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Bruce Markusen Takes a Look Back at the Books of Alfred Hitchcock and Chiller Theater on Channel 11 WPIX

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Those who know me as a writer are likely familiar with the books and articles that I have written on the subject of baseball. For some of those readers, who have come to expect stories of Roberto Clemente and Mickey Mantle, it may come as a surprise that my other area of interest and passion involves the world of horror. The truth of the matter is that I have been a fan of horror, monsters, and ghosts nearly as long as I have followed our National Pastime.

So where did this love of horror begin? It all dates back to the early 1970s, when my parents bought me a hardback book called Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful. Right away, the book’s cover ensnared me, with its drawing of a Victorian house, where one sides takes on the appearance of a giant-sized head of Hitchcock himself! Within its pages, I loved the short stories of ghosts, witches, and the supernatural, and even its stories that had roots in something other than the paranormal. I especially enjoyed looking at the book’s illustrations, so beautifully done by a talented artist named Fred Banbery. For a young reader like myself—and I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine at the time—those images made the stories more vivid, more powerful.

At first, I thought that Alfred Hitchcock had written the stories in Haunted Houseful; after all, his name appeared in the very title. I later learned that Hitchcock had merely lent his name to Random House, in exchange for a tidy sum of money, I’m sure. But that didn’t make these vintage stories, written by the likes of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson, any less intriguing. The themes of monsters and otherworldly creatures had caught my attention. I was hooked, and there was no way—or reason—for me to turn back.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful

Later on, my parents bought me another in this ongoing series of Hitchcock books, this one called Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery. It featured more terrific writing from a number of famed authors, and more of those wonderful sketches by Fred Banbery. The Hitchcock books spurred my interest in reading, but they also made me want to experience horror in other ways, especially through an even more visual medium. As an avid watcher of television, even at the age of seven, I remember viewing some episodes from the final season of “Dark Shadows”, the afternoon soap opera that delved into vampires, ghosts, and werewolves, and made Barnabas Collins a cult figure in popular culture.

Shortly thereafter, I learned about a late-night weekend program called Chiller Theater, which showcased films from the 1950s and sixties, and even old-time classics that reached back to earlier decades. Each edition of Chiller Theater began with a memorable intro, an animated Claymation depiction of a swamp, with a hand emerging from its depths. Within a few moments, it became evident that this was not a normal hand, but one that featured six fingers. Like every child of that era, I took immediate notice of this abnormality.

Chiller Theater Logo Intro

I loved that six-fingered hand, even if this early attempt at Claymation looks a bit hokey in retrospect. But for a young viewer like me, it was all that was needed to lure me into watching a late-night film, or at least the first part of the movie, before I was ordered to make my nightly retreat into bed. It’s a wonder that I could sleep at all; so many of those films seemed to involve witchcraft and devil worship, two themes that I have always found frightening. There were also many 1960s films about vampires, and a number of black-and-white films from the 1950s that dealt with science fiction topics like alien invasions and radiation-induced giants.

On some weekends, Chiller Theater was delayed by Yankee baseball, which aired on the same station, New York’s WPIX, better known as Channel 11. If the Yankee game ran into extra innings, Chiller Theater started later than usual, which restricted just how much of the movie I could see. It would have been nice to watch more of those films from beginning to end, but even a small taste of a movie about witches, monsters, and/or ghosts would suffice for this young boy who was not very demanding or sophisticated.

What began with the gift of classic short stories from legendary horror and science fiction writers had evolved into a full-scale fascination with movies of the macabre. There have been times since then when my interest in horror has subsided, but never completely died, and has only been resuscitated full-bore in more recent years, with my renewed interest in reading books and the chance to attend conventions like Scare-A-Con and Monster Bash. At those latter events, I’ve moderated a number of celebrity panels, providing a cherished opportunity to interview horror icons like Adrienne Barbeau, Joe Bob Briggs, Dee Wallace, Malcolm McDowell, and the late Sid Haig.

A year and a half ago, this resurgence in my horror passion motivated me to start my own horror page on Facebook. It’s called “Ghostly Gallery” (@ghostlygallery), and the name is a direct homage to the second of those Hitchcock books that consumed me at such an early age. All these years later, director Hitchcock and his band of writers have never left me.

While I love old-time horror, including the Universal Studios classics of the 1930s and forties, I am not someone who believes that horror was only good back in the day, as the saying goes. No, am just as much a fan of the horror of today. We happen to live during a glorious era for the genre, with finely executed television shows like “The Walking Dead”, “Penny Dreadful”, and “The Haunting of Hill House”, and recent critically-acclaimed films like The Conjuring, Get Out, Hereditary, Midsommar, and the current hit, the remake of The Invisible Man.

There is so much to enjoy from the genre, past and present. And that means that there is much to be written about. Vintage horror will always draw our interest, particularly since Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolf Man are timeless. But the horror of today, with more sophisticated acting and improved special effects, is even more commanding of our attention.

Clearly, the genre of horror has never been better.

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