A Bit of Information About the
Art of Spook Shows

Approximately 1890's - 1970's


 "Spook Show" live theatrical performances were brought about by several factors.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, there was an intense interest in contacting the dead, through a "Medium" or "Mediumologist".   Sadly, most of the mediums were people whose main interest was fraud and bilking grieving people out of their life's savings.   Seances played a large role in contacting the spirit of a dear departed soul. Through the use of seances, mediums were able to devise all sorts of tricks that could be played in the dark.   All seances required nearly complete darkness so that the Medium could easily manipulate their tricks and "ghostly appearances" without the participants seeing the wires, fishing rods, and many other unique devices operated by either the Medium themself or accomplices.   


A "Mediumolgogist"

After the death of magician Harry Houdini's beloved mother, Houdini attempted to contact his mother's spirit after death. With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others, Houdini set out with an open mind and high hopes. What he discovered was fraud  To Magicians, the "ghostly appearances" and other "contacts with the dead" were simply amateur tricks being performed the Medium, and Houdini replicated them regularly, confronting and debunking one Medium at a time, and very successfully.

However, the interest in the occult continued, long after the death of Houdini.  Houdini's widow Bess held a seance each year on the night of Houdini's death, October 31st - Halloween night.  Houdini and Bess had devised a code that only the two of them knew - it was the code that the Medium must get through to Bess to prove that the Medium was not a fraud, and that a type of afterlife exists.   The correct "code" was never transmitted, with the exception of one Medium who "received" the correct message, but it was confirmed later by Mrs Houdini that she had inadvertently given him the key to discovering the message the previous year. The message was "Rosabelle Believe". 

The final seance by Bess Houdini was held in 1936 on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood (which still stands today) and was conducted by Dr Edward Saint. I am fortunate to have a recording of this final seance and I've transferred the old LP over to CD.

During the 1920's, when vaudeville was waning, magicians sought to supplement their income with another type of magic performance. These performances captured the public's interest due to the popularity of Spiritualism at the time.  Communication with the dead was becoming fashionable.  The magicians who created these "Spook Shows" used their existing illusions, plus new methods. to conjure up "spirits" or "spooks" during these live performances. The shows were immensely popular, and were often held at movie theaters before or after the movie, the most popular time being "midnight" performances.

Spook Shows ran into the late 1950's and early 1960's. Most of these had become "Monster" performances by this time.  I am old enough to recall just one "Spook Show" I attending in the 1960's.  The details remain vague to me, but I recall a person in a gorilla suit "escaping" into the audience, just as the lights went out in the theater.  Being about 6 years old at the time, it was very effective to me, especially since the "gorilla" ran to the back of the theater in the dark, carrying some sort of device that managed to brush by all of our heads in the audience.

My main inspiration in writing this page is to showcase some of the rare Spook Show posters with the wonderful, imaginative "Halloween Style" artwork from this period. The earliest piece I had in my collection was from the turn of the 20th century, the latest piece dates from the later 1950's or early 1960's.

 

Below, is a nice collection of Spook Show images.   With the exception of the earliest 1900's handbill, most of the posters seen below are very large cardboard window cards, most are approximately 22" wide x 29" tall. These windows cards are highly sought after and quite difficult to find.  The bulk of this collection was culled from ebay in 1997, from an employee who worked at the Alliance Theatre in Nebraska. He found these posters behind one of the theater's walls, where they were being used as insulation!



Mel Roy 1936

Halloween 1954

Francisco 1941


1950 Halloween
Ghost Show

 


 


1955

 

MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY

3-hour-plus Spooktacular containing everything you need for your very own Spook Party! First, join some terrified teens who spend a night in a haunted house and get spooked by a mad doctor and his ghoulish gang when the Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, a hilarious 1965 theatrical featurette complete with werewolf, gorilla in a fur coat, and goofy gimmick! Then, feel your eyes pop out of their sockets when you check into The Asylum of the Insane, a startling short subject with monsters in 3-D Spookarama (3-D glasses included)! But that's not all! This scary, screwy, chill-arious fright show includes bonus shorts, Spook Show previews, audio commentaries, How to Put on Your Own Spook Show, music by The Dead Elvi, and much more--plus the bonus feature-length chiller-diller Tormented!

 

1940


1951 Spook Show Cardboard Poster (Window Card)
28-1/4" tall x 22" wide

The designs on this page as well as many more are available at my shop at zazzle.com