Sex, subversion and bloodlust — inside the mind of 1950s horror

Oct. 31, 2010 | 8:25 a.m.

Halloween 2010 is upon us and here at the Hero Complex we’re marking the weekend with a special three-part excerpt from the The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!which was edited by Jim Trombetta and features his commentary throughout (as well as an introduction by R.L. Stine). The 304-page book from Abrams ComicArts hits shelves Monday. There’s a trailer for the book as well, below…

The success of horror comics in their heyday had nothing to do with politics, idealism, or the artistic avant-garde; it had to do with money. The worldview of the comics’ stories and art worked for a lot of readers, especially kids, who were willing to spend their dimes on them.

Comics were a huge business in pre-TV times. Of the eighty million comics that were released each month in the United States and Canada during the early fifties, a quarter were horror comics. From about 1950 to 1955, they were so popular that fifty to one hundred horror titles (everything from American Comics “Group’s Adventures” into the Unknown to Comic Media’s Weird Terror“) were released monthly. Many read­ers are familiar with the masterful E.C. Comics line produced by William M. Gaines, if only through the TV show “Tales from the Crypt“; but as author Lawrence Watt-Evans has pointed out, E.C. only published 3 percent of the huge output of horror books that were available on the market.

Horror motifs became so popular and perva­sive that they were even shoehorned into other comic book genres, like super hero, western, MAD–style parody, and even “funny animal.” Not only did the most prestigious publishers rush to develop horror lines, but many local print shops did so as well—at the grassroots level, horror was like punk rock, complete with upraised middle finger. These comics were genuinely and brazenly subversive in a way that might not even be possible today. In an era that held its values dearly, no dearly held value survived exposure to the horror comic universe: not the “happy ending,” not family, not science, and not the law. This world seems not merely meaningless in an existential sense—godlessness would be a relief—but also actively malicious. The cover of “Horrific” no. 2 (November 1952) depicts the human drama as a cheap puppet show in the hands of a mom-and-pop pair of literally brain­less zombie gods.

As for sexuality, be it illicit or married and “mature,” it doesn’t thrive in the radiation of the horror world. In “Dungeon of Doom!” (“Chamber of Chills Magazine” no. 6, March 1952), illus­trated by Vic Donahue, normal sexual feeling is poisoned by the annihilation of a woman in the subway and the transformation of a young beauty in haute couture into a hideous monster. How­ever, the post-sixties “violence against women” rubric, which reduces the entire subject to male-on-female assaults, is not very helpful here. The horror comics are unprecedented in displaying the same amount of excessive vio­lence toward men as they do toward women. A positive zest is taken in stripping males of their rescuer potential, their status, and their prerogatives; not just their maleness goes, but also their humanity. Children too are exposed to danger—so much so that when the plots of these comics were paraphrased, it animated an entire Senate committee hearing.

The curious kid reader is also let in on various unedifying “secrets” of grown-ups and their pro­fessions (which, in medieval times, were called “mysteries”). For instance, in one story morti­cians choose a “Miss Corpse” at their annual convention — and the overeager model learns, to her regret, that she really has to be a corpse. Probably the most famous E.C. Comics story of the time is a member of this subgenre. “Foul Play!” (“The Haunt of Fear” no. 19, May–June 1953) depicts what baseball players secretly do on those (hopefully rare) occasions when they catch a murderous teammate—play a game with the bad guy’s body parts.

The great literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye might have had a thing or two to say about this game in his “Anatomy of Criticism.” He would have noticed that the dismemberment of the murderous ballplayer is about one beat away from a type of human or divine sacrifice, imag­ined by human cultures to renew the fertility of nature and to rejuvenate time itself (baseball does start in the spring). At its darkest or most ironic, however, the ritual entails “the tearing apart of the sacrificial body, an image found in the myths of Osiris, Orpheus and Pentheus.”

In the purest form of the sacrificial myth, the “dying and reviving god,” who might be Osiris or Christ, is killed in an effort to save the world but then is resurrected, the dismembered made whole. In ritual reenactments of the myth (described at length, for instance, in Sir James G. Frazier’s “Golden Bough“), human beings stand in for the sacrificed gods; the death of these carefully selected and usually consenting victims was real enough, but their resurrection was purely metaphoric. Eventually, the sacri­ficial ritual became abstract and symbolic (as in the Catholic Mass), and the myth became embedded in literature.

When the sacrifice occurs literally, however, in the arena of mundane life, it not only loses its sacredness, it manifests itself as a mechanically compulsive murder perpetrated by the likes of the Manson family. No redemption results, only a mess of severed limbs. As we shall see, cannibalism may be involved. The baseball game restores a rough moral order, but it slaps the raw archetype on the reader’s plate. Nor is resurrection on the menu, though horror has its overliteral versions of that too. The important point is, of course, that not even the great American pastime was sacrosanct. Nor were the symbols of patriotism, as seen in the besmirching of the Stars and Stripes in a context of prison bars in the story “Susan and the Devil.” As for religion, the horror comic particularly delights in taking that sacred cow in vain.

Many of the skilled and imaginative artists who worked on these books were certainly schooled in art history. They often employed neo-medieval allegories (one reason the covers are so “readable”) and enjoyed introducing motifs like the pietà or the deposition of Christ’s body from the cross into bizarre and even sacri­legious settings. On the cover of “Chilling Tales” no. 15 (April 1953), hideous ghouls depose a felon from the gallows; his eyes are open—could he still be alive? This confusion between life and death is a major theme of horror in the fifties.

The horror comic became a sort of cultural garbage can into which every unacceptable thought and impulse (including fetishistic porn that was not readily available elsewhere) could be chucked. Comics were hardly naive in this. The early fifties were also the golden age of classical Freudian analysis in America, and it shows in the comics. The “hidden persuader” techniques of adver­tising, so noted in the fifties, were also brought to bear in the comics. But even this is a world turned upside down: The point of the subtext or subliminal message was not to celebrate an idealized life or product, as in an advertisement, but to generate an atmosphere of the deepest dread. In Roman triumphs, a man in black rode in the hero’s chariot and whispered in his ear, “Remember, you must die.” In fifties America, the horror comics were that guy.

– Jim Trombetta

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