A complete visual history of the first explosion of horror movie magazines.
In 1957, a package of old horror films was syndicated across American TV channels with the umbrella title Shock Theater, effectively giving birth to horror fandom as we now know it – kids who had been too young to catch these films on original release could now watch them, often repeatedly, in weekly chunks, and a fascination / obsession with the classic Universal horrors, in particular, was born. That this was happening even as Hammer Films breathed new, colourful and gory life into the genre was an irony, especially in America where the ‘X’ certificate – or, indeed, any ratings – didn’t exist and these kids could theoretically watch the new films on the big screen. But a certain nationalism and suspicion of the new (something that would dominate horror film criticism until the end of the 1970s) meant that it was the original classics, and their stars like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, that were adored. Before long, several tropes of horror fandom – or, God help us, the ‘MonsterKid’ (a dreadful term that feeds into the infantilisation of horror fans that again dominated into the late 1970s) – were born: the Horror Host, that uniquely American way of presenting and often sneering at old movies, the monster toys and, of course, the monster magazine.
The first horror film magazine was, in fact, British – Screen Chills appeared in 1957 and lasted for one issue. It is widely forgotten in the history of the monster mag because at the beginning of the next year, a much more successful and iconic magazine appeared.
Famous Monsters of Filmland was launched in February 1958 by publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman, initially as a one-shot publication, aimed at being the monster movie version of Playboy, sales quickly dictated that the magazine became a regular publication.
Ackerman was a lifelong fan of the fantastic – more science fiction than horror if truth be told – and an eccentric collector of independent means who was a literary agent and writer whose achievements include effectively inventing cosplay at the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 and coining the term ‘sci-fi’. Under Ackerman’s guidance, Famous Monsters quickly pitched itself at a juvenile audience, with writing that was ‘enthusiastic’ – yes, that seems a good word – and factual, but not especially probing or critical. In doing so, he set the template for the next two decades of monster mags, and eventually gave some of the more independent and fan publications something to kick against. But the juvenile approach of Famous Monsters made it not only accessible for kids, but ultimately influential – we shouldn’t underestimate just how much the magazine acted as a gateway drug for future filmmakers, writers and artists, from Steven Spielberg to Joe Dante. Published on cheap pulp paper in black and white – a standard magazine format at the time and through to the late Seventies – Famous Monsters was an affordable way into the mysteries of the fantastic film for many, back when information about these movies was not at all readily available.
Ackerman’s approach was determinedly eccentric – his home, the Ackermansion, was addressed as being in ‘Hollyweird, Karloffornia’ and he was prone to talking about things like ‘imagi-movies’ and using similar word collisions, while the captions on the rarely seen photos were often painful puns. He would open his home to fans who travelled to see him and was certainly the most high-profile ambassador for the genre for decades, but it’s fair to say that he was a divisive figure, with many fans claiming that the influence of Famous Monsters was as malign as it was important. Certainly, it set a template for horror movie magazines that made the genre seem something that was a childish pleasure, and that rankled with many fans, particularly when there was little else available. Still, it remained a solid seller – albeit with some older fans continuing to buy out of a completist mentality, not even reading the new editions – until 1983 when Warren became ill and Ackerman eventually resigned as the company floundered without direction.
Here are all the editions through to the end of the 1960s.
The insatiable hunger for Famous Monsters was also fed by the annual Yearbook – latterly Fearbook – which reprinted old material alongside some new content.
Three paperback collections of Famous Monsters material were also released. In the Sixties, there seemed to be something of a separation between the people who bought magazines and the people who bought books, and a number of publications, from Playboy to Mad, also issued these small-format compilations of their best bits.
The success of Famous Monsters led to assorted spin-offs from Warren. The Dick Smith Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook would become the stuff of legend, helping inspire many a budding monster maker who would go on to be the make-up effects legends of the 1980s. While not officially Famous Monsters titles, the three Warren-published photo-story magazines of the mid-Sixties, featuring a heady mix of Hammer Horror, an ultra-trashy slice of bikini monster sleaze and a Fifties sci-fi favourite were clearly aimed at the same audience.
In 1963, the magazine loaned its name to an LP featuring horror stories written by Cherney Berg. It’s throwaway stuff, but was no doubt a must-have for horror-starved kids of the time.
Inspired by the success of Famous Monsters, Warren and Ackerman tried to launch other film publications, with less success. Monster World, launched in 1964, was essentially Famous Monsters with another name, and in an increasingly glutted market seemed a step too far. it folded after ten issues, and in an admirably cheeky move, Ackerman and Warren would later jump from Famous Monsters issue 69 in September 1970 to issue 80 the next month, in order to move closer to the hundredth issue, and using the ten issues of Monster World as an excuse, saying that these would have been issues of Famous Monsters… except, of course, that they weren’t. It was either admirable shamelessness or disgraceful contempt for the readers, depending on your point of view.
Warren and Ackerman also tried to launch a sci-fi version of Famous Monsters – ignoring the fact that there was already plenty of sci-fi in Famous Monsters. Spacemen, despite some impressive covers, was not a success, lasting just eight issues (though it did spawn a Yearbook).
The success of Famous Monsters did not go unnoticed for long. Very quickly, other publishers were cobbling together their own monster magazines, some direct imitations, others more individual in style. First to hit the newsstands was Magnum Publications’ Monster Parade, which mixed film coverage with comic strips and fiction, and was actually more akin to a monster version of magazines like Man’s Story and similar titles. It lasted four issues, from September 1958 to March 1959, and was immediately followed by two editions of Monsters and Things from the same team.
Also launching in 1958 was World Famous Creatures, a more direct Famous Monsters copy that came and went in just four issues. The cut-out monster mask on the back cover of the first two issues perhaps tells you who this magazine was aimed at.
The 1960s were awash with generally short-lived monster magazines. It seemed that for many fans, Famous Monsters fully filled the horror void in their lives, and most rival magazines – some of which were, arguably. better magazines – came and went within a year or two.
In 1959, Calvin Beck published the indie zine Journal of Frankenstein as a one-shot and was back in 1962 with the retitled Castle of Frankenstein. The magazine was published on a somewhat erratic schedule – issues appeared when they were ready rather than regularly. Reprobate readers will be familiar with this concept. Although it started life as a more traditional monster mag, Castle of Frankenstein would evolve into a more mature publication, with writing aimed at adults and a wider scope than was usual. Ironically, despite the title, the magazine became increasingly obsessed with science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, during its run. It would last until 1975, though only produced 25 issues and a 1967 annual in that thirteen-year run. Here are the Sixties editions:
1962 saw Fantastic Monsters of the Films, which might sound like the most shameless Famous Monsters of Filmland rip-off imaginable, but actually had an impressive pedigree – published by make-up effects man Paul Blaisdell (who had created many an AIP monster, some of which would grace the magazine’s covers) and collector Bob Burns, and edited by Ron Haydock, rock ‘n’ roll legend and star of several Ray Dennis Steckler movies. The magazine set out to be more mature and serious than Famous Monsters and quickly found an audience, but tragedy struck when a fire broke out at the printers while issue 8 was at the press, destroying not only the magazine files but also many rare stills and pressbooks belonging to Blaisdell and Burns. It was a major blow and took the wind out of the publication.
Charlton Publications, better known for their comic books, published a few monster mags in the early 1960s. Horror Monsters and Mad Monsters both launched in 1961 and were done by 1964, and were pretty much interchangeable Famous Monsters copies. They also published a photo-story version of Black Zoo under the Horror Monsters Presents label (again, very much in the Warren style) and the UK-only Monsters, which was a rebadged version of the other publications, with new covers but identical content to editions of both Mad Monsters and Horror Monsters (including the Black Zoo magazine). Finally, Charlton also produced the one-shot Werewolves and Vampires in 1962, the content of which is self-explanatory.
The mid-Sixties saw a few other magazines attempt to succeed where their predecessors failed. Shriek, which ran for four issues over two years, appeared in 1965 and is notable for better-than-expected content, interesting covers and almost total anonymity – the editor is credited as ‘Frank N. Stein’.
Russ Jones’ Monster Mania was, despite the trashy title, a mature semi-pro zine that was glossier and less nostalgic than its rivals, with lots of Hammer coverage and a Frank Frazetta wraparound cover on the second issue. It lasted just three editions, from 1966 to 1967.
Running for four issues in 1966 was Modern Monsters (or Modern Monster as the first issue cover says), which – despite the title – was very much in the nostalgia vein, as the covers show. A colour centrespread poster was the main standout here.
Then, there were the assorted one-shot efforts – some deliberate one-offs, others clearly intended to have longer runs. 3D Monsters from 1964 featured three-dimensional images from horror movies and of Aurora model kits but probably needed better print quality to make it work. Still, it was a fun gimmick that came with its own pair of 3D glasses. 1966 effort Chilling Monster Tales looked fun, but had nothing to make it stand out from the pack. Certificate X was, as the title suggests, a British publication from 1965 that, despite the title, still pitched itself at the juvenile audience (and should not be confused with Cinema X or any similarly-titled adult movie magazines from a few years later). And 1966’s Monster Howls was a one-shot humour magazine with comic strips and ‘funny’ captioned photos.
Monster Howls was in the tradition of another unfortunate strand of monster magazine that took inspiration from Famous Monsters. Ackerman, for his sins, had introduced the witty caption that, rather than respect the source material, made a joke of it. A few magazines took this mockery and ran with it. The most successful, Cracked’s For Monsters Only, actually mixed serious film coverage with humour, and by the end of its run was pretty much straight-faced. It lasted eight issues (plus an annual) from 1965 to 1972. Here are the Sixties issues:
Less worthwhile were Stan Lee’s efforts at combining movie still with comedy captions (or, in this case, speech balloons), in Monsters to Laugh With, retitled Monsters Unlimited after the third issue. Running for seven editions from 1964 to 1966, it is of interest only to Marvel or monster magazine completists – there’s precious little here than even raises a smile.
Finally, we come to Supernatural, an ambitious British magazine from 1968. This featured mostly current British cinema, and although it seemed to lack direction, was a serious and glossy affair. Unfortunately, it failed to find a market and was cancelled after just two issues.
The monster magazines of the 1960s were very much a case of trial and error, with publishers trying out what was an unproven format with various levels of success. We haven’t included pioneering fanzines like Gore Creatures here – the story of the horror fanzine is a different story entirely – but for the most part, the magazines of the decade essentially took the Famous Monsters format and barely tinkered with it, even if some were less juvenile than others. In the 1970s, there would be another explosion of Famous Monsters imitators, but also the rise of the serious horror magazine and semi-pro publication, leading to the launch of the notorious Fangoria at the end of the decade. But that is another story…
Thanks to http://monstermagazinegalleries.blogspot.com for help with both images and information.
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The latter two “Shriek” covers are early promo art for Hammer’s The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies, comissioned at least two years before the films were actually made
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