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RETROSPECTIVE: Horror Hosts #1: Vampira: The Glamour Ghoul! (Los Angeles, 1954-1955)

Friday, April 26, 2019 | Retrospective

The horror host has had a long and storied history in radio, comic books and local television. I thought I might compose a series of essays about this latter manifestation, examining certain key figures as a framework with which I could muse on some of my thoughts regarding this fascinating relic of live television, a vaudevillian mash-up of the macabre and the humorous (two topics which entertain me greatly), ephemeral (and yet remembered with profound love by all who experienced it as children) and one of the first DIY type entertainment styles brought to TV.


Of course, #1 had to be Vampira because she invented the concept of horror hosting on TV (there had been horror hosts on radio – maybe more on that in a later entry). Finnish immigrant Maila Nurmi patterned her look and character after Charles Addams’ Morticia character, with more of an icy “dragon lady” air about her (this look eventually became a goth touchstone in the early 80s). As a side note, Chicago (iirc) had a “swami” character who slightly predated Vampira and hosted mystery films, but when it comes to horror on TV, she was the first.

 

“Vampira does the standard “ghoulish jokes” approach with sexuality and classy restraint.”

As might be expected in the ephemeral world of live television, not much extant footage exists of THE VAMPIRA SHOW, broadcast live (heh!) on Los Angeles KABC-TV from 1954-1955 (predating the “Shock” film package of Universal horror films whose distribution to television stations really kicked off the horror host boom a few years later). Nurmi was friends with James Dean, later showed up in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and appeared at a gig performed by The Cramps in the 70s. In between she installed linoleum (!!!) and later sued Elvira for copping her bit (arguably true, although to no legal result).

Vampira is interesting because, from what little you can see of her shtick, she does a very dry, cold take on the standard “ghoulish jokes and puns” approach to horror hosting (one of the 4 basic horror host types I’ve come to refer to as “The Sardonic Creep” style – arising out of radio’s INNER SANCTUM host Raymond, and the EC comics ghoulunatic hosts like The Crypt Keeper), but with the added measure of classy restraint and obvious sexuality (check out the “scream into a contended purr” opening to the show)

I don’t imagine there was much clownish tomfoolery on the show, although descriptions imply there were comedy sketch-like settings (Vampira at her “poison bar”, Vampira as strict schoolteacher, etc.) – pretty eye opening for 1954 television, even in a place like Los Angeles. And yes, her waist was *that small*, as can also be seen in the clip (in a late in life interview she talks about Irving Klaw photo shoots and the bondage implications of her outfit). Maila Nurmi passed away in 2008, but the torch she ignited is carried on even now. She provided not only a starting point to the Horror Host phenomena, but also an indelible (often copied, never duplicated) image.

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.