6 Weird Things That Terrified Our Nerd Grandparents
During this spooky season of terror, let's take a moment to celebrate how we are living on the precipice of global catastrophe and our every action is governed by fear. I mean, we have Nazis and an insecure idiot in control of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, a few generations ago, their Nazis had tanks, and their insecure idiot actually used nuclear weapons. So I thought it might be interesting to learn what terrified late '40s America by looking at the horror comics they read. Because, at the risk of crushing you under my mind's brilliance, I think you can learn a lot about a culture from its culture. And I learned about ...
Your Own Hand!
There were a lot of variations on the murder hand. Sometimes an evil limb would kill other people because they knew no one would believe a ghost hand story from the guy whose fingerprints are on 50 dead necks. Other times, instead of taking control of your hand, little men would form on it and torment you. And it wouldn't be that unusual for a hand to sneak off and solve its own murder while you slept.
I don't think these similar evil hand stories came from laziness or creative bankruptcy. They were all heartfelt iterations on an idea everyone agreed was bone-chilling enough to be imagined a thousand different ways. I guess when you're away at war or at home reading a comic book, an out-of-control hand is both a physical danger and a betrayal by your only lover. Holy shit, it's an enemy with your exact strength that knows your most carefully guarded dick, nose, and ass secrets!
It occurs to me that most of you reading this have probably never seen an actual horror comic book. They used to be super popular, but when the Comics Code Authority formed in 1954, it basically made the entire genre illegal. Among many other things, the code outlawed "gory crimes," "gruesome illustrations," and the words "horror" or "terror" in any comic's title. So I'm going to do something that's going to sound crazy at first. I'm going to stop this list of weird things comic readers used to be afraid of and start a whole new list of understandable things comic readers used to be afraid of, to help you get a baseline idea of what the average horror comic was like. It's going to confuse a few dumbasses, but not you, expert world wide web surfer! See you in nine entries!
In the '40s, most people's understanding of science was limited to how many cigarettes it takes to shut up a wife. And judging by how frequently they wrote about it, they seemed to think there was a solid chance you could suddenly turn into a bug or a fish for no reason right before the end of a story.
How much time should you spend worrying about shapeshifters coming from space to eat you? Probably not none, but close to that, right? Judging by their comics, the average person in 1945 would answer that question with a gun to your head and the last words you'd ever hear: "Nice try, Beezborp, but a real human would know better than to joke about impendin' Mars Communism!"
In Golden Age horror, there was no cause of death more common than a poetic Twilight Zone revenge slaying. For instance, if someone drove over a mailman, it would end with them getting squashed into a package by a ghost and mailed to Hell. All fates were governed by this spine-chilling, elegant logic. If you were a Soviet fishmonger poisoning pets, poisoned fish would pet your Soviets. Speaking of confusion, horror comics' insatiable appetite for deadly wordplay accidentally killed a lot of innocents. People got maimed due to using phrases like "lose my head" or "give my right arm," and at least one scientist was hugged to death for the crime of teaching a robot how to love.
There's no such thing as an ordinary painting in a horror comic. It's 100% going to come to life or trap the artist inside it or spit out monsters. Now that I think about it, this is probably why demon and vampire ladies always have such hot naked bodies -- the men drawing them grew up being warned they could get sucked into their own art at any time. "Oh NO. The forces of darkness. Are they pulling me into my own painting? Oh no, I'll be trapped. Trapped! Trapped in the clutches of Ravynn Footjobika!"
To this day, getting stabbed is a reasonable concern when meeting a new puppet. But death by doll was an extremely common way to die in the '40s and '50s. And if you ever find yourself in a Golden Age horror comic and you meet a ventriloquist, let me spoil the ending: He's the actual puppet, and his puppet has already murdered you. I'm not really strong with puns, but it goats to show the real dummy was ewe all a-lamb!
It must have been hard for writers to come up with new horrifying tales every month. Of course, we'll never know, since every horror comic ever written included at least one story about a spooky tree that grabbed people to death. It sounds like an easy enemy to avoid, but think about it. It would take at least a couple dozen victims before any of them said something other than "Weird, another dead body. Hey, this is going to sound crazy, but I wonder if this tree- AAACK!"
Today you can order a chicken breast on your phone, and someone will bring you a 30-pound slab of juicy breaded meat with seven sides of mayonnaised corn syrup. If you wanted a similar meal 70 years ago, you had to steal a wedding cake, chase down 15 tiny-tittied hens, and tenderize their gamy meat for an hour. In the '40s, trying to get fat was the most effective way to burn calories. Scientists call this the Hot Dog Paradox. The point is, the obese were once strange, unique creatures to be feared, and fat people in horror comics could only be two things: loudly hungry and strangling you.
If you're a parent, you know children accidentally smash something into your groin or eye several times a day. So it is a little terrifying to think, "What if a child wanted to kill me?" Apparently, everyone was worried they were going to give birth to a devil baby in the '40s. This trope could also be the result of comic writers maturing and thinking, "Sure, trees and fatties are scary, but you know what's really chilling? Responsibility." And then after a quick rewrite, "Werewolf responsibility holding a gun."
There wasn't a lot of romance in horror comics. Creators wrote female characters as if every woman they ever met said, "All the real men are in France killing the Nazis. Is that why you stayed here to make goblin cartoons?" What I mean is that most women are hate-murdered on the first page, and the ones who survive are just the worst. For instance, here's an ordinary wedding night in a horror comic:
A horror comic woman would lock a man into marriage, only to reveal her true form of at best a much uglier woman, or more likely a lizard monster from space. If you learn nothing else from this analysis of classic pop culture, it's that nerds have always feared the deadly powers of women above all else. The famous closing words from the parable in Adventures Into Weird Worlds #18 said it best: "Lolez of Zorz is real, Craig! And remember ... you can never, never leave her."
Oh, They Were a Monster This Whole Time
I'm glad you're back. Now that you're an expert on the ordinary, let's talk more about the strange and really stupid. First, picture a night out with friends. Your activities aren't noteworthy, nothing unusual continues to happen, all of them are robots THE END. That's the story structure of at least 25% of all horror comics. A whole lot of very average things happen, and then in the very, very last panel, someone would scream, "I'M A VAMPIRE!" It's the kind of thing that would be an unlikely twist in a romance novel or a safe sex pamphlet, but it was invariably at the end of a story called "THIS WIFE ... THIS VAMPIRE!" in an issue of Unexpected Vampire Tales.
Most of the stories seem like they were desperately changed at the last minute by confused creative teams. "One more panel and Strange Romances In Fantasy Worlds #9 is ready to go to the pri- what? This is for Weird Journeys Into Horror Crypts!? Fuck fuck fuck. OK, I've got it. Instead of Alicia earning the love of the king, he was a werewolf the whole time?"
It's a truly lazy writing technique, but never lazier than in Adventures Into Terror #3, when a werewolf story ends without showing anyone actually turn into a wolf. Instead it cuts to an exterior shot of a building and spends 52 words reasoning how the villagers probably turned into dog monsters and ate some guy.
It's obviously not super terrifying to get all the scary information after everything has already happened. It's sort of like finding out you've been live-streaming your viewing of Sad Anal Teen Squirters. Or maybe it's closer to sharing your pitch-perfect recital of Eddie Murphy's first album with new friends, and being told the next day you were at a gay wedding reception. Actually, wait, maybe this can be a really effective horror technique. Although it might need more nuance than some random character saying, "Oh yeah, before we go, I'm the Devil."
Another thing that really complicated these stories was how they were mainly set in worlds where everyone knew what was up. Most TV and movies you're used to take place in universes without TV and movies, so characters may not even know what vampires or ghouls are, much less how to deal with them. It wasn't like that in horror comic books. They knew where they lived and what lurked there. If someone walked past a mirror without casting a reflection, the slowest person in the room was already pulling out a wooden stake. As soon as someone shouted how they were a robot or a demon, everyone was like, "OK, sure. That happens here all the time. Three of my cousin's kids came out Devil."
And since any werewolfery was immediately met with suspicion, the writers had to add more and more twists to these already stupid, pointless twists. For instance, if William is acting strangely, Margie might think he's a ghost, then speculate that he's a vampire, and then directly accuse him of being a wolfman.
So soon, the standard twist evolved from someone yelling "I'm a surprise monster!" to their victim yelling "I'm a different kind of monster who kills you, the first kind of surprise monster!" And when the stories were only five pages long, this meant the nesting doll of twist endings often had to start before anything resembling a plot. They were nothing more than creatures surprising less patient creatures until everyone except one was dead and- oh shit, you're probably curious what William ended up being. Well, I am truly excited to share with you that Margie was only off by a little bit. William isn't a ghost, vampire, or werewolf. He's a regular guy ... with a gorilla for a father! Dun dun DUUUUNNNNN!
This Unpleasant Shit Could Happen To YOU!
Virtually every horror title featured three or more stories each issue, and when you only have a few pages to introduce a haunted bow tie, establish its spinning secrets, and then send it on a killing spree, you're going to find yourself out of space long before you've found a way to make it relatable or scary. But there is a secret technique known only to every single horror comic writer who ever lived. If your story is too dull to terrify, all you have to do is have a character turn to the reader and warn them that all the fictional nonsense they're finding so uninteresting and silly ... could happen to THEM!
These ridiculous endings are fundamentally backwards from how fiction is supposed to work. You want the reader to care about the characters before the terror happens. It doesn't work if you kill a bunch of people who don't exist with a thing that couldn't exist, and then the only chance of relating to it is if you believe comic books might come to life. It's like jumping out of the shadows and saying, "Excuse me. I'm sorry for bothering you, but imagine if instead of saying 'Excuse me,' I had been some sort of monster going RARRGH. You can't prove it's impossible that will ever happen, and I thank you for your time."
Telling a reader the thing from the story is trying to get them in real life is not a very complicated narrative technique, which makes it even dumber when writers fuck it up. Lots of them tried to use this ending for stories where it made no sense. Like, say there was an ornate mask that gave you deadly powers. Wouldn't it be terrifying if ... YOU bought it?
Sometimes the threats were so mild that they barely seemed worth mentioning.
Other times, they seemed to forget the medium they were working in and tried to set up cinematic jump scares. Ignoring how this type of ending is entirely expected, it's not exactly startling when ...
... BEES! You're safe, but perhaps next time, it won't be the mere word "bees," but a swarm of real bees! Perhaps that time is ...
By far my favorite fourth-wall-breaking endings were the ones where they didn't warn of your impending doom, but asked if you'd be into it. Like, instead of saying, "Beware the next sandwich you make, for it may host MUSTORD, DUKE OF TANG," the narrator would ask, "Do you think you'd enjoy being killed by a sandwich? Bye!" It's the best. Let me show you what I mean. These are actual panels professional writers ended their stories with:
I'm not a plunger historian, so I'll never be certain why, but judging by their comics, few things petrified our grandparents as much as plumbing. People drowned in bathtubs, or were driven mad by the sound of dripping faucets. If you put a man under a leaky pipe in a horror comic, the water torture would break his will in seconds. It wasn't uncommon for a story to feature a haunted blood pool that did absolutely nothing except kill people dumb enough to jump in it.
Here's a fun fact about the Greatest Generation: Those goddamn maniacs produced more than zero stories about swimming pool skeletons.
Every now and then, murder pools weren't so much haunted as they were filled with poison by murderers. This meant they had to buy 30,000 gallons of dangerous chemicals without anyone noticing, lure their victims to a pool party, then hope they let their guard down next to the open pit of bubbling toxins. People used to be so afraid of water that a murder weapon as comically absurd as all that became a recurring theme.
Of all the water-based slayings that happened through the years, none are more spectacular than this one from Vault Of Horror #23. It brings me great pleasure to show you a shower's incredible victory over man. Witness Ernie as he foolishly lifts a soapy hand to rub his itchy eyes!
Once Ernie has soap in his eyes, it's all downhill from there. The suds somehow shut down every single part of his brain except the part for describing how hard you're fucking up out loud and to yourself.
The ordinary shower continues its domination over Ernie, who can't figure out how to get soap out of his eyes or himself out of a shower. There are five-year-olds in Flint, Michigan who take less damage from showers than Ernie.
What's so remarkable about this story is the sheer amount of time this shower spends beating Ernie's stupid ass. Most horror comic deaths happen in one panel -- a quick stab or a choke and it's over. But here, three out of the five pages are devoted to one guy getting the shit kicked out of him. On top of the visuals, he shrieks about each new thing while a narrator also describes it. Three different storytelling methods are simultaneously dedicated to explaining how lethally bad Ernie is at showering.
Ernie complains, "MY LEG! IT'S BROKEN!" but the artist hates Ernie so much that he drew him with two perfectly intact legs.
No man can escape the terror of a shower handle not being in the very first place you try, and that includes Ernie. He bravely dies screaming like a bitch, and we should never forget the wisdom of his final words: "OOWWWWWWWW! MY EYES! THEY'RE BURNING! OH LORD! THAT'S THE COLD WATER I'VE SHUT OFF! OWWW! DRAT IT! IT'S TOO HOT! MY EYES! MUST GET OUT OF HERE ... YAAAAAAAAAAH! MY LEG! IT'S BROKEN! I ... I CAN'T GET UP! EEEEEEAAAAAAGH! H-E-L-L-L-P! FOR GOD'S SAKE ... I'M GOING TO DROWN! A-A-A-G-L-U-G-G-G-G-G ..."
Among all beasts, machines, creatures, and space aliens, the most common form of horror comic murder was bare-handed strangulation. Maybe it's because it's the easiest cause of death to draw, but they only sold two kinds of sympathy cards from 1948 to 1954. One said, "Sorry you lost someone to choking," and the other said, "Sorry you lost someone to choking" without skateboarding Garfield.
If someone wanted something dead, their first and only instinct was to wrap their hands around its neck and squeeze. So any enemy who happened to be windpipeless was unthinkably impossible to kill. This could mean spirits, robots, and even most puppets or jelly monsters. You probably get it, but for an example, here's some poor asshole named Lee who has to go up against a skeleton. He knows it's a skeleton, isn't bothered it exists, and he never panics, but his only ideas to kill it are choking it and choking it. And neither one works.
Like the kung fu, Godzilla, and Mega Man genres, one of the most satisfying elements of horror is watching the heroes try different shit against the monster until they figure out which one defeats it. There simply wasn't time for this in the five-page story format of Golden Age comics. The victim got one shot at killing the monster, and if the secret wasn't squeezing its throat, they died.
There were some less common but more fun variations on this idea, like monsters immune to bullets ...... or teapots:
Still other creatures would show up completely immune to alarm clocks:
Men of the Greatest Generation were haunted by fiends immune even to pipe wrenches to the dick, for their dicks were already dead:
We're going to be here all day if I keep posting pictures of ghosts getting wrenches ineffectively thrown at their dicks, so let's move on to something we can all agree on.
Sex! With Gorillas!
As I was researching this article, I found a truly deranged number of gorilla stories. At first it seemed like a mistake. Why were so many gorillas in horror comics? They're frightening, but not "racist ghost immune to bullets" frightening. Were they so plentiful back then people were worried they'd be ape-dismembered on their way to buying hernia support belts and cocaine toothache drops? Are gorillas endangered today on purpose?
The sheer abundance of gorilla horror stories was strange enough, but I soon noticed most of them were centered around the gorillas using their ape strength and cunning to have sex with humans. So, and this is a very intimate look into my creative process, I changed my research notes from "Gorillas?" to "***GORILLAS FUCKING." Let's talk about it.
These comics were all written decades before Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall had ever met an ape, so the writers' main source of primate knowledge came from King Kong and going to the zoo to watch a cigar-smoking chimpanzee die. It's not their fault the only thing they knew about gorillas was how they wanted to get all three centimeters of their tiny penises into what must have seemed like the unwieldily massive vaginas of humans. You also have to remember that sex was not some casual thing in the 1940s, even for apes. Sport fucking wasn't invented until 1964, when your mama saw Country Joe and the Fish at the Cow Palace. This meant that almost every gorilla sex story had to start with a gorilla marriage story.
I need to strenuously stress how strange this is. In this art form's peak era of popularity, it was totally normal to open a horror comic book and find half of it dedicated to a gorilla marrying an unwilling blonde woman. It's like learning that Bonanza made 70 episodes set on the moon, or finding out that every fifth baseball card from the 1949 MLB season was nothing but a picture of baked beans. How is this not the only thing we talk about?
This was all weird for the people in these stories, too. Characters in horror comics easily rolled with it when they ran into vampires, werewolves, robots, or aliens, but horny apes always caught them off-guard. They were the thing too crazy for their crazy universe. Watch how this ape steals a scientist's daughter to be his wife, and the scientist shrieks, "MARRY HER! YOU CAN'T! YOU'RE AN APE!" Note how he doesn't scream, "GIVE ME BACK MY DAUGHTER!" That's because a gorilla marriage was a more notable violation of his universe's laws than "Do not kidnap and molest my daughter."
This story from Weird Chills #1 really demonstrates how much this dominated the literary landscape of the time. It tells the story of the union between ape and woman ... a love so forbidden it drives men mad! A godless wedding party of beasts witness a wicked park ranger join two interspecies souls! And they didn't call this tale "Holy Pri-matrimony!" or "I Now Pronounce You Husband And DEAD!" No, it was all so default that they called it "The Gorilla." I guess it's sort of like naming your film Squirters. You're done. The audience knows exactly what to expect already, and adding more words is just being self-indulgent. Get over yourselves, producers of Sad Anal Teen Squirters.
It's obviously troubling that gorillas kidnapping humans for sex was so common, but it took very specific things to scare a generation of people whose top hobbies were black lung and German artillery. And I don't know if this will make your discomfort worse or better, but when you swap the genders in an ape-human romance story, the gorilla skips past the marriage and gets straight to the action.
For more, check out Four Creepy Hidden Truths Behind Popular Scary Stories - After Hours:
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