Sunday, October 10, 2010

The SHOCK! Doctrine

"'Shock Theater' was the inaugural event of Monster Culture, a phenomenon of horror-movie hoopla that began in the late Fifties and continued into the mid-Sixties," David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show. ("Shock Theater" was the stock name that many stations used for their showcases that ran the SHOCK! titles, frequently with a horror host.) Skal is right , but I want to take the genealogy back a little further to look at what went into the decision-making process that SHOCK!'ed some of Universal's pre-1948 movies but didn't SHOCK! others.

We may never know the names of the Screen Gems programmers who fashioned the SHOCK! package...maybe some resourceful corporate historian can crack those archives one day and identify those responsible for launching what would become the mid-twentieth century horror revolution in US popular culture. If we could find a paper trail for these people, then perhaps we could figure out the rationale behind the process used to select these particular 52 Universal movies out of of the 600 that had been acquired. For now, I can only speculate on the thinking that went into choosing those motion pictures.

From the perspective of fans of classic horror films, there are some glaring omissions in this collection of movies made available to TV in October 1957-- where is JUNGLE WOMAN, BLACK FRIDAY, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, or THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE? With such obvious absences, we have to guess that the programming philosophy behind SHOCK! was to intentionally provide an eclectic mix of monster, mystery, and spy thrillers (1958's Son of SHOCK!, by comparison, was far more horror-centric). My first instinct , then, was to surmise that, when the SHOCK! package was first assembled at Screen Gems in the summer of 1957, the syndicators did not anticipate the appetite that the TV audience had for horror movies (despite the crazy ratings success of RKO's KING KONG on television in March 1956). Horror films were, after all, disparaged and despised by critics and studios; perhaps there was a belief at Screen Gems that a horror-movie-only package would not sell to TV stations, so a range of films was welded together for this particular cluster.

(Somewhere in their promotional materials, Screen Gems mentions that SHOCK! would be an "irresistible attraction for the mood programming of feature films." What in the world was "mood programming" on TV in the mid-1950s? Was it a common practice? This odd idea makes me think of the comment that Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas make in the second edition of Universal Horrors about how the SHOCK! package seemed to want to re-define that specific sensation to include "such allied emotions as fear, mystery, dread, tension, and intrigue" by including non-horror titles.)

But you can see how wrong my theory is when you look at the SHOCK! publicity sent out by Screen Gems-- all the big splashy pages emphasize only the horror movies: FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE MAD GHOUL, THE WOLF MAN and THE INVISIBLE MAN are given pride of place over the mysteries and espionage thrillers; the front cover of the booklet (the image that Mirek made into the title banner for this blog) clearly features a bevy of monsters, rather than spies or private eyes, and the back-cover illustration (reproduced at the top of this post) is monstrous as well. "For years, tales of terror, macabre stories of ghouls and ghosts have fascinated millions in every form of entertainment," one page in the promo booklet reads. "Now, for the first time, the eerie world of the weird and the supernatural comes to television with stunning impact [...] SHOCK! captures audiences! holds audiences! builds audiences!"

It's clear, then, that Screen Gems understood that here was a thirst for horror movies and it was attempting to slake that thirst with SHOCK! And it didn't take long for them to be proven right: thirty markets aired SHOCK! in October and the ensuing ratings bonanza meant that many more stations would purchase the package and begin airing it in late December or early January 1958.

In our efforts to uncover the principle ideas behind the SHOCK! doctrine, it is worth noting that the stations that purchased the package were not under any contractual obligation to show all 52 films as part of the same showcase. When their stations finally did get their hands on SHOCK!, some local TV station program directors cherry-picked the offerings to front-load the monster movies and shuffled off the other titles to other time-slots-- something like THE MUMMY'S HAND would be broadcast as part of "Shock Theater," but SEALED LIPS turned up on Channel 21 (Fort Wayne, IN) in a decidedly non-SHOCK! context at 10am on "Mom's Morning Movie"; REPORTED MISSING was shown on a station in Camden, NJ on the "Million Dollar Matinee" at 5:30; A DANGEROUS GAME appeared as an offering on "The 4 O'Clock Movie" in San Antonio, TX in 1958; and ENEMY AGENT turned up on the 2pm "Early Show" on KOB-TV Channel 4 (Albuquerque, NM).

So although we may never find out exactly what the Screen Gems strategy was for SHOCK!ing some films and not others, we can also credit the autonomy of local stations in programming their own particular version of "Shock Theater" in this cultural shift-- in effect, the choices made by local TV station programmers in selecting which SHOCK! titles to show did as much to launch the Monster Revolution in their cities as did the Screen Gems syndicators who had done the SHOCK! bundling in the first place. But ultimately, it was neither Screen Gems syndicators nor local TV station programmers that were responsible for SHOCK!'s success: it was the viewers themselves who responded so enthusiastically to what they were seeing on late-night TV.

NEXT: The first film of my viewing project, FRANKENSTEIN, "airs" this Friday night, followed a few days later by THE INVISIBLE RAY. I hope that others will watch these movies and comment on them here.

Here is the suggested (slightly abridged) twenty-second promotion provided by Screen Gems for the movie:

"The daddy of all full-length features is here to scare you! That's FRANKENSTEIN on Shock on this channel! Here is raw horror-- a story that has shocked generations! Don't miss Boris Karloff in this spine-chiller!"


rogue evolent said...

Dang it! You guys are a Cthulhu-send (like a Godsend, only for October) for this Halloween season. This blog is so informative and fun. Thanks Creeping B, and thanks you too Mirek (love Latarnia too)

Mirek said...

Thank you, Rogue!

Mirek said...

Okay, "mood programming".... Via Google, I was able to come across several references(there are probably a lot more). Two were from Billboard magazine, and one of those, appropriately for our discussion, from 1957. Of an instrumental B-side from Acquaviva (!), it states: "A concertoish tone-picture conjured up by maestro Acquaviva. Nice mood programming material."

This, though, was more specific, from TELEVISION PRODUCTION, The Creative Techniques and Language of TV Today, by Harry Wayne McMahan, Hastings House, NY, 1957 (either page 38 or 39):

"If three or more programs are in sequence and all are designed to
appeal to the same type of viewer, they may be called a Block, as for
instance a block of shows appealing to women from 2 to 5 p.m., a block
of kid shows from 5 to 6:30 p.m., a block of mystery shows from 9:30
to 11 p.m. Hence Block Programming or Mood Programming to describe
such an operation."

The Creeping Bride said...

"Block programming" I get, but "mood programming" seems somehow more sinister, y'know? It's like "mental hygiene" and "social conditioning"...

Nevertheless, I applaud your google-fu with the McMahan text, Mirek-- good find!