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Children of Atomic Age Horror: The Misfits

The tagline for American Graffiti (1973) asked its audience “Where were you in ’62?” Depending on who you might ask, George Lucas captured vintage Americana with vivid accuracy. Hot rods and rock and roll are all part of a tapestry that popular culture likes to present of the time period. The 50s and 60s certainly hold a nostalgic charm for many. At the other end of the spectrum, Matinee (1993) illustrates the necessity for an escape through the mediums of horror and science fiction during the eras more troubling times. As the safety of the free world hangs by a thread during the Cuban missile crisis, Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a carbon copy of William Castle, debuts a feature film amidst the cold war paranoia. The film within a film, Mant, details a half man-half ant terrorizing the unsuspecting citizens of suburbia. Joe Dante’s film captures a world created out of the fear of mutually assured self-destruction.

While men were playing god in the midst of an arms race, an entire generation found itself gravitating towards outlandish creations brought about by paranoia. From the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, to drive in theatres and late-night movie marathons, the era of atomic age horror would emerge. The threat of a communist takeover was transformed into invaders from outer space. After all, the threat from a distant red planet coincides perfectly with the “red menace” of the communist scare.

Atomic age pop culture would later manifest itself in the form of a band called The Misfits. An important part of the American horror tradition, frontman Glenn Danzig and company treated the era as if it were folklore. From an artistic viewpoint, The Misfits are very much a visual medium, and one in a long line of “spooky Americana.” From the ghoulish cartoons of Charles Addams, to the hijinks of Herman Munster, Americans from the era enjoyed the macabre and possess an affinity with horror. Wrapping it all up and presenting it in the form of a punk outfit from New Jersey seemed like the perfect concoction. While anyone with a working brain will tell you that punk is firmly against both the establishment and conformity, it’s the unique uniformity of The Misfits that helped them establish a unique aesthetic. The grinning face of the Crimson Ghost would not only be the bands emblem, but a calling card which was quite literally worn on their sleeves.

Because art is so often an extension of reality, The Misfits touched upon important moments that helped shape Americana as we know it. “She”, one of the groups’ first songs chronicled one of the more shocking moments related to the counter culture. The image of heiress Patricia Hearst, armed with a machine gun and involved with the paramilitary SLA sparked immediate controversy. Glenn Danzig’s opening lyric of “She walked out with empty arms, machine gun in her hand” immediately brings the event to life.

As Americans, we’re devotees to both the cult of personality as well as celebrity. Perhaps no two figures embodied the atomic era more than Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. While one would embody sexuality and set a standard of beauty that many would adhere to, the other would be a symbol of hope for the free world. Their deaths would leave a mark on the consciousness of an entire nation. In “Who Killed Marilyn” and “Bullet” the events in question are addressed. “Found her on her chest, her body turning blue” depicts the tragic end to a life lived in the spotlight, and one often discussed by conspiracy theorists. “Bullet” is itself a double pronged attack on the establishment. To this day, most Americans can remember where they were when they found out the president had been assassinated. “Texas is an outrage when your husband is dead. Texas is an outrage when they pick up his head. Texas is the reason that the president’s dead” ridicules the tragedy. At the same time, “You gotta suck, suck, Jackie suck” demeans Jacqueline Kennedy, considered by some to be royalty. The harsh tone in which the lyrics are presented “defrocks” the queen as it were.

There’s no moment in history more important to the widespread distribution of media than the television. Horror and science fiction had a new platform. The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone all showcased a multitude of stories that were subversive as they were entertaining. In “Static Age” The Misfits describe their existence as a byproduct of this dominant form of media. “This is the static age we live in, our eyes crisscross, hold and gaze” illustrates the control and servitude that the television creates with its audience. “We’re all blue from projection tubes” equates the phenomenon to infection. This theme is further explored in “TV Casualty” with lines like “My eyes only absorb blue filtered light.” This describes the world that the band comes from, a place where reality is subjective and popular culture is in fact, everything.

Years before Elvira, Finnish-American model Maila Nurmi portrayed the role of Vampira. Widely known to many for her appearance in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957), she became known to a legion of young horror fans as a late-night movie host. The Vampira Show featured Nurmi introducing a variety of films and drinking cocktails which emanated smoke. The whole scenario, while deeply entrenched in camp, further brought sexuality and horror closer together. The song of the same name is both a love letter to the horror host and adolescent fantasy. “Two-inch nails, micro waist, with a pale white feline face” paired with “Mistress to the horror kid” establishes that yearning many had for the lady in black. “Take off your shabby dress, come and lay beside me” expresses a celebrity crush that comes with growing up. Unlike the sexualizing of Jackie Kennedy in “Bullet”, “Vampira” comes from a place of adoration and fondness.

Songs such as “Vampira” are what separate the approach towards lyrical content that the old lineup of the Misfits had vas opposed to the reunited lineup without Glenn Danzig. When you look at the older releases, it becomes apparent that the songs are being written by someone who has a genuine love for the subject matter. The reunited lineup had no shortage of songs dealing with horror cinema—and to their credit a wide variety. From Them! (1954)To Pumpkinhead (1988), and later on The Devil’s Rain (1975). When looking at the newer material objectively, it almost seems disingenuous and done out of obligation rather than deep admiration. Many of the songs were simply named after movies, and appear to be pandering to expectation.

While the group expressed love for cult films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Bloodfeast (1963), and Astro Zombies (1968), there was also plenty of material that could have easily been inspired by the style of horror emerging out of the atomic age. “Teenager from Mars” for example, could have easily come from the mind of Ted V. Mikels. Songs with strong horror themes such as “London Dungeon”, “Halloween”, and “Die, Die My Darling” have an air of authenticity to them, one that recent incarnations have failed to capture. Lightning never strikes twice, and the original lineup was able to capture it in a bottle and present a time capsule of a bygone era.

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About Jerome Reuter

Jerome Reuter grew up in the suburbs of Southern California with what he describes as a "taste for heavy metal, bizarre history and renting movies from Blockbuster." Aside from being a contributing writer and the managing editor for Diabolique, he also reviews albums for Metal Injection. Reuter resides in Boston, Massachusetts with his girlfriend and a growing collection of Judas Iscariot inspired riffs.

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