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Spook Show posters, live haunted theater, and their ghoulish Advertising Gimmicks

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  • Spook Show posters, live haunted theater, and their ghoulish Advertising Gimmicks

    One of our forgotten haunted house forefathers were the old Spook Shows of yesteryear. They were basically traveling haunted house type illusion shows that were performed live in movie theaters at midnight (which would otherwise be closed). Magicians made a ton of money putting Spook Shows on from the 1930s through the 1960s. They usually performed gruesome illusions within horror type skits, and often pulled volunteers from the audience to cut off their heads or amputate something or somehow involve them in a frightening trick. After about an hour of these gruesome stunts, the show would climax with a big "black out", a seance of sorts, where all sorts of ghosts and glowing spirits would materialize in the dark and fly out over the heads of the audience. Just as the screaming reached a breaking point, the spirits would vanish and a horror movie would begin.

    The spook shows lasted for nearly forty years, but began to fade out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when movie theaters replaced stages with Cinemascope. Another contributing factor were liability concerns when audience members panicked and ran out in the darkness, sometimes falling and hurting themselves, or just getting out of hand and doing damage to the theaters. And by no coincidence, this was also the time the JCs and other enterprising sorts started putting on local haunted houses and siphoned away a lot of the same audience. Many haunts today use similar illusions to scare their patrons (I know ours does! We love removing the heads of our patrons, or turning them into monsters-- it wows the audience when they see the "victim" is one of them!)

    But one of the neatest legacies of the spook shows were their lurid spook posters and spectacular advertising gimmicks. Ghosts, monsters, skeletons reached from their poster pages and pulled customers into the show, promising them they would see things they never saw before and would never forget (a promise that was often kept!). The clever gimmicks promised someone might win "a real dead body", or a living baby, "walking and ready to talk!" Or maybe a real live ape! (Though the size was never specified...) There were countless other gimmicks too, but you never really knew what they actually were unless you went-- and even then, you might have to pass a brief physical exam performed by a "nurse in attendance" at the theater door (to help screen out any potential heart attack victims from all the planned frights!)

    There's been some fine books on this subject, especially GHOSTMASTERS by Marc Walker, and PLEASANT NIGHTMARES by William Rauscher. I also had a chance to meet several retired ghostmasters (as the spook show magicians called themselves) in connection with another project I just finished, a trading card series devoted to their posters and famous exploits in exploitation. I think most haunted house buffs would find the books, the posters, various advertising gimmicks, and especially the stories of the characters who pioneered our craft VERY interesting.

    You can find the books at the library, or order them on interlibrary loan, or see them on Amazon. com. Those interested in the cards can find them at

    If any of you have any personal spook show stories, I'd sure enjoy hearing them!
    Last edited by monsterwax; 01-11-2012, 01:20 AM.

  • #2
    The cards are a cool idea. I will have to think about ordering those. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see any of the ghost masters in person. A couple of years ago a theater hired me to design and perform a modern spook show and I spent a lot of time researching the art and designing props and effects. Unfortunately, just as we were about to start advertising the show, the theater closed its doors. One day, I still hope to have an opportunity to perform that show.

    Lords of Chaos, LLC
    House of Chaos Haunted Attraction


    • #3
      We actually created a modern spook show for Spookywoods called Morbid Curiosity ( I think these types of shows are a great way to add an extra side attraction to your main haunted house. Not only do you capitalize on a consistent quality show but guests can also get a detailed back-story to your event thus enhancing your overall effectiveness at scaring them during your walk through attraction.

      Here is one quote from a guests who experienced Morbid Curiosity:

      "I have to mention the new attraction, Morbid Curiosity. It is on the midway entrance at Spookywoods. It has a separate charge but well worth it. I had to try this new attraction, and it did not disappoint. We went prior to going through the haunt and it really set the mood for me. I was scared. I know the other people who were in Morbid Curiosity with me and my friends were screaming and it was very fun. Donít miss it." -bethyboo

      We are also working with the premiere side show performer Todd Robbins who starred in and created Play Dead with Teller from Penn & Teller. Play Dead was just that a modern day spook show on off-broadway in NYC. Todd and I are developing shows for haunted attractions that are interested in adding to their bottom line and giving guests a unique experience. Here is Todd Robbins explaining exactly what guests experienced during Play Dead...

      Bill Rod.
      Dark Tech Effects
      Bill Rod.
      Dark Tech Effects
      Automated DMX Lighting
      Show Control - Audio / Visual Effects


      • #4
        That "Play Dead" looks like a great show, and I'd really like to experience it. Phillip Morris (one of the old time Ghostmasters) mentioned Play Dead as a really good Spook Show knock-off. Morris (who was also one of the autograph signers in the card series) retired from the Spook Show circuit in the 1970s, and went on become President of Morris Costumes, the biggest halloween prop and costume company around today. So in essence, he's still in the same biz, just on the supply side of it.

        He's also a really nice guy.