Between the recent news of Shudder’s Creepshow series, including cool sneak peak of The Creep, and the fairly recent failed attempt to revive Tales from the Crypt for TNT, it’s clear horror anthologies with ghostly hosts have enduring power among audiences. These cherished horror anthologies owe a lot to the short-lived horror comics from EC Comics, which quickly rose to fame after its first publication in 1950 before being squashed out of existence by 1955. Yet those short few years forever influenced the horror landscape.
EC Comics, originally Educational Comics, was created by Max Gaines and focused on patriotic stories, tales from the Bible, and cute animal stories in comic book form. Exactly the type of output you’d expect with a name like Educational Comics. Though, by the late ‘40s the kiddies had long ditched this type of comic in favor of superheroes and adventure. But EC Comics was irrevocably changed in 1947, when Max Gaines died in a tragic boating accident and his then 25-year-old son William M. Gaines reluctantly took control of the declining company. He hired artist Al Feldstein and found that they shared a common love of things that go bump in the night, bonding over childhood memories of getting spooked by radio horror shows. They also found that they hated the company’s current lineup of comics. So, they changed the focus to genres that entertained them, horror and thrillers, and changed Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics.
In 1950, they released Vault of Horror and Crypt of Horror, which was renamed to Tales from the Crypt. In them, gruesome tales of gore and morality were introduced by spooky hosts, the Cryptkeeper, the Old Witch, and the Vault-Keeper, all whom delivered alliteration filled puns to introduce their ghastly stories. Thanks in large part to these characters, EC’s horror comics became a massive hit.
But the 1950s also gave birth to the word “teenager” and with it a widespread fear of juvenile delinquency, due to the increased and unprecedented independence of the teen. Which of course lead to politicians and the social elite looking for a root cause to blame. Surprise, surprise, they fell back on the standard – movies, music, and comic books. At the forefront of the crusade was Dr. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who testified that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry” in the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which focused on horror comics in particular.
Gaines talked the committee down from a ledge with logic; his comics were simple tales of morality that always saw the criminal getting their comeuppance. Moreover, he spoke to how juvenile delinquency was a much more complex issue influenced by many factors, not comics. The committee found no connection between comics and delinquency, but it didn’t matter. The Senate called for self-regulation in the comic industry, and distributors became too scared to even peddle horror comics. This caused EC’s horror brand to dissipate in a blink. By 1956, the only remaining trace of EC Comic’s existence was that of Mad Magazine.
Even in its short tenure as king of horror comics, EC Comics-inspired many successful movies, TV series, and even cartoons. Here are some of the most well-known adaptations spawned from EC Comics’ macabre fables.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
The first of many horror anthologies from Amicus Productions, writer/producer Milton Subotsky was attempting to follow in the successful footsteps of 1945’s anthology Dead of Night, but the EC Comics influence is clear. The wraparound features Peter Cushing as Dr. Schreck, who uses tarot cards to tell the fates of five strangers aboard a train. The segments feature stories of voodoo, werewolves, killer plants, vampires, and a disembodied hand.
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Subotsky finally persuaded his Amicus partner Max Rosenberg to acquire rights for EC Comics Tales from the Crypt, which came with a stipulation by copyright owner Gaines – he retained script approval. The result is a bigger budget Amicus Production anthology, with each of the five segments lifting a tale from The Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt comics. The wraparound features a group of tourists lost in the catacombs until they stumble upon the Crypt Keeper, who tells them stories of how they’ll die.
The Vault of Horror (1973)
Hot on the heels of Tales from the Crypt came Amicus Productions’ The Vault of Horror anthology, which didn’t pack quite the same punch as its predecessor. The wraparound features five men trapped in an office building who decide to pass the time by sharing nightmares. Most of the segments are lifted from the Tales from the Crypt comic, but the fifth comes from Shock SuspenStories.
Creepshow and Creepshow 2
These anthology horror movies are pure George A. Romero and Stephen King, with stories written by King for the film or adapted from King’s existing short stories, but the style and influence is pure EC Comics. Both films follow a comic book wraparound format; Creepshow sees its young protagonist get harshly reprimanded for reading horror comics only for a ghoulish Creep to show up at his window to assist with the revenge. Creepshow 2’s version of the Creep is much different in appearance, though his purpose remains the same – assist the protagonist in revenge while spinning yarns of grisly karma. Both films take on the bold colorful aesthetic of comic books and use sequences of animation to further intertwine the film with its comic inspiration. In other words, these films wear their influences on their sleeves. More tellingly, the final frame of Creepshow 2, after the end credits have rolled, makes a direct reference to the very thing that doomed EC Comics to begin with – the war on comics by way of juvenile delinquency.
“Tales from the Crypt” HBO series
From 1989-1996, HBO ran 93 episodes of terror based on issues of The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, and Two-Fisted Tales. Bringing EC Comics full circle, the premium channel meant the adaptations of these tales could be free from censorship, allowing for graphic gore, nudity, and violence. Bolstered by a quip-loving, wisecracking animated corpse, Cryptkeeper (voiced by John Kassir and brought to life by many puppeteers), Tales from the Crypt became a hugely popular series that gave way to a cartoon aimed at kids, spinoff films Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood, and Ritual, radio series, game shows, albums, and more.
No, it’s not horror at all, but a beloved ‘80s John Hughes directed sci-fi comedy about two teen nerds who’s lives are changed when they attempt to create the perfect woman, literally. The film adaptation embedded itself into pop culture memory and spawned a TV series. The plot is based on EC Comics Weird Science, namely issue five’s “Made of the Future” story by Al Feldstein. So, while it’s not horror (though Chet being turned into a turd monster is a bit horrific, ha), I’m including it to show just how pervasive EC Comics genre works became for future generations, even outside of the realm of horror.