Movie theatres were truly a different place in America between the 1930’s-1960’s. Even though I didn’t live in those eras–I constantly hear from older family members about how a movie theatre would not only have more of a pleasing aesthetic atmosphere (that is, far fewer seat-kickers, sticky floors and people talking during a movie)–but also doubled time as a place where you could see occasional live shows. Around Halloween time (and other times of the year), one of those live shows that would play movie houses in small towns–at times doubled with a horror movie–was something called “Midnight Spook Shows”…or the less-contrived title of a “Midnight Ghost Show.” This was back in a time when magicians would travel the United States and play old (or then new) theaters to receptive audiences before the age of secrets were so readily available and the development of cynicism about being fooled.
With these ghost shows, most of them used old live theater special effects and various magic techniques that provided an effective and usually eerie experience for those who attended. And many of the performer/magicians/publicity masters who headed these touring shows became famous in their own right for making them a popular recurring tour…if pushing people’s buttons at times. Most of that happened when these shows started calling themselves “Midnight Horror Shows” when blood and more gory effects were used on stage to keep up with those who needed more shocking images to be scared.
It’s a bit ironic that magicians started doing these shows after many of them in decades prior to the 1930’s debunked the spiritualists who dominated for close to fifty years by conveniently duping millions of people in believing their skills. Harry Houdini was the most famous magician who successfully exposed mediums and others spiritualists who were already putting on live shows in the mid-1800’s. All of this during a time when naïve audiences assumed spirits and other strange phenomena were actually appearing and happening live on stage. Most of the stunts pulled in those earlier shows were séances done through different means and the occasional appearance of a ghost or “proof” some kind of spiritual contact was being made. Once that spiritualist movement ended thanks to the magician debunkers and after Houdini’s death, magicians ran with those old spiritualist techniques and turned them all into pieces of entertainment. Despite plenty of evidence they were using these skills squarely as an entertainment event…they still had those in the audience who managed to suspend disbelief. This made the life of some ghost show performers hell when having to deal with persistent believers after the show who thought the magician truly did have some kind of special power. Yes, the magician had more sway of power over the people with simpler tricks compared to later.
After Houdini’s death in 1926, the age of the great and legendary magicians doing these occasional shows acquiesced to others for the most part. By the 30’s, performers who made a living entirely doing ghost shows around the country started–especially in the age of the Universal Studios horror movie era that was sweeping movie houses at the time. Some of these live shows were akin to circuses and promoted themselves by doing stunts beforehand in the small towns to get people to come see the show. One of the most famous stunts was a blindfold drive through the town they were visiting that never failed to capture the attention of the local press. The creepiest promotional effort was staging a mock funeral through the town–complete with dead person escaping from the coffin inside the hearse as perplexed and naively horrified local citizens looked on. And then there were the ghost show masters that used a form of sex to sell the show in their posters–all during a time in America before the sexually liberal attitudes of the 60’s started…
A few of the most interesting ghost show performers of the past…
Francisco (real name unknown…and no first name of San) was one of the first from the earlier days of the ghost show craze to have huge success. He also was one of the few who continued to do his so-named “Midnight Spook Frolic” through most of the decades these live shows were the most popular–while keeping it relatively free of the gore and sexuality others started using later. He mostly played up the spiritualism aspects that legendary Houdini and Thurston did a decade or two earlier in their own similar shows. A lot of that involved the old floating table routine, mind-reading tricks and the famous cabinet where a fake séance takes place as the magician sits with his hands tied while the audience sees objects being thrown around the area. Francisco did incorporate a little horror in his shows (within reason) by using a well-known illusion of a skeleton who removes his head that then conveniently floats over the supposedly goosebumped audience. This segment used the process of black art that these shows relied on for most of the best effects.
Then you had one of the most controversial ghost show performers during the 40’s and 50’s: Kara Kum (real name: Wladyslaw Michaluk. He was notorious for creating posters using overt sexuality with his staff of scantily-clad women assistants. He usually played up sinister type of situations in his show–sometimes giving the illusion of real decapitations (sometimes via swords) and elements of cannibalism. Perhaps a bit sick, but people lapped it up…and it WAS at midnight after all. One of the most bizarre elements (that played up the stigma of women assistants in magic shows sometimes being unfortunate sex objects) was when he presented a trick of conjuring the ghost of Lady Godiva live on stage…complete with the horse, of course. How he presented that without being arrested for having a naked woman on stage is unknown…but he probably had her wrapped in an elongated, wraparound wig of some sort.
Probably one of the most notorious ghost show ringmasters was Philip Morris. (No relation to the tobacco company that I’m aware.) He was also one of the last to present ghost shows in the golden era up to the 1960’s. A lot of his publicity stunts to promote his shows are stuff of legend in a lot of cities and towns (the blindfold drive one)–especially creepy ads he made for local radio stations. His alter ego (Dr. Evil) even hosted a late-night show in some markets around the country during the 1950’s. No, he didn’t put his pinky up to his mouth and ask for ONE BILLION dollars during his publicity campaigns. This Dr. Evil looked more like an Addams Family member or off-cousin of Gomez Addams.
Morris and others around the last decade of the ghost show heyday used a lot more gore to capture the attention of younger kids who were starting to get a taste for more explicit horror. Many shows started using fake blood when showing a decapitation that likely still freaked people out…considering it was only the 1950’s. Some started using new latex masks to present routines using some of the famous Universal monsters that were still popular up to that decade (i.e. Frankenstein, The Mummy, et. al). Little did the ghost show producers know that the basic consumer would be able to buy those very real-looking masks in their local discount store within ten to fifteen more years.
“Performers of the night. What special effects they make…”
As I mentioned briefly above, black art was one of the most useful tools in providing the best special effects at these shows. The dark is essential in creating the illusion of ghosts, decapitations, floating and other techniques that would be impossible to do with stage lights and spotlights being shined everywhere. It’s really an old art form that went way back to early days of live theatre–and is a fascinating art if you ever have a chance to read about it, study it or still see it used today in some live shows or on TV. Without wanting to give away everything on the techniques–let’s say it involves a lot of people in dark suits who can easily be hidden in the dark and make things happen. During the ghost shows, rigged wires were easily hidden that way. Of course, the demise of the ghost shows were probably because a new skeptical public (usually kids) started bringing flashlights into the theater and conveniently turned them on when a head was levitating over the audience.
The more general term used in these ghost shows was “blackout.” Some parts of the show worked like a normal magic show–complete with lights and the usual theatrical settings. But then after a psychological comfort zone was set, many of these shows would quickly turn off all the lights in the theatre and scare people silly with an actor portraying a psycho (usually with a knife) running through the aisles, floating objects sailing over people’s heads or ghosts seeming to appear around random areas. A few older members of my family I’ve talked to who remember attending these shows recall those blackouts to be highly effective and the best part of the ghost shows. It wouldn’t be all that unusual for people to let out a few screams at a few of the effects. And, yes, that seems to contradict the eyeball-rolling publicity posters warning people to “stay away if you’re easily scared.” This seems to prove that the dark (especially in a theatre with hundreds of people around you) truly does suspend disbelief.
Occasionally, you’ll still see some independently-produced ghost shows in small towns. The invention of the haunted house attraction, though, pretty much phased out ghost shows as mainstream entertainment. Your local community haunted house operating around Halloween uses a lot of the same effects anyway (with “no flashlight” policies)–plus they usually give the proceeds made to charity rather than going into the bank account of a huckster. Nevertheless, some specialized books are still around that teach you how to produce your own ghost show in your own home using old and basic techniques if you’re so inclined.
The next time you go into one of those locally-produced, community haunted houses that are starting to recently use gratuitous amounts of gore and violence–you’ll now be able to trace it right back to the old ghost shows that pushed people’s buttons during a time when people were in a self-created comfort zone.