Hew York and west to St. Louis. Ohio alone claimed over two hundred séance circles.7 in. 1851 there were six spiritualist journals; by 1854 ten journals existed.8

Although the Fox Sisters were given credit for founding modern spiritualism, it was two brothers who helped to spread the phenomenon to the theatre by producing spirits on the stages of many theatres throughout the United States and abroad. The brothers were Ira Erastus Davenport and William Henry Harrison

^Burger 41.

TBurger 17.

8Burger 52.

40 Davenport. B o m in Buffalo, New York on Sept 17, 183 9

and February 1, 1841 respectively, they did not live far from Rochester, and it might be assumed that they were influenced to some extent by the Fox sisters. 9 The

Davenports presented themselves as actual mediums, and were most famous for their "spirit cabinet" performance.

Tied hand and foot, and facing one another from each end of a long wooden bench, they were then locked into a large cabinet with a assortment of props, after which bells would sound, musical instruments would be played, hands would appear through openings in the cabinet . . . .The cabinet was often opened quickly--by one of the brothers' assistants-- in the midst of these events, and the two Davenports were always found to be still securely bound, lo

The brothers became quite famous and began their first actual tour in 1 8 5 5 .it The Davenport Brothers played

SDavid Price, Magict A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater (New York: Cornwall Books, 1985) 443.

10James Randi, Conjuring: Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, Wizardry, Deception, and Chicanery and of the Mountebanks and Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) 53.

llPrice 444.

41 throughout the United States, and then toured to

England. There they were quite unknown until Dion Boucicault, the famous and playwright, took them under his wing and made them guests of honor at parties given for fashionable . 12

Because the Davenports presented themselves as genuine mediums, they invoked the ire of many of the magicians of the day who knew there was trickery involved. Magicians attended their performances in an attempt to discover and reveal the Davenports' secrets and techniques. This was finally accomplished by the great John Neville Maskelyne in 1865, who, in order to prove their deceit, went on to replicate their performance :

Purely by chance, Maskelyne discovered they were frauds. A ray of sunlight from an insecurely draped window flashed briefly on the stage. From his vantage point at the side, Maskelyne could see into the cabinet through a partially open door. Ira Davenport was vigorously ringing a bell.

Maskelyne told the audience what he had seen, but a clergyman who had been watching on the far side of the stage scoffed at this explanation. Determined to prove his point, Maskelyne persuaded George Alfred Cooke, a

12price 444.

42 fellow cornetist in the Volunteer Rifles Band to help him build a cabinet so they could work together to duplicate the Davenports' trickery.

After three months of practice, the 25-yr-old Maskelyne and the 39-yr-old Cooke appeared at Jessop's Gardens on June 19, 1865. Trick by trick . . . they went through the complete Davenport séance.

Not long after Maskelyne ' s discovery of their methods, the Davenports ran into some other trouble during their tour of England. In February of 1865, while performing in Liverpool, two men bound the brothers with what is called a "Tom Fool's Knot" from which they could not make their secret escape. The expected- phenomena did not occur, and the Davenports had to be cut loose :

On that occasion a riot ensued in which the cabinet was destroyed by the audience, the police arrived, and the price of admission was refunded. The two mischief-makers followed the Davenports to Huddersfield and Leeds, performing the same service for them in both those cities.m

Wisely, the brothers opted to begin a tour of the Continent rather than risk further ruin to their

13Christopher 156.

14Randi, Conjuring' 55.

43 reputation.

Although, the Davenports never publicly acknowledged, that they used trickery in their performances and continued to tour under the guise that their

manifestations were "real," the public became increasingly aware that they were not mediums, but rather, magicians who had created a very clever illusion. In 1902, the pioneer filmmaker, Georges

Méliès, produced a short feature titled. The Cabinet Trick of the Davenport Brothers, which left no doubt

about the nature of their performance. is

From its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, spiritualism offered a way for opportunists to bilk the public out of money. Once the Fox Sisters began charging

fees for sittings and séances, many others soon realized that they could make a very good living providing the

same services :

This started a whole regiment of imitators who called themselves psychics and claimed to have supernatural powers and offered for fees to use these power to solve all problems of individuals of all types with everything from financial matters to health, marital problems and professional problems. This was the start of the professional fee-charging racket . . 15Randi, Conjuring- 55. See chapter 6 for further discussion of Méliès contribution to film history.

44 - 16

There was growing concern about these charlatans who

were preying upon the hopes and fears of innocent people. Some legislatures began to pass laws in order to

prohibit mediums and psychics from plying their trade.

In 18SO the state of Alabama passed a law stating that anyone found guilty of conducting a spiritualist séance

would be fined the sum of five hundred dollars, and in

1884 the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, an organization whose purpose was to test the

veracity of self-proclaimed psychics in hopes of

exposing the frauds, thus protecting the naive public from being victimized.

Despite evidence to the contrary, however, many people continued to believe in the validity of the

spiritualists. They had heard stories of the Fox sisters, and some had attended séances and witnessed psychic phenomena with their own eyes. False psychics and soothsayers found numerous clever ways to continue to fool their adherents. Then, in 1888, Margaret Fox shocked the public by confessing that she and her

ISsurling "Volta" Hull, The Billion Dollar Bait (Orlando: Daniels Publishers, 1977) 50.

17Burger 53.

45 sisters were frauds. Over the years Margaret had become quite religious, and increasingly distressed by her part in creating a movement which had brought grief and misfortune to so many. Her first confession appeared in the New York Herald on September 24, 1888, followed by a more extensive confession printed in the New York florid, on October 21, "Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description .... I want to see the day when it is entirely done away with. After ray sister Katie and I expose it, I hope spiritualism will be given a death blow. . ."18 That same evening Margaret gave a demonstration at the New York Academy of Music in which she demonstrated how she and her sister had produced spirit rappings by cracking their toes. Even so, the avowed believers did not lose faith. Margaret's confession did little to deter a population already caught up in the spiritualism frenzy. It is not surprising that many people chose to ignore Margaret Fox's confession and to continue their firm belief in a movement whose foundation had been exposed as a hoax. By this time, spiritualism was already in popular circulation, and those who were

ISMargaret Fox, qtd. in Burger 43

46 believers were able to "read into" Fox's confession what was necessary to justify their continued faith. Many convinced themselves that the confession had been faked or coerced:

The public confessions had done nothing to dampen the belief in the Fox sisters, or the movement they had started. The believers expressed their regret at the fact that the sisters had been forced into lying and spiritualism continued as if the confessions of the Fox sisters had never happened. I9

Believers found a way to resolve the contradictory nature of Fox's statement and their own experience, so they could continue to hold onto their prior certainty.

In Reading Popular Culture, John Fiske notes that contradictions such as this are often a central feature of popular culture :

The people cope well with contradictions; popular culture in industrial societies is largely constructed out of them, for the social experience of the subordinate is contradictory to its core--the social system that nurtures and rewards them also oppresses them; they simultaneously play along with it and oppose it in a form of constant lived

19James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural: James Randi's Decidedly Skeptical Definitions of Alternate Realities (New York: St. Martin's, 1995) 102.

47 irony. The abrasive faces of the contradictory spark meanings that escape the control of the dominant, that become available to be made into the popular. It is contradictions, the unresolved relationships among different social experiences, that provoke discussion and encourage the oral reproduction of meanings that is so central to popular culture. This is not a mere recirculation of meanings already presented, it is a reworking of the stuff from which meanings are made, a restructuring of social relations and discursive relations that is the responsibility and creativity of the reader and not of the producer of the text.20

Due to the popularity of mediums and psychic phenomena, many magicians began to feature spiritualist routines in their acts. They did not do it under the guise of having otherworldly powers, however, but presented the pieces as magical Illusions, which stunned and amazed audiences nonetheless. It was during this time that the first "seeds" of what would eventually become the midnight ghost shows were sown. As ghostmaster Philip Morris explains :

Back around the turn - of - the - centuiry the major touring illusion shows--Blackstone, Thurston-- would play a theatre for an entire week and they would advertise that on Saturday night they were going to do a " special midnight extra show, " and that show would be a spiritual séance where they try to contact the

20piske, Reading- 194.

48 dead. 21

Magicians began calling these performances "spook nights" prefiguring the spook shows which would soon follow. Magician Harry Blackstone Jr., son of the great

Harry Blackstone notes, "My father was one of the first to add a special " spook night " to his performances, to pull in those more interested in spooks than in m a g i c . "22

This precedent of presenting an eerie, supernatural midnight show paved the way for later magicians to create the ghost show genre.

Times of crisis often precipitate increased interest in "things beyond" which might help to explain a world that seems out of control. Just so. World War I brought about a renewed interest in the after-life and another rise in the spiritualism industry:

Many Americans, mourning the loss of loved ones killed in the war, longed for comfort and an assurance that these loved ones were at peace in the world of the spirits. Opportunistic con-men and women preyed upon

21philip Morris, interview. Spooks-a.-Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, ed. Jim Ridenour, dir. Jim Ridenour, n.d.

22Harry Blackstone, Jr. with Charles and Regina Reynolds, The Blackstone Book of Maqlc and Illusion (New York: Newmarket Press, 1985) 82.

49 the public's grief. Spiritualists and fortune­ tellers sprang up everywhere. 23

This new wave of deceivers raised cpreat concern among those who performed magic for a living. The bad

reputation of false psychics and seers who cheated the

public out of money placed a stigma on the art of magic, and angered magicians who were honest men willing to

admit that they accomplished their illusions through skill and dexterity. To make the public aware of methods used by the con artists, several books were published, the most famous of which was A Magician Among the

Spirits (1924) by Harry Houdini. The Society of American Magicians also became active in exposing the frauds who

passed off magicians' tricks as psychic phenomena :

Many of these tricks were the inventions of stage magicians, who used them for honest entertainment. The fortune tellers have stolen these tricks, and the public is sometimes prone to confuse the honest deceivers . . . with the low characters who use the same tricks to ruin their unfortunate visitors. Largely for this reason, the Parent Assembly of the Society of American Magicians . recently started and won many notable victories in a campaign against fortune tellers, fake spirit mediums sind others

23jullien J. Proskauer, Spook Crooks: Exposing the Secrets of the Prophet-eers Who Conduct Our Wickedest Industry (New York: A.L. Burt, 1932) 10.

50 claiming supernatural powers . 24

Houdini's book was particularly important as the first

widespread dissemination of information about the methods used by false psychics and. seers. Houdini became

particularly interested in spiritualism when his beloved mother passed away. Following her death he began to

visit spiritualists and to attend numerous séances in

the hopes of receiving some communication from her. Because of his knowledge of legerdemain, however, he was

able to detect various methods of deception employed at

these meetings. He became increasingly disillusioned and angry, and eventually concluded that all spiritualists

were frauds. He subsequently devoted his time to the

intense study of self -proclaimed mediums avowing to

discredit them by exposing their methods. Ironically,

Houdini himself had performed séances early in his career, unaware of the ill effects they could have on

those who were so desperate to obtain comfort through some sign from the departed. In his book he expresses regret at his earlier folly:

24Proskauer 13.

51 As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief, I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on c r i m e . 25

Even with the publication of Houdini's book, however, many citizens still lost their fortunes and their lives to the opportunistic mediums. In 1931 several cases of suicide traceable to fortune tellers were reported.26 The problem became so widespread that the Smithsonian

Institute began looking into the phenomenon. On June 30, 1931 the Institute issued a statement of its findings :

The Smithsonian Institute has no evidence which it considers to prove that the fortunes of individuals can be told by fortune tellers, astrologers or spirit mediums. The Institute believes that the fortunes of individuals primarily depend on their own exertions and secondly on the influence of future environment, and in general are not predictable.27

25Houdini xi.

26proskauer 11.

27proskauer 245.

52 Although the spiritualist movement was the cause of

much concern among magicians, it also provided the

impetus for them to tap into the public ' s fascination

with things of an eerie and otherworldly nature. The

production of "spirits" and "ghosts" became an integral

part of the magician's repertoire, and this, in turn,

paved the way for the creation of the midnight ghost show. The public gradually became wise to the ways of

the false psychics, and much of the interest in spiritualism abated, but this did not lessen the audience's desire to experience the uncanny and supernatural:

Even though the belief in Spiritualism waned, audiences' desire to see ghosts, ghouls and things from beyond did not. Although many people now understood that apparitions and ghostly appearances were nothing more than clever tricks, they still wanted to be amazed and delighted by events that explored the dark, unknown side of the human psyche. Though ghosts and monsters may not be real, if one could suspend their disbelief, they were still awe-inspiring and frightening.28

So even though much of the public was now wise to the ways of the charlatans, they were still eager to attend performances which could fabricate a glimpse of the

28story of Magic: Mystery in America.r narr. Ricky Jay, Arts and Entertainment, 1997.

53 supernatural. This was the perfect opportunity for some enterprising magicians to present ghosts and. ghouls at midnight. The audience was primed and ready for the genres of the horror-film and the midnight ghost show to rise and offer their special brand of entertainment.



Even though they were never advertised as such,

ghost shows were essentially magic shows. The early shows emphasized the presence of ghosts, beginning with a brief lecture on spirits followed by a forty-five

minute demonstration of telepathy, clairvoyance, billet

readings, séances or straight conjuring tricks that

emphasized the mysterious, such as Slate Writing,

Dancing Handkerchief, Floating Table, Spirit Cabinet,

and Spirit Paintings. Later productions incorporated more gruesome and monstrous illusions such as the decapitation illusion, the buzz-saw illusion, the woman

changed to a gorilla, etc. The end of the show would contain a blackout lasting two or three minutes, during which eerie sounds were heard and luminous apparitions filled the theatre. The entire performance lasted approximately fifty minutes. The performance was given in conjunction with a film--most of the time a horror

55 film--with the ghost show usually following the film and commencing at midnight.

The main distinguishing feature of ghost shows was

the blackout which concluded each show. This was an element that had not been seen by audiences of magic

shows before, and it could mean the difference between a

successful show and a failure. Even if the rest of the performance was somewhat substandard, a good, frightening blackout would send the audience away happy.

Although any number of different illusions and effects could lead up to it, the performance of the blackout itself remained fairly consistent from one performer to the next. Each used variations on a set of standard techniques and effects, most of which were achieved with luminous paint or paper. Ghostmasters would paint frightening images on balloons, streamers, cloth etc. and these devices would be manipulated by numerous performers and assistants during the blackout so that they would appear throughout the theatre. One of the most popular luminous props were "spook paddles." These were small paddles painted black on one side, with a luminescent image on the other. By turning the paddle, the image would disappear and reappear at will. This created a very easily-achieved spooky effect during the

56 blackout as images would suddenly "materialize" before the audience's eyes. Also, many of the luminous figures were hung from cane poles and extended out into the house, so the apparitions seemed to be flying right over the audience members' heads. Luminous makeup was also used. In the early productions, stooges and assistants placed in the audience would have luminous makeup on, which was undetectable until it was activated by a flash which would start the blackout. When the makeup became visible it created the visage of a skeleton or ghoul on the assistant's face. In the 1940s, as audiences became younger and more unruly, assistants were no longer sent into the auditorium with luminescent makeup, however, because it began to present a safety hazard:

We learned very quickly. Originally I would put some luminous in cold cream and put it on the assistants ' hands and faces to make them look like skulls. But they kept getting punched in the face--people would go after the luminous, so, we began putting the skull faces on paddles. i

The standard way to begin the ghost show blackout was with a bright flash from a flashpot or flashbulb. It was of vital importance because it "charged" all of the

iRaymond Corbin, personal interview, 16 July 1999.

57 luminous materials in the theatre. Some ghostmasters

also carried, small battery-operated lights with them

which they would use to activate some of the luminous if

the flashpot malfunctioned. The flash was also important because it would temporarily blind the audience members and make them less likely to be able to discern the

assistants manipulating the various effects in the dark. It was important, however, for all associated with the

production be ready for the flash so they would not be blinded:

A few seconds after the auditorium is plunged into total darkness, one or two or three photo flash bulbs should be shot from the stage into the audience. This action startles and frightens the audience, temporarily blinds them and activates your markers, stooges faces with luminous make-up and all luminous paper, whether on stage or in the auditorium, as long as they face the source of the light. All assistants and stooges should be briefed to CLOSE THEIR EYES the second the lights go out, and not open them until after the flash (which they can discern with closed eyes. ) Thus they escape the temporary blindness suffered by the other spectators . . . .2

ZRobert A. Nelson, The Ghost Book of Dark Secrets, 2nd ed. (Alberta, Canada : Micky Hades Enterprises, 1972) 8 .

58 In addition to providing visual apparitions, another technique used to make the blackout frightening, was to sub] ect the audience to things that they could feel, but not see. This was usually something thrown into the audience such as rice, unpopped popcorn, wet strings, or cold water shot from water pistols. Ghostmasters would use anything that would startle, but not physically harm the audience members. One clever effect was created by tying a long black rope between two poles which stretched across the middle section of seats. Draped over this rope were lengths of string from a mophead, which had been soaked in cold water. As soon as the lights were out, two assistants would grab the poles, pull the rope taut across the center section of the house and slowly walk up the aisles, dragging the wet ends of the string across the faces of the spectators. This same setup could be used to create a similar effect of spider webs brushing the audience faces, by using black silk threads instead of mop string. An important requirement of a successful blackout was that it provided a complete sensory experience for the entire audience. If part of the audience was just left sitting in the dark with not much occurring, they were apt to be very disappointed and

59 were more likely to become restless and ruin the show.

In his Ghost Book of Dark Secrets, Robert Nelson insists

that, "Visual manifestations occur for ALL spectators . . AND physical contact should be made with the GREAT

MAJORITY of the audience. The object is to create utter confusion and FEAR in the minds of the spectator, if possible."3

Sound was also an important part of any effective blackout. Many performers used a recorded soundtrack which featured thunder, screams, moans, evil laughs,

scary music or some combination of all of these.

Ghostmaster Herman L. Weber had an effect he would sometimes use for his blackouts, which he dubbed "The

Witch's Music." The effect was first used at Warner's

Ohio Theatre in Lima Ohio, June 26, 1942, and it consisted of a small music box mounted on a piece of wood and attached to the microphone:

The theatre is blacked out at a midnight ghost show whereupon weird tinkling music is heard to fill the theatre. A luminous guitar or mandolin may be floated about to seem like the source of the ghostly music. No records, turntables, or sound effects from the booth are needed. You simply have a small music box in your pocket which you attach to the microphone and set going during the first

3Nelson, Ghost Book 7.

60 moment of the blackout.4

This was a handy alternative in case of a technical

snafu, but one that was not available to ghostmasters

during the War because the importation of the tiny music boxes stopped.

Because the blackout was so important to the

success of a show, it was a primary consideration when

loading into a new theatre. As Philip Morris notes, "One of the first things you did when you arrived at a theatre was to see how effectively you could get a

blackout."5 of course, sometimes there was a problem

getting managers to agree to blackout the entire theatre

due to the safety hazard it would pose. Herman Weber explains, however, that with a little salesmanship and

ingenuity the show could go on:

Some theatre managers, alert to the fire laws, may object to pulling the exit lights. A little sales talk and the definite assurance the show will be a FLOP if all lights are not extinguished will usually do the trick. However, should such an argument fail, the operator should have available EXIT signs made

4Herman L. Weber, Out of the Spook Cabinet (Oakland, California: Lloyd E. Jones, 1947) 23.

5Philip Morris, interview. Spooks-a-Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, Dir. Jim Ridenour, Ed. Jim Ri denour, n.d.

61 on luminous paper or cardboard, which can be placed over the house exit box.6

The inability to get a complete blackout during the performance could spell disaster for a show. Magician Lee Jacobs relates a story of how a technical snafu at an Ohio University performance turned his midnight ghost show into one of the (unintentional) comedy hits of the year:

A friend and I were going to produce a ghost show on the Ohio University campus. Getting a blackout in the theatre was tough because there were two separate switches which had to be thrown. I briefed the technicians that when they heard the gunshot, they should throw the switches for the blackout. Well, one of them didn ' t hear the shot so half the lights stayed on. I had told my assistants in the audience NOT to begin anything if we didn't get a total blackout, but they did anyway. There they were, running up and down the aisles with cane poles and everyone could see them! In the confusion, the doves onstage got loose and decided to roost on top of the movie screen. When the movie came on, the audience could see a silhouette of me jumping behind the screen trying to retrieve the doves. They were in hysterics.7

^Nelson, Ghost Book 7.

TLee Jacobs, personal interview, 16 July 1999

62 The blackout was not only the most important, but also the most risky part of any ghost show. It was during this time that audiences were most likely to get rowdy and out of control, thus, the lead-in for the blackout sequence was very important. This was the performer's chance to give the audience direction and to help diminish the possibility of someone getting hurt, or ruining the effects. The better the performer was at controlling this moment, the more likely he was to have a safe and successful blackout. Performers used various methods to achieve this. One of the most popular was to ask the audience to hold on to their chairs or to reach out and hold on to the hands of the person sitting next to them, "Now this was for two reasons : the psychological reason, and it also prevented. your audience from panicking during the time when the lights were out."8 Other performers preferred the straightforward approach:

The operator need not fear the presence of flashlights in the audience -- IF he will inform his audience in a friendly and diplomatic manner that such actions will not be tolerated - that flashlights, matches, or any undue disturbances in the audience by ANYONE will cause him to IMMEDIATELY TURN up

8Morris, Spooks -a.-Poppin.

63 the lights, and stop the performance. Point out that it's all in fun, and that just two or three spectators who fail to COOPERATE COULD bring the show to a premature end. Place the responsibility squarely on your audience. As an added precaution, post two or three ushers mid-way in the aisles.9

Although performers did what they could to try and

control the situation and prevent problems during the blackout, some audiences were more cooperative than others. No matter how much warning or cajoling the

magician offered, some youngsters insisted on getting out of their seats. This created quite a hazard for the people performing the blackout effects as they might run into or trip over audience members who were suddenly in an aisle or a space that the performer expected to be clear:

Former ghost show workers have told me that the eeriest feeling they experienced was when numbers of the audience left their movie seats and moved about in the dark. Occasionally when the house lights were turned back up, someone other than a staff member would be on stage or in a theater exit. lo

^Nelson, Ghost Book 8.

10Mark Walker, Ghostmasters (Boca Raton : Cool Hand Communications, 1994) 31.

64 Most spook shows used one of two methods to psychologically condition the audience for experiencing

fright during the blackout segment of the show. The

first was the use of suggestion in which the ghostmaster would prime the audience by telling them about all of the horrible things they were going to see or feel in the dark. An intense dramatic monologue featuring vivid descriptions of the horrors awaiting the audience was a standard feature for many performers. The ghostmaster would describe how " spiders will crawl through the auditorium," or "snakes will slither at their feet" and that "monsters and ghouls will appear, " anything that would put the audience on edge and prime them for the effects to follow. The second type of lead-in to the blackout became popular in later ghost shows. A few moments before the blackout, a creature or monster would

"escape, " and head down the stage steps toward the audience. The ghostmaster would panic and scream something like, "Oh no, the monster has escaped! The monster is loose in the theatre ! " Just as the monster headed toward the audience, the blackout would occur. This would give the performer playing the monster a chance to actually "escape" into the wings to reemerge and help with luminous effects, while giving the

65 audience the impression that the monster had continued down the steps into the auditorium and was now loose amongst them. Ghostmaster Don Brandon describes how he used this method in his production of The Mad Doctor and his Chamber of Horrors:

I started with an old guillotine which Harry had given me .... While the magician was talking to the audience and seemingly, not noticing what was happening, an assistant dressed as a hunchback with a terribly distorted face, came out and tripped the release. The blade fell, blood flew everywhere and the head fell into the basket. Spectators actually saw the head fall. The hunchback picked up the head in one hand and a very evil looking knife in the other . . . [and] headed down into the audience when the blackout occurred and the ghosts came out. n

Another standard feature of many of the early ghost shows was a segment known as the "committee." This referred to a part of the show where several audience members were invited onstage to take part in an effect or illusion. This often consisted of the audience members participating in a séance or volunteering to be hypnotized. Sometimes the magician would have the people

llDon and Joyce Brandon, Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician (Hanover, Virginia: TAG Publications, 1995) 68.

66 sit in a row of chairs up on stage in order to play various tricks on them. One of the standard tricks was the "hot seat," where an unsuspecting victim's chair would be wired to deliver a small electric shock, startling them and causing them to jump from their seat .12 Another type of committee segment might feature audience members seated at a table for an onstage séance. The table would suddenly begin to levitate, indicating, of course, the presence of "spirits." Robert Nelson describes how this was accomplished:

A committee of serious-minded spectators are invited on stage. They are seated around a heavy table - after due inspection. The performer takes his place at the table, and a circle is formed. A burning candle is placed on the table, and the lights are turned extremely low, or entirely extinguished. Presently, the table begins to move and as it rises in the air, the spectators are obliged to leave their chairs to remain with the table. Performer and all spectators merely have their finger tips on the top of the table ! Presently the table thumps to the floor, and a spectator is invited to sit on

IZThis was the same effect used by William Castle for his 1959 movie The Tingler. Castle would have a few chairs wired throughout the movie theatre so that some audience members would experience the tingler's horrible effect. He dubbed the gimmick "percepto." See William Castle, Step Right Up: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (1976; New York: Pharos Books, 1592/ 151-2.

67 the table, and hold it down. Again the table moves, and rises in the air, giving the spectator a free ride.. . . This great "spirit phenomena" [sic] is easily- accomplished by the performer and one stooge from the audience. Both assistant and performer are wearing special belts made of heavy webbing, around the waist, and supporting straps over the shoulder, similar to suspenders. At the front of the belt, and hidden under the vest is a very large heavy leather piece, with a folding arm. After the performer and stooge are seated at the table - opposite each other, and all committee men are placed, performer and stooge release the folding arms, which catches [sic] under the edge of the table. As they start to rise, and lifting FROM THE HIPS, these two performers are capable of lifting huge weights. The table appears to rise, and in order to maintain finger tip contact with the table, all must rise. The illusion is perfect.

As noted above, ghosts shows often relied on "stooges" or "plants" to help pull off some of their effects. There were two main types. One was a person who was chosen prior to the performance who had been familiarized with a particular effect or aspect of the show, and who agreed to take part in helping to pull it off. These stooges were admitted to the performance gratis in exchange for their help. The second type of stooge was an audience member who volunteered to come up on stage during the show, and who would play along as

13Nelson, Ghost Book 15.

68 the ghostmaster "coached" them. Dick Newton, who toured with Dr. Banshse’s Chasm of Spasms and Dr. Dracula's Den of Living- Nightmares, relates how this set-up worked:

We ' d get up a bunch of people from the audience and then we ' d sit ' em all down on a line of chairs. And sometimes we would get kids in advance and sometimes you just prompt the kids when they ^ re up there. . . There ’ s five kids sitting in a row, and you'd say to the fifth kid as he sat down, "As soon as I start to come over to hypnotize you, get up and run like hell. " And then you ' d start with the other four, and one at a time you'd prompt ' em . And then when you got to him he would get up and run for his seat, which would be a huge laugh -14

Stooges were also sometimes used to deliver certain lines or reactions from the audience. This way the ghostmaster could "script" a particular joke or an audience interaction and still have it appear to be a completely spontaneous moment:

A wildman ran out on the stage and into the audience. Ten or more people left their seats and ran up the aisle. We had two stooges that started the exodus and other people joined in and climbed over their seats and ran up the aisle in panic because they didn't know what was going to h a p p e n . is

14Dick Newton, personal interview, 30 August 1999.

15Jack Baker, "Dr. Silkini's Asylum of Horrors," Spook Shows on Parade, ed. Mark Walker (Baltimore: Magic

69 The use of stooges was very important, but also could be very time-consuming for the ghostmaster. Because ghost shows primarily played one-night-stands, the ghostmaster would have to recruit and prompt a new batch of stooges each day, "In operating such a show the part that becomes a real task is obtaining local helpers or stooges who will sit among the spectators and bring the blackout effects right down to them, "is It was worth the effort, however, for the addition of these people made a show seem many times larger than it actually was.

Many ghostmasters toured with only one or two assistants, but with the added help from the stooges

Media Ltd, 1978) 41. The use of stooges found its way into the horror film industry as well. Many of the film promotional departments borrowed techniques that had proved successful in ghost shows. In Universal Horror writer Forrest Ackerman remembers a time when he had his first experience of this phenomenon, "I went down Market Street to the Orpheum Theatre and in front of the theatre was an ambulance, and I thought 'Wait a minute, what kind of a film am I getting into here? ' And I got in the lobby, and two nurses were standing there .... And during the showing, about in the middle of the film, a lady on the aisle screamed, jumped up, ran up the aisle and out of the theatre. Well, it was my first example of the promotion department at work . . . . "

16 W e b e r 7.

70 they could double or triple the amount of people helping to present the show. While acquiring and tra.ining stooges in each new town could be very time consuming, if done correctly it paid off for the ghostmaster, "The use of plants is not essential, but they do much to bolster any show. One or two should be used each show, if possible. "17

Stooges did a lot to bolster the comic potential of any production. The reactions from the coached stooges onstage usually drew a great laugh from the audience, and lines yelled from the house could add another element of surprise and fun to any ghost show. An assistant on Card Mendor's stage show Dr. Dracula.'s Den of Living’ Nightmares describes one of the comic bits he performed:

At one point, from the back of the auditorium, I would imitate a loud baby's cry. Card . . . would feign annoyance at the interruption, stare at the back of the hall and ask, ' Would someone please take care of that baby? ' whereupon, I would fire off a blank pistol and stop the baby-crying. It grew [sic] a great laugh . . . . " 18

17Robert A. Nelson, Encyclopedia of Mentalism and Allied Arts (Columbus, Ohio: Nelson Enterprises, 1944) 56.

18Robert Bluemle, "Haunting Memories," The Linking Ring Feb. 1999: 76.

71 As noted above, in addition to the horror and frightening aspects, many of the ghost shows contained a

significant amount of comedy. In this they exhibited what Bakhtin would term the " camivalesque. " Bakhtin

defines the term in relation to the medieval carnival, but it can also be applied to other forms of

entertainment which contain similar facets. In his discussion of medieval laughter, Bakhtin describes how it represents man's triumph over fear:

The acute awareness of victory over fear is an essential element of medieval laughter. This feeling is expressed in a number of characteristic medieval comic images. We always find in them the defeat of fear presented in a droll and monstrous form, the symbols of power and violence turned inside out, the comic images of death and bodies gaily rent asunder.is

Although here Bakhtin is describing the medieval

carnival, the description could be just as easily applied to the midnight ghost show. They too

intermingled horror and comedy, and reveled in the

images of "bodies gaily rent asunder. " In the post-

19Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans, Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984) 91.

72 World-War II period, many ghost shows included illusions which were quite violent and used a liberal dose of stage blood. Numerous ghostmasters featured a decapitation illusion, a buzz-saw illusion, a cremation or an i m p a l i n g . 20 But even though these effects were horrific, the comic element was present. In order for the audience to enjoy the gruesome effects, it was important that the fright be tempered by laughter. This caused the experience to become a celebration and offered up what Bakhtin terms a "victory over fear." The famous magician Teller, of the Penn and Teller duo explains it this way:

Gore onstage--and death, for that matter, onstage--is a celebration of the fact that we can present the image of death. We can look at the apparent image of death and be perfectly safe and happy. All of that stuff is a celebration of life. . . .21

20In presenting the decapitation illusion, these magicians were carrying on a time-honored tradition. First recorded in Ancient Egypt,the decapitation illusion is one of the oldest in the history of magic. Milboume Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1973) 9.

2lTeller, interview. Mysteries of Magic, dir. Mel Morpeth, narr. Ray Brooks., The Learning Channel, 1997.

73 Ghost shows were so popular they often played to capacity crowds, thus turning away many potential ticket

.buyers. Booking agents, looking for a way to take advantage of this overflow audience, came up with an

ingenious strategy. Two theatres in close proximity

would be booked. The stage performance would be presented at one theatre while the audience at the other

theatre watched the film. Then this situation would be reversed :

On a Friday or Saturday night, the ticket sales would be so great that we would more than sell out. We'd have enough people to do a second show. That would be real fun, but you can't keep people out until two or three in the morning. And to pack the show up and change it, to go to another theatre and set it up, was really an awful lot of work. .The theatres were chains and they'd have another theatre maybe down the block a ways, or even across the street. . . so we would have the audience across the street watching the movie and we'd have the audience in our theatre watching the stage show. And then we'd switch audiences. . . . And we ' d time it so the two would end at the same time . . . . And it was a funny thing to see it--like at 12:30 in the morning--to see these two theatres changing. And it was all mostly young teenagers anyway, and they got a big kick out of it. It was all part of the fun, so they had no objections.22

22Newton interview.

74 Ghost show operators would split the cost of the film, which was to be shown with the movie houses, and in order to keep expenses as low as possible, they would only obtain one print of any film. If they wanted to accommodate more than one audience, they could either move the audiences (as noted above) or they had to transfer the movie reels from one theatre to another. Therefore, as the showing of each eighteen-minute reel of film was completed, that reel was bicycled to the other theatre so it was ready to be shown to that audience at the appropriate time. This was known as

"bicycling." Sometimes this was actually done with a three-theatre rotation, "They'd just bicycle the reels to the second theatre and the third theatre."23

After World War II, the midnight ghost show format and effects remained fairly consistent, but there was one major innovation which gave the ghostmasters an added boost. In 1949 Don Post of Hollywood obtained a license from to introduce the first rubber false face of the Frankenstein monster.24 That led to the release, in 1955, of a version of the character

23M o r r i s , Spooks-a-Poppin.

24walker, Ghostmasters 153

75 "featuring crepe wool hair and a zipper at the back of the mask. "25 This was followed by the release of other masks of famous monsters. Ghostmasters no longer had to rely on prosthetic pieces and theatrical makeup to create the creatures in their shows. Now they could obtain masks which allowed for quick changes, thus giving them the possibility of including a larger number of characters and monsters. This also cut down their set-up and preparation time tremendously.

As time went on, ghostmasters tried to continually adapt their performances and booking strategies to accommodate the ever-changing entertainment industry. With the advent of Cinerama and Cinemascope, however, some theatres physically changed so much that they could no longer accommodate stage shows :

The year that it all ended our feature was the Zornbietown Funera.1 wherein we had what looked like an open grave in a cemetery setting. This thing was portable and could be slid on and off of the stage. The audience would see the upper edge of a coffin lid open and this "thing" sit bolt upright. This zombie had dark sunken eyes, sunken cheeks, black stringy hair down to his eyebrows, fang-like teeth, and he was covered with calcium phosphorus which made him light up in the dark. He literally glowed green. He, and an assembly of his fellow zombies, descended upon the audience when the

25Walker, Ghostmasters 153.

76 lights went out and the séance started. During this show the zombie "Impaler" illusion was highly effective but so gory that we took it out of the show and replaced it with a simple sword penetration. I had scheduled for the upcoming season a feature entitled, "Voodoo Devil Dolls" with a number of effects using these creatures. We never got to use them. That was when the anamorphic lens was invented and Cinemascope [sic] was created. This required that huge, curved motion picture screens, reaching from wall to wall, had to be built out in front of the stages closing them off permanently.26

As movie theatres transformed to accommodate widescreen motion pictures, and television began to take hold as the major entertainment venue in America, some ghostmasters went back to performing traditional magic shows. Others tried to adapt their performances to drive-ins, which were becoming very popular. The difficult set-up and conditions of these outdoor performances, however, caused the shows to take on a very different look and format from the traditional midnight ghost show. The problems associated with performing on an open-air stage at a drive - in were numerous, and this variety of midnight show was very short-lived. The heyday of the ghost show was over, and while some performers continued with them well into the seventies, finding whatever venues they could, the

26Brandon, 71-72.

77 midnight ghost show would never again, flourish as it had in the forties and fifties.



This chapter is intended to give a brief overview of some of the performers who presented midnight shows.

To thoroughly document every performer and performance is well beyond the scope of this text, but the following examples will provide some insight into some of the major players in the genre. Ghost shows grew out of a practice that had already been adopted by some of the magicians of the time. Around the turn of the century magicians began advertising that they would conclude their run in a town by presenting a special midnight show which was devoted to eerie magic and mentalism tricks. (See Chapter 3) They began the midnight-showing trend, but it was the addition of the blackout which created a unique genre.

There is some disagreement as to the exact date the first ghost show was presented but most historians agree that it was first developed and presented by Elwin

79 Charles Peck. In Out of the Spook Cabinet, Herman Weber states that "the modern Spook Show. . . was originated by Elwin Peck of Salt Lake city about 1934, "i while Mark

Walker notes that "Peck himself claimed he was the originator, developing the idea in 1929 "2 Peck originally performed as a mentalist in vaudeville under the stage name of "El-Wyn." There is a long tradition of magicians and mentalists using exotic-sounding names to give themselves an added air of mystery, and ghostmasters were no exception.3 Sometime near the turn of the decade Peck began to feature a Saturday night ghost show at midnight. The weekend show was so popular that Peck offered an entire week of mentalism performances for free in exchange for all the receipts

iHerman L. Weber, Out of the Spook Cabinet (Oakland, California: Lloyd E . Jones, 1947) 5.

2Mark Walker, Ghostmasters (Boca Raton: Cool Hand Communications, 1994) 21.

3chostmaster Raymond Corbin performed under the name Ray-Mond, Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of William Robinson and even Ehrich Weiss borrowed the name of great French magician Robert-Houdin to become Houdini. For a complete history of magic and many examples of the exotic stage names adopted by magicians see David Price, Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater (New York: Cornwall Books, 1985).

80 from the weekend spook show.^

Herman L. Weber, who would himself become a ghostmaster gives a description of Peck's performance:

His program when I saw it was presented as though some mild-mannered friend of yours had invited you to his home to see the actions of ghosts in his living-room. Although at least five people traveled with the show, you saw only El Wyn [sicl on the stage. Invisible ghosts opened doors, caused objects to dance, glass lamp chimneys to glide across table tops and crash on the floor, pans of water floated in air and spilled their contents on command, the "Walking Away From Your Shadow" illusion was presented in a most novel way, with a spook theme. In fact, the entire stage program was of a "ghost" character. Wo die boxes or conjuring tricks. This was all to the good. But the big feature was the blackout that closed the s h o w . 5

In Ghostmasters, Mark Walker goes on to describe El- Wyn 's blackout in detail :

At the finale, the theater was plunged into total darkness. Flash powder ignited inside a coffin, temporarily blinding the spectators and illuminating one of three special backdrops that shone in the dark. Several animated skeletons did a weird dance across the apron of the stage, and luminous faces and phosphorous skulls appeared in the main body of the theater. A white vaporish form fluttered up and down the aisles over the heads of the audience, and ghosts ranged as far as the

4Walker, Ghostmasters 21,

Sweber 5.

81 balcony. The curtain closed, with a pistol shot. As the house lights came up, El-Wyn waved g o o d b y e . 6

The above description indicates that Peck introduced many of the effects that would become staples of the

ghost show format : The flashpot at the beginning of the blackout, the luminous figures flying over the audience,

stooges wearing luminous makeup to add to the number of luminous effects seen by the audience and, of course, the blackout itself. The format he established varied

little in the following decades.

Peck had a very effective booking agent who was able to book El-Wyn’s Midnight Spook Party in many large theatres throughout the forty-eight states and Canada. The show was extremely successful. A letter reprinted in

Ghostmasters indicates just how lucrative Peck's show was :

We booked this attraction in conjunction with a very bad picture. The Ghoul. Despite that, we had to open two theatres in San Antonio, as we filled the Texas, with its 2700 seats, and had to take care of the over-flow at the Empire. The gross was $1217.70. About three weeks later we brought it into Dallas at the Majestic Theatre and played to capacity, grossing $1203.00. We then put it into our best theatre in Houston and grossed $1100.00. I am sure you will realize that these are practically

GWalker, Ghostmasters 23.

82 New Year's Eve grosses, or better.7

Peck had definitely hit upon something audiences wanted

to see. His show, with its combination of magic, spiritualism and horror, provided the perfect escape for depression-era audiences. At the height of the Depression Peck's net income was $3000.00 a week. 8 Soon there were many imitators looking to take advantage of this new, lucrative format.

Ghost shows were being staged by so many performers across the country that some businesses sprang up to meet the huge demand for supplies. The first to offer a catalog specifically devoted to ghost show effects was

Sylvester Reilly. The S.W. Reilly Company was located in

Columbus, Ohio, and sold all kinds of materials needed for seances, spiritualism performances, and ghost shows in the mid-1930s. The cover of S.W. Reilly's catalog read, "Mentalism - Spiritism - Magic and - Kindred Phenonena [sic] Secrets and Supplies"9

7 r . J. O'Donnell of the Interstate Publix Theatres, Dallas, Texas letter to Interstate Publix Theatres in Atlanta, Georgia, n.d., circa 1932 rpt. in Walker, Ghostmasters 22.

8Walker, Ghostmasters 23.

9Rpt. in Walker, Ghostmasters 19.

83 Bob Nelson, who performed as a magician and mentalist, also began his own mentalism and ghost show supply business in Columbus, Ohio. Nelson Enterprises was founded in 1921, and it quickly became the major supplier for materials used by mentalists and spiritualists across the country. *o when the ghost shows began to take hold in the early thirties. Nelson began supplying these productions also. In addition to offering supplies and effects. Nelson also published numerous books highlighting various facets of the mentalism and ghost show trade. His book. The Ghost Book of Dark Secrets (n.d.) details all aspects of the business of creating a promoting such a show. Nelson also published The Encyclopedia of Mentalism (1944) and

Manual of Publicity and Exploitation for the

Mentalist(1948) among others. Nelson and his brother Larry (a.k.a. Alla Rageh) also formed their own mentalism act and toured for many years. For a brief time they tried their hand at ghost shows, developing The London Ghost Show but quickly gave up the endeavor as unsuccessful.^*- Instead, Nelson decided to offer the

lOwalker, Ghostmasters 117.

^iRobert A. Nelson, The Last Book of Nelson: an Autobiography Plus (Columbus, Ohio : Nelson Enterprises, 1970) 12.

84 London Ghost Show as a complete package to other

performers who were looking for a ready-made ghost show to take on the road. During the post-World War 11 era Nelson mounted a more successful ghost show entitled.

Bob Nelson and his Ghost Friends which toured the midwest.

Bob Nelson performed the only radio spook show ever

presented on "We the People" radio program from CBS

Radio Theatre in New York City on October 28, 1947. It was broadcast over 117 CBS stations nationwide. There

were approximately 2200 spectators in the studio

audience for the production and twelve studio pages

assisted Mr. N e l s o n . 12 The program relied entirely on

studio audience reaction to convey to the listeners at home the mood and experience of the ghost show.

While the early ghostmasters paved the way, it was

the "second wave," the post-World War II performers, who became very successful in the field. These later ghostmasters established companies which toured constantly, and they often produced multiple units of their shows. One of the premier ghostmasters of this

12Robert A. Nelson, The Ghost Book of Dark Secrets, 2nd ed. (Alberta, Canada : Micky Hades Enterprises, 1972) 10 .

85 later period was Jack Baker. He was b o m John Kessler in

1914, but changed his name to John Edwin Baker. As a youngster. Baker moved to Toledo, Ohio, and performed magic in local theatres under the name Dr. Silkini. Jack was an exceptional producer and promoter and became known to many as "King of the Spook Shows." Baker and his brother Wyman, created Dr. Silkini’s Ghost Show in 1938. Their show was well-received, but the Bakers' success really took off when Floyd Ackerman, a vaudeville theatre manager in Michigan, suggested the pair incorporate more comedy into their act. They took his advice, added some zany, comic bits and renamed their show the Asylum of Horrors t

The Bakers relied heavily on their homespun humor and hellzapoppin [sic] style to evoke hearty belly laughs, making audiences forget the actual reason why they came to see the show. They commanded court with their macabre mirth, which proved to be the right combination at the time.i3

The show became highly successful, and Jack Baker was eventually able to form additional units of the show. At the height of his career (circa 1953), Baker had seven units criss-crossing the country, which meant his

13Walker, Ghostmasters 77-78.

86 productions were playing nearly forty-two theatres a

week. 14 These seven units would be headed-up by one of a

dozen magicians who could step in and perform the lead role, "I was . . . one of the many 'Dr. Silkini's' on

tour for Baker. I believe there were a dozen of us at

one time including James Randi and Roy Houston [sic]."is Several film stars also made guest appearances with

Baker's units including , Glenn Strange and

Lon Chaney Jr. One of the greatest innovations Baker contributed

to the ghost show was the addition of Frankenstein's monster to his Asylum of Horrors show. It happened as a

result of a very fortunate chance meeting with a man

named Art Domer who was a talented make-up artist and 's double. Rubber masks were not

commercially manufactured in those days, but with

D o m e r ' s skill, he was able to create the visage of the Frankenstein monster which audiences had become familiar

with from the film. Although it eventually caused Baker

14Jack Baker, "Dr. Silkini's Asylum of Horrors," Spook Shows on Parade, ed. Mark Walker (Baltimore: Magic Media Ltd., 1978) 51.

15Charles E . Windley, "RE: Re : Midnight Magic" E- mail to Beth A. Kattelman, 30 Dec. 1998.

87 some trouble with Universal Studios, is it was very-

popular with audiences and was a brilliant promotional move. Many other ghost shows followed suit.

Jack Baker was famous for reczruiting audience members for his show to produce the appearance of a larger cast. He would actually scout the audience before a performance to find a person who could star as the

Frankenstein monster (the main attraction!) in his

production that night. He was also adept at using stooges to enhance his performances, "I never hesitated in using stooges in my act. The audience didn't suspect them and it was the effect and entertainment value of

the trick I was concerned with and not how I

accomplished it. "i?

Jack Baker's main rival in the spook show trade was Joe Karston. Karston also had multiple units of his popular spook shows touring the country and the two would constantly compete for magicians to head up their productions. They would also go head-to-head for bookings in the large theatres. This developed into a bitter and energy-draining rivalry. Finally Baker and

16 See Chapter 8 for a discussion of Baker's problems with Universal.

17 Baker 43.

88 Karston decided to split up the country with Baker covering everything east of the Mississippi and Karston covering the west. The two apparently "cheated" on this verbal contract, however, jumping across the line whenever it was lucrative or convenient. Karston directly patterned his shows on those performed by Baker, and he also adopted the practice of having a number of magicians able to substitute in and perform his road shows as needed. Johnny Cates, Wayne

Harris, Kirk Kirkham, Harry Wise and John Daniel were just a few of the magicians who toured with Karston's productions. Over the years Karston developed several productions such as. Dr. Macabre's Frlgbtmare of Movie Monsters ; Dr. Satan's Shrieks in the Night, and Dr.

Jekyll and His Weird Show. Because the titles were generic and did not promise any specific type of effects or any specific monsters, the performing units were somewhat interchangeable. This way whatever magician was available could head up any one of the units. It gave

Karston a great deal of flexibility in booking tours and keeping his productions staffed.

18Roy Huston, interview. Spooks-a-Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, Dir. Jim Ridenour, Ed. Jim Ridenour, n.d.

89 One of Karston's greatest talents was his ability

as a manager and promoter. In addition to developing his own productions, he also acted as a booking agent for

other magicians' productions. One such magician was

Raymond Corbin who toured under the stage name of Ray-

Mond. Corbin had three different shows which he, himself performed. Corbin's shows were extremely popular, and because he had three different productions available for booking, Kars ton saw an opportunity to gain some repeat business. He devised a breakthrough plan to increase booking dates and ward off competition. Managers interested in Corbin's shows had to sign three contracts, whereupon they could not book another midnighter until Ray-Mond had completed three scheduled horror productions at that theater over the next twenty- four months.is In this way, Karston could effectively cut Jack Baker's (and other) units out of playing that theatre for a period of two years. Corbin's three productions were Ra.y-Mond ' s Ghost: Show, the Voodoo Show, and the Zombie Jamboree. The shows contaned similar formats, but each carried a separate line of advertising materials and featured

ISWalker, Ghostmastzers 64.

90 vastly different stage illusions. Each one, however,

contained many gruesome effects and a liberal dose of stage blood:

We had one scene where the girl was hooked up to a cross in the back and would come out and cut the rope and miss and her body would drop and the arm would be hanging there dripping blood. And uh, Frankenstein would come out and choke Igor, and from about 20 feet away I'd throw a butcher knife into his back, and as he tried to get the back, [sic] he turned around and the audience saw the blood running down.20

The following description gives an indication of what one might experience when attending Ray-Mond's Voodoo


With a flash of lightning on the house curtain, Ray-Mond made his appearance to give a short opening speech. The program opened with fast music, fire effects, and various livestock productions and vanishes. Next the Doll House Illusion, completely remodeled to look like a haunted house, was wheeled out on stage. From the house a beautiful girl wearing a diaphonous white dress appeared. Ray-Mond then proceeded to levitate the girl. The road show carried two different levitating mechanisms. In the larger theaters an Aga was used, and the girl would float to a height of ten feet. In the smaller movie houses, where space was at a premium, a Super-X Levitation was employed, allowing the spirit to merely hover four feet off the floor. Following this were several audience

20 Raymond Corbin, interview. Spooks-a.-Popp in

91 participation effects--usually a Rope-Tie and comedy pickpocket act--and then the second girl assistant made her appearance in a skit called "Jungle Voodoo." The girl, in a brief leopard skin costume, presented an exotic dance to the beat of drums and jungle music. As she danced, a large net was lowered from the fly gallery. When she finished her number, the two male assistants, dressed as safari hunters, grabbed the victim. While she struggled and screamed, she was hoisted high above the stage in a net. The music became louder as Ray-Mond made an incantation. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning. One end of the net fell and, as it did, the girl vanished. In place of the human sacrifice was a skeleton whose bones fell clanking to the floor. [This is a stage version of the Benga.1 Net effect, usually used to vanish a dove.] Because of the rigging needed for the net illusion, it was not always possible to present it at all theaters, so often Ray-Mond substituted a cremation in its place. He still kept the jungle motif. With several committee members on the apron of the stage, Ray-Mond next presented an updated version of the Rod Through Girl. Again he used a horror theme. As he explained that a neon tube was a deadly beam, he shoved the long electric light bulb right through the girl's stomach...... After one of the assistants presented a brief dance, the lights were dimmed. As she took her bow, a huge gorilla came creeping up behind her. Crying for help, the assistant started to run as the gorilla came after her. Ray-Mond entered from the side, yelled for a gun, then made a quick exit. The girl fainted and was picked up by the gorilla who carried her to a table. They were center stage in a blue spotlight. The gorilla let out a loud grunt, jumped up and down, and then proceeded to disembody the girl's limbs. Ripping off arms and legs, it threw them high into the air. . . . The girl was on the table minus arms and legs, and the cloth covering the table was red with blood. There was a loud clash of cymbals. Ray-Mond entered and shot the ape. The

92 stage blackened.

Ray-Mond was most famous for his Buzz Saw Illusion in which he would " decapitate " a volunteer from the audience with a circular saw. Corbin could usually get the audience member to play along with just a brief bit of coaching. As he was positioning the person in the apparatus he would quietly say to them, "Just do what I tell you and I'll make you the star of this s h o w . “22 Most volunteers were happy to oblige. Ray-Mond would then transform himself into a mad doctor and begin his eerie routine :

The lights dimmed, the dramatic music grew louder and the blade was slowly lowered, cutting off the volunteer's head. . . . Then Ray-Mond [gripping a butcher knife] grabbed the severed head and ran into the audience. . . .After Ray-Mond carried the bloody head up one aisle and down the other, he began seat hopping--he literally climbed over the audience on the arms of the theater seats .... [Eventually] Ray-Mond hurried back to the stage and in a very dramatic voice said, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, someone is about to die. It could be you I" This was the cue for the lights to be extinguished and the blackout sequence to b e g i n . 23

21walker, Ghostmasters 6 4 - 5 .

22Raymond Corbin, personal interview, 1 6 July 1 9 9 9

23Walker, Ghostmasters 6 5 .

93 Because of the quality of production and the extremely gruesome nature of Corbin's shows they were very

successful with audiences. His productions were continually on the road from 1946 through 1953 and

Corbin himself was still touring with a magic and illusion show as recently as 1996. Unfortunately, over the past few years Corbin ' s health has prevented him from doing any extensive touring. 24

Bill Neff was another ghostmaster who became famous

for his large stage illusions. He began his career in 1922 at the age of seventeen. That year he began performing small magic shows in his hometown of Indiana, . The following year, he and his soon-to-

be-famous friend, Jimmy Stewart, teamed up to perform

magic for neighborhood parties, and local

organizations.^ Although Stewart eventually joined the film industry and made his fortune in Hollywood, Heff continued to perform magic. In 193 9 he apprenticed with a spook show operator to learn the ins-and-outs of that business. He eventually used his talent in presenting large stage illusions to advantage when he created his

24Corbin, personal interview.

25Walker, Ghostmasters 93.

94 own ghost show. Madhouse of Mystzery. This was one of the

largest ghost shows ever to tour the country. The show included. "nearly a dozen assistants and featured more

than sixteen large stage illusions. "26 in a 1946 review

of Neff's February 14th performance at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Arnold Furst makes special note

of the impressive size of the touring production, "There are ten girls and three male assistants to help with the two-and-a-half tons of tightly packed equipment. . . . "27 Because Neff's show was so elaborate, many theatre

owners were willing to book him into their "A" houses for a full week. At one such booking in the 3,750-seat Missouri Theater in St. Louis, Neff broke every existing

house record and was held over for a second w e e k . 28 Neff was so popular that he actually appeared in two different comic books. Ghost Breakers and Racket S q u a d . 29

He would give away a copy of one of the comics to

26walker, Ghostmasters 101.

2 7 A m o l d Furst, Great Magic Shows: Reviewed by Arnold Furst (Oakland, California: Lloyd E. Jones, 1968] n.p.

28walker, Ghostmasters 99.

29Theodor Megaarden, "Bill Neff's Madhouse of Mystery: The Early Years," Walker, Spook Shows 62.

95 youngsters who would volunteer to come up on stage and

help with an effect during the show. Neff's work even

became known by some in the film industry. In 1947 Bela Lugosi toured with Neff's Ma.dhous& of Mystery for a brief t i m e . 30 Another example of the size of Neff's production is given by Roy Huston who combined his

Huston's Hallucinations show with Neff for a four-week run stand at the Apollo Theatre, "We hung 20 sets of lines, had twelve girls [sic] .... Oh my god, what a big show that was. "3i Neff toured with his spook show into the mid-1950s, but because it was becoming more and more difficult to find movie houses which could accommodate a production of his magnitude, Neff eventually left the spook show circuit and went back to presenting more traditional magic s h o w s . 32

The last ghostmaster to tour extensively was Philip

Morris. Although Morris entered the ghost show circuit relatively late, he went on to become one of the three most well-known ghostmasters of all time (in addition to

3 0Chuck Windley, "Bill Neff's Madhouse of Mystery: The Later Years," Walker, Spook Shows 73.

3lHuston, Spooks-a-Poppin.

32walker, Ghostmasters 101.

96 Jack Baker and Joe Karston.) Interestingly enough., it

was Baker who was inadvertently responsible for Morris ' s entry into the spook show business, "In 1950 I saw the

Dr. Silkini show and decided that's what I wanted to do. "33 Morris, who was only fifteen at the time, mounted

his own production based on the Silkini format and

quickly began to gain a reputation as a skilled entertainer. Morris's talent as a performer, combined with his business sawy, allowed him to flourish during a time when other ghost shows were folding. He used radio as an

effective means of advertising by buying 100 spots which

would air in fiteen-minute inteirvals over the four days prior to the show. He also capitalized on the latest

trends, incorporating a twist contest in 1962 as part of his Terrors of the Unknown show. But Morris's ability to

control an unruly crowd was the main thing which set him apart from other ghostmasters. He had a wonderful knack for audience-interaction: a self-assured manner and the ability to handle any situation. Morris's bold, but likeable persona helped him to parlay his ghost show operation into one of the most succesful, longest-

33Philip Morris, interview. Spooks-a-Poppin.

97 rxinning spook shows in the history of the genre. He was on the road for twenty-seven years, booking his last

extended tour in 1977:

We booked a series all the was across Canada for Famous Players and the Odeon Theatre circuit--two units of the show. We started on the west coast with the unit that I had in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and worked all the way to Toronto. And then I had another unit that started just east of Toronto and went all the way out to . . . Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. . . . To my knowledge that was the last tour of any major ghost show. 34

For a brief time Morris used his ghost-show character. Dr. Evil, as the host of a late-night television show.

He would introduce horror films and add comedy and

commentary during the breaks. This added helped Morris to pack the theatres for his midnight ghost show.

Morris now owns and operates Morris Costumes, Inc. of North Carolina, one of the largest suppliers of latex horror masks in the country. Because spook shows were so lucrative, many magicians tried to take quick advantage of the trend by hurriedly readying productions for touring.

Unfortunately, a good number of these were poor-quality imitations of the better performances, "Being a one-time

34Morris, Spooks-a-Poppin.

98 attraction, with a quick get-away after the performance, many performers have tossed a few unrelated magic tricks together, added a 'black-out bit ' and called their efforts a GHOST SHOW."35 These shoddy, thrown-together

productions eventually made it more difficult for the good-quality ones to find bookings. Dissatisfied theatre owners who had presented a low-quality, poorly-received

ghost show were unwilling to book any similar

production. Spook show operators speak of how these terrible shows "burned up" the touring territories,

creating areas which became impossible to book, due to the bad reputation the inferior spook show generated:

"On one trip I followed a highly touted ghost show, in Kansas, whose entire manning time was four minutes I

Naturally the customers felt cheated and the show died a quick, ghostly death, leaving a trail of burned territory behind it. "3S This trend hurt many of the performers and promoters who were actually trying to deliver a good product, but through persistence and good word-of-mouth, the quality shows were able to find venues and to re-build the ghost shows' reputation as a

35Nelson, Ghost Book 3.

36weber 7.

99 worthwhile entertainment :

The amateur magicians and crude performers who have invaded this field of entertainment have had an injurious effect on the "ghost show business." At one time several years ago, it was almost impossible to book a good ghost show, as too many ' stinkers ' had burned up the territory. . . . but with the passing of time, the situation pretty much has righted itself.37

Ghostmasters and their unique shows are part of a long history of magic performance. Though ghost shows are only one piece of this much larger tradition, they are important representatives of the way in which magicians provided escapist entertainment for the populace throughout the United States during some very difficult years. Today's magicians continue this tradition. Although the format of magic shows are constantly changing, the ability to conjure up fascination and amazement, and to make audiences forget their troubles, is one constant which runs through the entire history of magic and legerdemain.

37N-elson, Ghost Book 3.



Motion pictures and magic have had a long intertwined history. The earliest special effects on film were created by a magician and numerous early films featured magicians performing their tricks and stage illusions for the camera. Film technology offered magicians new possibilities for creating illusions which were previously impossible to achieve. It provided them a way to manipulate time. Film could be stopped, run faster, more slowly, or backwards, and this opened up options for effects and illusions which could never have been accomplished in a live stage production.

It is not surprising that one of the earliest innovators in the use of film technology was a stage magician. George Méliès owned and operated the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris an establishment he had purchased from the widow of Émile Robert-Houdin, son of the great

101 nineteenth.-century conjurer Robert-Houdin. i He had

refurbished it extensively, and reopened it in 1888 as a

showcase for his own talent and the talent of other

prominent magicians of the day. For the first ten years, Méliès lost money on the proposition, then he found something which eventually helped him turn a prof it. 2

When film was in its infancy, Méliès sought out the new technology to use as an augmentation to his stage performances. By incorporating film segments into the evening's entertainment he could offer something unique to his audiences. This was the element that would finally put Méliès in the black and would also eventually earn the magician a prominent place in film history.

Méliès purchased a camera, and began to experiment with the new medium of the motion picture. He became fascinated with the possibilities and eventually set up the first film studio. During his experimentation Méliès

lEdwin A. Dawes, The Great Illusionists (Seacaucus: Chartwell Books, 1979) 191.

2James Randi, Conjuring-: Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, Wizardry, Deception, and Chicanery and of the Mountebanks and Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) 57.

102 created a number of effects and techniques which are still in use by filmmakers today. He inadvertently

discovered stop motion photography one day when a

fortunate accident occurred. While shooting some footage, the film in Méliès's camera accidentally stopped and then restarted. Because the camera remained

at the same vantage point in the scene, the background did not change; the objects in the foreground, however, were a different story. When Méliès viewed the footage

he noticed that when the fissure in time occurred, objects ■ magically disappeared or changed places instantaneously in the film. He realized that this new

technique could be used to make objects instantaneously transform or to disappear and reappear at will in a motion picture. This was a wonderful discovery for one whose art was based on illusion. Prior to that time, Méliès could only produce the traditional effects used by numerous other magicians ; with film he could produce special effects. He now had a new, unique way of manipulating objects which was unavailable to most other stage performers. One of Méliès ' films. The Conjurer (18 99) is nothing but one minute of disappearances and transformations. The new tool greatly expanded the ways in which he could astonish an audience.

103 Méliès not only incorporated filmed segments into his stage show, he also filmed other prominent conjurers

who had appeared at his theatre. In this way Méliès ' s

not only contributed to film history, but also left an

important visual record of some stage magicians whose routines would not be available to us today.3 Méliès

always saw a parallel between the art of the filmmaker and that of the magician. In 1903 he produced The Magic

Lantern a film in which he makes a direct comparison of

the two art forms. Throughout the years Méliès continued

to experiment with the possibilities film presented, and

eventually went on to use superimposition, hand- painting, the dissolve and time-lapse photography in his films. His most famous film is A Trip to the Moon (1902)

in which a spaceship travels across the cosmos and makes

a landing directly in the man-in-the-moon's eye.

Thomas Alva Edison was also instrumental in the early development of film. He was a pioneer in the invention of some of the technology needed to create

film, but he also served as a filmmaker and producer

creating films in his research laboratory. One of his projects was a sixteen-minute version of Frankenstein

3 Randi, Conjurlng 57-58.

104 (1910) . The film featured Charles Ogle and was directed

by J. Searle Dawley. It is considered by many to be the

world's first horror m o v i e . ^ i n it Edison used trick

photography to accomplish the "birth" of Frankenstein's

monster. He created an effigy of the monster and

captured the burning of it on film. Edison then ran the film backwards so it would appear as if the monster was

materializing out of the flames. The film also was color-tinted to create daylight and night effects. In

creating the film Edison was following the fashion of

the time :

'Trick' films of various kinds, taking inspiration from Méliès, were much in vogue in America in the years preceding World War I, and [Edison's] Frankenstein contained numerous examples of optical illusions beyond the reach of proscenium-bound stagecraft.5

Interestingly enough, the film also featured a spirit cabinet, in the style of the Davenport B r o t h e r s . 6

4David Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and M o d e m Culture (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998) 94.

Sskal, Screams 94-5.

SRandi, Conjuring 55. For a discussion of the Davenport Brothers ' spirit cabinet see Chapter 3.

105 Film technology developed quickly, and soon

audiences across the United States were rushing to

nickelodeons to experience the new phenomenon for themselves. By 1899 nickelodeons were spread throughout the United States in which movies were shown around the

clock for a nickel. During this phase the cinema

established itself as entertainment for the lower classes.7 Filmmakers steadily developed their craft and

learned how to use the new medium to create narrative and tell a story. In 1911 the first film studio in the

United States was established, and by 1926 America had fully embraced this new technological medium. Great

movie palaces were springing up across the nation and film would quickly become the most popular form of mass

entertainment, a position it would occupy until the rise of television in 1947.

During the dawning and rapid growth of the film

industry, films of many styles and subject matter were created. Those of most importance to the history of the midnight ghost show, of course, were ones which fostered the genres which would come to be known as horror and

7Andrea Gronemeyer, Film: An Illustrated Historical Oveirview. Hauppage (New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1998} 180.

106 science fiction. One such, film was The Cabinet of Dr,

Callgari which was released in 1919. Caligari created quite a stir with its unusual style and bold subject matter. The film relates the story of Dr. Caligari, a wandering showman (Werner Kraus) who keeps his somnambulist assistant, Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in a coffin, but periodically lets him out to tell fortunes for the crowd. Cesare's fortunes usually involve the prediction of an imminent death. Caligari then sends the hypnotized Cesare out to commit the murders so the predictions will come true. The story is played out against distorted, cartoon-like sets containing ominous jagged walls and twisted, contorted backgrounds. It also made use of false perspective and deep, painted-in shadows. (Sets were designed by Hermann Warm, Walter

Reimann, and Walter Rohrig.) Caligari set a precedent in film style and is still considered by some to be "one of the most important films ever made."8

Caligari figures prominently in the history of horror and science fiction films for it told of a monster compelled by a mad doctor to murder innocent victims. This stereotypical storyline was eventually

8Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: Random House, 1974) 53.

107 adopted and exploited in American films throughout the following decades. The character of the Evil Scientist or Mad Doctor became well-known to American audiences.

It is now incorporated into the fabric of American culture and comes complete with a readily recognizable set of attributes :

The mere mention of the words "mad scientist" conjures a vivid array of imagery: incensed villagers rising up with pitchforks and torches, ready to storm the fortress laboratory ; inside the lab, whether in a converted medieval castle or on a uncharted jungle island, the scientist amid the bubbling test tubes and crackling electrical equipment. The mad scientist wears many faces.9

Many films incorporated some form of this character as their primary villain. The film most responsible, however, for helping to establish the iconic images associated with the mad doctor was Universal Studio's 1931 version of Frankenstein. What is arguably the most influential horror-f ilm of all time, Frankenstein is centered completely on the consequences of a mad doctor whose experiments go beyond his control, and the laboratory pictured in the film, with its buzzing and crackling electrical gadgets, became the quintessential

9skal, Screams 17.

108 icon of the mad doctor's lair. As rioted above ^ the character quickly became a staple of American popular culture, and it, of course, features prominently in many midnight ghost shows.

A character becomes popular when it can be easily recognized and decoded by the audience. This is achieved through repeated exposure to and familiarity with the character. As Bourdieu notes :

An act of deciphering unrecognized as such, immediate and adequate "comprehension, " is possible and effective only in the special case in which the cultural code which makes the act of deciphering possible is immediately and completely mastered by the observer (in the form of cultivated ability or inclination) and merges with the cultural code which has rendered the work perceived p o s s i b l e . lO

As American audiences viewed an increasing number of films containing the mad doctor, they came to recognize the set of signs associated with such a creature : a maniacal laugh, doctor's garb, an intense wild-eyed stare. David Skal notes, "For sheer iconographie staying power, Einstein's hair has influenced more images of

lOpierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia UP, 1993) 215.

109 demented doctors than any other visual cue."11 The repetition of these signs allows audiences to cultivate an ability to recognize the stereotype, "For the horror fan, the recognition of these recycled elements is a crucial part of the enjoyment and appreciation of the m o v i e s . "12 This familiarity triggers associations and gives audiences an expectation of how to read and react to a particular character-type or genre. The iconography produced by the Universal horror films of the thirties set up a visual catalog which is still recognized today:

The foyer in Dracula's castle, Frankenstein's laboratory, the monster's forehead and neck bolt, the vampire's horizontally lit eyes, the Wolfman's face, all have an iconic life of their own. These images . . . have had a profound influence on our sensitivity to horror. They quite simply set the mold that has yet to be broken. I3

It was these characters and images on which midnight ghost shows could build. By inserting the character of

llSkal, Screams 18. 12Mark Kermode, "I was a Teenage Horror Fan Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love Linda Blair, " 111 Effects : The Media/Violence Debate , ed. Martin Baker and Julian Petley (New York: Routledge, 1977) 61.

13James B. Twitchell, Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of M o d e m Horror, New York: Oxford UP, 198 5) 58.

110 the mad doctor into the performance, ghostmasters could prime audiences for the show. They could set up the public to anticipate the familiar theme of science gone awry or ambition out-of-control, and hope that this, in turn, would lead audiences to expect something startling and spectacular from the performance. Bourdieu also notes above, that the same cultural code which allows a work to be perceived also renders its creation possible. In the case of science fiction and horror films, cultural unease about the advent of new technologies played a significant role in their genesis. Americans became uneasy about how the technology would be used and in whose control it would lie :

[Societal anxiety] created by the Depression strengthened the readiness to believe that the worst might befall America in war. That readiness was also shown by Americans ' robust appetite for a pulp literature of technological and ecological apocalypse-- horror films depicting scenes of science run amok, space-age fiction, and novels like L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (1940), which depicted global decimation unleashed by atomic and biological weapons.^

^^Michael S . Sherry, In the Shadow of War: the United States Since the 1930s (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995) 42 .

Ill The character of the mad scientist was a

personification of this concern, "The mad scientist has served as lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and

the uses and consequences of modern technology. "

In addition to the mad scientist, monsters also grabbed hold of the public ' s attention through their

introduction in horror films. America became fascinated with Hollywood's famous monsters. In 1931 Universal Studios capitalized upon this fascination when it

released both Dracula and Frankenstein. These films

provided Universal studios with its only profitable year during the Depression. David Skal notes :

Frankenstein . . . opened to astonishing business, leading the industry to realize that Dracula was not a fluke and ' horror movies ' (the term was not widely used previously and was in many ways an invention of 1931) formed an important and profitable new category.

ISskal, Screams 18.

ISDavid J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural Histozry of Horror (1993; Hew York: Penguin Books, 1994) 144 .

112 This was the impetus for enterprising magicians to create midnight ghost shows, allowing them to mesh their services with the new entertainment phenomenon.

While the early midnight ghost shows centered around spiritualism and "other-worldliness" the later ones presented monsters, and borrowed many of the monsters from famous films of the era. These shows also made liberal use of the stereotype of the mad doctor. A survey of ghost show titles of the time reflects that it was common to have a midnight ghost show headed up by some sort of "evil doctor" : Dr. Dracula's Den of Living Nightmares, Dr. Evil and his Terrors of the Unknown, Dr.

Sllklnl's Asylum of Horrors, Dr. Neff's Madhouse of

Mystery, Dr. Ogre Banshee's Chasm of Spasms. These shows took full advantage of audiences ' familiarity with the horror-film genre by mirroring the layout and iconography of their posters, and including characters which already sparked strong associations in the public's mind. In the mid-194 Os television began to grab the audience's attention and quickly rose to the position of the most popular medium of mass-entertainment. In order to counter this competition, filmmakers began introducing new innovations. The widescreen fozrmats

113 Cinerama and Cinemascope appeared in 1952 and 1953 respectively. (See Chapter 2) This caused some of the larger chains to install wide curved screens to accommodate the format, thus making stage productions no longer possible. By the early 1960s, stage productions were rarely offered in addition to films and performance venues for midnight ghost shows had severely diminished.

In order to try and keep the tradition alive, one enterprising producer, David L. Hewitt, decided to make the ghost show format into a film.

Hewitt's film. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party was released in 1965.17 The film was produced and directed by

Hewitt and starred Vic McGee. The film mirrors the format of the ghost show in several respects : it is fifty minutes in length, it contains kitchy comic horror, and most importantly, it provides for a blackout sequence near its conclusion. The performers are all unknowns, and the film is quite unsophisticated in its technique and storyline, but it stands as the only example of a ghostmaster trying to create an actual

"ghost show film."

^^7Monsters Crash the Pajama Party. Dir. David L, Hewitt. Perf. Vic McGee, Pauline Hilkert, David L . Hewitt, 1965-

114 The following plot summary shows some of the

elements in Hewitt's film inspired by the ghost shows, such as: an opening direct-address to the audience, the

host putting forth a warning of dangers to come, the mad doctor and his comic entourage of ghouls, and the

blackout sequence which appears near the end of the production. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party begins with Vic McGee as the Mad Doctor, warning the audience that

strange things will occur in the theatre and that he is

glad not to be sitting " out there " because something very dangerous may occur. The film presents a group of

teenage girls who are to spend the night in a "haunted"

mansion as part of a sorority initiation. The story begins with their boyfriends dropping them off at the mansion. We then see the boys discussing a plan to

gather various masks and props and to return to the mansion at midnight to scare the initiates. Unbeknownst to the teenagers, however, a mad doctor and his monstrous assistants inhabit the basement. 's assistants consist of the obligatory gorilla, two ghouls (men in rubber masks) and a female vampire. The doctor

sends the gorilla to abduct the sorority pledges one fay one and bring them down to his laboratory in the basement. When the boys return, they discover the

115 doctor's evil plot, release th.e girls and escape the

mansion. The doctor, in need of another girl for his

evil experiments, instructs his assistants to run into the theatre and grab a new victim. At that point, the

actors run toward the camera and the screen goes black. This signals the blackout sequence. At that point in the film, performers would appear in the theatre dressed in

the same costumes and masks as the characters in the film. They would run out from the movie screen and down

into the audience in search of a girl victim. Then lightning flashes begin and these alternate with moments of darkness on the film, accompanied by a soundtrack of screaming, evil laughter and thunder. The performers would run up and down the aisles of the theatre terrorizing audience members, and finally they would grab a woman from the audience (a stooge dressed in the same costume as the girl who will subsequently appear in the film) and carry her back toward the screen. The film would resume, and, if timed properly, it would seem as though the assistants and the girl had walked right back onto the screen.

Another producer who used some of the elements from the midnight ghost shows in his films was Ray Dennis Steckler. Steckler first became known for his

116 The Incredibly Strsinge Creatures Who Stopped Living an.d

Became Mixed-Up Zombies, released in 1 9 6 5 . 1 8 Steckler followed later that year with The Thrill Killers (a.k.a. The Maniacs are Loose.) Thrill Killers does not follow the traditional ghost show format, but still has some elements that link it to the midnight ghost show. The film was advertised with the gimmick "hallucinogenic hypno-vision." It begins by introducing The Amazing Ormand, America's Premier Hypnotist, played by ghostmaster Ormand McGill. Ormand preps the audience by "hypnotizing" them and explaining how the gimmick of "hypno-vision" will work throughout the motion picture :

To increase your enjoyment of this film we are going to conduct together an experiment in psychology. I call this Hallucinogenic Hypnosis. If you will concentrate on my suggestions you will become so involved in this motion picture that you'll actually seem to hallucinate and see maniacs loose in the theatre right with you.

18Ridenour, Jim. Spooks-a-Poppinz The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare. n.d.

19The Thrill Killers (a.k.a. The Maniacs are Loose.) Director Ray Dennis Steckler. Performers Cash Flagg, Liz Renay. Morgan-Steckler, 1965.

117 Ormand then instructs the audience to rememher the next face they see on the screen for "it is the face of one of the maniacs from the motion picture who ' 11 be loose in this very theatre. "20 The face is that of Ray Dennis

Steckler (Cash Flagg) the star of The Thrill Killers.

His visage stares out from the screen with cold, penetrating eyes. Once this set-up is complete, Ormand then introduces the audience to the hypno-disk, which is a swirling spiral-pattern which fills the screen:

As you watch this motion picture, every so often you will see the swirling hypno-disk appear through the picture. At that time look around you. Look close and you may see the face of this madman appear in the theatre somewhere about you and bring the thrill of thrill close to you. For this is actually happening to you, and there will be a maniac on the loose in the theatre right with y o u .21

The main narrative of the film then begins. It follows the exploits of three escaped mental patients and

Steckler who plays a psychotic killer who is related to one of the former inmates. The film is nothing more than some gruesome murders and long drawn-out chase scenes. The hypno-disk appears three times during the film, each

20The Thrill Killers

2lThe Thrill Killers

118 time after a murder where the "lunatic" on the screen is running around with a weapon and runs toward the foreground. This, of course, was the cue for the

performers in the theatre to run out from the stage and

terrorize the a u d i e n c e . 22 Though valiant attempts to

adapt the genre to the medium of film. Monsters and

Thrill Killers were short-lived experiments that never really caught on.

Throughout the 1950s, the film industiry was rapidly

changing. Television became a major competitor, and drive-in theatres became the new film craze. In 1951

there were approximately fifty drive-ins in the United States. By 1958 that number had increased to four thousand.23 Some ghostmasters tried to tap into this new

craze by adapting their shows for outdoor presentation.

This presented a large potential audience, but very hostile circumstances for the presentation of any ghost show. The ghostmasters who played drive-ins erected portable stages in front of the movie screen or presented their production from a converted flatbed

22Harry Wise, interview. Spooks-a.-Poppin '.

'2.2Highway Hangouts: Celebrating America’s Roadside Attractions, broadcast on the History Channel, September 3, 1999.

119 tiruck, or on top of the concession house itself. One of

the more successful magicians at playing these venues was Frank McKinnon, who was able to travel the drive-in

circuit in the mid-1950s with his Dr. Franklin's Spooks on the Loose.

Although a few ghost shows continued to travel and perform in some theatres into the seventies, they would never again proliferate as they had during the forties and fifties. Most cinemas could no longer accommodate stage productions. Theatres were adapted to widescreen formats, and many were eventually split into multiplexes. Ironically, the technology of film, which was developed and used by early magicians to bring about the creation of the midnight ghost show, evolved into a technology which would eventually cause its demise.

24walker, Ghosmasters 13 6.



The history of technological innovation and cultural uses of new technologies have always had a direct effect upon art and performance. This chapter focuses on a few innovations which played a part in the rise and development of ghost show performances.

Technological and scientific advances change culture and offer artists new possibilities of presentation.

Performers who learn how to exploit new materials and machines can offer something different to the public. In this realm magicians have always been on the cutting edge, using new devices and methods to create illusions which astound a public ignorant of the new technology. i

iFor more information on magicians' use of scientific discoveries and technological advancements in performance see Ricky Jay's discussion of Walford Bodie's use of static electricity in Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers (New York: Warner, 1986) 127-146, and the discussion of the great magician J.N. Maskelyne, who held forty patents in James Randi, Conjuring: Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery,

121 Of course, as new technologies become familiar, they

change from being considered "magic," into something that can be considered an important tool. Magician «Jeff

McBride notes that, "Yesterday's magic is the science of today, much the way alchemy became chemistry, into modern science. And the magic of today, perhaps, could be the science of tomorrow."2 While McBride's statement may be overstated, it does allude to the fact that magician's have long been involved in exploring new discoveries brought forth in many fields of science.

Magicians have always been eager to explore new methods to find new ways of doing things.3 If they can discover and use something unique in their performance-- a new routine, a new illusion, a new element--it sets

Pzrestidig-ita.t±on, Wizardry, Deception, and Chicanery and of the Mountebanks and Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public (New York: St. Martin's, 1992).

2Jeff McBride, interview. Mysteries of Magic. Dir. Mel Morpeth. Narr. Ray Brooks. The Learning Channel, 1997.

3For a comprehensive study of magic history, the creation of illusions and effects, their use in performance, and magicians' efforts to guard their methods from other magicians see David Price, Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater (New York: Cornwall Books, 1985).

122 them apart from all others, and. gives them, a jump on the

competition. In his book The Field of Cultural ProductioTif Pierre Bourdieu discusses how the introduction of a new form, or a new element into a

performance will bring that performer into prominence:

To 'make one's name' means making one's mark , achieving recognition (in both senses) of one ' s difference from other producers, especially the most consecrated of them; at the same time, it means creating a new position beyond the positions presently occupied, ahead o f them, avant-garde. To introduce difference is to produce time. Hence the importance, in this struggle for life and survival, of the distinctive marks, which, at best, aim to identify what are often the most superficial and most visible properties of a set of works or producers.4

Although here Bourdieu mentions the avant-garde, which

he considers to be a work of art which is new,

innovative, and somewhat difficult to decipher, Bourdieu ' s statement can also be applied to any

performance which introduces something significantly new

to make its mark. The performance does not necessarily have to be difficult to understand and, therefore.

4Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production; Essays on Art and Literature (ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia UP, 1993) 105.

123 difficult to appreciate. As noted above, however, there is a high degree of probability that an innovation or new element will be mis interpreted due to its unfamiliarity. If an audience is not acquainted with a style or an aspect contained in the performance, they often do not know what to make of it. Magicians take advantage of this confusion by purposefully leading the audience to misinterpret what they are experiencing. The magician's intention is not to reveal the innovations, thereby allowing them to be easily understood, but rather, to conceal the methods, thus extending the amount of time they can be used to baffle and astound.

One important innovation which was used by many magicians and eventually would become important to the midnight ghost show was the magic lantern. The magic lantern was a type of early "slide projector" which could project a recognizable cut-out image onto any surface that could be used as a projection screen. The invention is attributed to Father Athanasius Kircher who, in 1646, made drawings of a box that could reproduce images by means of a light passing through a l e n s . 5 Magic lantern technology was improved and refined

5Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies 1971. 5th ed. Rev. by Bruce F. Kawin (New York: Macmillan, 1992) 19.

124 and quickly found its way into theatrical performances, and "in the eighteenth century, showmen trooped across

Europe giving magic lantern shows, Many shows were not much more than parlor entertainments, presenting sta_tic slides for interested onlookers, "In the enlightened nineteenth century, scientists used the practical device to enhance their lectures by projecting explanatory pictures, and the toy industry profitably offered the magic lantern as a sensation for the homes of well-to-do citizens."7 Some performers were not satisfied with this, however. Always looking for ways to create a more impressive show, they began experimenting with ways to make the static images move. They developed slides with moving parts and used multiple lanterns to give the impression of depth and sequence .& One such showman was magician Etienne-Gaspard

Robertson, producer of the famous Phantasmagoria, show in

1798. Robertson had great technical prowess in creating

SMast 19.

7 Andre a Gronemeyer, Film: An Illustrated Historical Overview (Hauppage, New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1998) 11-12.

SMast 19.

125 slides which, gave the appearance of movement, using

fades, dissolves, and rotation. He combined these

effects with multi-layered lantern slides to produce

images that were more lifelike than audiences had ever

experienced before. Robertson also introduced the innovation of using smoke and undulating gauze screens

as projection surfaces. The movement of the smoke or

fabric created the illusion of movement of the image, thus adding another element of "reality" to the

apparitions and spirits which a p p e a r e d . 9 Robertson's

performance is considered a direct antecedent to the spookers which would come later, "Robertson may be regarded as the legitimate forerunner of all the

Midnight Ghost Shows that gave vicarious thrills to

cinema audiences in the USA during the nineteen-forties and -fifties. "10

Although the magic lantern had been in existence for more than a centuiry prior to Phantasmagoria, not many people had yet had the opportunity to see the

9Ricky Jay, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers {New York; Warner, 1986) 25.

10Edwin A. Dawes, The Great Illusionists, (Seacaucus: Chartwell Books, 1979) 83.

126 device. Therefore, some of those attending the performances believed the apparitions to be "real." In

1798 a French journalist wrote an account of Robertson's show which described how a man fled from the theatre upon seeing an apparition of his dear departed wife. ^

Because Robertson introduced an element into the performance with which the audience had no prior experience, he was able to manipulate their perception of it for his own means. Here, Robertson was playing upon the fact that audiences who experience something for the very first time in their lives are placed in an uninformed position from which to read it. This puts them in jeopardy of misinterpreting, or misunderstanding what they are experiencing. Bourdieu notes this phenomenon in his discussion of scholarly works of art. He posits that some prior indoctrination is necessary if a new style or genre is to be understood and recognized as valuable. Without the necessary education, difficult works might be dismissed as worthless :

One of the reasons why the less educated beholders in our societies are so strongly inclined to demand a realistic representation is that, being devoid of specific categories of perception, they cannot apply any other

^^Dawes 83.

127 code to works of scholarly culture than that which enables them to apprehend as meaningful objects of their everyday environment.

Faced with scholarly culture, the least sophisticated are in a position identical with that of ethnologists, who find themselves in a foreign society and present, for instance, at a ritual to which they do not hold the key. 12

Bourdieu is speaking about the decoding of difficult, scholarly works, but the theory can be extended to include the decoding of new performance elements

produced by technological innovations. In the case of

new illusions in magic shows, the audience only has their prior experience of reality on which to rely. Here comprehension does not distinguish between appreciation and dismissal, but rather, between correct, or incorrect interpretation of sensory experiences. Audiences who "incorrectly" interpret what their senses tell them can be fooled. In the context of a magic show, however, this is not necessarily a negative thing, and can actually enhance the enjoyment of the performance. Of course, if the experience oversteps the bounds of an audience ' s comfort zone, they may react with fear, horror or disgust. This is what happened during Robertson's

12Bourdieu 217.

128 Phantasmagoria.. Some audience members perceived the

images presented as real and were genuinely afraid, "The

impact was tremendous, and it was no unusual thing for

some members of the audience to be carried away in a fainting state. "13 As time went on, however, the use of

projected images became more commonplace, and audiences'

familiarity with them became more widespread. Knowledge

of the technology was eventually incorporated into the cultural fabric. Fewer people could be fooled because their familiarity with the technique took the images out of the realm of "the real" and placed them into a realm

of theatricality. The magic lantern not only played a role in the

history of magic due to its use in fantastic performances such as Phantasmagoria, it also holds a

seminal role in film history. The Lumière brothers, the inventors of the Cinématographe, the first device which could actually project motion pictures onto a screen, used a magic lantern as their light s o u r c e . The device.

13Dawes 83-4.

14Gronemeyer 25. The Lumière brothers premiered their Cinématographe in Paris on December, 1895. Georges Mèliès attended the performance and tried to purchase the device. Christopher, Milboume. The Illustrated History of Magic (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1973) 152. For a discussion of Mèliès see Chapter VI.

129 therefore, is doubly important to the history of

midnight ghost shows. It not only figures prominently in the tradition of performances centering around the production of supernatural images and spirits, it also

led to the rise of the motion picture industry. Another innovation which figured prominently in the

tradition of performances featuring ghosts and spirits,

came about in the mid-nineteenth century. The illusion, known as Pepper's Ghost, is noted in David Price's Magic I

In 1863, letters patent were granted to Professor Pepper and a civil engineer named Henry Dircks for a device to project images of living persons onto the stage in such a manner that they could be seen to literally walk through one another. Ever since, the illusion has been called Pepper's Ghost. The illusion was actually constructed by Dircks in 1858 and its performance began December 24, 1862 at the Royal Polytechnic in a playlet based on a Charles Dickens story, "The Haunted M a n . " i 5

In addition to creating ghostlike figures onstage, the illusion can also be used to create a very striking transformation. The effect is produced by using a sheet of glass that is placed at a 45-degree angle to the

ISprice 119.

130 curtain line, between the audience and the performer.

This glass acts as a type of scrim. When the performer behind the glass is lit, the pane is invisible to the

audience. With a carefully timed cross-fade the lights

on the performer slowly go out and an object placed to the side of the stage is illuminated. The pane of glass

slowly begins to reflect the offstage object, and when

all elements are placed properly, this reflection is

superimposed on the performer onstage. As the lights

continue to cross-fade, the performer will appear to

transfozrm into the reflected object. The principle can

also be used to produce ghosts onstage by placing the glass at a 45-degree angle to the floor. The performers portraying the ghosts are actually in the pit area while the others are onstage. The two can interact and perform

scenes together but the movements must be carefully choreographed because the onstage performers are actually reacting to a character which is not physically present, and, while seen by the audience, is not seen by the performer. When set up and directed properly, however, it can create a wonderful stage effect. Pepper's Ghost is a useful illusion that has been in use continually to the present day. It was very popular in the circus sideshow and was used in exhibits

131 in which a human would "magically transform" into an

animal. The most famous of these is the illusion in which a woman transforms into a gorilla. This exhibit

was often called "Zemora" and can still be seen in some

carnivals and state fairs throughout the United States.

The effect is also in use in the Haunted Mansion exhibit at Disney theme parks. During the ride visitors see

transparent ghosts whirl and glide in a ballroom, and

actually see a ghost sitting next to them in the ride car. Although the execution of the effect at the Disney

theme parks uses a very sophisticated technology, the

principle is still exactly the same as found in the

Pepper's Ghost Illusion. When designing the exhibit, Disney brought in ghostmaster Robert Nelson as a

consultant :

Because of world-wide publicity as the operator of the Nelson Ghost Factory, I received a phone call from one of Walt Disney's representatives, who were seeking some ideas for their Haunted House in Disneyland, California. In due time the man arrived from the West Coast, and I was engaged in [sic] technical advisor for the Disneyland Haunted House.

ISRobert A. Nelson, The Last Book of Nelson: an Autobiography Plus (Columbus, Ohio: Nelson Enterprises, 1970) 40.

132 The actual Pepper's Ghost illusion was never used in midnight ghost shows because of the extensive setup and the need for a controlled, fixed environment. It did, however, inspire similar illusions which were found in ghost shows. One form of the decapitation effect used by ghostmasters is built around the same principles and one type of disembodied head effect also borrows from

Pepper's Ghost. The illusion figures prominently in a tradition of horrific stage performances which thrilled audiences and presented the impression of supernatural forces at work. The most important technological innovation in the advent of midnight ghost shows was the development of luminous paint. The material was made widely available in the United States by Alexander Strobl. Strobl was a

Hungarian engineer who travelled to the United States to further his studies of natural gas for heating and lighting. In 1924 he formed the Stroblite company in New

York City and quickly became the leading distributor of luminous paint. This provided a boon for spiritualists anxious to have another tool at their disposal to dupe

I7walker, Ghostmasters 13

133 the unsuspecting- public. Luminous materials were frequently used in séances to create materializations of spirits and other eerie effects. In his book The Death Blow to Spir±t:ua.lism, Ruben Brigg Davenport prints a

"Statement of Margaret Fox" in which she reports on a medium's use of luminous materials, "In London I went in disguise to a qniet séance at the house of a wealthy man and I saw a so-called materialization. The effect was produced with the aid of luminous paper, the luster of which was reflected upon the o p e r a t o r . "18

Even though it becomes continually more difficult to trick audiences as they become familiar with innovations in technology, this does not mean that it is not possible. If a performer is clever enough, he can use preexisting technologies in conjunction with other elements (as when Robertson projected his magic lantern images on smoke) , or can present the familiar in such a way that it becomes unrecognizable. In order to be successful in this, the context of the performance becomes vitally important. If audience members know they

18"Statement of Margaret Fox," from Ruben Briggs Davenport, The Death Blow to Spiritualism, 50. Rpt. in Harry Houdini, Houdlnl: A Magician Among the Spirits (1924; No. Stratford, New Hampshire: Ayer Co., 1998) 271.

134 are going to see a play, the context alerts them to the theatrical nature of the performance. They understand that what they are experiencing is an illusion. By presenting Phantasmagoria in a Capuchin monastery,

Robertson put the performance into a context which was not readily recognizahle as theatre, thus helping him trick the audience. This was the same technique used by spiritualists. By holding their séances in a setting not recognized as theatrical, they were able to make audience members believe in the verisimilitude of their effects. (9 These same effects, when used in midnight ghost shows, were received as amusing illusions because they were couched in the context of an obvious theatrical performance.

The scarcity of materials during times of war can have a significant effect on performances. If the necessary materials are not available, performers must either change their program, or cease operation. During the Second World War this became a problem for the ghost shows because many of the things needed to mount and tour a ghost show were in short supply. Gasoline was scarce and this caused many performers to stop touring.

19Henry Hay, ed., Cyclopedia of Magic (Philadelphia: David McKay Co., 1949) 424.

135 Flash, powder was also extremely scarce as all the magnesium was going toward the war effort. Ghostmasters who continued to perform had to devise other effects to replace those dependent upon flash p o w d e r . 20 Most ghostmasters took a hiatus during the war years, and remounted productions when resources were once again plentiful.

The three innovations discussed above--the magic lantern. Pepper's Ghost and luminous--were very important in the histozry of magic, and thus important in the history of the ghost show. Although midnight ghost shows did not use a lot of complex technology, they did use the principles of light associated with these innovations. By using luminous-paint effects to entertain audiences in a blackout, El-Wyn, the original ghostmaster created a "new" type of show which became very successful. Of course, the shows eventually became dated and newer forms of entertainment replaced them:

As the newcomers come into existence, i.e. accede to legitimate difference, or even, for a certain time, exclusive legitimacy, they necessarily push back into the past the consecrated producers with whom they are compared, 'dating' their products and the

20Herman L. Weber, Out of the Spook Cabinet (Oakland, California: Lloyd E. Jones, 1947) 7.

136 taste of those who remain, attached to them .21

Some of the dated products/productions may remain viable due primarily to advocates who continue to appreciate their contribution and champion their value. Others will eventually drop out of sight once they are no longer perceived as innovative or useful.

2iBourdieu 107.



Publicity and ballyhoo were essential parts of the ghost show package. Ghost show operators used various combinations of newspaper ads, radio spots, onsite events, lobby cards, posters, movie trailers and publicity stunts to publicize their performances. They borrowed advertising techniques from horror films, sideshows and vaudeville. Gimmicks were an important part of the publicity used to hook an audience into attending the performance. The advertising featured bold lettering, outrageous claims and a barrage of shocking or intriguing images designed to not only entice people into attending, but also to set up expectations in the audience ' s mind regarding what might be experienced at the performance. Audience members would expect to be amazed and frightened, and usually they were. Hyperbolic advertising could cause trouble for the ghostmaster, however, if he was not able to deliver on the promises

138 put forth in his promotional package.

Ghost show publicity made use of familiar elements and signs which would have strong associations for a reader from their use in advertisements for horror films. Bold, jagged lettering, or lettering which appeared to be " dripping" would connote danger and evil in the audience's mind. A figure wearing a turban was a sign of mystery and other-worldliness. Movie trailers featuring text which appeared to float, accompanied by a foreboding voice-over could tap into audience familiarity with claims of psychic powers and the ability to contact the dead. Readers could take these images, comfortable in their familiarity, and use them to activate their own meaning. A popular text which can be activated in such a way is one that John Fiske calls the "producerly text." Expanding upon Barthes' notion of a writerly text, Fiske creates a new category to encompass the popular:

The category of the producerly is needed to describe the popular writerly text, a text whose writerly reading is not necessarily difficult, that does not challenge the reader to make sense out of it, does not faze the reader with its sense of shocking difference both from other texts and from the everyday. It does not impose laws of its own construction that readers have to decipher in order to read it on terms of its, rather than

139 their, choosing. The producerly text has the accessibility of a readerly one, and can theoretically be read in that easy way by those of its readers who are comfortably accommodated within the dominant ideology, but it also has the openness of the writerly. . . It offers itself up to popular production.i

In his theories, Barthes used the term "writerly" to designate works which were of a new and shocking form-- the avant-garde. These often presented a unique interpretive challenge to the reader because of their opacity and unfamiliarity. They were texts that did not easily "offer up" their meanings, but instead made the reader work hard to decode and appreciate their message.

While Fiske sees value in Barthes ' acknowledgment of the interpretive space a text can present, he posits the category of "producerly" as a way of opening up Barthes ' concept to include texts which are not difficult to decode. This allows him to apply Barthes' concept to texts which fall into the category of popular culture.

Fiske goes on to describe how the producerly text uses signs which are bold and obvious--often iconic--to allow easy understanding. The reader can readily grasp the images, but they can also manipulate them to their own purposes :

I John Fiske, Understanding’ Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989) 104.

140 Excessiveness an.d obviousness are central features of the producerly text. They provide fertile raw resources out of which popular culture can be made. Excessiveness is meaning out of control, meaning that exceeds the norms of ideological control or the requirements of any specific text. Excess is overflowing semiosis, the excessive sign performs the work of the dominant ideology but then exceeds and overspills it, leaving excess meaning that escapes ideological control and is free to be used to resist or evade it."2

While ideology suggests a text will be received in a

particular way, this does not negate the fact that a particular reader's background and social experience will influence reception. When looking at an historical

text--or a category of texts--one can only posit the

connotation for an implied generic reader. Each

individual reader's background will position him differently in relation to a text:

[The reader] invents in texts something different from what they "intended." He detaches them from their origin. He combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of m e a n i n g s . 3

2 Fiske, Understanding' 114.

3Michel deCerteau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkely: University of California Press, 1984) 169.

141 In examining the promotional campaigns used by midnight ghost shows ^ the discussion that follows will assume

some authorial intention. This is not to suggest, however, that readers could not have created many other meanings in their relation to the texts. As Fiske notes, the producerly text is marked by obvious and excessive signs. This certainly holds true for ghost show advertisements. Excessive, bold, brazen images were the standard in the ghostmasters ' promotional campaigns. Subtlety was of no use to performers and producers trying to draw an audience into the theatre. Components such as bold lettering, outrageous promises, and shocking graphics would grab the reader's attention and, hopefully, offer enough intrigue that the public would be moved to buy a ticket and attend the performance. In his Manual of Publicity and Exploitation for the Mentalist, Robert Nelson puts forth the standard philosophy of the day:

This book deals primarily with the stage mentalist. what applies to the mentalist, applies to magicians aind other of the Allied Arts as well as all showmen. The objective is always the same-publicize-exploit-cash in at the box office 14

4Robert A. Nelson, Manual of Publicity and

142 As previously discussed, ghost shows prior to World War II focused primarily upon spooky happenings and séances. Advertising campaigns for these shows purposefully connected them with the spiritualism craze.

The ads emphasized such feats as mindreading, spirit paintings, séances, ghostly rappings and hypnotism. The graphics primarily consisted of bold text interspersed with pictures of ghosts and skeletons. A standard feature was some sort of "teaser" stating what the audience might experience during the performance. El- Wyn, the originator of the midnight ghost show touted,

"The 'Ghosts' sometimes leave the stage, come into the audience and sit with you I "3 Another early ghostmaster advertised his All Baba ' s Spiritua.l±st:ic Seance and Ghost Show as follows : "Come face to face with the supernatural I If a cold, clammy hand settles on your shoulder, be calm, it may be only a friendly spirit trying to get acquaintedI"6 These were familiar

Exploitation for the Mentalist (Columbus, Ohio : Nelson Enterprises, 1948) 3.

5Mark Walker, Ghostmasters (Boca Raton: Cool Hand Communicat ions, 1994) 21.

6Walker, Ghostmasters 27.

143 references for an audience living in a time of numerous psychics, mediums and spiritualists. The claims put forth in these early advertisements were very mild compared to those that would come later. As ghost shows transformed to horror shows, the teasers became much bolder and more graphic.

Print advertising usually consisted of a combination of posters, lobby cards and newspaper ads.

Radio was also very important. Because there were only one or two radio stations in a town at that time, ghostmasters could be sure of reaching most of the public with radio advertising, "Radio was a cheap and effective way to advertise a spook show. You could buy thirty spots for thirty dollars, and you could just blitz 'em with spots on the radio. "7 Sometimes, other clever advertising ploys were also used to gain notoriety. Philip Morris, one of the most successful ghost show operators, used newspaper classifieds to create a buzz for his productions. He would place newspaper ads the week prior to the show which read: "Wanted girls for the Mad Dr. to amputate limbs of the ladies onstage." or "Lost: a giant monster. If seen call

7Jim Ridenour, Spooks-a-Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, Dir. Jim Ridenour, Ed. Jim Ridenour, n.d.

144 Dr. Evil at the Paramount t h e a t r e . "8

In addition to print and radio advertising, the most successful promotional campaigns of pre-World War II ghost shows were those that used some ballyhoo techniques borrowed from vaudeville. Magicians had long used various stunts to garner attention for their performances. Percy Selbit, the original inventor of the

"sawing a woman in half" illusion, which he popularized in the early 192Os^ used to hire a man to casually empty a bucket of stage blood into the gutter while theatregoers watched in horror, and Horace Goldin, another early performer of the sawing illusion, kept ambulances, doctors and nurses in attendance at his theatres.11 Performers and theatre managers would often collaborate on stunts to get free publicity and stories

SMorris, interview. Spooks-a-Poppin.

9James Randi, Conjuring': Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, wizardry, Deception, and Chicanery and of the Mountebanks and Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public. (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) 102.

^^Milboume Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1973) 268.

ilMysteries of Magic. Dir. Mel Morpeth. Narr. Ray Brooks. The Learning Channel, 1997.

145 in the press ; they would try anything that would draw attention and create a "buzz" about the show. Some of these were traditional stunts which had become a mainstay of publicity for magicians, such as the blindfold drive, beacon searchlights or a local parade.

To publicize Rajah Raboid's spook show at the Warner Brothers Theater in Mansfield, Ohio, Benny Schwartz, the theatre manager, staged a street parade using his house band, a horse-drawn hearse, and the Rajah in his limousine. 12 Henry Valleau was another ghostmaster who staged some very clever publicity stunts. He would even get the local officials to help with the ballyhoo :

With the help of the local sheriff and the local undertaker, we obtained a coffin. I went down to the butcher shop and bought some chicken entrails. We took a wax head that we used in the show and fastened the entrails to the neck of it. We placed the head in the coffin on a rubber sheet so it wouldn't soil the coffin. The sheriff made arrangements for four men to carry the coffin down main street during the evening rush hour. I was on the truck ready with our loudspeaker and our monster was crouched down hiding between two parked cars. At five o'clock the traffic became very heavy at the intersection. At the pre-arranged signal, the funeral procession started down the street and headed towards the civic auditorium. All traffic stopped in every direction.

12walker, Ghostmasters 33-4.

146 There was a massive traffic jam at the comer and everyone on the sidewalk stood and watched the funeral procession go by. Just as they passed several parked cars, the monster leaped out and dashed over to the coffin. I shouted over the P. A., "Look out, the monster has escaped I" The monster ran over to the coffin, opened the lid, and snatched the head which was adorned with chicken entrails. With the head in his hands, the monster ran as fast as he could to the doors of the auditorium with at least half of the townspeople at his heels screaming "Catch him!" Fortunately, he made it to the door in time and my wife locked it after he entered. . . . Business was excellent that night. (3

Another Valleau story attests to his ingenuity in solving a practical problem while still keeping within

the spirit of his intended publicity:

We used to place [a coffin] on the sidewalk in front of the theatre during the day of our show. After awhile I noticed that kids would come by and kick it. They would make remarks about it "being fake" etc. This irked me to no end. So I went and bought some formaldehyde that smelled to high heaven. We found some old rags and soaked them with this chemical and threw them in the coffin. From that time on, when the kids got a smell of the coffin, they gave it a wide berth, looked at it in a puzzling fashion, but made no more wise cracks.w

13Pete Biro, "Francisco's Midnight Spook Frolic," Spook Shows on Parade, ed. Mark Walker (Baltimore: Magic Media Ltd., 1978) 10.

14siro 12.

147 One of the more popular spook show stunts was to hire a youngster to walk in front of the theatre dressed

in a white ghost costume and carry a protest sign and

picket. A photo of this stunt included in Ghostmasters

shows a ghost holding a sign which reads, "Francisco is

unfair to ghosts. He works them Overtime at His Midnite

Spook Frolic. Laughs/Thrills/Chills/ Tonite Starts at 11:30 State Theatre."15 Some entrepreneurs would have

ghosts hand out "faint checks" which contained two lines for name and address and read as follows : "Kindly fill out card . . . and keep it either in pocketbook or where

it will be easily accessible in your pocket during

Doctor _____ s' Midnight Ghost Show, Friday, MIDNIGHT, at ______Theatre. " (6

Placing a figure or an object in front of the theatre was a common trick used by many performers and theatre managers. Some variations on this included positioning a skeleton inside the ticket booth where the

ISWalker, Ghostmasters 144.

lôRobert A. Nelson, Manual of Publicity and Exploitation for the Mentalist (Columbus, Ohio : Nelson Enterprises, 1948) 137.

148 ticket:-seller would normally be, placing an actor in an

"hypnotic death sleep" in the front window, or parking a

hearse in front of the theatre. Bill Heff had a unique

way of drawing attention to his performance. When arriving in a new town, he would stop just before

reaching the city limits and attach a large gold Buddha to the roof of his truck. This would, of course, draw a

lot of curious onlookers as Neff made his way to the theatre. To capitalize upon this even further, theatres would often reserve a parking spot for the truck right out front so the Buddha would continue to entice the curious and induce them to buy a ticket to the performance in hopes of finding out what the strange sight was all about. Bob Nelson also had success using an "in front of the theatre " gimmick. During a two-week engagement at the downtown deluxe Lyric theatre in

Cincinnati, Nelson gained a publicity coup by creating a public nuisance:

We had placed a large crystal ball on the sidewalk in front of the theatre on a large pedastal, toghether with a costumed Hindu assistant gazing into the ball. It lasted two days when the police ordered it removed, as it was blocking side-walk traffic. But it had

ITchuck Windley, "Bill Neff's Madhouse of Mystery: The Later Years," Spook Shows 67.

149 achieved its purpose. Our engagement was most successful. 18

Some ghostmasters would go even further in their use of bizarre ways to get attention. One feat performed by Dr.

Zomb (Ormand McGill) was to having himself buried alive. McGill relates how this was used to great effect during a stint in Redwood City, California:

To close the stage show. Dr. Zomb was nailed into a coffin, same being then taken from the theatre, followed by the audience, and was buried in grounds across from the theatre. Throughout the night and all next day crowds of people hovered above the grave. Early the following evening, the coffin was dug up and taken to the Fox San Mateo Theatre (about ten miles distant from the Sequoia Theatre in Redwood City) and was placed in the lobby of that theatre on display during regular show time. At 11:30 p.m., the house was dumped, the midnight show crowd admitted to the theatre. The coffin was brought down the aisle onto the stage, the lid pried opened [sic] , and Dr. Zomb stepped out to commence his show at the San Mateo Theatre.

18Robert A. Nelson, The Last Book of Nelson: an Autobiography Plus (Columbus, Ohio : Nelson Enterprises, 1970) 9.

19Ormond McGill, as told to Mark Walker, Spook Shows 5 5,

150 Giveaways were also used to entice audience members to the show. Many producers gave away charm bracelets or

small trinkets to all the women in attendance. Some offered two - f or-one passes if you were "brave enough" to

sit through the entire show. One of the cleverest of

these promotions was used by Philip Morris. His ads

promised that some lucky member of the audience would

"Win a Free Dead Body. " The dead body turned out to be a chicken in a miniature coffin, and audiences had a good laugh and went home satisfied.

One of the most effective forms of publicity was the ghost show trailer. This was a short filmed advertisement which would be played in the movie theatre

in which the show was to be performed. It was sixty

seconds to three minutes in length, and would be shown as one of the previews of coming attractions two or

three weeks prior to theperformance. Ghost show

trailers mirrored the format of horror film trailers of

the day, but because the performers were working with a

much smaller budget than the film studios, they were much less elaborate. They usually consisted of text superimposed over a photograph or a drawing with a voice-over touting the "horror" and "terror" that would be experienced by the audience at the production. Moving

151 cut-outs and crude special effects were sometimes used, but rarely was any type of film clip or actual footage of the show seen in the trailer.20 An eerie male voice would proclaim the many thrills and horrific sights which would be experienced at the show and ominous music

(sometimes taken directly from horror films), moans, screams and evil laughs were used to enhance the mood. If any film footage was used, it was "borrowed" from horror films of the day and usually featured a lightning flash or the image of one of Hollywood's famous monsters. Also, using footage from the actual performance would have been counter-productive to what the ghost show operators were trying to achieve. They wanted to play upon the audience ' s fear of the unknown- - the anticipation of what they would see onstage--and using actual footage from the performance would have diluted this fear. As the early spook shows transformed into shows which included more monsters and gore, so the advertising followed suit. Print ads began to feature monsters and horrific images. In Ghostmasters, Mark

20For examples of ghost show videos see Ghostmasters Video, ed. Mark Walker, 1991; and Jim Ridenour, Spooks-a-Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, n.d.

152 Walker notes that the history of the ghost show is

clearly reflected in its print advertising:

The evolution of spook shows to horror revues can easily be traced by studying the artwork of posters or heralds. Ghost shows of the thirties had relatively simple layouts with a centralized theme. By way of contrast, midnight attractions of the L940s-1950s developed the cluttered look, with a vast number of ideas compressed into very little space. Clients thought they were getting a big show for their paid admission, but this was simply a marketing trick. Another trick was to use explicit scenes depicting half-naked maidens chained to operating tables or being carried off by monsters. Prior to the Second World War, ads had no sexual connotations whatsoever. It was not until the late fifties that they began to show scenes of bondage, sadomasochism, or bestiality .21

The explicit scenes noted by Walker were similar to those used to promote films of the newly-established horror film genre. By the 1940s signs associated with horror films were very recognizable to the American public and midnight horror shows could tap into, and play upon, these familiar signs. Genres help readers categorize texts by using easily identifiable signs which function as "roadmaps"

2IWalker, Ghostmasters 90-91.

153 to guide a reader's interpretation. Genres provide familiar terrain; elements common to a particular* genre aid in the reader's comprehension of a text, "For the audience--as members of various interpretive commiinities for American mass culture--genre assures the interpretability of a text. "22 When audiences saw the ghost show ads, they knew exactly what to expect. The layouts and images were familiar. By copying the format of ads used to promote Hollywood's horror films, ghostmasters could tap into the popularity and the fear associated with these films. Audiences knew how they had responded to Frankenstein and Dracula, so they knew how they were expected to respond to these performances.

Copying the horror film ad style also helped ghostmasters to present the show and film as one unit as opposed to two distinct productions.

The images of scantily-clad, buxom women also became very popular in film and ghost show advertisements. David Skal attributes this trend to the advertisements for the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which he states, are "notable for

22Robert C. Allen, ed. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992)144.

154 inaugurating the now time-honored tradition of women with nearly exposed breasts as indispensable mad science iconography. Never mind that the décolletage displayed by the actress is nowhere to be found in the film itself. "23 These type of ads, of course, created another association in the reader's mind. This element appealed to the prurient interest of teenage boys who made up the majority of ghost show audiences. The sexual connotations would be reinforced with tittilating ad copy (in the print ads) or voice-overs (in the trailers) announcing such things as "We can't tell you what happens when zombies grab girls out of the audience and drag them up on stage. But, whoa ! It ' s something you thought you'd never see I "24

One feature which remained constant in all phases of ghost show advertising was the challenge put forth to the reader. Direct address was used to goad potential audience members into attending. Phrases such as, "Your

23David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modem Culture (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998) 178.

24Trailer for Philip Morris ' Dr. Evil and His Terrors of the Unknown, Ghostmasters Video, ed. Mark Walker, 1991. Subsequent quotes from ghost show advertisements are taken from trailers contained in Ghostmasters Video and from print advertisements reproduced in Walker's Ghostmasters.

155 blood will run cold I" "We dare you to see . . "You've

braved ' Frankenstein ' and ' Dracula ' but here is one show you just can't laugh off." "WarningI If you have a weak heart better stay home I" "If you come alone, you'll be afraid to go home !" were sprinkled liberally throughout

the advertising. One show touted, "Dr. Satan hypnotizes everyone in the audience -- including you I" These phrases tap into a phenomenon Fiske describes as a "pleasure of disbelief." Although audiences are expected to suspend disbelief when attending a theatrical production, there is also enjoyment generated by holding on to some skepticism:

[There is] a pleasure in disbelief, a sense of pride in not being taken in that could be seen as an example of the hedonistic skepticism that Bourdieu identifies as typical of proletarian taste. This pleasure in not being duped can be experienced only when the attempt is made and recognized.25

The pleasure occurs when one's knowledge and senses are put to the test. There is satisfaction in not being fooled and the advertisements implied this pleasure. The ads would draw in members of the public--especially

25John Fiske, Reading- the Popular (New York: Routledge, 198 9) 215.

156 young men--eager to prove they could not be hypnotized,

fooled, or that they could "take it."

The choice of phrases used in advertising can indicate, by extension, what type of audience is targeted. In his essay "Audience-Oriented Criticism and Television" Robert C. Allen notes that an implied reader can be inferred by examining the way in which direct address is used:

One of the most obvious ways the reader can be acknowledged and assumptions about him or her manifested is by referring directly to the reader: addressing the reader directly, confiding in the reader, appealing to the reader, describing what the reader knows or might feel, even questioning or challenging the reader ' s interpretation of the text thus far. In other words, the text might create a characterized fictional r e a d e r . 26

As noted above, the characterized fictional reader of ghost show advertisements was the young man eager to prove his masculinity and impress his girlfriend. This can be verified by examining some of the specific admonishments put forth in the promotional campaigns. One of the most consistent phrases used in the ads warned young men that these shows were not for

26Allen 114.

157 "sissies." The phrase "Don't be a sissy" or "Sissies

stay home" appeared in several ghost show advertising campaigns. This tradition was actually begun by the original ghostmaster himself; ads for the first ghost show, El-Wyn's Spook Party r urged, "Don't be a sissy I

Come on down to the spook party tonight ! "27 Sometimes the challenge was even more direct. The Horror Chamber of Blood and Gore goaded young men into attendance with the phrase, "Don't be chicken. Show that gal friend you got what it t a k e s . "28 Advertising such as this strikes at the very heart of the notion of masculinity, which is a sensitive issue for many young men. For them, masculinity equals power, and this is something culture tells young men they are supposed to desire :

The patriarchal ideology of masculinity is a cause of cultural anxiety for many subordinate males because the economic system that it underpins denies them the social means to exercise the power and control upon which it tells them their masculinity depends. 29

27walker, Ghostmasters 21.

2 8 Ghostmasters Vi deo.

2 9 Fiske, Understandings 136

158 Ghost show advertising purposefully exploited this

cultural anxiety by attacking young men's masculinity

and sense of self worth. The promotional campaign threw down the gauntlet, and many adolescent males were more than willing to pick it up and accept the challenge.

Although ads were primarily geared toward young men, sometimes ads would also include an appeal to the young women. Suggestive statements such as, "Girls, here ' s your chance to cuddle up to your boyfriend and discover if he's a man or a mouse" and "This will put new life in your men and new men in your life" hinted at the the other "thrills" which could occur during a midnight production due to the possibility of

"forbidden," close physical contact. The statements foregrounded the idea that ghost shows could not only provide entertainment and diversion, but also an excuse to get romantic with your sweetheart. Successful ghostmasters were clever showmen who would do whatever necessary to create a profitable performance. Using the visage of famous monsters or celebrities was a common practice, but one that sometimes got them in trouble. Powerful film studios who were interested in protecting their own interests did not always appreciate their property being borrowed for

159 someone else's production. In 1943 Jack Baker ran into a problem when he took his Dr. Silkini show to the west coast :

During the war year of 1943, we played the Orpheum theatre in Los Angeles with the Frankenstein monster. I never gave it a thought that I couldn't use the character, or that it was created by and belonged to Universal Studios. In Los Angeles we were doing five shows a day packing some 2,500 people into the theatre for each show. We were to play there for an entire week but Universal put out a restraining order against me for using the Frankenstein character which was their sole property.30 They said that I moved around so much that they couldn't find me until I had the nerve to play my show in their own backyard. I didn't want to give up the character as it had been very successful and was an integral part of my show. I went to court, but I lost the case. Finally, the chaiirman of the board and the other staff members of Universal had me do a special show for them in one of their studios. After seeing it, they thought my show was so good that they said it didn't hurt, but helped their Frankenstein property. They gave me a license to use the character and for ten years we used the monster with their permission and blessing. Each year we renewed our contract with them.31

3 0Universal did not object to Baker's use of the character from 's novel, but his copying of the visual image of Frankenstein's monster which appeared in their film. Boris Karloff's makeup had been designed by Jack Pierce.

31Jack Baker, "Dr. Silkini's Asylum of Horrors," Spook Shows on Parade, ed. Mark Walker (Baltimore: Magic

160 Donn Davis also ran into some trouble with, the movie studios during the tour of his Horror Chamber of Blood & Gore. The production featured Elizabeth Taylor as

Cleopatra in the advertising because her luminous figure

(an image painted on masonite) would appear during the finale of the performance. Twentieth-Century Fox studio contacted Davis after they became aware of the use of

Taylor's image through an unfortunate coincidence :

As long as you stayed in the sticks and played all the small towns . . . it never got any notoriety . . .but as luck would have it . . . we played Pittsburgh, and as the picture of "Cleopatra" opened in Pittsburgh they had the big quarter-page ad. Our quarter-page ad for our spook show was right next to it. And so those tearsheets went in to the home office and before I knew it . . . I got a letter . . . with a list of lawyers down the side longer than my arm. . . and they were going to take everything away from me .... So I sent ' em a Polaroid snapshot of my old Pontiac and I told ' em they could have my Pontiac and my two cane poles. Come and get it. And they never did . . .and I went back into the sticks again and just kept playin' it.32

Media Ltd., 1978) 51.

32Donn Davis, interview. Spooks-a-Poppin.

161 Ghost shows and mentalism acts were such a widespread phenomenon that some magicians published books specifically on how to develop and promote these acts. Bob Nelson published The Manua.1 of Expiai and Publicity (1948), which specifically gives tips on how to promote ghost shows and mentalism acts and his

The Ghost Book of Dark Secrets (n.d.) discusses how to create and ballyhoo a ghost show. Herman L. Weber offered an individually prepared manuscript on "Planning, Promoting and Presenting a Successful Spook

Show" which would be accompanied by various examples of promotional materials and Weber's services as a personal consultant. 33

The elements contained in ghost show promotional campaigns were all used to create an "horizon of expectations" for the audience, which could then be manipulated and played upon at the actual performance. "Horizon of expectations, " is a term central to the reception theories of Hans Robert Jauss. It describes a concept which helps to explain how readers interact with familiar (or seemingly familiar) texts. Jauss suggests three ways in which the horizon is constructed:

33Herman L. Weber, Out of the Spook Cabinet (Oakland, California : Lloyd E. Jones, 1947) 31.

162 First, through familiar norms or the immanent poetics of the genre; second, through the implicit relationships to familiar works of the literary-historical surroundings ; and third, through the opposition between fiction ' and reality, between the poetic and the practical function of language, which is always available to the reflective reader during the reading as a possibility of comparison. 34

Of course, iconic signs were not the only elements which helped to set up the horizon of expectations.

Actual statements made in the advertising added stronger, more direct claims, increasing the audiences' anticipation of what was contained in the performance.

Sometimes these claims would overstep the bounds of good taste, however, and the perfoirmances would be rejected by potential patrons. Thrill-seeking audiences of the day wanted danger and excess, but even they had limits.

One performance which suffered from its bold advertising campaign was offered by Wladyslaw Michaluk a.k.a. Walter

M. Kara Kum. In the mid-1950s he began promoting his new show Cann.iba.ls of Curifiba with King- Lungri. Kara Kum's advertising campaign for the show promised

34Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982) 24.

163 "Regurgitating Horrors." The printed ads contained the traditional bold text, and horrific images that audiences had become used to but the ads overstepped their bounds when they went on to make the following claims :

Smell and Feel Your Flesh Sizzle and Sputter When Being Burned Alive i See and Gasp as Your Stomach is Sliced Open and Slithery Intestines and Other Slimy Guts Ripped Outl [sic] 35

The shocking nature of these lines caused some newspapers to block them out in printed advertisements. The bold promotional campaign incited strong reaction from many communities and the show opened to protests from teachers and parents. Jim Ridenour was one of the performers who took a unit of Cannibals of Curitiba on the road for Kara Kum. He remembers that the failure of the show was directly due to the fact that the ads were " too strong" and notes that the show "died a quick death" because of the miscalculation.36 while these type of claims might be well-received by today's audiences of the post- era, at the time they did not fall within the bounds of acceptability, and the show paid

35walker, Ghostmasters 162.

36Ridenour, Spooks-a-Poppin.

164 the price.

Another pitfall for ghost shows was making overinflated advertising claims which could not be fullfilled in performance:

Several midnight practitioners purposely- misled the public by being wild on promise but short on delivery. These entertainers almost literally had to flee auditoriums when their shows bombed because they fell far short of their inflated publicity.3T

As noted in Chapter 5, these hack ghost show operators "burnt up" a lot of territory for the skilled showmen. Theatre managers were hesitant to book another ghost show if they had already had a bad experience with one of these substandard productions. It was not so important that the show delivered every promise put forth in the advertising. Ghostmasters could get away with not delivering upon publicity promises, if their performance was professional and of good quality. If the audience had a good time, they would forget about the exact promises of the ad campaign. In Spooks-a.-Poppin' , Jim Ridenour and Harry Wise, two longtime ghost show performers, discuss this

37walker, Ghostmasters 91,

165 very issue:

Ridenour- Campaign didn't mean a thing, did it?

Wise - Waw, campaign was to get 'em in there and then try to make 'em happy somehow.

Ridenour - Make 'em laugh a little. Forget they wasn't [sic] scared.

Wise - Here's the thing. If you make 'em laugh . . and you have a good, strong blackout, they'd usually leave the theatre happy.

If the show was shoddy, or of poor quality, however, audiences and theatre managers were unforgiving. These low-quality ghost shows gave the professionals a bad reputation, and also, perhaps even more unfortunate, provided a poor theatre experience for expectant youngsters :

My childhood memory of a spook show was not a midnight show, but a show on Saturday afternoon at my stepmother ' s movie theater on Long Island in the late 60's. Unfortunately, as you can probably guess, this was not conducted by a skilled ghostmaster, but by the movie show attendants wearing rubber masks and playing a spook show film strip during the supposed mayhem that included, scenes of Bela Lugosi turning into a bat, lightening flashes as attendants ran up and down the aisles with a stick with ribbons on it trying to scare the girls sitting on the aisle seats (and not doing a very good job of it since they were quite visible in the supposed black out segment in the lightening flashes) . Some parts

166 of the film tried to suggest horrors such as, "Beware the person you're sitting next to, since they may be a thousand years old, HA HA HA HA I " Then came the moment the teenage attendants, still in their uniforms, mind you, put on rubber masks such as Dracula and Frankenstein, stood up on the stage and halfheartedly "menaced" the audience. Needless to say, this spookshow was a great disappointment and less than the "5 Frightful Visions of Horror" it proclaimed itself to be. "See Count Dracula change into a bat and fly in the audience amongst youI" This apparently was the film clip and the guy with the stick I The ONLY thing that saved this disasterous event were the classic horror films they showed. "House on Haunted Hill" with Vincent Price and Roger Gorman's "Tale of Terror," again with good ol ' Vinny. Seeing these films on the big screen and in the front row was an experience I'll never forget. I actually SCREAMED when Vincent Price turned into a pile of goo at the end of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and so did every other kid in the audience. 38

Though some ghost shows missed the mark with audiences, many were wildly successful and provided a significant income for their producers and performers,

"$3 0 00 to $5000 night grosses were not unusual at a time when most magicians were lucky to get $50 0 a week. "39

Theatre owners were eager to book midnight shows because

38Dwight Kemper, "Spook Show Experience" E-mail to Beth A. Kattelman, 24 Feb. 1999.

3 9charles E. Windley, "RE: RE: Re: Midnight Magic" E-mail to Beth A. Kattelman, 3 Jan 1999.

167 they would play at a time the houses would usually be dark, and because the shows were usually booked into the theatre on a percentage basis. Expenses would be deducted from box-office receipts first, and the remainder would be split equally between the ghostmaster and the hosting theatre. Thus, there was very little financial risk on the part of the theatre owner.40

The actual logistics of booking a tour and providing promotional materials to theatres usually fell to a booking manager who sometimes also acted as an advance man:

The shows were booked about two months in advance. A complete exploitation campaign including film trailers was supplied the theatre manager by our advance man and we in turn would pick up all the reusable materials on the night of the show and take them with us. The advance man would meet us once a week and take the materials on ahead to other theatres .41

Dick Newton was a skilled magician and the co-creator of

40Robert A. Nelson, The Ghost Book of Dark Secrets, 2nd ed. (Alberta, Canada: Micky Hades Enterprises, 1972) 5 .

41Walt Hudson, "Ray-Mond's Midnight Ghost S h o w , " Spook Shows 27.

168 Dr. Dracula.'s Den of Living- Nightmares, with Card

Mondor. He was also a very successful booking and promotional agent. Through some clever machinations, Newton was also responsible for putting together a complete promotional package for a show which did not yet exist:

We had this brand new show we were gonna book, but we'd never played it anywhere. So, the last date that Card worked on his [previous] show . . .1 told him, "Pay the guy at the theatre five bucks if he'll change the marquee just before he's gonna take it down .... Have him change it to Den of Living Nightmares and get a picture of it. " We did that on a few shows. And then I said, "When business is good, you ask the manager for a letter of recommendation." They're always delighted to give them to you, and lots of them would say "Here, just write it yourself and I'll sign it." So I said, "Get as many letters as you can only, instead of calling the show Chasm of Spasms call it Den of Li ving Nigh tmares. " 42

Newton also used the trick of sending himself telegrams which raved about the new performance. In this way, he amassed an entire publicity package, complete with stills of the show, photos of the marquees, telegrams and letters of recommendation, before the show had even been performed.43

42oick Newton, telephone interview, 30 Aug. 1999.

4 3 Newton, interview.

169 As theatres began to transform, booking opportunités for midnight ghost shows diminished. In addition to the problem presented by Cinerama screens, in the sixties many of the giant theatres disappeared or were split up into multi-screen complexes. There were no longer large auditoriums or movie theatres which could also accommodate large stage shows. But for several decades during the time of the great movie palaces, with some clever promotion and a great deal of fortitude, skilled ghostmasters were able to grow their businesses into very profitable ventures.

170 C H A P T E R 9


Midnight ghost shows were particularly attractive to young audiences. They combined elements of comedy and horror to produce an entertainment that was appealing to the adolescent population who enjoyed being frightened.^ In Understanding' Popular Culture, John Fiske states that culture "is concerned with meanings, pleasures, and identities. "2 So what meanings, pleasures and identities did ghost shows hold for these audiences? What made them flock to the theatres to experience this entertainment which would amuse, but also frighten them? While it is easy to understand why audiences would seek out performances which would cause joy and laughter, there is a seeming contradiction in the seeking out of things

^Mark Walker, Ghostmasters (Boca Raton: Cool Hand Communications, 1994) 57.

2Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989) 1.

171 which produce terror or fear. While it is well beyond the scope of this chapter to explore all of the theories about why some human beings are drawn to things which are frightening, the theories discussed below can help to explain why midnight ghost shows drew a young audience and why the horrific aspects of these performances were part of their appeal.

The key to the enjoyment of performances which produce fear lies in the fact that the attending subject knows they are not in real danger. When viewing a terrifying object which is safely contained within a performative framework, an audience member knows that there are boundaries which will allow them to experience the fear and yet remain safe. The context is all important. As long as the audience knows they are watching a play, or film, or are safely strapped into a roller-coaster, they can get caught up in the sensory experience without having to concern themselves with self-preservation. Noël Carroll designates monsters, and fictional objects of horror as art-horror to distinguish them from objects which present a real, immediate threat :

Objects of art-horror promote fascination at the same time they distress; indeed, both

172 responses emanate from the same aspects of the horrific beings. The two responses are, as a matter of (contingent) fact, inseparable in horror. Moreover, this fascination can be savored, because the distress in question is not behaviorally pressing; it is a response to the thought of a monster not to the actual presence of a disgusting or fearsome thing. "3

Because the audience knows there is not an immediate danger they can savor the physical and emotional reactions which are produced. Art-horror can be enjoyed as a unique experience which allows people to vicariously explore the dangerous and threatening without having to actually risk life and limb, "We watch the monstrous spectacle of the horror film because we know that the cinema is a temporary place, that the jolting sensuousness of the celluloid images will be followed by reentry into the world of comfort and light."4

Additional insight into the appeal of the midnight ghost show can be gained by looking to the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin

3Woël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) 18 9- 90 .

^Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Monster Culture (Seven Theses) , " Monster Theory, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1996) 17.

173 discusses his theories of "carnival" which he sees as an event which allows the populace a brief collective escape from oppression and subjugation. Carnival is present when a microcosm is created in which the subject can revel and forget their other troubles, "While carnival lasts there is no other life outside it. "5

Carnival is produced through spectacle, and often contains excessive bodily imagery, grotesque elements, and the release of fear through laughter. These elements were all part of the midnight ghost shows, and point to the fact that the shows do stand as an example of

Bakhtin's carnival. The release of fear, through laughter, was one of the primary elements which made the shows so appealing.

It has already been noted that ghost shows were particularly attractive to teenagers. Youngsters often feel a great deal of stress during their teenage years.

They are growing up and trying to form their own identity, assert their authority, and gain independence.

Youngsters begin to feel increasingly autonomous and yet they are still subordinate to parents, teachers, etc. who place limits on their behavior. They are told that

SMikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984) 7.

174 sexual expression is taboo. Unrestrained, public

displays of fear and/or laughter are forbidden. The ghost shows (and horror films) offered them a chance to

sidestep these rules for a brief time. They could laugh,

scream, shriek or cower without repercussion or chastisement. "There is a certain . . . pleasure in getting around the rules of a constraining space." (18)

A performance which offers this opportunity for liberation can be very appealing. Audiences will seek

out the experience even though it might also generate some uncomfortable emotions. Therefore, even though fear

might be thought of as a negative thing, if this fear

manifests itself in a safe, controlled environment, the emotional and physical reactions can be quite pleasant. Young audiences could "lose" themselves in the

performance, thus giving them a brief escape from the pressures and problems of the real world. This loss is characteristic of what Barthes terms jouissance. In his

theories, Barthes recognizes two types of pleasure which can be activated when a reader negotiates a text : plaisir and jouissance. Plaisir is a more intellectual reaction which constitutes the subject as part of the dominant ideology, whereas jouissance is unrestrained and produces a type of resistance:

175 Barthes argues that plaisir is a different (and, by implication, inferior) form of pleasure from jouissance^ It is socially produced, its roots lie within the dominant ideology, it is concerned with social identity, with recognition. If jouissance produces the pleasures of evading the social order, plaisir produces those of relating to it. Plaisir is more of an everyday pleasure, jouissance that of special camivalesque moments.6

tiouissance offers a way for a subject to evade the

subjugation of ideology, if only for a brief time. This in turn, produces "a sense of empowerment and an energy otherwise repressed. So how did this jouissance manifest itself in

audience behavior at the ghost show performances? With liberation comes freedom of expression and sometimes over-zealous reactions which can create problems. At the ghost shows, the audience reaction occasionally got out of control, and if the ghostmaster could not get the audience to cooperate it could spell disaster for the performers, "The rule of thumb was, after the movie was over with and you started your backstage announcement.

Gpiske, UnderstSLnding 54 .

7 F i s ke, Understending 55.

176 if you didn't have 'em quieted down during your

backstage announcement there was no sense going out on

the stage."* While most audiences were manageable, it was important for any ghostmaster and assistant to be aware of the demographics of their audience and to

tailor their show accordingly. Young audiences wanted a lot of action, and if the show didn't deliver, there could be problems :

Eighty-five percent of the audiences were fun to work for but they were not the type of audience that the regular magic show attracts. Magic has universal appeal and in the usual show there is a cross-section of the population socially, economically and age wise. This was not so in the Spook Show. The audiences were largely in the fourteen to seventeen-year-old age bracket. We had very few children and adults at our shows. The kids came with the attitude, "O.k. let's see you scare me." they wanted action and unless the show moved at a fast pace, they would get rowdy. They were not polite in any sense of the word. That's why Ray-Mond used illusions and each of those was presented in the form of a skit. Illusions were huge enough to be seen and interesting enough to hold the audience's attention. The outcome of each skit was a shocker.9

8Harry Wise, interview, Jim Ridenour, Spooks-a.- Poppin: The Ghost Show Racket Laid Bare, n.d.

9Walt Hudson, "Ray-Mond's Midnight Ghost Show," Spook Shows on Parade, ed. Mark Walker (Baltimore: Magic Media Ltd., 1978) 32.

177 Audience reaction could become particularly problematic in the parts of the show where performers ventured into the audience. While most ghostmasters

stopped, this practice due to the danger it posed, Raymond Corbin was one of the few who continued it throughout his career. While he would prohibit his

assistants from venturing out, Corbin would risk his own

neck by running throughout the house and scaring the audience :

With the exception at the end of the show where Ray-Mond ran into the audience, we all stayed on the stage. A monster leaving the stage might find himself being pounded on the head by a group of teenage boys. It was difficult seeing with those masks on and more than once I tripped starting down the stage stairs. We had a rule no assistant ever descended more than two steps from the stage. He would make a false start into the audience and then return to the stage for his safety's sake. lo

Corbin himself notes that venturing into the house was a risky practice, and he has the scars to prove it. He was knifed by crazed audience members more than once. But

Raymond's interest in giving the audience a good show

10Hudson 32.

178 and in bringing the effects right down to them kept him venturing into the audience throughout his entire career as a ghostmaster. One of his signature moves was to walk across the arms of the audience chairs. Most of the time he would perform this feat and then arrive safely back on stage, but there was one instance in which a false step got him into serious trouble:

I used to do some crazy things--used to jump off the balcony and then walk across the audience on the arms of chairs carrying a machete and a severed head. One time my foot slipped and got caught down between the seats. People started beating on me. I had these big fangs on too. I pulled them out and yelled, ' Hey, cut it out. We're just trying to have fun here I ' Well, that startled them enough that they stopped for a moment and I was able to pull my foot out and get out of there. • i

Even though most performers eventually quit going into the audience they still had to contend with what might happen if audience members accidentally got hold of a prop or piece of equipment. Most of the time, props which accidentally fell into the audience could be considered a loss, unless, as in the following case, rare fortune intervened:

llRaymond Corbin, Personal interview, 16 July 1999

179 As the skull was floating above the audience it broke loose and fell right into the darkened theatre. Al that could be seen was the luminous skull flying all over the place. Someone caught it and tossed it to another person in the theatre. It looked sensational. The skull finally ended up in the balcony when it disappeared. We went back to the dressing room after the show and Arthur was really disappointed. We had more shows to do and we had no way of getting another skull made, as this was the only one of its kind. About a half-hour after the show a policeman walked into the dressing room with the skull under his arm. He explained that he was in the theatre watching the show when the skull just landed in his lap. He realized that it belonged to us. So we got it back in time for our next performance. 12

If the prop did happen to fall into the audience, it was best to let it go. Trying to retrieve it during the frenzy of the blackout could spell disaster for an unwary assistant:

Harold Agnew, a former assistant to Francisco [ghostmaster Arthur F. Bull] , told me once that he worked a show in Denver, Colorado at the Taver Theatre. During the blackout he had long bamboo pole which had a six-foot luminous skeleton some twenty feet over the audience ' s head when, the darn pole snapped and fell into the audience. He ran up the aisle and couldn't see anything except the luminous skeleton.

12pete Biro, "Francisco's Midnight Spook Frolic," Walker, Spook Shows 19.

180 Harold grabbed the skeleton and said, "Give me this thing, " and the guy said, "I'll give it to you," and he hit him in the face. Harold had a black eye for about two weeks. I3

Ghost shows allowed youth to assert their independence, authority, and sometimes their hostility.

It gave them an opportunity to break out of the constraints of everyday life and to form a brief, isolated "power-bloc. " This is another opportunity afforded by popular culture entertainments. They can provide an occasion for the creation of micropolitical power among the audience. This is arguably a very small part of what occurred amongst the youth audiences of the midnight shows, but does come into play if one looks at the identity-format ion which was possible at the performances. In Understanding’ Popular Culture, and its companion volume Reading the Popular John Fiske argues that possibilities for social change reside in popular texts because of the influence they have at the micropolitical level. He posits that the awareness and self-esteem gained by a social group's interaction with a popular text can create an "interior resistance" which in turn can move that group to behave in a politically

13Biro 19.

181 progressive way.

It is arguable that the needs of the people are better met by progressive social change originating in evasive or interior resistance, moving to action at the micropolitical level and from there to more organized assaults on the system itself, than by radical or revolutionary change.^

Here Fiske argues that the "personal is political " and that raising one's consciousness about the way ideolocpy works to keep a certain social group subordinate can help that group to live their lives with more confidence and self-esteem and thus, little-by-little, raise their status in society. This consciousness-raising occurs as a social group negotiates the meaning of a text. The circulation of a text within a particular historical and sociopolitical moment allows an audience to create their own set of meanings. These meanings are produced as the audience finds ways in which the text relates to their own lives. This ability to create personal meanings (or meanings at the micropolitical level, using Fiske's terminology) is both pleasurable and empowering. It can help the subordinate group recognize their commonalities

^^John Fiske, Rea.d±ng the Popular (New York: Routledge, 1989) 12.

182 and can ultimately lead to an increased awareness of potential power. Admittedly, this can be a very slow process indeed, and one that does not always lead to action at the macropolitical level. But in some cases, Fiske argues, it can lead to resistance to the dominant ideology and a slight change in hegemonic forces. While it might be argued that the ghost shows did not produce politically progressive behavior, they did provide an opportunity for identity-formation in the adolescent population:

Popular pleasures arise from the social allegiances formed by subordinated people, they are bottom-up and thus must exist in some relationship of opposition to power (social, moral, textual, aesthetic, and so on) that attempts to discipline and control them.i5

Successful ghostmasters were entertainers who could tailor their show according to the audience, and flexible enough that they could make last-minute changes depending upon the circumstances at hand. They were bold showmen who could improvise and negotiate their way through many difficult obstacles and performance situations. They were not afraid to take on a tough crowd. The risk in presenting any show is the inability

ISpiske, Understanding 49

183 to totally control its reception by the audience:

The presence and circulation of a representation tells us nothing about what it is for its users. We must first analyze its manipulation by users who are not its makers. Only then can we gauge the difference or similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilization.

When this audience is an unpredictable, rowdy, teenage audience, the risk is multiplied. Even so, ghostmasters were willing to accept the challenge to present entertainment and thrills to the youth of America for over three decades.

ISMichel deCerteau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkely: University of California Press, 1984) xiii.

184 C H A P T E R 10


Midnight ghost shows provided escapist entertainment for audiences across America for more than three decades. They fulfilled a need for the release of social anxiety by allowing audiences a safe space in which they could forget their troubles and have a good time. The sinister aspect of the shows tapped into the growing fascination with the grotesque, precipitated by World War I, and an additional appeal was their link to the spiritualism craze. Soon after the spiritualism movement was begun in Hydesville, New York, many

Americans began to attend seances and to visit psychics to have their fortunes told. Ghostmasters capitalized on this wave of popularity by incorporating feats of mentalism into their acts. Later ghost shows connected with the post-World War II audience's appetite for horror films by featuring familiar movie-monsters as their main characters.

185 During the heyday of the ghost show which followed

World War II, teenagers comprised the majority of the audience, and they used the opportunity for identity formation. Ghost shows gave youngsters a place where they could exhibit uninhibited reactions without fear of repercussion. Youngsters also used the ghost show as an excuse to be physically close to one another. Most ghost shows drew large audiences, and in turn, this created a very lucrative business for the ghostmasters. In 1949 the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco packed a record- breaking crowd into its 300 0-seat theatre to attend Card

Mondor's Dr. Dracula's Den of Diving Nightmares.^

Ghostmasters borrowed many techniques of advertising and ballyhoo used, by vaudevillians and movie studios. They blended the stunts of vaudeville with the bold graphic advertising of horror films to produce a complete promotional package which was very enticing to the American public. Performers maintained a difficult touring schedule, usually playing one-night-stands in small towns during the week and moving into the larger towns on weekends. Some producers had several units of their shows so they could cover as much territory as

iMark Walker, Ghostmasters (Boca Raton: Cool Hand Communications, 1994) 114.

186 possible.

Ghost shows varied somewhat in format, but all contained common traits, the most important of which was the blackout sequence which was the main defining feature of the genre. During the blackout luminous apparitions would appear onstage and throughout the theatre. Early ghost show performers ventured out into the audience to bring the effects as close as possible to the audience. Later, this practice was stopped because it became too dangerous. Through their tie-in with horror films, ghost shows provided an opportunity for enteirprising magicians to continue touring when many performance venues stopped booking stage performances and concentrated on presenting motion pictures. Since the demise of the midnight ghost show, there have been a few other forms of entertainment which have provided a similar experience for audiences. The Rocky

Horror Picture Show (1975) is one example, with its midnight showings, combination of humor and horror, and the opportunity for audience participation. Also, haunted houses which are presented across America during the month of October still use some of the same effects and techniques present in the ghost shows. In fact, one of the premier ghostmasters, Philip Morris, has

187 published a book. How to Operate a Flnan.cla.lly

Successful Haunted House, in which he shares tips on how to build effects (including Pepper's Ghost) and provides ideas for promotion and advertising a haunted house. In the book Morris has also reproduced some of the handbills from his Dr. Evil and his Weird House of Horrors Show which can be used to promote the reader ' s own haunted house by filling in the appropriate date, time and place.2

Because there has been very little academic research to date on midnight ghost shows, the area remains a fertile ground for further study. In this text I have not included a feminist critique of these performances because I hoped to emphasize their place within the continuum of the history of magic and legerdemain. Because of the way the productions used the female body as an object to be manipulated and dissected, however, a feminist reading would be both interesting and beneficial. There are also other research opportunities in uncovering further information about the ghostmasters contained in this study, and ones not covered herein who, nevertheless, had an impact upon

2Philip Morris and Dennis Phillips, How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House (Charlotte, North Carolina: Imagine Inc., 1987) 35.

188 the audiences they played for and the towns they visited. It also still remains for someone to document a comprehensive list of all ghost show tours and performers.

Although the time of the midnight ghost show has passed, these performances deserve to be recorded as a part of popular culture and theatre history. They were a link between vaudeville and the rise of the film industry. They were a huge box-office draw in many cities, and ghostmasters have very fond memories of their times touring with these shows. They provided audiences with a chance to forget their troubles for a brief time, and to experience something unusual and entertaining. While these productions have forever passed into history, I hope this document has served to reanimate them for the reader.


BETH. Did you head up your own unit? DICK. No. I started out working for Dr. Ogre Banshee’s Chasm of Spasms. BETH. O.k.

DICK. A friend of mine. Card Mondor, went out with a unit, and he said if you start--I was still in

college--and he said if you go out with the show,

we're going to have a lot of units, and you can have a unit of your own. So I said, "Great I" So I went

out and worked with it for a year and then I ran

into Card . . . and we decided the shows were making so much money, we would put together our own show.

I would book it and he would perform it.

BETH. So you were the booking manager? DICK. I ended up being the booking agent initially, and then later on I did a show on the west coast for a while.

190 BETH. Do you know about what year that was?

DICK. It was about '48. How that was Chasm of Spasms, and then Dracula's Den of Living Nightmares, which was our show, we took out about '50 . . . . This

was interesting because we had this brand new show we were gonna book, but we'd never played it

anywhere. So, the last date that Card worked on his

show--you know I had already left the unit I was on- -I told him, "Pay the guy at the theatre five bucks

if he'll change the marquee just before he's gonna

take it down .... Have him change it to Den of

Living Nightmares and get a picture of it." We did that on a few shows. And then I said, "When

business is good, you ask the manager for a letter of recommendation." They're always delighted to

give them to you, and lots of them would say "Here,

just write it yourself and I'll sign it." So I said, "Get as many letters as you can only, instead of calling the show Chasm of Spasms call it Den of Living Nightmares.

BETH. So you already had letters.

DICK. See, we would use the theatre stationary, yeah. The guy would say, "Go ahead and write a letter, here's a piece of stationary. I'll sign it." So we'd

191 write the letter only we'd use the name of our [new]

show. If the theatre manager happened to see it, he wouldn't say anything. He'd just assume we were

changing the name of the show or something.

.Mostly they wouldn't care. All they cared about was

all the money they made. BETH. Sure.

DICK. And then if you look on the chapter on Card

Mondor ' s Spook Show [in Mark Walker ' s book

GhostmasCers, p. 109] . . . . You see a little

montage; there's some publicity stuff, including a telegram?

BETH. Yeah.

DICK. I sent that telegram on the last show I played with the other unit . . . and I sent it to myself in New York ' cause I was going there . . . and I said,

" Congratulations " - - whatever- - "you did all this great

business with the show." I sent that wire to myself.

And the funny thing is, the hotel I was gonna stay

at wasn't that great a hotel, so I sent it to a little better hotel. BETH. Very clever. You were very successful, I take it. DICK. Yes. Then we had a lot of pictures taken of the show. So, when I went back to the west coast--the

192 two of us went back. We were both from Seattle.--We

were going to start out in Seattle and I knew the theatre chain there where we were going to start. So I put together a book and in the book now I ' ve got

letters, telegrams, pictures of the show, pictures

of the marquees where we played, so it looked like it was a big hit in the east. That we ' re not bringing in a brand new show that'd never played anywhere.

BETH. Right.

DICK. And, of course, in a sense the show wasn't,

because it was basically . . . Card's magic show.

So it wasn't like we were giving them a different show or anything, but we used different publicity, and so forth .... We started out, and I booked

the show down the west coast into the Fox west coast theatres and all the bigger theatre chains. And

then across the country and on into the east. And we really did very well. And we did one thing--I got an idea when we got to Philadelphia. There was a

huge chain there called Stanley Warner Theatres. And one of the problems with a spook show is, they would

only do real business on Saturday and Friday nights. You wouldn't do as well during the week. So I came

193 up with an idea that maybe we do a couple of evening

shows, like at 7:00 and 9:00 instead of a midnight

show--weeknights are slow for theatres too--and I talked Stanley Warner into a whole bunch of those,

so we really made a lot of money there. And we would play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday usually

in one of the regular theatres, but earlier so people could come and see it.

BETH. So did you do those shows just on their own, or was there a film in conjunction with them as well?

DICK. There always would be a film and the film would be a--the standard spook show deal would be that you

would rent an inexpensive horror movie, and then that and the cost of all the advertising would come

off the top of the receipts before you split it u p .

And then you'd split it with the theatre fifty-

fifty. When we were playing the Stanley Warner theatres, they realized that it was only three people doing the show--and I would come in

occasionally and be a fourth person when we were playing one of the first dates or a real big theatre like downtown Philadelphia--and it kind of pissed them off. And then sometimes we'd have a stagehand

expense, like if a theatre had to have a stagehand,

194 we'd put that cost on too . . . .So then the Stanley

Warner people saw how much money the three of us

were taking in, they were really mad, so they

started adding extra electricity [charges] for the stage lights, which was the big item.

BETH. So, were you packing the place?

DICK. Yeah. We did very good business. This was right

after World War II. Things were still good. They

were starting to change, but that business was still

good then, and the spook show thing was fairly- -

there had been a little bit of activity in the

thirties, but it didn't really start until after World War II.

BETH. Was it mostly younger audiences then?

DICK. They were mostly teenagers.

BETH. Did you have any trouble? DICK. No, the kids weren't . . . One of the big things, of course, was the blackout. We all did it at the

end of the show. And in the early days we would

sometimes have some of our people in the show walk out into the audience waving the spooks and things, and you couldn't see them. But, sometimes, the kids later would get smart and watch . . . where the

stairs were, and watch for people coming down.

195 BETH. I was talking to Raymond Corbin . . . DICK. Oh. yes.

BETH. He was telling me he's got a couple of scars as

souvenirs .... DICK. So you had to be really careful- And once we

realized that we didn't go out into the audience.

Another thing we did early on--and we would never do later ' cause we found out it was dangerous --we ' d get

a bunch of ten-to-thirteen-year-old kids--boys,

maybe three or four of them--to sit in the front row, and we'd put make-up on their face.

BETH. Luminous. DICK. Yes, glow-in-the-dark. And you have to charge that, you know. It needs a light source. We would

have some flash bulbs where the footlights were to

kind of blind the audience for the blackout, and that would--and the kids would get charged--their faces--' cause they were right in the front row. And

then they'd turn around, and [the audience] would

see these ghostly heads walking up the aisle. But we

only did that for a little while because as the kids

became more sophisticated, the audience, they'd grab those kids and it wouldn't be very nice. But you can imagine today trying to turn off--we would turn off

196 exit lights, or at the very least tape them over so it was totally black. And, of course, you could never do anything like that today. You'd have

lawsuits and everything else. But we did that. We

would usually get 'em to turn the exit lights off, and the few places we couldn't turn them off we'd

just put cardboard over them and tape it so there was no light showing through. BETH. Did you use stooges other than those kids in your show?

DICK. We'd sometimes use kids for, uh, hypnosis. BETH. During the committee section? (See page 64)

DICK. We'd get up a bunch of people from the audience

and then we'd sit 'em all down on a line of chairs. And sometimes we would get kids in advance and

sometimes you just prompt the kids when they're up there. . . There's five kids sitting in a row, and

you'd say to the fifth kid as he sat down, "As soon as I start to come over to hypnotize you, get up and run like hell." And then you'd start with the other

four, and one at a time you'd prompt 'em. And then when you got to him he would get up and run for his

seat, which would be a huge laugh. BETH. That's great. So kids were usually pretty

197 cooperative with that?

DICK. Oh yeah. Kid were always hams and they would love to play along. BETH. What kind of illusions did you use?

DICK. We didn't really use any big illusions. We

travelled in a station wagon usually, and it was

just too much to pack and set up. And then you had lots of theatres that would only have four or five

feet in front of the screen which was immovable. We played lots of theatres with big stages, but when

you're playing little towns, you don't always have

that opportunity. So you play theatres where there

are virtually no stage and you couldn't do the

illusions if you had 'em. So we had a few things. One of them we used with Chasm of Spasms that we

continued to use was the, uh, where a girl would change into a gorilla. BETH. Did you do the Pepper's Ghost?

DICK. No. Pepper's Ghost, nobody did that in the spook show. BETH. Too hard to set up.

DICK. The only way that was ever done--that was done in

England or Disneyland, Disneyworld--permanent


198 BETH. So you did a different transformation illusion, then?

DICK. Ours was entirely different. Pepper's Ghost was

really wonderful. I can see you're getting knowledgeable about all of this.

BETH. I ' ve been involved in magic and studied it for a

while. I was, in fact, just down at the S. A.M.

convention a couple of months ago. Yeah, it's always been kind of a hobby. And I've always been

interested in horror films, so when I was looking for something to write on, this seemed like the perfect combination of the two.

DICK. I'll tell you two funny anecdotes. One quick one

about the films : Kroger Babb--this was the guy who put on Chasm of Spasms--he. didn't want to have to

rent a film each time and pay half the cost of it.

So he got the rights to a terrible old British sea picture, and it didn't have any horror in it or

anything. It was just awful, entitled To Blood and Thunder and it was disappointing. But the show was

good. People liked the show. I'll tell you one other funny thing we did. Occasionally, we would--ticket

sales, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, the ticket sales would be so great that we would more

199 than sell out. We ' d have enough people to do a second show. That would be real fun, but you can't

keep people out until two or three in the morning.

And to pack the show up and change it, to go to another theatre and set it up, was really an awful

lot of work. And when you're doing one-night-stands, you just don't like doing that sort of thing. It's

enough work. So what we would do often--often the theatres were chains and they ' d have another theatre

maybe down the block a ways, or even across the

street. You know, this is midnight so the theatres are all closed anyway, so we would have the audience

across the street watching the movie and we ' d have

the audience in our theatre watching the stage show. And then we ' d switch audiences. Once they were over, the audience would go--each one would cross the street so we didn't have to move the show.

BETH. That's what they called "bicycling?" Is that

right? DICK. Bicycling is any time you moved the show around, like a print. They called bicycling movies where the

print goes from one to another. So you heard about that. There ' s not too many people who did that.

BETH. But you guys would do one and then flip-flop it.

200 DICK. Yeah. . . . At "A" Theatre we'd have the show and

then the audience were [sic] watching the movie at

"B" Theatre. And we'd time it so the two would end at the same time .... And it was a funny thing to

see it-- like at 12:30 in the morning--to see these

two theatres changing. And it was all mostly young

teenagers anyway, and they got a big kick out of it. It was all part of the fun, so they had no objections.

BETH. Did you use mostly luminous effects during the blackout, or did you do some of the stuff like the

unpopped popcorn kernels?

DICK. The two things we used were--we ' d say, "Now .

.thousands of spiders are going to drop on you." and we ' d throw beans out at the audience. You throw ' em

up in the air so they'd drop down. And then we'd

say, "Next, there's going to be a lot of slimy,

creepy worms. " And for those we used to buy old- fashioned mops, and we'd cut them up into about

three-inch lengths and then dip them in ice water. And then we'd just throw those out. And then, of

course, the spooks on the poles .... BETH. It lasted about one-to-two minutes?

DICK. The blackout would usually be about two-to-two-

201 and-a-half minutes. But, of course, you know, the audience did most of the scaring themselves. They

boys scaring the girls. The kids scaring each other. And yelling the whole time. So what we did just

added to it.

BETH. Did you play a soundtrack? DICK. Yeah, we had a music track you could barely hear sometimes in a big theatre with a lot of people. . .

. We had a sound effects track with lightning and thunder and screams and that sort of thing.

BETH. That sounds like great fun. I wish I could go to one.

DICK. They were fun because it was a more innocent time. And just to sit in the theatre in total darkness

with a couple of thousand teenagers. You know, that

could be a terrifying experience.

BETH. Ho kidding. Even back then. DICK. Right. Even back then. Today your life would be in jeopardy. . . . The one factor that's very different

now--the horror movies in those days were kind of scary, but they didn't have the effects that they

have now, you know. And kids used to laugh at them . .In the late forties, when these shows were

starting to go out in some numbers, those old horror

202 pictures were kinda corny. You know, nothing like

the ones today that just drive people right through the ceiling. Plus, all the gore and amazing effects that can be done. So kids are pretty sophisticated now. You'd probably have to really saw someone in

half to get a reaction. It can be done so realistically with [film] effects. BETH. I saw a video of Richiardi . . .^

DICK. Yes. . .

BETH. He's amazing . . . DICK. He was from South America and he was most famous

for his Sawing a Woman in Half . . . .He would go to

the butcher shop and get a lot of animal entrails. BETH. He's doing the kind of stuff you'd have to do

today--or he was doing, anyway.

DICK. That's right. . . . You see, the problem now is

with being politically correct and with all the


^Aldo Richiardi performed as magician Richiardi Jr. from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s. He was the third generation of a great family of professional magiciaas from Peru. James Randi, Conjuring-: Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, Wizardry, Deception, and Chicanery and of the Mountebanks and Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public (New York: St. Martin's, 1992) 176.

203 BETH. You can ' t hardly do anything any more.

DICK. That's right. Somebody'd say, "Well, that scared

my twelve-year-old child. He's never gonna be the same, " and sue you for millions of dollars. BETH. I heard some of these guys played drive-ins for a

while, didn't they?

DICK. A little bit, but not much because that really didn ' t work out very well.. . . They ' d have to rig

up some kind of a platform and lighting . . . That was just a gimmick and it really was not very

successful .... Most of those spook shows, in the glory days of spook shows, played one-night-stands.

BETH. They were doing seven or eight shows a week? DICK. You'd only do about six show a week because sometimes you'd have some travelling to do.

Most magicians never did two shows, it was only the

one midnight show. And there ' d usually be one day where you'd have a longer jump to make. When I was booking the show I also found the reason for that.

You know, when I was first with a show we used to

curse whoever was booking it because we would play one town one night, then we ' d go two hundred miles to the next town. And then the next night we'd be

back fifty miles from the town we'd played the night

204 before. But there was a reason for that. It was the

size of the towns. On the second night--or the third

night would be . . Friday night— so Wednesday you're in a small town and then you drive to another small town for Thursday. But then, for Friday, you want to

be in the big town with the big theatre, so you'd

drive more miles to get back to that big theatre.

BETH. When you were booking, were you still travelling with the show or were you booking out of an office?

DICK. No, I was out ahead of the show all the time. I

would always try to--I didn't fly anywhere in those days - - if I could, I would arrange it so I could come

back in for the opening night in a new theatre

circuit. Most of my bookings were new theatre chains and a few individual theatres, so when you got into New York to play a theatre chain, I would get there the night of the show and then help out on the show

a little. Just to make sure it was going well and it

would be effective. And then be there to talk to the theatre executives. They'd be down to see the first show.

BETH. And then you ' d go on to the next town. DICK. I'd be out ahead of the show. One year of Chasm of

Spasms we did eleven months and two weeks of one-

205 night-stands.

BETH. That's rough.

DICK. And in those days there were no freeways either. The only thing we had was the Pennsylvania Turnpike which we thought was a miracle. But that was just

Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, where we ran. Everything

else was--you were just driving through towns all the time on a two, or occasionally a four-lane

highway. But no limited access. It was a lot

different. BETH. And there were three or four people usually with you?

DICK. Three or four people in the show. . . Rarely more

than that . . . in a station wagon. Keep expenses

down. BETH. Well, Dick, thanks so much.

DICK. You're very welcome.


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