Vintage Spookshow Ballyhoo

During the 1950s, 60s, and even into the 1970s, regional movie houses and drive-ins would often find themselves the temporary homes of traveling Halloween spook shows. Usually staged in conjunction with a series of cheap horror movies, the spook shows were stage events consisting of magicians, bad skits, bad special effects, and a whole lot of Frankenstein masks. In later days, the expected awfulness of such shows was part of the appeal, but int he early days of promising the terror of untold aeons unfolding live before your very eyes, then delivering a guy in a fright wig running down the aisle, the impresarios behind these productions often hot-footed it out of town one step ahead of the angry crowds whose money now stuffed the huckster’s pockets.

In salute to this glorious era of the spook show shyster, here’s a gallery of some of my favorite spookshow advertisements, played at drive-ins mostly throughout Kentucky and the surrounding states.

4 thoughts on “Vintage Spookshow Ballyhoo”

  1. Since I grew up in a place where Halloween simply didn’t exist (i was actually aware of the name of the movie before the festival.), this stuff fascinates me. If T.C readers and writers would like to share their childhood and delayed-childhood memories of the event, I’d be fascinated to read about it.

    So am I right? These screen caps are cinema adverts for actual live events that were part of regular midway carnies at this time of year? Or were the live events erected by the cinema owners? Apologies for my ignorance…

  2. There was always a love/hate thing for me in relation to Halloween as a child. The Love: Costumes, candy, the night, the TV specials. the Hate: Traditionally, October is cold so my mother would always make me wear a coat. A coat! A coat to cover my beautiful Gypsy, ballerina, fill in the blank costumes. Too bad I was untalented as an artist or I would have made a fortune being the girl ‘Stewie’ to my mom’s ‘Lois’.

  3. They way it would work was that a company (or more likely, one huckster) would put together a show. He’d then sell local drive-ins and movie houses — back when such things were independent and distribution was regional — on the package, usually accompanying it with a lot of flashy ads and illustrations, grand descriptions, etc, with the deal being that the theater and the show would split the profits by some percentage. The show producer would then blanket the market with ads, radio spots, trailers, cars with bullhorns — classic old school carney techniques, aimed almost entirely at America’s newest consumers and most frequent drive-in attendees: teenagers.

    Then on the night of the show, they’re roll out what was usually a pretty half-assed event in front of an audience that was more likely to be interested in necking and getting drunk than marveling at Frankenstein live on stage. They were usually a combination of cheap monster skits, gags, accomplices in the audience wearing masks and grabbing people, and stage magic. If you can imagine a “horror host” segment from an old TV channel, performed live on stage, it was usually a little like that.

    Sometimes people would get into the spirit of things, and the shows would stick around even if it wasn’t very good, maybe even incorporating local “talent” and radio DJs. You could either get drunk and laugh along, or you could hope that you might get laid at some point during the night, spook show not withstanding. Other times crowds would feel ripped off, an the show would blow town in the middle of the night with whatever money they had, and then do it all again a couple towns over.

    When the drive-ins started to die, and when regional theater booking and territories gave way to modern corporate multiplexes, the spook shows pretty much died out.

  4. Got it. Are you old enough to have ever gone to one, or was it all ancient history by the time you were a teen? Fascinating stuff in any case. Would have been fun to have experienced that.

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