Happy Hallowe'en! Here's a selection of some of the scariest horror comic covers I could find. Uncensored, super-scary horror comics of the 1950s inspired the creation of the Comics Code Authority. I read a few of those 1950s' era, nightmare-inspiring comics when I was a kid - they were up in the attic at my grandparents' house (from my mother's old comics collection). Several were recently reprinted and collections are available online at Amazon. One look at them tells you - the 1950s were not all about stereotyped perfect nuclear families. In fact, the message over and over in pulp fiction was that horror did not come from ghosties and ghoulies but from other people. EC Comics (later absorbed by DC) put out three big horror series in the 1950s: The Vault of Horror (1950-1955), Tales from the Crypt (1950-1955), and The Haunt of Fear (1950-1954). By the mid-1950s, Senate hearings forced EC to cease publication, not because of its stories about the occult or supernatural, but because of its pulped stories about real horror out in the real world.
Vault of Horror vol. 1 #35 (March 1954)
The cover above was the kind of thing that led to the introduction of the Comics Code. Starting in 1952, Shock SuspenStories focussed on contemporary themes such as domestic homicide, murder, rape, racism, police corruption and drug abuse. It included an issue (#14) where an abused little girl murdered her father and framed her mother, who went to the electric chair. Shock SuspenStories was voluntarily folded by its writer and publisher in 1955 due to public outcry.
This is a cover from a recent reprint edition. Shock SuspenStories #1 (Feb./Mar. 1952)
"Neat Job!" Shock SuspenStories #1 (Feb./Mar. 1952)
This is a cover from a recent reprint edition. Shock SuspenStories #12 (Dec./Jan. 1954)
Tales from the Crypt #28 (Feb./Mar. 1952)
After the Code was imposed, the horror genre in comics continued, and even then the themes skated the edge in some cases, as you can see from the covers below. During the 1970s, DC's House of Secrets (1956-1966; 1969-1978; 1996-1999) took a turn toward the scary around #81. The series was matched by a sister series, House of Mystery (1951-1983; 1986-1987; 1998; 2008-present). The two series were narrated by DC's comic book versions of the Biblical figures, Cain and Abel. Other important horror series not covered in this post include Astonishing (Atlas Comics: 1951-1957); The Unexpected (1968-1982); The Witching Hour (1969-1978). The genre abated in comics for a while in the 1990s, then recently made a comeback. The blog DC Comics 40 Years Ago has an entry on the House of Secrets here. The issue directly below, #81 carried the origin story of the House of Secrets.
Evil caregiver. Art: Gray Morrow. H of S #83 (Dec. 1969)
The mirror shows the truth that the dog and children see. Art: Neal Adams. H of S #85 (May 1970)
The covers featured some of the classic scenarios that really terrify little kids. The cover of House of Secrets #85 picked up on the idea that animals and small children can recognize that some adults are evil, when other adults can't see it. Considering these covers were approved by the Comics Code, some of them were pretty creepy. There's no doubt what's initially implied when you look at the cover of issue #92: a vegetative elemental monster, the Swamp Thing, climbs in a young woman's window, which has been carelessly left open on a hot summer night, overlooking the Lousiana swamps. In fact, the story was worse than the 'monster rapes woman' concept on the cover. The Swamp Thing in this issue was the woman's husband, transformed by a lab explosion deliberately set by a jealous colleague. Swamp Thing's wife no longer recognized him, and he had to flee back into the bogs.
First appearance of the Swamp Thing. Art: Bernie Wrightson. H of S #92 (Jul. 1971)
Body in the bedroom. Art: Bernie Wrightson. H of S #93 (Sept. 1971)
The painting, or mirror, comes alive. Art: Bernie Wrightson. H of S #96 (Mar. 1972)
Lovecraftian loss of self in the occult - are we pawns of other dimensions? H of S #99 (Aug. 1972)
Obsession, delusion and suicide. Art: Nick Cardy. H of S #104 (Jan. 1973)
Issue #105 (below) had the kind of scene that actually happens in real life, where the bones of a murder victim are tragically discovered by famers or fishermen. The cover depicts a frozen moment for the boys in the row boat, before they unknowingly bump up against a skeleton and suddenly fish out the skull from the pond. Their lives are about to be changed forever. This moment was explored with the characters in the film, Stand by Me (1986).
About to find a murder victim. H of S #105 (Feb. 1973)
Voodoo. Art: Luis Dominguez. H of S #117 (Mar. 1974)
Suicide in the film and in real life. Art: Luis Dominguez. H of S #118 (Apr. 1974)
Boy witnessing murder. Art: Luis Dominguez. H of S #121 (Jul. 1974)
Don't play with strangers. H of S #124 (Oct. 1974)
A lot of the House of Secrets covers from the 1970s were not, or only partly, supernatural. They depicted children's first brush with the terrible things that happen to adults, or forbidden things that adults do, or the secrets they keep. Crime. Rape. Revenge. Despair. Greed. Betrayal. Horror in these comics was all the things in the adult world that destroy security, trust, love and innocence.
The idea of lost innocence being bound up with horror was a common thread in these 1980s' pop culture hybrids, with the 1950s' decade symbolizing innocence, and the current time (the 1980s) representing an adult consciousness of death, disenchantment, disillusionment, sexual maturity, or corruption. This timeframe covers the Baby Boomers' period of moving from childhood to adulthood. Both An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982) juxtaposed 1950s and 1980s styles, while walking a fine line between 'nice boys' and 'date rapists.' The flip-flop between the former and the latter was concealed in the symbolism of the werewolf. In An American Werewolf in London, two American college students hiking across the moors in Northern England wander into a village that might as well be a 1950s' time capsule. They look hyper-modern in their 1980s ski jackets. And they encounter a horror out on the moors that unleashes all their subconscious desires for lust and murder.
1950s retro in Michael Jackson's classic rock video Thriller (1982). MJJ Productions.
Michael Jackson's Thriller was similar. The video opens with a film set in the 1950s, but the cinema audience (featuring the same cast) is an 80s' crowd. In both time streams, Jackson transforms into a monster who lusts for his date and hunts her through haunted streets and into a town cemetery.
Stand By Me (based on the Stephen King novella, The Body, set in 1960) hinged on a scene in which four boys searched for and found the dead body of a boy killed by a train. The film, whose stars included actor River Phoenix, was a portrait of innocence being stripped away in the summer of 1959.
River Phoenix: an entire generation responded to his performances. Image: IMDB/IMPTVImages.com.
Today is the seventeenth anniversary of Phoenix's death. Until 2004, Johnny Depp used to close the Viper Room every year on Hallowe'en, to remember Phoenix at the site where he died. The People article about Phoenix's death is here. Filmreference.com comments that Phoenix often played characters who grew up too soon: "In both Running on Empty and The Mosquito Coast, he plays ... strong adolescents who have to assume adult responsibilities when their parents prove weak." His powerful performances matched the times. Older moral values still held sway superficially, but behind the façade, the society was completely different. This paradox was evident in Phoenix's life, where his clean public image contrasted with his private struggles with, and eventual death from, drug abuse. Phoenix's characters reflected a youth immersed in a corrupt culture that nonetheless was ever-preoccupied with finding some kind of spiritual transcendence. His characters skated the edge between youth and adulthood. His films weren't exactly stories about lost innocence. They were stories about preserving innocence, preserving the soul of youth and integrity, under conditions where doing that was nearly impossible.
Phoenix's main fansite, Rio's Attic, comments on the actor's death at age 23. He died too soon:
"There is one other unexpected discovery that awaits a growing youngster at some point in their childhood. When it eventually happens, it doesn't sound right and it doesn't make sense. In fact, we spend the rest of our adult lives trying to figure it out. It's just not fair - we're not old enough and we have not been given the time to prepare for it. Our whole perception of life is cruelly turned upside down and we are ill-equipped to handle it. We return to our beds at the end of that day realizing that our very souls have been changed by events that took place well beyond our own backyard. We know, we know even at that young age, that we are not the same person who woke that morning, and we will never be the same again. When you're told that someone has died, someone who you didn't regard as an 'old person,' when you realize that someone your own age can suddenly cease to exist, from that point onwards one's outlook on the world is viewed from a new and very different perspective. And a piece of ones' own self dies quietly too. On that day, an innocent part of our own childhood is forever lost."
"I wish I was big." Zoltar the Fortune Teller. Big (1988). Twentieth Century Fox.
The horror meme associated with bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood was picked up in the 1988 movie Big, which contained a replica of the amusement park game, Zoltar Speaks, an adaptation of the type of arcade-styled games seen in the 1940s and 1950s. The protagonist makes the fateful wish that all children make: "I wish I was big," a wish many of them live to regret! Zoltar magically grants the wish, and the next morning, the main character wakes up as an adult. Near the end of the film, his adult self returns to Zoltar to try to reverse the wish (below).
Tom Hanks's character returns to Zoltar the Fortune Teller. Big (1988). Twentieth Century Fox.
Although the film was an upbeat comedy, it had some very dark undercurrents. The fortune-telling acade machine was pretty frightening. A replica of the film's version of Zoltar the Fortune Teller was made in 2008 by Roger Hess; he explains how he made the machine on his youtube site here.
Zoltar Speaks (2008). Video: Pitts8rh.
By the 1990s, 1950s pulp retro was still one of the watchwords for horror. The classic Cinemaware videogame It Came from the Desert (1989) drew heavily from 1950s' atomic monster movies. The main film it referenced was Them! (1954).
Them! (1954). Warner Bros.
In It Came from the Desert, the player took the role of a scientist investigating abnormal happenings in the town of Lizard Breath. The local mine in the game is infested with giant ants that have mutated after a meteor struck the earth. The game (and the film on which it was based) obviously reflected fears about nuclear tests in the United States (especially New Mexico and Nevada) from the 1940s to the 1980s. It was a typical situation, where a stranger enters a community and realizes that everything there has gone wrong. The game featured a drive-in cinema with knife-fighting gangs, a creepy lodge where the men of the town dressed up like monsters, a bar, a hospital, an isolated radio station, local college, lonely farms, a little airstrip, and an abandoned mine infested with giant ants. Although it wasn't as sophisticated as today's games, the game's music added a morbid, lurking mood to the gameplay (below).
It Came From the Desert extended gameplay. By Cinemaware. Video: cubex55.
David Lynch picked up on 1950s' horror in his series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and its prequel film, Fire Walk With Me (1992). Twin Peaks, a horrifying tale of incest in a 'normal,' mid-sized town in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, unfolded into a terrifying, surreal contemplation of how such crimes can tear the fabric of reality apart. One of the villains in the series, Windom Earle, gains strength in the creepy atmosphere following the mysterious death of the town's prom queen, Laura Palmer. In the second season (Episode 19, aired 11 April 1991), he described the White Lodge and the Black Lodge, two contending realms of power (script source here; you can watch the episode here):
"Once upon a time, there was a place of great goodness called the White Lodge. Gentle fawns gathered there amongst laughing, happy spirits. The sounds of innocence and joy filled the air. When it rained, it rained sweet nectar that infused one's heart to live life with true beauty. Generally speaking, a ghastly place, reeking of virtue in a showered smell, engorged with the whispering prayers of kneeling mothers, mewling newborns, and fools, both young and old compelled to do good without reason. But I'm happy to point out that our story does not end in this sutured place of joy and success. For there is another place, its opposite. A place of almost unimaginable power, chock full of dark forces and vicious secrets. No prayers dare enter this frightful maw, for spirits there care not for good deeds or priestly implications. They are likely to rip the flesh from your bones then greet you with a happy "good day". And of the highest, these spirits in this hidden land of unmuffled screams and broken hearts offer up a power so vast that its bearer might reorder the Earth, to his liking. Now this place is called the Black Lodge ... and I intend to find it."Like other horror stories, there is a point where the struggle between these contending opposites relates to ideas of time. A poem repeated around the series ran: "Through the darkness of future's past, the magician longs to see. One chance out between two worlds. Fire walk with me."
See all my posts with horror themes.
All DC Comics stories, characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © DC. All images and clips from films and videos belong to the cited film and video companies. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. The source for most comics covers shown here is the site, Cover Browser.