Two anniversaries this year shouldn’t slip by unnoticed: Both The Addams Family and The Munsters are turning 50.
Introduced just six days apart in the fall of 1964, they represented something very different from the television we were accustomed to, as you may remember if you were around at the time. Unlike the picture-perfect families of most sitcoms, these were monsters — warts, fangs, neck bolts and all.
The Addams Family, which aired first, was already familiar to our parents’ generation, at least to those who read The New Yorker, where its characters had been appearing in cartoons since 1938. The patriarch, Gomez, wasn’t exactly a monster but sort of a sinister version of Groucho Marx. His wife, Morticia, was said to be a witch, though she could easily have passed for a vampire. Their butler, Lurch, was a Frankenstein’s monster type, but more polite, better dressed and pretty good on the harpsichord.
And there were others: goonish, lovable lightbulb-in-mouth Uncle Fester; Cousin Itt, a walking mop of hair; and a disembodied hand who went by the name of Thing. The Addamses were creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky, as per their theme music — a song that, if you’re like me, still plays in your head five decades later.
The Munsters, meanwhile, worked from a more classic line-up, with a Frankenstein dad, vampire mom and grandpa, and werewolf son. The black sheep of the family was niece Marilyn, a pretty young college student.
The Monster Craze
The jokey monsters of the mid-’60s were part of a TV craze that began at least a decade earlier. In every city of any size, local stations seemed to have a Chiller Theater or Creature Feature, pairing a campy host with old black-and-white horror films. New York had Zacherley. Los Angeles had Vampira. Chicago had Mad Marvin, then Svengoolie, and still later Son of Svengoolie. Pittsburgh, where I lived for a time, had the great Chilly Billy Cardille, who also hosted wrestling.
Their movies gave us vampires, zombies, mummies, mad scientists and all the rest, plus the occasional giant spider, humongous ant or 50-foot woman. And sometimes they gave us nightmares.
It may have been a prepubescent guy thing, but many of us not only watched these dreadful movies but also spent our allowances on monster trading cards, Aurora monster models and monster magazines. The best of the latter was Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by a horror and sci-fi buff named Forrest J Ackerman, a man often credited with coining the term “sci-fi.” Incidentally, if you find any old copies of FM in your attic, check their prices on eBay before you pitch them — and be grateful your mom didn’t.
All in all, it was a second Golden Age of monsters, rivaling only the 1930s, which produced classic horror films like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and countless others.
So why monsters, and why then? Maybe the easiest explanation is that we lived in a scary time and found escape in scary things we knew couldn’t really harm us.
At school, our duck-and-cover drills reminded us that the capital-b Bomb could fall from the sky at any moment. We lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, when atomic war with the Soviet Union seemed imminent. We saw President Kennedy and his accused assassin shot to death, Oswald on live television.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was just 10 months later that The Addams Family and The Munsters came into our lives — for many of us on the same TV sets where we’d watched the very-real horrors of November 1963.
Monsters kept us amused until we were old enough for more grown-up escapes like sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and careerism. As to the Addamses and Munsters, both of their shows were history by 1967, canceled after two seasons.
None of this is meant to exaggerate their cultural significance. Their goal, after all, was to give us a few laughs every week and sell as much cereal and toothpaste as possible. How well the old episodes have stood the test of time is a probably matter of taste. You can sample some of them online if you dare (and have a lot of time on your hands).
But the fact that they are half a century old? Now that’s scary.
Greg Daugherty is a personal finance writer specializing in retirement who has written frequently for Next Avenue. He was formerly editor-in-chief at Reader’s Digest New Choices and senior editor at Money.