Famous Monsters and Me

I’ve often wondered how and why my interests developed as they did. I grew up on a small farm in Iowa in the 50s, and experienced all that went with that. So maybe it’s odd – or maybe it makes perfect sense – that from an early age, as early as I can remember, I was totally in love with science fiction and horror (monsters!) via all their delivery systems; i.e.  books, magazines, comics, TV, and movies. Mainly movies, probably because films are so immediate.

I was an only child, and with no kids in my age range nearby, I was basically by myself until I started grade school. I developed an elaborate fantasy life, which fed directly off of all this stuff. My head was working overtime, mainlining every film and comic that crossed my path. My mother loved movies, so we went a lot. There was a glut of science-fiction monster movies in the 1950s, which now I see had a lot to do with post-war anxieties and fears of being vaporized by Commie nukes. But at the time all I saw in those films were giant insects buzzing around in the desert, mutated dinosaurs rising out of the ocean, and Martians in flying saucers wiping out national landmarks.

I loved all these films. One of the earliest I can remember is The Man from Planet X. In retrospect it’s not that great, but at the time I found it ineffably strange and sad, frightening and enthralling. My favorite, and certainly the most traumatic, was The Thing from Another World, which completely freaked me out when I saw it in 1951. Totally inappropriate for a six-year-old, but my mother apparently wasn’t paying enough attention. Which was a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. I was seriously scared for months, but it was worth it. Most of these were pretty disposable, but some hold up well today, such as Them!, It Came from Outer Space, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (My mother got the manager of the theater in Sac City, Iowa to give me a one-sheet poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It seemed like an incredible gift at the time, and it was.)

 Horror of Dracula poster3And then three things happened that created a kind of perfect storm in my life. First, the British film studio Hammer Films burst on the horror scene with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, which got a lot of attention, followed the next year with The Horror of Dracula, which got even more. All that blood and gore and heavy breathing in vivid Technicolor. More films followed, and I saw as many as possible. This wasn’t always easy, since by the time they reached our area, might be playing only as a midnight show, or at the local drive-in. I’m probably the only person I know who would go to the drive-in by himself, if necessary, to see the latest horror film. You do what you have to do.

Second, “Shock Theater” hit the scene in October 1957, a syndicated package for TV showings of 52 horror films of the 1930s & 40s from Universal Studios. That more than a few of them turned out to be mere mysteries instead of supernatural horror made little difference to me. This was my first exposure to the classic horror films: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and on and on. A problem was that “Shock Theater” was carried locally by WOI-TV, a station in Ames, Iowa (one of three channels that we could get), which had the most problematic reception of them all. Of course, that didn’t make any difference. I’d sit there glued to the set regardless of how much interference there might be. It was great anyway. Snow, rolling picture, so what? All these films I’d had limited awareness of actually existed, and I could see them (when I could finagle staying up late enough to watch).

The third, and in many ways most important event was when I discovered the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland at a newsstand in February of 1958 and actually had enough money (35 cents!) on me to buy it. I couldn’t believe that such a magazine existed, but to me the fact that it did justified my love of these films and their world. This was something tangible I could hold in my hands. Famous Monsters was created, written and edited by Forrest J Ackerman, who for some reason didn’t punctuate his middle initial. It was intended as a one-shot, but proved so popular that 191 issues of the initial incarnation of the magazine were published between 1958 and 1983. I bought every issue between 1958 and 1962, when I started college, and then sporadically thereafter, until, in an act of stunning stupidity and lack of foresight, sold my entire collection for something like $20. I probably needed beer money.

“Forry” Ackerman was quite a character. He was born in 1916 and died in 2008 at age 92. In between he’d been deeply involved, to put it mildly, in the science-fiction world as an agent (Ray Bradbury was a client), author, editor, actor, one of the strongest boosters ever of science fiction & fantasy in print and film (he coined the term “sci-fi”), and was a major collector of sci-fi/horror memorabilia of all kinds in amazing quantities. But he’s probably best remembered for Famous Monsters, which was an acknowledged inspiration for filmmakers and writers such as Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, Stephen King, Danny Elfman, and many others. (Check out his Wikipedia entry for much more, including the priceless detail that when he was very ill he told Joe Dante that he couldn’t die until he voted for Obama for president, which he did.)

The first time I got to meet Forrest Ackerman was in December 1987 when he decided to auction a large chunk of his collection in New York to raise money for, as I recall, his wife’s considerable medical expenses. I went to a preview night at the Puck Building, where he was scheduled to give a talk. It was amazing to be there. Besides rare posters, manuscripts, stills, props and costumes, I also saw – and was able to handle – items such as Bela Lugosi’s drivers license and SAG card. It seemed amazing, and a little sad, that this ephemera of Lugosi’s life was now up for sale. Later I stood in line to be received by Forry. It was like waiting to see Santa Claus at Macy’s, or maybe the Pope. What I remember when my turn came was when he pointed out that a ring on his finger had been worn by Boris Karloff in The Mummy. I was awestruck. It was a great night, seeing all these pieces of movie history and Forrest J Ackerman in the flesh.

The second time I saw him was in 1998 when I flew to Los Angeles for a job interview. The interview was Thursday and Friday, with Saturday a free day before returning to New York on Sunday. I remembered reading that Ackerman usually held open house on Saturday mornings at his home, the “Ackermansion.”  Before coming out I called and heard a recorded message with the details, so I knew he was still hosting these events. Despite being nearly as freaked out by having to drive a rental car on California freeways as I was when I saw The Thing years before, I somehow found my way to his home in the Hollywood Hills, and managed to park safely on the narrow, winding street.

There were twenty or more people gathered outside his house waiting for 11am, when the open house was scheduled to begin. At the appointed time an appropriately spooky recording invited us to go around to the back entrance. As we walked to the door, I saw Forry through a side window, moving clothing from a washer to a dryer. He was doing his laundry! I thought this was really great.

Soon he came to the door and invited us in. We were in the lower level of the house, which was stuffed wall to wall and floor to ceiling with props, posters, death masks, books, models, everything. He gave us the full tour. Between 1951 and 2002, Ackerman welcomed some 50,000 fans like myself into his home on such tours of his world. Eventually he said to follow him upstairs and he’d tell us some stories. Which he proceeded to do as we gathered around, listening and asking questions as he related anecdotes about his encounters with Karloff and Lugosi and many others.

At one point I asked if it was true that Bela Lugosi had been buried in his Dracula cape. He replied that there had actually been three capes. Lugosi was indeed buried in one, and his brother had the second. Then Forry’s eyes lit up and he proclaimed, “And I’ve got the third!” He jumped up, went to a closet where he pulled out the cape and whipped it on in classic vampire style. True story.

I was sad when I heard of his death on December 4, 2008. Because of failing health, he had stopped giving tours of his home some years before, so I felt lucky to have been included. He brought a kid’s enthusiasm to what he loved, and passed that on to thousands of people. I was one of them. – Ted Hicks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Film, Home Video, TV. Bookmark the permalink.

116 Responses to Famous Monsters and Me

  1. In which Bela Lugosi film did he say, “Pardon me for the intrusion.” He was being put in a train cabin with a newly married couple. Boris Karloff was in it also. Speaking of BK, when I was a little kid my parents took me to see the original “Peter Pan” with Jean Arthur as Peter and Marcia Henderson as Wendy. I must have been around 6-8 years old. CAPTAIN HOOK WAS PLAYED BY BORIS KARLOFF. To this day I remember some of his lines. This was pre Mary Martin…..thank god. I never liked her.

  2. Ted Hicks says:

    I think you must mean “The Black Cat,” a really twisted film directed by Edgar Ulmer (who also directed “Detour,” one of the great film noirs) in 1934. “Black Cat” has devil worshippers, incest, necrophelia, Lugosi skinning Karloff alive, and really great line when Karloff says to Lugosi after they’ve been informed that none of the phones are working, “Hear that, Vitos. Even the phones are dead.” Karloff lived in the Dakota. I wish I could have met him when he was still alive, or even after.

    • In the film I mentioned Bela plays a good guy.

      • Ted Hicks says:

        Well, he starts out being a good guy, but Karloff is so evil that poor Bela is pushed over the edge and ends up skinning Boris alive before blowing the whole place up. The film is demented, deranged, somewhat incoherent, and quite wonderful.

    • Whew. I’ve been trying to remember that for years, Great to see the responses to your pieces, which are great. A mid-life career change for you. BTW, when I clicked on the reply button in the email I got this comments section, but your last on my question didn’t have a reply button.???

  3. What a great retrospective!

    I will never forget the first time I watched “The Thing.” It forever changed me…as it did each and every subsequent time I watched it, which was just about annually!


    • Ted Hicks says:

      Thanks! One of the greatest scenes in “The Thing” is when Kenneth Tobey and his men are waiting outside a closed door in the narrow corridor, they brace themselves, then pull the door open to reveal the Thing standing right there. This plays on a basic childhood fear (mine, anyway), that something bad is just behind the door. And in this case, it was! Also, I like John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. I was resistant to it at first, but have grown to like it a lot. It’s its own thing, so to speak. The original is still my favorite.

  4. It felt like I was reading my own life for the first half of the post. I grew up on a lot of movies with magical, fantastical, and sometimes horrifying elements, and on a few TV shows like that as well. Now I’m trying to become a creator of those same stories through the power of the written words. Did those films and Forrest Ackerman send you into the career path of a novelist or screenwriter like the films of my youth and Stephen King did for me?

  5. MrZissman says:

    Reblogged this on From the Desk of Mr. Zissman and commented:
    Awesome entry about growing up addicted to horror and monster movies.

  6. MrZissman says:

    Really awesome article and something I can totally relate to. Granted, I’m only 29 so I don’t reach quite as far as back, but I instead had movies like Evil Dead, Bad Taste, Don’t Look in the Basement, The Brain That Would Not Die, a whole litany of grindhouse flicks and more. Question, do you read Fangoria?

    • Ted Hicks says:

      I’ll occasionally look at Fangoria at the newstand, but don’t buy it these days. Used to buy FilmFax Monthly, but browse it at newstands now. The only print film magazines I still get are Film Comment, Cineaste, and Video Watchdog. What do you like?

  7. aFrankAngle says:

    And nothing from Mars Attacks! … Thank you!!!

  8. baybaebloo says:

    It’s always great to find a kindred spirit across the decades – what a great piece of writing!

  9. Kameron says:

    This post is like a science fiction wonderland!!

  10. tmooredragon12 says:

    Hi, I just found this post. Check mine out, as I am working on a book in the genre. I am a great fan of science fiction and horror films; I teethed on “Frankenstein” and “Dracula”. I used to work for Forry years ago as a librarian assistant one summer, and could see all the film stuff he had accumulated over the years. Working for him was an educational experience, and I was grateful for it. He will be missed. It is a pity that the City of Los Angeles did not grant him the funds to establish a permanent Hollywood museum; it would have made for a great tourist draw. But you must know that only a fraction of the total collection would have filled the Empire State building! How he managed to store everything in that house I will never know. Now, it is spread out all over the country as fans acquired pieces to preserve in their own “museums”. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  11. I remember they showed old horror films on BBC2 many years ago on Friday nights. .I loved them, especially the Christopher Lee ones with all those saucy vampires. As horror goes, The Omen is up there with the best.

  12. Amy Lee says:

    So weird! I just finished posting about my work on the film Weird Science and on the song performed by Oingo Boingo. What a wonderful experience you had.

  13. That is awesome. I myself have been a fan of monsters and the sort. I love watching the old reruns – it’s ashame they don’t make them like that any more. or maybe we’ve been decentisized to the frieght, suspense and just don’t scare that easy anymore.

  14. Me ha encantado el blog, una maravilla para visitar y disfrutar.

  15. ohiocook says:

    Them!, It Came from Outer Space, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon What a movie marathon that would make!! Love the site!

  16. ericjbaker says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I still have my old Famous Monsters magazine stuck in box in my mother’s attic, though they’ve probably been eaten by moths and mice by now. Thanks the gods for e-bay.

    I also got to meet Mr. Ackerman in New York sometime in the late 90s. Despite his advanced age, he was all smiles and good cheer. There was never another like him.

  17. nonoymanga says:

    Fantastic list of of monster and scifi movies of the old days. Actually I enjoy watching old movies it’s like teleporting back in a different time. I love the nostalgia effect. Thanks for sharing Nonoy Manga

  18. bellesogni says:

    Your post could’ve almost been wrote by me! There are some of the classics that grew with me like “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (original) and some well, they are kind of sad to watch now even the Hammer Films. But they all definitely carved a niche in my psyche!

    • Ted Hicks says:

      You’re right about the Hammer Films. As much as I loved (and still watch) the earlier ones, a lot of them are pretty bad. Even “Brides of Dracula,” which has a pretty good reputation, has a number of bad scenes (as well as some really strong ones). “The Revenge of Frankenstein,” for my money, is the best of any of them. Their Dracula series went downhill rather quickly, I thought. As far as other films, even “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” which I cited as a 50s film that still held up, overall is not that great, but it has some amazingly powerful scenes which make up for its deficiencies. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (yes, the original, not that thing that came out a couple years back) is one of the best from those years. Oops, it’s time for bed. Thanks for your comments. I’m new to this, and rather overwhelmed by all the attention my “Famous Monsters” post has
      received today.

  19. Your blog site is a treasure!……………….ever seen the “Mole People?”

    • Ted Hicks says:

      Thanks! My Famous Monsters post has been such a success (it seems), that I’m a little nervous about how to follow it up. * The only time I’ve seen “Mole People” was years ago on Mystery Science Theater 3000. They did such a number on it that I doubt I could watch it straight now.

  20. onlinefunland says:

    Reblogged this on onlinefunland.

  21. VERY INTERESTING. The other night actually got a chance to met Bert Gordon, the director of The Amazing Collosal Man, Earth Vs. Spider, Food of the Gods, etc…I’m going to write a blog about his movies in the new few upcoming days. Love the blog! Keep writing! You’re good at it!

  22. Scott says:

    You were fortunate indeed. I had similar interests as a child, though I was born in 1966. The other boys got superhero comics, I got horror comics. And I always wanted to watch horror/suspense, but rarely got to, as a child. I was the last of four children, and my parents sheltered me alot–didn’t allow me to see horror/suspense films. Even when they discussed real-world problems, and I asked what they were discussing, they’d say, “Just some business.” They thought they were doing the right thing sheltering me this way, they meant no harm. But of course this only increased my fascination with anything they wouldn’t let me see or hear!

  23. thomlucci says:

    I grew up during the ’50s, as well, and remember quite a few of the old monster/SciFi movies. My father used to tell me I had a morbid interest in things like that. I used to tell him my favorite movie was (something I made up in my mind) THE THING THAT ATE THE WORLD!. This would make my mother laugh, but my dad only shook his head. I enjoyed this post. It brought back many memories. Thanks!

  24. Jbot says:

    Now there’s a style that’s ripe for revival

  25. theartmotel says:

    Invaders From Mars….THE scariest movie ever made!!! I saw it in the movies when I was 5 years old…and couldn’t walk into my room in the dark forever (Invaders under my bed!!!) The only thing that rescued me from total mental Martian take-over was that I could see ZIPPERS in the Martian costumes…and even at five years of age…I KNEW Martians were way beyond ZIPPERS! Thanks for this great post.

  26. Juliette says:

    Great post!! Thanks for the memories!

  27. John Garden says:

    Great post. Creature from the Black Lagoon is also one of my favourite monster movies.

  28. All are such classics, and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” is an all time favorite. There’s a certain mood & tone to all of them that is impossible to capture these days with modern digital styles of filming. Thanks for the great post!

  29. I grew up watching Creature Feature with my older brothers and developed a lot of empathy for the monsters in those movies.

  30. shishircool100 says:

    hey nice blog !!

  31. kleeyaro says:

    My Dad said that the original Invaders from Mars was the scariest movie he ever saw when he was a kid. I’m so glad we have Turner Classic Movies to see all these old, great films. I’m sure you tune in in October when they play all these horror films!

    • Ted Hicks says:

      Invaders from Mars was totally from the point of view the little kid, so seeing as a kid was pretty hardcore experience. Okay, the Martians’ costumes have visible zippers down the back – so what? The movie exploited so many fears about parents and authority. And the ending is amazing. The kid wakes up, relieved to find out it was all just a nightmare, and then it starts all over again! Brilliant! And yes, TCM is a great resource.

  32. d_vaz says:

    Great post, I love old horror movies. There’s this program on MeTV called Svengoolie, where they show old horror movies and then have jokes and commentary in between scenes. I think Dracula was my favourite.

  33. We were raised in southern Minnesota in the sixties and seventies, and it was always Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and horror movies each and every weekend. At least some combination of them.

    Great post and congrats on your selection in freshly pressed.

  34. Dean Partee says:

    I could have written this post…. IT so captured my childhood!
    Just change the Dates, State, and local messy TV channels. And add Dark Shadows, Edgar
    Allen Poe and Vincient Price. Hammer Films was awesome with it’s Color, Gothic themes,
    and in-your-face Blood and Fangs…..
    I remember sending (in cash) $1 and .25 cents to an ad in the back of FM in ’69 for
    what I thought was going to be an actual life-size statue of FRANKENSTEIN.(Dracula was available
    too.) I was SO worried about what my mother was going to do when it arrived in it’s huge
    crate… 🙂 IT arrived in a manila envelope: 2 pieces of white plastic. But, taped together on my
    closet door is was over 6 feet and scary and glowed in the dark. NOT to brag…OK, to brag:
    one of my jobs on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood was working for Arnie’s Pizza. It was a family-run
    business, whom said their father or was it grandfather was Jack Arnold(“Creature from Black
    Lagoon” director). There were B&W photos of movies and tv shows he had been involved with
    like “Barney Miller” on the walls. There was, also, a mention of “Bewitched.” I know a Danny
    Arnold wrote some early episodes of that TV show.
    thanks for letting me post-

    • Ted Hicks says:

      I love your story about worrying what your mom was going to do when the life-size Frankenstein figure arrived in a large crate. And the Jack Arnold connection is great. Jack Arnold! Whew. Thanks!

  35. craigontoast says:

    Reblogged this on craig on toast, from the toaster to you and commented:
    Howdy Toasters!
    If you’ve never watched any of the sci-fi or monster films from the 40’s & 50’s go and watch at least one… they are magical.Some great suggestions are mentioned.. Some have been remade but the originals are so much better! and the story of them is so worthwhile reading.

  36. hrithikorama says:

    Reblogged this on Hrithikorama's Blog and commented:
    old F…

  37. craigontoast says:

    thank you for this post Ted, these old school sci-fi originals are a underesourced passion of mine.. don’t spend enough time on them.

  38. Ohyda says:

    Ah, interesting, and something completely new to me since I really don’t reach that far back in terms of years… I should probably rediscover my old movies (especially monster and B-movies). I actually mean it, I guess I should call it an eye opener, since I know my classics and noir, and the gap between that and horror/sci-fi/call-it-what-you-will is rather peculiar and requires my attention.

  39. jammymonkey says:

    Great post, thank you for sharing. I am unfamiliar with most of the films that you mention, but was still in awe of the opportunity you had to meet the man and explore his home. He must has been a very down-to-earth and generous guy.

  40. wardenfree says:

    the article really remind me of a lot of memory!
    the more famous monsters,the more impressive it is!
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  41. Fantastic post! Thank you for sharing your memories with us.

  42. Fantastic post! I also have a bit of a fascination with monsters and horror and things that go bump in the nigh, although admittedly it’s nowhere near as in-depth as your own. I also had a little bit of an isolated childhood; none of my friends lived near me and all my siblings had left home. Maybe it all stems from having to entertain ourselves and developing a vivid imagination? You may well have seen this or own it, but there’s a great book, ‘Monsters in the Movies’ by John Landis, which documents a huge number of movie monsters dating back to the birth of cinema. Again, great post, thanks for sharing!

  43. Sajib says:

    Sad thing is, with the development and advancement of special effects, we’ve seen much horrific and real-looking monsters that these oldies look hilarious to us. 😦

  44. Barnaby Spring says:

    Ted – what a great way to express your “vault” of experience around the movies!! Thanks for creating this!! Barnaby

  45. lijiujiu says:

    Excellent post.
    I love the film ….”The Man from Planet X” too, thanks for sharing.

  46. Our mothers were kindred spirits, it seems, as my mom made a practice bringing home those classic model sets (like model cars and planes, only they were Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s Monster)–this was in the early sixties, when I was just four or five. I read FM throughout my childhood and got to meet Mr. Ackerman in 1992. In LA on vacation for a few days, I decided to call him and ask if I could come by, and he agreed. I didn’t get a personal tour–he was occupied with something he was working–but he gave me free rein to look around and posed for a picture with me. He asked if I’d gone to see the nearby Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and used for exterior shots in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and many other movies. I told him I had and he seemed quite pleased and even a little impressed.

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