Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Speculative History of the "Shock Monster" Mask

At the end of 1957, the ratings data strongly indicated that there was a Monster Culture revolution brewing. SHOCK! had boosted the ratings for KTLA-TV in Los Angeles from seventh to second place; WABC-TV jumped from sixth to first place in the NYC market. Most famously, KRON-TV in San Francisco had increased its ranking 807% with the SHOCK! films. It wasn’t long before the popularity of monster movies on television spawned other media manifestations, the most beloved of which were monster movie magazines for kids.

One such mag was Famous Monsters of Filmland, launched in February 1958 by publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman. FM's pages were crammed with reproductions of publicity stills and promotional material for horror movies going back to the age of silent movies. Brief articles covered the work of classic horror movie actors and provided extended explanations of movie plots as well as some production notes. FM was wildly popular with the younger generation of monster-movie lovers, many of whom caught the bug by seeing these films for the first time on SHOCK!--- the first issue of FM had an article called “TV’s Monster Parade,” in fact.

publisher James Warren in a Topstone mask on issue #1 of FM

Warren Publishing set up its own in-house mail-order service, Captain Company, which advertised in the pages of FM and the subsequent other titles of the Warren publishing line. For kids who couldn’t find any monster-related goods at their local department stores, Captain Company mail order must have seemed like paradise: posters, monster novelties, model kits, magazines, costumes, Super 8 reel versions of monster movies, and other fascinating outré items.

Warren expected to turn a much higher profit with Captain Company items than he did with the 35-cent magazine itself. It is not uncommon today to hear old-timers complain that they had been bilked out of their hard-earned allowance money because the Captain Company’s sensationalistic come-on ads were not always completely accurate accounts of the item purchased. (Personally, my bitterest rip-off memories involved sending away for a completely cool “giant life-size moon monster” for a $1 in the summer of 1969, but that scam wasn’t the work of Captain Company.)

Masks made by the Topstone company were among the most popular items sold by the Captain Company in the pages of FM. Topstone’s full-face latex masks were inexpensive ($2.00 plus .25 postage) and usually avoided movie studio licensing fees by presenting monsters and fiends who were not directly tied to specific motion pictures, such as “Gorilla Monster,” “Lagoon Monster,” “Horrible Melting Man,” “Savage Cannibal,” and “Girl Vampire.” One of the masks was called “Shock Monster.”

According to the Topstone catalog from 1956, the mask was originally called “Horror Zombie.” “Horror Zombie” was designed (and perhaps also sculpted) by commercial illustrator Keith Ward (1906-2000); some of Ward’s other creations that left an impact on US pop culture include the drawings of Elsie the cow (Borden’s Milk) and Elmer the bull (Elmer’s Glue, originally owned by Borden as well). But once “Horror Zombie” began appearing as an item for sale in the Captain Company advertisements in FM, the name of the mask was changed to “Shock Monster”; some collector cognescenti argue that it was Warren himself who was responsible for the name change in 1958.

With the close relationship between Famous Monsters and the SHOCK! broadcasts, I think that we can explain the name change from “Horror Zombie” to “Shock Monster” as an attempt to tap into the enthusiasm that the Captain Company’s customer base had for the SHOCK! movies. In other words, the “Shock Monster” mask sold through Warren’s mail-order operation was specifically meant to be SHOCK!’s monster mascot.
original color image from the 1960 Topstone company catalog

a private collector's foamed Topstone "Shock Monster" mask

Of course, the actual mask itself was a bit of a disappointment compared to Ward’s fantastic illustration. Nevertheless, there is a kind of bizarre art brut primitivism to that mask that is compelling and disturbing. Putting aside its historical/nostalgia value, the mask is interesting to look at because it is so childlike in its creepiness. In many ways, I would find a person wearing this cheap $2.00 mask to be more upsetting than one sporting one of those elaborately-designed and realistically-rendered monster masks that sell for a couple hundred dollars at high-end costume shops every Halloween.

Into the 1960s and even the 1970s, the Shock Monster became a recognizable and iconic face of the FM vanguard’s stake in the Horror Culture Revolution, appearing in Warren magazine graphics, t-shirts, decals, and other items--- you can easily imagine it painted on a hot rod in the mid-1960s. Unlike a t-shirt with a Frankenstein Monster face or a Dracula face design, the Shock Monster could not be identified with any specific film story. The Shock Monster was an unknown, free-floating symbol of excitement for monsters rather than a plug for any specific horror film product. He was, in a sense, an indie monster whose only connection was to the experience of the weekly “Shock Theater” or “Creature Feature” or “Nightmare” movies.

{Information for this blog post was culled from the pages of the Universal Monster Army forum and the Halloween Mask Association forum. Both of these sites are frequented by collectors of all kinds of Horror Culture memorabilia; I have found that many of the folks there are knowledgeable and can be very forthcoming with information about these items.}


John said...

Well done! A very nice overview of this gawd-awful looking product!

The Creeping Bride said...

Re: "god-awful-looking product": Yeah, if I had mailed nine hard-earned quarters to Captain Company back in the day & stared at the Keith Ward illustration for six to eight weeks in anxious anticipation, then I would've been disappointed by the look of the mask when it arrived.

But if I had one today, then you'd better believe that I would be wearin' it to give out Halloween candy!

prof. grewbeard said...

i had one. it was much greener than the example provided and it had punk rock blue hair. i can still remember the smell of the rubber, hee hee...

Unknown said...

Great Overview!

Anonymous said...

This was a favorite mask of mine, bought probably at the novelty concession stand at the long gone Bethpage, LI's Farmer's Market. After studying the remarkable life-likeness of the plastic vomit, displayed at eye-level for a 9-year-old in 1961, I'd look up at the array of masks for sale. I'd've bought Shock Monster on the day my allowance and deposit bottle amassings finally covered the cost. Seeing it in person, I knew what I was getting - it had screaming orange-red hair. It was a shocker alright and did not disappoint. A year later the mask was featured prominently in an 8mm home movie made with a friend. At the climatic moment, the mad scientist's creation throws a beakerful of (obviously) the nastiest acid in the face of scientist. After a few moments of hands-covering-face contorting, the Shock Monster mask was inserted through the magic of stop-motion photography, and... Voila! The scientist has new headgear and we have our best production - Shock Monster mask the centerpiece.

Anonymous said...

PS. The Shock Monster mask shown in this blog under the "original" illustration is not one of the original masks. The original line was much closer to the illustration, complete with that bulging eye, and was a great sickly green color. In later years, manufacturers started making mask eyeholes larger so kids could actually see out of these things, but they sacrificed monster mask art and impact in the process. PPS. My Shock Monster mask met a regrettable but fitting end. After one or several summers in a hot upstairs closet, it melted into itself.

Dr. Steve said...

How I remember wanting that mask, but never ordering it. Sigh! Another wasted opportunity.

Stinker Castile said...

Stinker Castile said...

This is a video about the Shock Monster