The pulp fiction of the early twentieth routinely exploited the taste for terror. Its cousin, the comic book, didn't shy away from sensational subject matter; horror would seem a natural for cheap thrills in four colors. In 1940, Prize Comics put out an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but its focus quickly shifted from Gothic horror to superheroics. Horror elements entered the world of several superheroes: Batman had a Gothic feel, and the Green Lantern battled the Frankenstein-inspired Solomon Grundy.Hilman's Air Fighter Comics introduced the shambling mound, Heap in 1942. This popular character influenced the horror genre, but he had become a misunderstood hero by time he received his own title. It took some time for full-blown horror comics to develop.

In 1942, Charles Biro created what may be the first Crime Comic, Crime Does Not Pay. Instead of focusing on pulp-style adventurers or superheroes, it emphasized the lurid retelling of crimes. Similar titles would multiply throughout the decade, particularly after the post-war decline of superhero titles. These would exert a lasting influence on horror comics. A few publishers experimented with horror stories, and Avon Comics published Eerie in 1946, arguably the first true horror comic; it would die after one issue and be revived in the 1950s. American Comics Group began publishing Adventures into the Unknown in 1948. Prize's Black Magic appeared in 1950, but only later became a horror comic proper.

William M. Gaines inherited his father's EC publishing empire after Max Gaines's death. Working with Al Fieldstein, he experimented with radio-drama influenced horror stories, putting "Crypt of Terror" and "Vault of Horror" in the back of Crime Patrol and War Against Crime. These short stories inspired the magazines which would carry those names (Crypt of Terror later became Tales from the Crypt), and their sister-title, The Haunt of Fear. Each first appeared in 1950 and became an instant success. EC dropped the traditional crime comics and added other fantastic titles, including Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. They later added more sensational crime/horror books, Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories. It is the three horror comics that garnered most of EC's fame. EC Comics became synonymous with horror. The three main titles were patterned off of popular late-night radio shows such as Inner Sanctum, The Witch's Tale, The Hermit's Cave, and Light's Out, anthology series which featured disturbed-sounding hosts and spine-tingling horror stories. The three EC hosts-- the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch- - became star characters. They received makeovers in 1952, and both the Crypt-Keeper and the Old Witch were given origin stories in the pages of their magazines.

EC titles were not the most lurid of the genre; other companies had followed the trend, sometimes substituting increased gore when they could not compete with EC's generally superior writing, artwork, and black humor. Marvel's predecessor, Atlas, was publishing an unlucky 13 number of horror titles by the mid-1950s. Harvey published several horror titles; even their long-running Black Cat comic, originally about a superheroine, was re-titled Black Cat Mystery and changed into an EC-style horror anthology. Although Dr. Fredric Wertham's infamous attack on comic books started with crime comics, the horror titles dominated sales when Seduction of the Innocent made its greatest impact. When the U.S. Senate investigated the alleged connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency, horror came under the greatest scrutiny.

The comic industry responded with the Comics Code. The rules weighed rather heavily against horror titles. Comics could not present "scenes" of, or "instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism." Titles could not even use the words "horror" and "terror." EC left the business proper in 1956 to focus on a magazine version of their popular satiric comic, Mad. Although the Code's rules were voluntary, most newsstands would not carry comics if the comics did not carry the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval.

EC's comics became the stuff of legend; their entire stock has been reprinted, while originals fetch a small fortune from collectors. Tales from the Crypt has been adapted into other media, and immortalized in an oft-repeated Suburban Myth that claims L.A.'s Crips named themselves for the comic.

Despite the restrictions, horror comics did not disappear. Marvel kept horror alive in the 1960s by focusing on non-traditional monsters in titles such as Tales to Astonish, Journey into Mystery, and Where Monsters Dwell. These more closely resembled the Sci-Fi creature features of the 1950s. They featured hulking, otherwordly beasts with names like Fin Fang Foom (later folded into Marvel's super-hero stories) and Tim Boo Ba. Although Marvel's monster titles appeared throughout the 60s, many of them shifted to reflect the resurgence of superheroes. Marvel's Thor, for example, first appeared in the revised Journey Into Mystery.

Some of Dell's 1960s titles, such as Ghost Stories, were surprisingly graphic and frightening, given that they carried the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval. They did, however, avoid depicting the undead.

Dell's successor, Gold Key, had successful runs of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the former with an illustrated Rod Serling acting as horror-host. They would also follow this format with Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery (the veteran actor, and later his estate, licensed the use of his image) and Ripley's Believe it or Not!. Gold Key kept the tradition afloat in the 1970s; their Grimm's Ghost Stories featured a horror-host who was a dead ringer for the Haunt of Fear's Old Witch. Many of Gold Key's stories were repackaged as comics digests; they made excellent summer vacation reading for horror- inclined kiddies. Several late-60s Gold Key comics also carried Monster Museum, a back-up feature that presented readers' drawings of monsters. The 70s, in fact, saw a rebirth of horror comics, thanks to a 1971 revision of the Comics Code that lifted some of the taboos against depicting the supernatural.

DC invented the superhero and focused on that genre, but they had a number of horror titles in the 1960s and 1970s, including Ghosts and The Unexpected. Most memorable may be their EC-derived titles: The Witching Hour, House of Mystery, and House of Secrets. The Witching Hour was hosted by DC's answer to Macbeth's weird sisters: Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia, who fit the Maiden/Mother/Crone stereo/archetypes. Two bizarre brothers, Cain and Abel hosted, respectively, the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets These horror-hosts also turned up in the company's short-lived horror/satire/just-plain-strange rip-off of Mad, Plop!. In the 1990s. Neil Gaiman revived several of DC's old horror-hosts in The Sandman.

Archie, too, jumped on the bandwagon. In 1972, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch actually hosted a conventional horror comic, Chilling Adventures in Sorcery; its contents were entirely at odds with her sunny persona. In the same era, the Riverdale gang occasionally wandered into Gothic settings that were treated fairly seriously.1

Warren Comics eschewed the code altogether. Their black-and-white horror comics, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella featured horror stories hosted by Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and of course, Vampirella. They frequently featured nudity and graphic violence. Vampi's magazine also included her own continuing adventures, and that character has had a long life after Warren's demise. She also became entangled with Aurora's ill-fated Monster Scenes model kits, which created nearly as much controversy in the early 70s as EC had back in the 50s.

In the 1970s, Marvel and DC often incorporated horror elements into their comics. Marvel, in particular, made a Hollywood-style Wolfman the star of Werewolf by Night, reprinted old Atlas horror comic stories as the back-up feature to various Dracula titles, and introduced other horror-themed superheroes, such as Ghost Rider. Over at DC, Superman found himself up against the odd werewolf or vampire.

In 1971, the rival publishers introduced rival Heap-imitations, DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man Thing. Both appeared, initially, as lead creatures in horror comics. The Man Thing debuted in Savage Tales and moved to Adventure into Fear, before getting his own title. The Swamp Thing first turned up in House of Secrets. DC's shambling mound has demonstrated greater longevity, though in the process, has became more of an outcast superhero than the creepy monster he'd originally been. Marvel's version has been less successful. Perhaps he just couldn't live down his ribald name.

Perhaps the strangest horror-comic was 1977's Barn of Fear, which featured Farmer Bones as host, and told terror tales involving animals (the faithful dog that returns its undead master's head, for example) and cartoony funny animals. One story involved a hard-drinking penguin (an unlicensed Chilly Willy can be seen imbibing at the same bar) who has an ill-fated affair with a spectacularly ugly female bird. Although the comic featured no nudity, it is pretty clear that it hoped to capture an older audience. It failed, lasting only one issue.

In the 1980s, Stephen King revived interest in the genre. He cited the old EC comics as a major influence, and based Creepshow on them. The film came with its own comic- book adaptation; both were uninspired. Their inspiration, the original Tales from the Crypt became a couple of movies and two television series in the 1980s and 1990s.

Comics became bigger business than ever in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Horror comics have not disappeared (Neil Gaiman's influential Sandman began as a sort of horror comic), but they currently form a tiny part of the market. Those which do exist reflect the broad, dark diversity of their audiences.


1. Update: In the years since this article was first posted, Archie Comics has produced more than a few serious, Gothic books, including a very chilling take on Sabrina.


Les Daniels. Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1971.

Fred Hembeck "The Witching Hour." The Hembeck Files. http://www.proudrobot.com/hembeck/witchinghour.html

Donald D. Markstein. Markstein's Toonopedia. http://www.toonopedia.com/

Marc McLaurin, ed. Monster Masterworks. New York: Marvel, 1989.

Maria Reidelbach. Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine. Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991.

Scott Shaw. Oddball Comics http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/oddball/

The Unofficial Guide to the DC Universe. http://www.comicboards.com/dcguide/

Mike Voiles. Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics. http://www.dcindexes.com/

Laurence Watt-Evans. "Horror Comics of the 1950s: the Other Guys." http://www.watt-evans.com/theotherguys.shtml

Ted White. "The Spawn of M.C. Gaines." All in Color for a Dime. Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, eds. New York: Ace Books, 1970.

The zillion or so horror comics I read as a kid.

Thanks to Pseudo Intellectual for his helpful suggestions.

The horror comic, a staple of the 1950s before the Comics Code, where mostly published by EC Comics. This was the brainchild of MAD Magazine’s William Gaines, who peddled gory little numbers with his partner in crime Al Feldstein, who would later take the nom de plume Al Jaffee when working in puerile sight gags for the aforementioned MAD.

They played an important part in American culture, bridging the days of the horror short story, a calcifying genre mostly Lovecraftian in mode by the 1950s, and the burgeoning horror movie industry. Thanks to the folks over at archive.org a nice selection of Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear have been scanned and preserved for the ages. They demonstrate a frankly second rate oeuvre - misspelled words, hastily produced and frankly derivative drawing, and colors that can be best and most charitably described as “muddy”. The stories tend to repeat the same motifs over and over, and a few are simply lifted wholeheartedly from earlier classics with only the tiniest of changes - Cold Air by H.P. Lovecraft and the man kept alive by hypnosis after death yarn by Edgar Allan Poe, The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar.

Those that are oft repeated tend to

- It turns out that X is a Y! ( The protagonist’s spouse / A vampire, etc.)
- It turns out that X is a Y, but A is a B! (I have killed the vampire! Thank you sir, that clears the path for me, a werewolf!)
- For some reason, I’m buried alive to cheat the law somehow, but I don’t get rescued as planned!
- I killed someone, and that person comes back from the dead as a shambling rotting mass, and kills me! (One of the most oft repeated tropes, often times multiple victims come back and chase down the victim. They are completely devoid of sentience and powered only by revenge)
- Some king wants more taxes, and the peasants revolt and dismember him! (this is repeated a lot, one wonders just how opposed to Eisenhower-era tax rates they really were)

Karma is a huge part of these stories. A man who upsets his wife, an animal lover, by killing and performing taxidermy on animals just to spite her and her new pet cat, ending with killing the cat - has her lose her mind as a result and ends up stuffing and mounting him in revenge. A man who is cheated out of a metal foundry by being pushed alive into a vat of molten metal ends up being made into an iron maiden which the pusher decides to step into as a gag, only to find it is somehow possessed and snaps shut fatally, for reasons science can’t explain. A man who cheats a town out of money by faking oil in a town ends up buried alive (to be rescued within some hours by a co-conspirator) and finds out to his chagrin that the town really does have oil, and his grave is dug right over it, drowning him well before rescue can come to his aid.

You can tell who the authors had an axe to grind against in any particular issue - obviously at some point someone bought a second hand car that had been cheaply patched up and resold. Not only did the author eviscerate and dismember the seller by proxy in print, but also took time to research and put forth a field guide to how ripoff artists sell dangerous cars by faking repairs (an inner tube piece will do instead of a brake pad for a few miles, a welded axle will hold just long enough for the owner to take a test drive and purchase the car, sawdust in the transmission will prevent it from knocking for a hundred miles or so, etc.) in order to rob that person of a generation of future business. A travelling salesman who comes afoul of a family tired of being sold shoddy goods finds out that they, at gunpoint, now make sales people prove the effectiveness of a product by suffering its effects somehow: a vacuum cleaner salesman got his insides sucked out, a washer and dryer man got drowned in the spin cycle and then baked alive in the dryer, leading to the punchline, that this particular salesman happens to be peddling a home meat slicer….

As a result, many of these stories are extremely predictable, making those few with a genuinely surprise twist that much more the sweeter. There was a really good one in Creepy, for example, in which a ghost hunter exorcises a boarding house of evil spirits by the use of science and electricity. He completes a circuit with his body badly injuring himself in the process, but he assures the kindly old lady who owns the place her house is now devoid of evil spirits. She thanks him, pointing out that the restless spirits of her victims have rendered the boarding house uninhabitable, making it difficult for her to find more victims, as she is a vampire, and takes the opportunity to kill the incapacitated scientist.

The best of these were first brought to life in the portmanteau horror films of Hammer clone Amicus, first Tales From the Crypt but then The Torture Garden and The House That Dripped Blood and so forth. Later on, the genre would be kept alive by the TV show Tales from the Crypt as well as Tales From the Darkside and a Twilight Zone reboot, as well as the cinematic ode to the comics Creepshow and Creepshow 2 in US releases. Later films, such as Tales from the Hood and Snoop Dogg’s attempt at a copycat film - are technically odes to the film recaps of the comics, but they’re part of that lineage, so are given an upnod here.

But the other impacts of the horror comic are felt not only in Kustom graphics and the work of Rob Zombie, an extensive body of work whose impact on alternative culture is a writeup in and of itself - but it can be argued that repeated imagery of mindless rotting bodies coming out of graves to simply kill people was at least an unconscious suggestion to the makers of the Night of the Living Dead film, which kicked off the zombie movie craze.

Horror comics meant that comics didn’t have to always be about goody two shoes heroes and spandex-clad villains, opening the door to underground comix and more introspective, alternative genres - which made the 60s a far more groovy place to be. It even led to Alan "Every comic book has to have at least one rape" Moore and folks having the leeway to turn Swamp Thing into a treatise on Buddhist cosmology and the "grad students will have a field day analysing this for theses" magnum opus Watchmen.

For the longest time, any aficionados of the genre had to settle for flea markets and expensive trips to comics stores to find copies whose owners had not had them confiscated by parents. But thanks at first to Fantagraphics, the Seattle, Washington house that publshed many an alternative title and then Dark Horse Comics, glorious omnibus reprints are available. The Dark Horse versions, recently released, have taken the muddy, poorly printed originals and cleaned up the artwork considerably, rendering the colors with better inks and more expensive print processes, and painstakingly sharpening the line work.

Even though William Gaines might have produced the same material over and over cheaply to make a quick buck, the genre has become so beloved that a bona fide “restored print” version is not only desirable, but marketable.

Not in the United Kingdom, though. The UK took matter much further than the voluntary Comics Code that killed the genre in the 1950s - and outright banned horror comics as illegal to buy, sell, produce, or import in the 1980s. They will be seized just the same as child pornography or other illegal obscenity and disposed of, with penalties to the importer.

But to those of us who either shell out lots of money to the Dark Horse company, or simply peruse back issues on archive.org, we can relive those giddy times (or in my case, live by proxy, since I wasn’t alive back then), where werewolves, vampires and ghouls chewed and slashed their way through cheaply produced pulp, alongside advertisements for dynamic tension and editorials from the publisher about how comics are about freedom of expression, and you know who else wants to ban comics? Communists, that’s who!


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