In October of 1957, Screen Gems released a package of 52 Universal Studios horror films under the title Shock Theater (aka Shock!) to syndicated television stations around America. To help present late night double features that may have included films like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, or The Mummy, television stations recruited a local host to lighten the sinister mood of these films. While some of the films may not have been cinematic gold, most Americans would tune in to catch a glimpse of a costumed host lurking around a gothic laboratory or rickety castle. Today, Shock Theater is long gone, but horror fans and nostalgia nuts everywhere still fondly remember tuning in to winking black and white personalities like Vampira, Zacherley, Ghoulardi, and Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille — those groovy ghouls who have become just iconic as the monsters they unleashed into homes everywhere. So, without further ado, Eva and I bring you the five most iconic late night horror hosts. It’s a scream!
A stationary camera is fixed on a long, foggy corridor lined with thin black candelabras. Even though it would come many years after, the corridor looks like something you would have seen in the home of Herman and Lily Munster, minus the snarling fire breather Spot. Ominous music groans, dings, and chimes on the soundtrack as we are allowed to stare off into darkness, wondering what sort of undead monstrosity is going to glide at us from out of the mist. Suddenly, after about twenty seconds of waiting on the edge of our seat, the intensity of the music heightens as a slim and spidery form struts towards us. She walks right up to the camera to reveal sharp eyebrows, a piercing stare, and long black hair that she continuously claws at. She’s beautiful despite the fact that she may be charging at us to sink her fangs into our throats. Without warning, she screams bloody murder, sending first time viewers six inches off their chair. Her menacing howl is quickly cut with a cheeky smile and a breathy, “Oh, screaming relaxes me so!”
This is the opening to The Vampira Show, which ran from 1954-1955. This famous horror series, which aired on KABC-TV out of Los Angeles, has become the most popular late night horror program of all time. And to think, there is barely any surviving footage! The first of its kind, The Vampira Show would go on to be cancelled after only a year, but the iconic vampire would be seen on the big screen a few years later in Edward D. Wood Jr.’s notorious 1959 B-movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, where she would seen as a shuffling undead ghoul wandering a graveyard. In 2008, Vampira (real name Maila Nurmi) passed away, but her impact on horror culture is undeniable. Inspiring songs by punk band The Misfits, imitated by Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira), and earning more and more fans by the day, Vampira stands as the greatest and most influential late-night horror host of all time.
Between the years of 1963 and 1966, Cleveland, Ohio, huddled around their televisions on Friday night as Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson took to their TV screens for plenty of maniacal chaos. After greeting children and adults alike with a simple “Hey, group!,” in his jive-laced Bela Lugosi accent, he’d then tell kids to “stay sick,” “turn blue,” and “cool it.” (Some of his other famous lines would be “knif” and “ova-dey.”) Clad in a mad scientist lab coat, wearing a fake mustache and beard and fright wig, and hidden behind a pair of glasses, Ghoulardi would poke fun at viewers, rip apart the B-grade horror movies that he was showing, blow anything and everything up, and even inset himself into the movies themselves (one of his most famous would be his “cameo” in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).
Becoming so popular that WJW-TV Channel 8 gave him a bonus Saturday afternoon show in addition to his Friday night special, Ghoulardi would go on to become a local celebrity. The Saturday afternoon show would be a bit lighter in tone, but his Friday night special would feature eerie mood lighting for more effect. The spooky lightning didn’t stop Ghoulardi, who was still a jokey fiend. While Ghoulardi’s popularity would ultimately fade in 1966, he has inspired a number of local personalities eager to keep his spirit alive. In addition to giving us the kooky cat Ghoulardi, Anderson would also give the world Paul Thomas Anderson, his son and director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master.
Bill ‘Chilly Billy’ Cardille
Outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the world may be familiar Bill ‘Chilly Billy’ Cardille from his small role George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but in the Philadelphia area, Chilly Billy is a legend. In 1963, Chiller Theater premiered on WIIC, Channel 11, and introduced the local citizens to Chilly Billy. When the show first began, viewers were only treated to Chilly Billy’s voice, but in 1964, he would step in front of the camera and become the iconic host of the show. Much to the surprise of viewers, Chilly Billy wasn’t done up to resemble some undead ghoul, vampire, or jive-talking mad scientist. Nope, he was just a guy in a snazzy suit keeping you entertained through a blood-curdling double feature. The simplicity would be shaken up years later, as a laboratory set would be added to the scenes in which Chilly Billy would break the tension created by one of the horror movies he was showing.
In the years that it was on, Chiller Theater was so popular that it managed to keep Saturday Night Live of Channel 11 for many years. The show also got a bigger cast of characters that would provide some comic bits to comfort those who were too terrified by It! The Terror from Beyond Space. In 1983, Chiller Theater shut down on New Years Eve, but its popularity has lived on over the years. While at work recently, I met a customer who told me she was from the Pittsburgh area. I instantly asked her if she was a fan of Night of the Living Dead. She said yes and then remarked that it was unusual for someone my age to be interested in an old horror movie like that. She then asked me if I was familiar with Chilly Billy, which led to us having a fifteen-minute conversation about old horror hosts. Citizens of Pittsburgh still hold on to fond memories of their Chiller Theater horror host. These days, Chilly Billy now goes by Bill Cardille and he haunts radio station WJAS 1320 from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M.
In 1957, WCAU-TV introduced the Philadelphia area to John Zacherle, aka Zacherley, aka Roland, the skeletal host of Universal’s Shock Theater. Earning the nickname of “The Cool Ghoul,” Zacherle has become one of the most well-known late night horror hosts due to haunting televisions in Philadelphia and New York, as well as releasing the top ten hit “Dinner with Drac.” Among the first horror hosts, Zacherle would take to the small screen as Roland, a ghoul who liked to watch that evening’s horror film with his wife, “my dear,” and his assistant Igor. Roland was also known to do “break ins,” which would find the ghoul interrupting that evening’s horror show with some sort of comic relief for those viewers who were too terrified. While at WCAU, Zacherle’s popularity grew with the release of “Dinner with Drac,” a swinging horror novelty tune that became a massive hit at the time of its release. Today, the song still manages to be a catchy and chuckle-worthy little number.
After a little less than a year of hosting Shock Theater at WCAU, Zacherle decided to call it quits and move his show to WABC-TV, where his name was changed to Zacherley, his wife became Isobel, and he continued to gain popularity. Later on, he would also host Chiller Theater for WIPX in New York. In addition to bringing horror to the masses, Zacherle would also release tons of merchandise bearing his name or creepy mug. He’d also launch a “Zacherley for President” campaign, release books, a full-length album called Spook Along with Zacherley, pop up in comic books, and even appear on the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland drawn up by famed artist Basil Gogos. Today, Zacherle remains one of the most iconic late night horror hosts. He still does conventions, his merchandise is highly collectible, and he even returned to WIPX in 2008 to host a special showing of Universal’s atomic age horror film Tarantula!.
In the mid-1950s, Los Angeles fell in love Malia Nurmi’s Vampira, but after only a year on the tube, she disappeared into the night. Less than 30 years later, LA was introduced to curvy bombshell Elvira aka Cassandra Peterson. Starring as the host of the revived horror show Fright Night in 1981, Elvira has become arguably the most iconic horror hostess of all time. Drawing from Nurmi’s Vampira, Elvira is a sexier version of Nurmi’ creation. Dressed in a low cut dress that exposes her pasty cleavage and wearing a jet-black beehive wig, this valley girl ghoul took Fright Night and transformed it into Elvira’s Movie Macabre, where she’d take to the televisions sprawled out on a red Victorian couch, breaking into the movie with campy jokes and criticisms of the B-movie she was showing that evening. She also wouldn’t miss a chance to make a tongue-in-cheek comment about her exposed chest or a goofy sexual innuendo.
Since her emergence in 1981, Elvira has become somewhat of a superstar. She’s had her own line of home videos come out that feature her hosting obscure horror flicks, starred in movies, appeared in comic books, shown up in commercials, made guest appearances on television shows and radio programs, had her own line of albums come out, and even has her own pinball machine (one of which can be found at the punk rock bar Spitfire Saloon in Cleveland, Ohio). She has also been seen rubbing elbows with stars like Stan Lee and Rob Zombie, strutting her stuff up and down the red carpet flashing a wink to the paparazzi. Peterson still makes appearances as Elvira (she was spotted last year at the Frankenweenie premier with Tim Burton), bringing smiles to the faces of horror fans everywhere.
Buster the Administrator can be found writing movie reviews of classic and modern horror and scifi at his site, Anti-Film School. For more on these legendary horror hosts, visit Vampira’s Attic, Chiller Theater Memories, Zacherley the Cool Ghoul, and Elvira Mistress of the Dark.