Broadcasting Horror: The Domestic TV Monster in the 1960’s

When The Addams, The Munsters, and Dark Shadows Crept In

Introduction for July

Horror films contain their creatures; they hold them in the film rather than extending them. The monster exists in that 2-hour span, maybe 4 if they get a sequel. Horror anthologies, by contrast, elongate their horror, they draw it out of the shadows and center it in the average person’s living room. Television brings monsters into the home, and in doing so, brings them closer the viewer and their lives. Whatever safety the theatre offered is non-existent as the nightmare is already in your house. It is hard to stop being afraid by just turning off your tv, because that fear follows you down the hallway, into your room, under your bed. It lives where you live because it was introduced in that space. You can’t leave the area you were afraid in, as unlike a movie theatre, this space is yours. The monster might disappear, but the emotions it inspired are still present. They have invaded your life and will continue to do so with each frightening episode. And yet, we watch.

TV, at times, feels more real than cinema, largely because it’s what you use to watch the news or to learn about what is happening around you. I put particular emphasis on the term ‘you’ here, as TV often formats itself for an individual, someone who needs the weather and traffic update for their morning commute. Unlike a movie theatre, TV and the living room are every day, and thus come with different connotations. To mix fiction with your expectations of this setting is unnerving, because it becomes harder to separate your experiences with fiction and non-fiction, or to separate your average life with this imagined version where monsters are a viable threat. Shows like The Twilight Zone fixate on the average individual, someone just like you, who could be swept up in a terrible situation for no reason. It’s horrifying because it could happen to anyone, at any time, and that fear roots itself in your house. Your memory of that episode, and the fear it elicited, is linked to the everyday. This began even before horror television, with radio plays like Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds, which some people believed was an actual emergency broadcast because the story arrived from a trusted source: the radio. They couldn’t distinguish news from fiction because the radio had such an established function in the home, not just as a source of entertainment but of facts, the kind which would regularly impact the person listening. Television creates a similar dynamic because it is an accessible source in an accessible place in the home. But what if the monsters were also accessible? What if their time in the home changed how they behave? Simply put, what if this transaction wasn’t one way, but rather, the monster became as mundane as the home?

The monster influenced the home just as the home influenced it.   

“Life is not all lovely thorns and singing vultures, you know.”
(Addams)

The 1960s revised the relationship between TV horror and the everyday through comedy, and so this dynamic was no longer frightening, just accessible. Three series dominated horror TV, and they continue to influence television and the horror genre at large. These shows are: The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Dark Shadows. While these projects share certain thematic elements and draw from the same Gothic works, they handle these aspects in different ways, and for radically different reasons. Each show focuses on a specific home, a manor, where a strange family congregates and either hilarity or something bizarre ensues. Dark Shadows is not intentionally funny, but its melodrama occasionally treads in that realm.

I’ve linked these shows not just because they aired around the same period, but because they have an established cinematic legacy which continues to flourish. I am dedicating this month to the adaptations of these shows, focusing on what people have done with the characters years after they debuted. I am particularly interested in how and what the children who used to watch these shows did with the material once they grew up, as there is a strong nostalgic tone to these later projects. This post will introduce these shows in detail and examine how, and more importantly, why they overlap. My following July posts will then focus on why that overlap is so relevant to these later works.

“I Like Being Miserable.”
(Addams)

Addams and Munsters premiered just one week from one another in 1964, and both were later cancelled within weeks of one another in 1966. Munsters drew a slightly larger audience during its run*, but the Addams went on to have a more recognizable impression in contemporary culture. So why did these two remarkably similar shows arrive and end at the same time? Better still, why was there such a strong demand for wholesome horror comedy at this moment? Dark Shadows aired the same year that Addams and Munsters were cancelled, and although it only ran until 1971, it aired 1,230 episodes. That is one episode for nearly every day of the week. But this timeline is only one of the similarities between these shows, as they also share a certain style. Each is shot entirely in black and white, like the classic horror films from the 1930s, which they borrowed material from. Dark Shadows eventually moved to colour, but neither Addams nor Munster had that opportunity. One of the reasons both shows were cancelled was because of the potential cost of transitioning to colour, having to change the sets, makeup, costume, and overall format. I highly recommend looking up a colour photo of the original Addams set, as most of that grim house is entirely pink, which was the best shade for black and white tones. Nothing in the set would work for a colour edit, and so both Addams and Munsters were binned. Beyond that practical reason, the black and white format positions these narratives as relations to earlier horror cinema. Each show parodies and draws from the Universal horror universe, with the direct intention of drawing audiences who love these films as children, and now want to share them with their own family. As I will explore in the following weeks, that impulse is still happening.

“I am not going to sit around here and deteriorate.”
(Munsters)

It is crucial to note that these shows domesticize horror by making monsters approachable and human. Munsters is arguably the most obvious example of this tonal transformation, as it features specific horror icons like Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula. Herman Munster is a version Boris Karloff, complete with the bolts in head and elongated skull. This is where things get interesting, as the only reason Herman looks like Karloff is because Universal owns the show. Unlike Addams and Dark Shadows, Munsters owns property in the classic monster cannon. Frankenstein is technically a public domain work, but only Mary Shelley’s version. You must have direct permission from Universal to produce a Frankenstein Monster that looks or acts anything like its version. The same goes for Count Dracula, as Bram Stoker’s character and work is public domain, but Universal’s interpretation of that narrative is not. Munster has an advantage in this regard, as it can evoke direct costumes and lines from these established classics, while Addams and Dark Shadows is focused to be more discreet.

Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge advocate for the public domain, and the creative freedom it offers to independent artists. I find this legal distinction between the shows very noteworthy because they use the public domain in a purposeful manner. For example, the Addams is about a human family, who have some supernatural qualities, but are still human. Addams thus invents its horrors, so it never oversteps onto Universal property. Lurch, for instance, is a clear successor of Frankenstein’s Monster, but that comparison is never explicitly declared in the show. That alone makes the Addams feel more rebellious, like its characters are castoffs of Gothic sensibility, or the discarded byproduct of Universal. That castoff nature seems appropriate for the Addams, as the show is largely concerned by the dynamic between acceptable and unusual, regulated or chaotic. Munster is also interested in this dynamic between normative and not, but it has a different approach. The Munster family look unusual, and come from an unusual place, whereas the Addams are an unusual family. The Addams act different than everyone, and they believe entirely different things than other people. They are genuinely welcoming, kind, innocent even, but they are also obsessed with violence and death. Morticia and Gomez are often thought as having one of the first sexualized relationship in television history, the kind which makes the Munsters feel like Leave It to Beaver. Addams is different than other sitcoms, unlike the Munsters, which wanted to fit in just like the characters in its narrative.

The main fixation in the Munsters is that they are an average family, with normal issues like school and work. They even adopt a totally average teenage girl, who acts like she is in a typical sitcom. They are unusual beings living a somewhat normal life, and the Addams never shares that ambition. The Addams are perfectly content with their bizarre lifestyle, and notably, it’s never bizarre to them, just to other people. That position strongly contrasts with the Munsters, especially in episodes like “Family Portrait”, where the Munsters win a competition as the most average family in America and have their photo on the cover of a magazine. The reporters are terrified during their visit, but they still print the photo with the caption, “this average family likes to celebrate Halloween every day of the year”. This wording suggests that the Munsters are average because their daily behaviour and lifestyle is approximately similar to other Americans, like the ones watching at home. Even Herman’s name reflects this need to be average, as it’s close to the word ‘human’.

Dark Shadows also draws from the public domain, but more specifically, the literary public domain. The show’s soap opera format lends to the high drama of respected works such as Dorian Gray, Jane Eyre, and Hamlet, and so it borrows from these recognizable works by transitioning these elements into a new narrative. While Dark Shadows likewise models after classic Universal horror films, it does not return to specific Universal monsters, as it instead favours generic monster types like vampires and ghosts.

“Darling, some people have a twisted sense of beauty.”
(Addams)

The predominant similarity between Dark Shadows, Addams, and Musters, is that each focus on a strange family with bizarre relations. However, unlike these sitcoms, supernatural elements were not abundantly present in the early episodes of Dark Shadows. The show only became popular after it introduced a ghost in episode 70 and drew itself somewhat closer to these earlier horror shows. Dark Shadows also ran 5 times a week, and so its narrative is extremely convoluted, making it notoriously hard to keep up with the show without watching the entire series. The Addams and Munsters can be enjoyed regardless of the episode, marking another narrative difference between these works.

Although there are strong contrasts between these shows, I would argue that those differences are intentional. You can easily position the tone of these shows from light to dark because they define monsters with a different intention. The name Munsters is a combination of fun and monster, and that tells you exactly what kind of show it is. Nothing in the show should be taken too seriously, both because it’s a comedy, and it’s about harmless monsters who are just like you and me. The Addams come from a darker and more adult history, as the characters were initially created by Charles Addams for The New Yorker and were seen as a satirical and contradictory example of American values. Both the comic and show are somewhat innocent, but they deal with a more macabre subject than Munsters. The Addams are sort of like the opposite family, in that they have a lion instead of a cat, and they cut off flowers rather than thorns. The funniest part of the show is thus the extreme way they celebrate and dwell in darkness, simply because that feels so contradictory. Dark Shadows is the darkest of the three, as it often deals with overly dramatic storylines about love and murder. It is not interested in comedy, although as I will detail in my later post about the legacy of the show, it has been reinterpreted as a comedy. I think people view Dark Shadow with a certain levity today because it is such an extreme show, and its massive episode catalogue means that certain storylines and characters are inconsistent. The show was also aired in order, so unless you caught every episode, you would only know parts of the story, rather than the entire narrative. We still have these gaps because certain episodes are lost, like the famous episode 1219, which has no surviving video. I mention this because the three shows came with different viewing experiences and dedication. It doesn’t matter which episode you watch of the Munsters or Addams because the episodes are somewhat self-contained, like any sitcom. Dark Shadows forced viewers to rush home to find out what happens next, and so its structure is radically different than these other shows, often relying on cliff hangers. And yet, I would argue that there is a level of cliff hanger in Munsters and Addams, something left unsolved.

“If there is anything we can’t stand, it’s weird people”
(Munsters)

There are several adaptations of these works, and they range from subsequent television shows to Broadway musicals and films. These shows might be around 55 years old, but we still refer to them in modern culture. They are just as relevant, perhaps even more then when they first aired. Neither the Munsters nor Addams includes cliff hangers, but we have returned to its story as though it innately has one, as though we as audience need to know what happens next.

That sustained popularity is the direct result of these adaptations, the characters’ rebirth, if you will. The original actors from the Munsters and Addams do appear in a few spinoff adventures, particularly in Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977), a TV film which shows the characters in colour, but their characters became more recognized when played by other people. Angelica Huston, for example, is the quintessential Morticia, although she did not create the role, and neither did Carolyn Jones from the show, as both were influenced by TV personality Vampira and Charles Addams’ illustrations. Meanwhile, the Munsters has not attained a feature length film, like Addams and Dark Shadows, but there is one currently in the works, thus cementing its cinematic longevity.

I am drawn to these shows because I am interested in adaptations of adaptations. None of three shows are utterly original; each comes from an established horror and Gothic landscape which they reinvent by slicing and combining elements. I have argued multiple times on this blog, and in great detail in my thesis, that adaptation is like the work of Frankenstein, and that seems relevant in a discussion about these shows. My goal for this month is to detail what these shows indicate about the role of horror, perhaps the over saturation of horror staples, by discussing the later adaptations of them. Specifically, what was kept in these later works, and what was removed. Keep in mind, the Addams predates these other projects because of Charles Addams’ illustrations, so while it invents original characters like Cousin Itt and Thing, versus the Munsters’ established figures, the show works in conjunction with pre-established narratives and figures. Dark Shadows is also an informal adaptation, as although it’s characters and narrative are original, it follows specific myths and monster types which viewers are already familiar with. They are adaptations, and thus are ready made for further adaptation.

Join me this month as I explore why these later adaptations were made, what their transformations suggest about the show and its Gothic backdrop, and how the move away from traditional horror to horror comedy influences these stories. 

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