Terror Translated into Comedy: The Popular Music Metamorphosis of Film and Television Horror, 1956-1991
Cooper, B. Lee, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
American youth culture, the demographic legacy of World War II, began to exert its economic influence during the late 1950s. The mass media responded swiftly. Age-targeted motion pictures and television programs sought to attract the discretionary dollars of teenage consumers. Horror imagery thrived. Gothic fiction by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe was available for adaptation; characters of monstrous proportion and frightful visage were stock-piled in film footage featuring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, and King Kong. The popular culture foundation for burgeoning youth interest in classic monsters and horror settings was also readily available. Commercial recordings also emerged as primary reflections of adolescent interests and opinions. Youthful fascination with the characters, situations, and sounds of the horror genre were translated into audio formats. However, a metamorphosis from terror to comedy occurred. Rock 'n' roll music-from "I Put a Spell on You" (1956) by Screamin' Jay Hawkins to "The Addams Groove" (1991) by Hammer-illustrates that laughter rather than shock has been the result of youthful adaptation of horror themes.
Youthful Fascination With Horror
From the Wicked Witch who sought to fatten Hansel and Gretel before devouring them, to the Terrible Troll that dwelt beneath the bridge in "The Three Billy Goats Gruff", horror has been a staple of childhood fantasy. The annual October charade of Halloween reinforces joyful fright. Ghosts prowl from house to house threatening make-believe mayhem; skeletons dance gleefully on elementary school walls; and adult neighbors sport fiendish masks and rubber hands designed to unnerve even experienced trick-ortreaters. Newsstands bristle with Tales From the Crypt comics and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines. Bookstores abound with the scary volumes of R.L. Stein and Stephen King. Adolescent TV film viewing runs the gamut from monster classics like King Kong (1933), Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941) to more recent horror flicks including Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), Amityville Horror (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and The Addams Family (1991). Home Box Office (HBO) has capitalized on youthful interest in ghouls, goblins, and vampires to make weekend programming a collage of Friday the 13th, insane asylums, Halloween, graveyards, and sinister laboratories where mad scientists concoct lethal potions and create bizarre beings. Even local newspapers feature sardonic observations from macabre characters of Olson and Kelso's "Horrorscope" and Gary Larson's "Far Side" in their daily comic pages.
Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain youthful fascination with horror (Cawelti, 1976; Cooper, 1992; Dickstein, 1980; Doherty, 1988; Evans, 1975). Few scholars acknowledge the most uncomplicated reason, though. It's fun to be frightened for a moment. An unsettling instance is a magnificent, electric jolt from the predictable present. Harmless fantasies of confronting a one-eyed creature, of being captured by a gigantic demon, or of opening the tomb of a cursed mummy constitute marvelous childhood escapes from daily chores and repetitive schoolwork. American popular culture has made horror a universally acceptable feature of childhood (Cooper, 1989; Feiffer, 1965; Heller, 1987; Kawin, 1972; King, 1981; Lurie, 1990). True to the nature of its youthful audience, popular recordings that utilize horror genre are typically brief, lively, animated, humorous, absurd, disrespectful toward adult authority, multi-media in sources of characterization, and totally devoid of redeeming aesthetic or social value. To the adult listener, these discs are at best silly novelty songs and at worst mindless nonsense. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of horror themes in popular recordings over the past four decades is undeniable (Cooper 1992).
Roots of Rock 'N' Horror Recordings
Between 1931 and 1956, horror was primarily a field of adult entertainment. …