Before streaming horror movies on demand; before cable channels devoted to the genre; before late-night horror hosts, there were Midnight Ghost Shows, sometimes called Midnight Spook Shows. These mixed-media shows, held in movie theaters, utilized magic, special effects, and horror films to appeal to teenagers in the years before television.
The precise origin of these spook shows is lost to the ages, but it is thought to have started in the early 1930s by Elwin-Charles Peck, a magician who performed under the name El-Wyn. These early ghost shows often utilized effects from spiritual shows, or would include a faux séance. Invisible ghosts would open doors, break objects, or knock over pans of water. The signature of Peck’s ghost shows was the blackout, which would often be accompanied by audio and/or visual effects. Blackout effects were startling to audiences of the day because advances in technology had made instantaneous blackouts a new and novel experience.
Toward the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s, the ghost shows expanded into what was often billed as “horror shows” or “monster shows.” The popularity of Universal’s horror films helped drive the shows toward bigger, more graphic displays. Spiritualist hosts were replaced by mad scientists. Limb severing, decapitations, immolation, and impalement often headlined these shows. They always maintained the blackout, which was usually followed by a horror movie.
While each ghost show varied greatly, depending on the performer, a general evening would likely include 15 minutes of host patter, followed by 45 minutes of illusions, seances, mentalist acts, and bloody stage magic, not unlike the Grand Guignol of Paris the century before. Audience participation was key. The grand finale was the blackout, the one effect that was a universal amongst midnight shows. These usually lasted two or three minutes, while eerie sounds and “luminous apparitions” filled the theater. Immediately before the blackout, there would be a flash of light, which acted to charge the luminous apparitions, and also blind the audience, making the blackout all the more startling. In later years, a scary movie would follow the blackout.
Midnight Ghost Shows were tremendously profitable. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the major movie studios owned most of the movie theaters, and practiced “block booking.” This made it easy for ghost show promoters to get booked into multiple theaters by selling their show to one studio, who would include it in the block booking of its films. Additionally, the shows were booked at midnight, decades before the “midnight movies.” Most movie theaters were dark at this time of night, so it didn’t interfere with regular schedules and they could be rented out relatively cheap. An average spook show could pull in $3,000 per week (about $40,000 today).
Just as a unique vacuum of entertainment created the Midnight Ghost Shows, a glut of entertainment eventually brought about its demise. Television, CinemaScope, and drive-ins drew crowds away from the ghost shows. Interestingly, a rise in juvenile delinquency also added to the downfall of the shows. Audiences became rowdier, which created more liability for theaters and show runners. They demanded bigger, more opulent effects, which were more costly and cumbersome to the show operators, eventually digging into profits. Additionally, the delinquency caused a rise in local curfew laws, which prevented the mostly teenage audience from leaving the house.
Although they were only at their height for about two decades, Midnight Ghost Shows would inspire the horror industry to this day. Many former ghost show hosts went on to become TV horror hosts; most notably Dr. Evil, who ran spook shows under his real name, Philip Morris. The “midnight movie” gained popularity in the late 1960s and continues to this day. The most obvious show of influence is in the audience participation screenings of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. But most importantly, it showed that horror was a profitable and popular subculture that continues to this day.