In my younger years, I was a horror film buff. I saved up paper route money to buy an 8mm copy of Lon Chaney’s 1925 silent masterpiece The Phantom of the Opera (this was in the days before VHS or DVDs). I’d make Star Trek and claymation monster movies in the basement. I turned the woods behind our house into a haunted forest during Halloween. When I should have been out mowing the lawn or doing other chores, I’d spend Saturday afternoons watching Boris Karloff and Hammer Horror films on a Cleveland TV station. And I would regularly ride my bike to the drug store to buy a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland.
The publisher of this monthly magazine — and the author of most of the articles in it — was Forrest J Ackerman, clearly the world’s biggest horror and sci-fi fan. He’s even been credited with coining the term sci-fi.
Ackerman died yesterday at the age of 92.
Famous Monsters was culled from Ackerman’s monstrous collection of horror memorabilia, including thousands of movie stills and artifacts from the icons of horror – Universal Studio’s old-Europe Frankenstein, wolf man and Dracula franchises – to the schlockiest b-movie flicks. (TIME Magazine film critic Richard Corliss discusses Ackerman on TIME.com today.)
As his obituary in today’s NY Times recalls, Ackerman’s magazine inspired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and horror novelist Stephen King, who is heavily quoted in the obit. He calls the magazine, and Ackerman, our “Hubble telescope,” giving us “a window into a world we really wanted to see.”
And in some ways Famous Monsters of Filmland also inspired me, though I didn’t go into a career as a fantasy filmmaker or novelist. Its catchy writing gave me the first appreciation for the pun (I knew The Clayman Cometh – a headline for an article on the silent film about the mythical Golem – long before I knew it was a play on the title of a play by someone named Eugene O’Neill), and its images led me to study more closely such great works as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Ackerman’s vast collection was displayed for years in a Hollywood mansion, and I had always wanted to find an excuse to go (but I could never convince the news organizations I worked for to send me there to do a story about him). The place was known as the Acker-mansion, in Horrorwood, Karloffornia. Ackerman — Forry to his friends — would lead guests on personal tours.
I would have loved to see the masks of the gill man from Creature from the Black Lagoon, or all those posters and photos of great (in their genre) actors named Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney.
I can’t watch the horror films of the 21st century. I tuned out somewhere in the middle of the Friday the 13th franchise. (Something about all those scenes of young people having sex before being knifed by a man in a hockey mask, at an age when I was desperately trying to have sex with anyone who would have me, turned me off the series.) And the newer forms of horror — like the Saw movies with their surreal and hyper-shocking images of darkness — just aren’t for me. I have enough nasty images stored in my head. I don’t need to add any more uncomfortable pictures to the movies that play in my mental metroplex.
Give me the dark shadows in black and white. The creepiness and suspense. The old world monsters threatening torch-bearing villagers. The ancient curses striking a new protagonist. A shiny spaceship and a robot stopped from destroying the world by a few simple words (klatu barada nikto). The makeup, the corny dialogue. Bring it on.
All the things that jazzed old Forrest J and gave him a collecting jones for the flotsam of a good old fright-night double feature.
Rest in peace, Mr. Ackerman. Say hello to Boris, Bela and Lon from the paperboy in Ohio.