On the Vaudeville of Gothic Horror

Vincent Price IS
Vincent Price IS “The Mad Magician”

This post grew out of the introduction to a talk I gave at Clay McLeod Chapman’s Fear Mongers panel series a few years ago. The bulk of my talk was about a favorite tv show of mine when I was a kid (The Night Stalker), but I wanted to start out with a justification as to why a supposed vaudeville expert was giving a talk about horror at all. I gave the matter a great deal of thought. And I actually came up with a bunch of stuff.

To start with the most obvious point of intersection (for this writer anyway): all of the classic comedians with vaudeville and burlesque backgrounds who made spook comedies:  the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, the Ritz Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, etc etc etc.  There are scientists who study people’s reactions to certain stimuli from the stand-point of physiology. What is laughter? Some kind of involuntary nervous spasm we get when certain sights and sounds strike us a certain way. I’ve always been interested in the similarity of the reactions of audiences to both comedy and horror. A scream and laughter often go hand in hand. I think this is one reason why spook comedy is a “thing.”

And the crossover is often flipped. Just as comedians often like to dabble in horror, stars of classic horror can frequently barely restrain themselves from camping it up. Director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) encouraged this in his actors. In later years Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and others became toothless parodies of themselves, possibly harmful to the genre, necessitating a pushing of the horror “restart button” circa 1978.

And there is yet a third way in which horror and comedy (especially vaudeville comedy) combine. What about when the clown is (entirely or partially) an instrument of terror? I wrote a bit about this in an earlier article about the theatrical grotesque (read it here). This is another place where horror and clowning meet. A few years ago when I told a friend I was writing a book about silent comedy movies, he said “I can’t watch them — I find the make-up too disturbing”. This goes back to ancient times, to primitive man. Clown make up vs. demon make up: what’s the difference? A friend who is an expert on commedia dell’arte once told me that a true Harlequin mask is supposed to be a little scary. The Court Jester is often a Monster. Lon Chaney in those clown movies. 

And speaking of Lon Chaney, we come to the consummate point of vaudeville-horror crossover in the person of his frequent collaborator Tod Browning.  Browning started out in vaudeville and carnivals. He had been a sideshow spieler, ringmaster, circus clown, contortionist, escape artist and something called a “Hypnotic Living Corpse” He also claimed to have worked as an assistant to the great magicians Leon Herriman and Ching Ling Foo. Then he worked in films, initially making silent comedies. This was his background for being a horror director: sideshow, carny and vaudeville. There is much crossover amongst the three. A wonderful example can be found in Browning’s notorious 1932 horror film Freaks: the conjoined Hilton Sisters. 

So: 1) clowns, 2) sideshow freaks, and…there’s a third.

And it really took a while for this one to dawn on me. It’s funny how you can look at a thing for quite some time and not see it. And then one day…You do see it. This one came to by way of Marilyn Manson. A few years ago (when he was still married to Dita Von Teese) he embarked on this “Vodevil” tour (he called a song that too) and in interviews described what he did as “vaudeville”. And I always bristled when I heard heavy metal guys like him or Alice Cooper or Ozzie Osbourne describe what they did as “vaudeville”. I couldn’t see it.

But then one day I did. It may be obvious to you, but I was looking at it the wrong way. It has nothing to do with music. It has everything to do costume and stagecraft and illusion. And the analogy is not the hat and cane song and dance man, but to THE MAGICIAN. D’oh! Right? A fake guillotine? A gallows? Dry ice? That has as great a claim to being “vaudeville” as anything I can think of.

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