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Bruce Markusen Takes a Look Back at the Wonderful World of Aurora Horror Model Kits



Bruce Markusen Takes a Look Back at the Wonderful World of Aurora Horror Models

For horror fans, more specifically for those who refer to themselves as the “Monster Kids” of the 1960s and seventies, there was no better Christmas gift than one of the classic horror models produced by the Aurora Plastics Corporation. Introduced in the 1960s, these models depicted many of the classic monsters from the Universal Studios films of the 1930s and forties. For fans like me who wanted a scaled-down version of Frankenstein, Dracula, or The Wolf Man, Aurora was the place to contact.

Whenever I’ve written articles about the funny old advertisements that appeared in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I’ve tended to poke fun at the wackiness of the products, though often in a good-hearted way. Well, you’ll hear no such mockery from me about the Aurora model kits, which were cherished back in the day. Enclosed in colorful packaging that featured legendary artist James Bama’s rendering of each monster model, they were fairly easy to assemble with the appropriate use of Tester’s glue and model paints. Fifty to 60 years later, they remain popular with thousands of monster kids.

The Aurora line of monster models began early in 1962. Aurora executive Bill Silverstein came up with the idea of creating models based on the monsters of Universal Studios. Silverstein and Aurora began with the release of Frankenstein’s Monster, who is perhaps the grandfather of all the creatures in the Universal films. Aurora based the model on the Glenn Strange version of The Monster, and not the Boris Karloff adaptation that had become the standard bearer. Of course, the details on the Frankenstein face made it difficult to tell that it was based on Strange, and not Karloff.

Aurora Models Frankenstein’s Monster 1962

Then again, that distinction probably didn’t matter much to young horror fans in their teenaged years; they were just happy to have The Monster, regardless of whether it was based on Strange, Karloff, Lon Chaney, or Bela Lugosi. Young boys, who were the target audience of Aurora, flocked to local toy stores (like Robert’s Toytown in my hometown of Bronxville, NY) or chain stores like Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward’s to snap up the plastic models for $1 apiece. These Frankenstein models were a huge hit, both appealing and affordable.

The mad rush of sales convinced Aurora that it had come up with something that was pure gold; the company followed up later in 1962 by producing two more models. One was Dracula, which was purportedly based on Lugosi but had to be altered somewhat because of a disagreement with the Lugosi estate. Another one was The Wolf Man, which was unquestionably based on Chaney, the only man to play the character for Universal. Wanting to take advantage of the Christmas sales season, Aurora made sure to complete production by the late fall, in time for the gift-giving holidays. So by Christmas of 1962, young fans of horror found one (or perhaps all three) of these monster model kits at the foot of their Christmas trees.

The sales of Dracula and The Wolf Man also went well. Realizing that these products were not one-hit wonders (or even three-hit wonders), Aurora executives yearned to create more. Over the next five years, Aurora produced 10 additional model kits, most of them depicting a different monster from the movies.

Aurora Models The Wolf Man

For the most part, the Aurora models came from the world of Universal monsters. The list included The Mummy, Creature From The Black Lagoon, and Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde (instead of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Aurora also ventured into the realm of silent films, drawing from two 1920s classics produced by Universal: The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For some reason, Aurora stayed away from The Invisible Man, which burst onto the movie scene in 1933, perhaps because it seemed incongruous to make a model that was truly invisible.

Even the oversized monsters that came from other studios joined the fun. Aurora included King Kong, which had first been unleashed in a 1933 film from RKO Radio Pictures. And then from the world of Japanese horror, Aurora tapped the services of Godzilla, who had first been introduced to filmgoers in 1954 by the Toho Company.

Shortly after the giant-sized monsters made their way into plastic, two more models followed: The Witch and The Bride of Frankenstein. The Witch was not based on any one film in particular, but rather a composite of the stereotypical evil witch brewing up horrible spells in a large cauldron. In the meantime, The Bride came from the Elsa Lanchester portrayal shown at the end of the 1935 Universal classic. In theory, the creation of these two models made sense, but neither did well in terms of sales. Younger boys, the target audience of these models, showed little interest in purchasing model kits depicting female monsters. Young girls, for whatever reason, had even less interest in buying monster kits of any kind, male or female.

Then in 1966, Aurora released the final model kit of its initial line of product. It was a monster model that did not come from film, or even from literature, but something made up from whole cloth. Called The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Mare, this was an imaginative and collective effort from both Aurora and the creative minds at Famous Monsters of Filmland.

That brought Aurora’s total of monster models to 13. And that’s why hobbyists who have these gems refer to them collectively as “The Aurora 13.”

By 1969, the sales of Aurora’s monster models began to sag, forcing the company to become more innovative. Aurora responded by taking its existing models and fitting them with plastic parts that now glowed. Each model box, now more square-like in shape, featured the words “Glow in the Dark” in a large banner in the upper-left-hand corner. For a short time, the glow-in-the-dark feature rejuvenated sales of the products, which remained on shelves through the mid-1970s.

In 1971, Aurora tried something even more creative, a bit more daring, and far more controversial. The company produced a series of so-called “Monster Scene” kits, which placed less of a focus on traditional monsters and more of an emphasis on horrific scenarios involving villains and victims.

One model kit was called “Dr. Deadly,” which showed an angry-looking, slightly hunchbacked man holding a large butcher’s knife. Another was called “The Pain Parlor,” which featured a dungeon laboratory that included a skeleton and a wooden operating table. Some of the other kits showcased like Frankenstein (the only one of the classic monsters to be included in this line) and Vampirella, the star of the newly created comic book from Warren Publishing. Each kit also contained a comic booklet, which only added to their appeal.

Aurora Models Dr. Deadly Monster Scene Kit

These models, which were again boxed in colorful packages, showcased themes that suggested imprisonment and torture. They were smaller in scale but now featured parts that easily snapped together (instead of requiring glue) and included accessories that allowed collectors to alter the scenarios with each showing. The Monster Scenes could also be mixed and matched, allowing figures from one model to be placed in scenarios from the other models. The kids loved the game play aspect of the models, snapping them up from store shelves as quickly as they could be produced.

Not surprisingly, these Monster Scene kits stirred major controversy, given their suggestion of violence and general infliction of pain. Some parents sent letters of protest to Aurora, which has only recently been bought out by Nabisco. Some folks actually made their way to the company headquarters and set up picket lines. By early summer, stores like Montgomery Ward pulled the Monster Scene kits from their shelves. Other department stores, like Sears, refused to carry the kits at all. Now embroiled in a full-scale “torture toy scandal,” Aurora/Nabisco decided to discontinue production of Monster Scenes.

All these years later, collectors are still clamoring for the Aurora products, both the Monster Scene kits and original line of Aurora models. In recent years, Moebius has reissued the Monster Scene kits, just as Polar Lights has done with the traditional models showcasing the Universal monsters. The reissues are generally far less expensive than the originals, but still offer the colorful depictions on the packages and, for the most part, the same elements to the models themselves. These companies are also coming up with newer ideas for monster model kits, adding some variety to the traditional line of models.

In some ways, these models are timeless. They are made from a fairly durable plastic, they’re relatively easy to paint, and they hold up nicely over time. At a time when video games, baseball cards, and autographed memorabilia have taken up much of the hobby interest in our popular culture, plastic models don’t appeal to the masses as they once they did, but they continue to have meaning to fans of vintage horror. All these years later, I still love them.

Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.