I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Fear of Gouls: the Great Horror Comic Scare

by Jake Goldman
March 1, 2018

Not long ago, I attended an exhibit featuring the work of comic book artists from the 40s, 50s and 60s.  Not knowing a whole lot about comic books, I found myself awestruck at the wall-sized prints depicting Captain America beating down a gaggle of Nazi soldiers.  Captain America first appeared in 1941 by Timely Comics (who would later become what we now know as Marvel) [1] as an over-the-top tool of propaganda.  In fact, in that very issue, you will find Captain America socking der Fuhrer right in the kisser. 

Of course, comic book artists weren’t the only folks using their medium as an exploitative platform.  Disney famously made Der Fuehrer’s Face in 1942, an anti-Nazi propaganda film starring Donald Duck which won an Oscar [and which you can watch on Network Awesome - ed.] [2]  Still, not everyone could afford a trip to the theater and not every household owned a television.  Comic books, for that reason, had a somewhat larger pull than the more advanced mediums of the time. And even more, they knew exactly who they were reaching out to: the future of America.  Future soldiers.  Future leaders. The young men who would want to suit up for the red, white and blue were the ones holding those thin pages, staining their fingers black.

Propaganda comics, of course, made up a small percentage of what was out there. Still, most early comic books depicted the classic good vs. evil, with good inevitably triumphing. For the parents of America, this was a good thing, teaching kids lessons about squashing evil, about what it means to defend your country and feel prideful.  It was sneaky, to be sure, but so long as the subtext was couched in good, solid, American family values, parents didn’t seem to mind. That is, until horror comic books came along.

Horror comics popped up in the mid to late 40s.  It’s when tomes like Tales from the Crypt and Eerie Comics began.  The intent of these comics was, as you might imagine, quite different from the Captain Americas of the world.  The focus was less on trying to deliver a message or to teach a broad lesson and more on what comics were initially created for: exciting entertainment. 

Horror comics often focused on the supernatural.  Frankenstein-like monsters and lobotomized men dominated the pages.  It was gruesome, especially for its time.  Graphic, violent scenes were frequently depicted on the pages of horror comics with innocent, buxom women often playing the role of victim.  David Hajdu, a veritable comic-book guru, explains the origins of the horror comic in his comprehensive look at the comic book industry The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America: “[Horror Comics]...had its roots in the pulps, where narratives of young women assaulted by 'weird menaces'  [Horror comics]... had filled magazines such as Terror Tales and Horror Stories for years. Variations on gothic fright had also appeared in several comics.”[3]

This, of course, put parents ill at-ease.  Previously, their children had been finding wholesome entertainment in the heroic men of Marvel, but the introduction of zombies and vampires into their lives somehow seemed to put the American nuclear family in jeopardy.  Parents worried their children would start to mimic the heinous acts seen on those pages.  

In response, stone-faced journalist Paul Coates took to the airwaves with his show Confidential FileConfidential File was a news magazine show that aired from 1953-1958 on KTTV, the station owned by the Los Angeles Times-Mirror.  The show was designed to be hard-hitting, with Coates promising to tackle the issues he felt were contributing to the deterioration of our moral fabric. On what the show intended to do, Coates remarked: “I want to expose rackets in Los Angeles. All kinds of rackets. I’ll have B-Girls, and prostitutes, religious quacks, and unscrupulous businessmen on my program. I’ll show the public who and what these people are. …It won’t be nice, but I believe it will be effective and will make for a better city and better community.”[4]

This episode - in which Coates tackles horror comics is truly fascinating.  Indeed, Coates’s heart is in the right place, in the sense that he cares about protecting the nation’s youth, however the panic this program tries to induce is mind-blowing.  The show begins with the ever-un-amused Coates speaking directly to the camera about the deep psychological toll these comics are taking on America’s children.  “…[horror comics] should be against the law.  Tonight, I’m going to show you why,” he says.

The program is fairly light on actual, factual evidence.  Coates references a spike in crime amongst kids and cites comic books as the leading cause. But, facts don’t matter in this episode.  The idea is to put fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. The show does a scarily good job of doing so.  They ham-handedly show a dramatization wherein kids are reading horror comics in the middle of the woods and then get an idea for a new game.  They go find another kid, lure him into the woods and then proceed to tie that kid to a tree and torture him.  Watching it in 2011, it’s so over the top that it inspires belly laughs, but in 1955, surely it horrified parents.  As a result of all this fear, the Comics Code Authority was created as a clearinghouse for all comic-books.  The Authority effectively censored comics well into the late 90s.

A fun way to watch this piece is to view it against how we receive and deliver messages like this today.  Fear is still a gigantic motivator when it comes to politically charged messages.  The absurd “birther” movement is one chock full of a manufactured fear that somehow our President is not from here, and that somehow makes him dangerous.  The delivery system, however, is vastly different.  Information moves at breakneck speed in the 21st century, and people, to a degree have wised up.  A heavy-handed documentary like this wouldn’t quite have the same impact on Americans today.  But, what Confidential File reminds us is that we have always been a country with a strong undercurrent of fear, and probably, we’ll continue to be such a country for a long time to come.

[1] http://www.superherocomicshop.com/captain-america-history

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_Fuehrer%27s_Face

[3] Hajdu, David The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, p. 141

[4] http://www.metnews.com/articles/reminiscing011603.htm


Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.