Friday night. 199-something. A gate creaks, and before you can scream, you’re whisked—somewhat reluctantly—along a smoke-filled path toward a dark house that is almost certainly haunted. A bookcase opens, and as you’re forced down winding stairs toward a candlelit dungeon, you realize you’re not alone. A wicked, high-pitched laugh cuts through the dramatic music. Boils and ghouls, welcome to Tales from the Crypt!
Or perhaps you grew up with Vampira. Does screaming relax you, too? Were you captivated by her raven locks, long fingernails, and sharply angled eyebrows that seemed to spell danger? Did you shrink down in your seat as she glided toward you along a foggy corridor with outstretched arms that certainly weren’t coming to hug you? If you’d like to know how Vampira achieved those uncanny waist proportions, check out this ABC news clip with the late Maila Nurmi.
Or maybe you like the scary silent type, like the cloaked Creepshow Creep? With makeup and practical effects that will make horror fans swoon, Shudder literally brought this horror host back from the dead recently in an all-new live-action series and an animated special.
The twentieth century gave us many horror hosts, including Elvira, Seymour, and Zacherley. These hosts didn’t just reign over the tube—they also became a crucial element in anthology storytelling, especially in horror films. Body Bags gave us John Carpenter’s smart-mouthed coroner character, and let’s not forget—a personal favorite of mine—Clarence Williams III as Mr. Simms in Tales from the Hood. (If you haven’t seen Tales from the Hood, please watch it. It was essential to my horror education as a Black and Puerto Rican youth.) Sometimes the horror hosts even went meta—Fright Night’s Peter Vincent, anyone? Sure, Vincent might have thrown some shade at slasher films, but we can excuse that, because the man had just lost his job as a vampire hunter.
Why do so many horror hosts haunt our past and present? The answer is simple: Because we don’t want to be alone when we’re afraid. But don’t horror hosts sometimes take us out of the story? Don’t they distract us from the horrors we’re about to experience? The answer to these questions is yes, but that’s also their purpose. Horror hosts provide the comfort and comedic relief we need to prep for the next round of scares. Through jokes and (sometimes) cheesy, low-budget sets and skits, they bring levity to frightening situations. Horror hosts must strike a delicate balance between being ghoulish and agreeable so that we viewers feel like the host is on our side. When horror hosts are effective, they make us want to keep watching or listening.
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In the age of Stranger Things, a 1980s VHS-themed horror podcast like Radio Rental is sure to be popular with listeners. However, what elevates this podcast from the plethora of media set in the age of cassette tapes and synthesizers is its bizarre host. Terry Carnation is the shopkeeper of Radio Rental—a VHS store that boasts a large collection of horror and other “underground films,” but the stories Terry shares on the podcast are all true. Some stories are heart-stopping, like “404 Not Found” (Season 1, Episode 1). Some stories are heartbreaking, like the tale of “Laura of the Woods” (Season 1, Episode 4). But each story is frightening in its own sinister way, especially if you think about them too much before bed.
Fans of The Office will recognize Rainn Wilson’s voice. While Dwight Schrute is strange, Terry Carnation is even stranger. I would rather risk being alone with Dwight Schrute than Terry Carnation… which says a lot, I think.
Another horror podcast with a slightly less unsettling host is Spooked, which has been around since 2010. Spooked shares haunting true-life stories of the weird, the uncanny, and the strange. However, Glynn Washington is different from other horror hosts in that he isn’t playing a character. Imagine sitting on the porch during a thunderstorm, and a relative or a close friend lowers their voice and whispers that they have a scary story to share. You don’t question the validity of the tale because you trust the storyteller, right? That storyteller is Glynn. Before diving into each chilling true story, Glynn regales listeners with unsettling anecdotes. Two of my favorite Spooked tales are “Voice in the Woods” from “The Watcher” episode (Season 1) and “Hot Water” from the “Unholy Water” episode (Season 1).
Heads up: You can listen to some episodes of Spooked here, but you’ll have to pay Luminary a small fee to hear the others. Don’t let that scare you away, though! The podcast is worth every penny. Pluck some coins from the eyes of your dearly departed if you need to.
Have you heard the saying, “You’ve got a face for radio”? That might sound mean, but it’s true for the host of this next recommendation. Do you see the vaguely skeletal silhouette of a man seated in a radio station in a lost Argentinian city? Is the radio station’s signal pulsing out unsettling stories to late-night listeners? You’re probably watching The Kirlian Frequency on Netflix.
You might be tempted to just listen to the show, but the vibrant, mostly purple illustrations coupled with a soupy filter are worth looking at and will enhance the scares! If a more sinister version of the Welcome to Nightvale podcast mixed with the weirdness of Courage the Cowardly Dog (minus the humor) sounds appealing, then consider watching this short horror show.
Have you already watched The Kirlian Frequency? Then give Fantasmagorías a go! Streaming on HBO, this anthology series animates some of Latin America’s most frightening urban legends, and the seedy, chain-smoking host will make you wonder which of his stories are rooted in fact. Be prepared to only sleep with cotton pillows after watching “El Amohadon de Plumas” (Season 3, Episode 1).
Now for Your Feature Presentation
Do you have a minute to talk about women in the horror hosting industry?
As I scoured the Internet and YouTube, I had a difficult time finding contemporary character-driven women horror hosts who loom quite as large as Elvira. I’m not saying these content creators don’t exist. They do. I had a blast learning about Janet Decay, who seems to have cornered the Cleveland horror host market, and Sally the Zombie Cheerleader. However, I didn’t exactly stumble across a wealth of these character-driven women horror hosts, and it made me wonder, where are they? Where are their national hosting contracts and beer commercial endorsements? Why aren’t streaming services giving them a national audience of ghouls to scare?
Perhaps this is a result of changing technology and times. Cable is no longer king, and I’m willing to bet that many of us would need help finding our local public access channels, where many horror hosts thrived.
While the women hosts of the past were often garish and lively—even the dead ones—some modern hosts have taken a more subtle approach to the very serious business of promoting horror. Some hosts have become part of the narrative by inserting themselves into the story—think Alex Reagan from The Black Tapes podcast—while others have opted for charisma over campy characters, and instead of showing old horror films, they’re sharing their love of the genre in a way that is accessible to all audiences.
Have you been in search of a G4-style Attack of the Show! series for horror fans? Enter the Real Queen of Horror. Zena Dixon is your best friend who loves horror. Fans of Helen Lyle, beware. Zena is not here for Helen’s nosey antics, but she is here to guide us through the world of horror via her YouTube channel.
Zena may not play a character, but she has plenty of it. While she typically curates short lists of frightening movie moments, this horror host isn’t afraid to lash out and cover other horror-related topics, like the Top Promising Horror Video Games of 2021, The Top Five Karens of Horror (yes, Helen, you made the list!), and more. If you don’t have time to sit down and watch the Real Queen of Horror’s videos, you can also hear her hosting abilities at work in the world of Internet radio on The Bloody Disgusting Podcast.
Raise your paws if you would absolutely tune in for a Friday or Saturday night horror movie marathon with Zena. Hang on—it’s really hard to count all of these paws at once.
Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
So, which horror hosts of the past haunted your Friday and Saturday nights? Which horror hosts are giving you the willies now? Whether you laughed with the Mistress of the Dark or currently spend your free time wondering where Terry Carnation hides the bodies, we can all agree that horror is more fun when we have someone to guide us through the darkness.
Unless it’s the Crypt Keeper; I wouldn’t turn my back on him for a second. Thanks for being the soundtrack of my nightmares, John Kassir.