Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, Americans flocked to their local movie theaters to be scared out of their wits. Sure, they loved the classic movies of the time like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. But it was the terrifying and humorous stage shows—known generically as the Midnight Ghost Show—that really packed the theaters to capacity.
Midnight ghost shows (sometimes called “spook,” “voodoo,” or “monster” shows) promised a night of creepy and playful stunts. There were glowing ghosts, floating objects, psychic readings and dozens of other illusions, all playing off the nation’s interest in spiritualism between the two World Wars.
The shows drew from the stage magic traditions that preceded them, and would have an indelible impact on the horror TV culture that would follow. The 4D theater gimmick artists and late night TV movie hosts of the 1950s both owe the ghostmasters of the ‘30s and ‘40s a tremendous debt. But tragically, it would be the new technology of television that would ultimately render the thrill-packed midnight stage shows old fashioned.
Elwin-Charles Peck was probably the first to fully develop the midnight ghost show sometime around 1929, earning him the rather on-the-nose title of “father of the midnight ghost show.” Peck performed under the name El-Wyn, and his show—El-Wyn’s Midnite Spook Party—would pave the way for countless imitators who would emerge in the following decades.
Beth A. Kattelman’s 2010 paper on the golden age of ghost shows, “Magic, Monsters, and Movies: America’s Midnight Ghost Shows,” describes how Peck drew from the same effects that spiritualists and other charlatans would produce at the turn of the 20th century:
In these late-night performances, Peck featured many effects that were based upon the types of phenomena one might experience when attending a seance, such as the production of ghost apparitions, objects moved by unseen hands, and spooky sounds. Peck combined these elements into a unique format that quickly became popular with audiences: a series of magic tricks and illusions loosely held together by a spooky theme, culminating in a blackout sequence.
The ghost show formula would vary between performers, but a typical evening might look something like this: 15 minutes of build-up by the host, introducing himself as a kind of medium and laying the groundwork for what was to come. This was followed by about 45 minutes of conjuring, mentalist, and spiritualist illusions in low light, often with audience participation. Then the grand finale, a 3 minute “blackout” that would plunge the theater into total darkness while any number of ghosts (and sometimes monsters) would terrorize those in the audience.
By the end of the 1930s, screening a popular scary movie would become a ghost show staple, and these would almost always be shown after the blackout.
The lead-in was absolutely essential in order to prime the largely teenage audience for the remainder of the show. As Mark Walker explains in his 1994 book, Ghostmasters, the performers—many of whom were magicians who discovered that midnight shows were immensely profitable—would have to set expectations through an intricate monologue to make sure the frights to come would land properly.
Through the dramatic use of patter, ghostmasters attempted to psychologically condition their viewers by warning them about the horrible things they were about to see or feel in the dark. Imaginations ran wild as the audience, already expecting to be frightened, heard lines such as, “Don’t turn around if you feel cold, clammy hands clutching you or something crawling up your leg.”
Naturally, part of the ghostmaster’s set-up relied on the more cheeky members of the audience, who would often take it upon themselves to mess with their friends in the dark. We all know that friend, and there are dozens in every audience. Chances are, you’re that friend.
While Peck got the movement started, Jack and Wyman Baker would become two of the most famous and financially successful ghost show runners of all time. The brothers’ Asylum of Horrors show played to sold-out crowds throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe, with Jack working under the name Dr. Silkini. The show had its share of spooks, but it was its sense of humor that really set it apart.
Even though their advertising stressed fright and thrills, the show rapidly evolved into a comedy spoof on spiritualism. Knowing they could never produce real ghosts, the Bakers relied heavily on their homespun humor and hellzapoppin style to evoke hearty belly laughs, making audiences forget the actual reason why they came to see the show. They commanded court with their macabre mirth, which proved to be the right combination at the time.
As it turns out, being kings of the ghost shows also meant amassing some decent coin. The Asylum of Horrors show would pull as much as $4,000 per night at larger theaters—over $60,000 when adjusted for inflation! The shows could be so profitable that even Howard Thurston, one of the most respected magicians of his generation, worked a midnight spook show into his schedule. And why not? If you were a magician in the 1930s and ‘40s and didn’t have a ghost show routine in your mix, you were simply leaving a lot of money on the table.
The ghost shows were often known for their publicity stunts as much as the shows themselves. Elaborate displays of coffins and tombstones would pop up around town. Some ghostmasters would hold spooky press conferences, hamming it up for the cameras. Promoters would even hire fake protesters who would hold signs objecting to the depravity of the show. Many of these stunts (including the fake protesters) would be immortalized in the 1993 film Matinee, starring John Goodman—a movie that hammers home just how much b-movie producers of the 1950s and ‘60s owed to the ghost shows.
One of the crucial technological advancements that led to the rise of the American ghost shows was the invention of luminescent paint. As Walker notes in Ghostmasters, Alexander Strobl’s development of luminescent materials in the mid-1920s really paved the way for new special effects on stage that didn’t rely on large equipment.
Dating back to the 19th century, the Pepper’s Ghost illusion was incredibly popular for creating ghosts (it’s still used convincingly today in places like Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction) but the trick is incredibly large and cumbersome. The ability to jump from theater to theater and town to town was crucial for the ghost show acts of the 1930s. And now, with special paint, your humble hosts—and their many unseen accomplices hiding in the wings — could seem to have a ghostly glow without spending many days and man-hours installing huge and expensive illusions.
Below, an illustrated explanation of how the Pepper’s Ghost illusion worked on stage, from an 1883 issue of La Nature magazine.
What the theater patrons would see:
The Pepper’s Ghost illusion uses a large, angled piece of transparent material (often glass) positioned near the front of the stage. The audience is able to see the actors through the glass, but it also allows for a figure that’s hidden from the audience to be illuminated and projected onto the transparent material. With the flick of a switch, the “ghost” can appear and disappear on stage.
New technology birthed the midnight ghost show, but in the end it was new technology that would help kill it. With the rise of television in the late 1950s, the shows would decline rapidly.
The ghost shows would continue into the 1950s, ‘60s and even ‘70s, even though they were decidedly less popular than in their heyday. Those ghostmasters that soldiered on found that the Baby Boomers were increasingly harder to scare. A supposed spirit rapping its knuckles on a table or ghost mask dabbed with luminous paint no longer did the trick.
To stay relevant they needed to evolve into a more macabre genre that emphasized monsters, blood, botched surgeries, guillotines and bodily mutilation—themes that shock rockers of the 1970s like Alice Cooper would borrow from liberally. The ghostmasters upped the ante with more sex appeal (often in the form of scantily clad female assistants) and more violence (often in the form of those assistants being brutally dismembered, tortured, or attacked by wild beasts and creatures risen from the dead).
Those that were successful into the format’s twilight years also knew how to use broadcast technologies to their advantage. A stage magician by the name of Philip Morris took on the role of ghostmaster in 1953, a time when many were getting out of the business. Morris performed under the name Dr. Evil and bought up enormous blocks of radio time to advertise his darker, edgier show. Morris would also make the transition to TV, appearing on a weekly horror show every Friday night. The ghost show in some form would live on, if primarily on the significantly less interactive ol’ boob tube.
The golden age of ghost shows existed at a unique time in American entertainment history. Radio was exploding as a popular medium, but television hadn’t yet taken root. Spiritualism and its tricks were intriguing, but belief in the supernatural world was a bit past its prime. Movies were popular, but they hadn’t yet installed the wide screens that would do away with the stage.
And so, for a relatively brief period, the ghost show flourished—a beautifully dark mix of technology, magic, and levity. Countless entertainers who dabble in the macabre owe their existence to these ghost shows. Thus, we doff our caps to these ghost hosts—the delightful talents of yesteryear who dared to scare our parents and grandparents with a smile.
Images in order of appearance: 1935 Mel Roy ghost show poster from the Library of Congress; Orpheum Theater in San Francisco in 1949, El Wyn advertisement, undated photo of a ghost show audience, and a Thurston advertisement, all scanned from the 1994 book Ghostmasters by Mark Walker; Screenshot of “fake” protesters from the movie Matinee (1993); Pepper’s Ghost explanations in an 1883 issue of La Nature scanned from the 1971 book Victorian Inventions by Leonard de Vries