So I recently stumbled across a neat blog by author and screenwriter Paul Finch called The 20 Scariest Moments in British TV Horror History.

I don’t normally read “Top 10” or “Favorites” lists since most are just click bait, but British genre programs like The Prisoner and Jack the Ripper on Iowa’s PBS station were big with me when I was growing up so I checked it out.  As I read I got to reminiscing, and as I reminisced I got to jotting down my own admittedly subjective list of my scariest and favorite moments from American horror TV and films from when I was a kid in the sixties and seventies. But what good is a list if you can’t share it with anyone? Right?

So ready or not here ’tis:

* #1 Scariest Moment: “The Cemetery” (Night Gallery 1969)
* #2 Scariest Moment: “Amelia” (Trilogy of Terror, 1975)
* Honorable Mentions

* #1 Favorite Moment: Willie Frees Barnabas (Dark Shadows 1967)
* #2 Favorite Moment: “Michael!” (Count Yorga, Vampire 1970)
* Honorable Mentions

Before we begin how about some accompanying mood music? Or should I say “moog” music. (Quote The Crypt Keeper, “Tee-hee-hee.”) This synthesizer version of Windmills of Your Mind by The Electronic Concept Orchestra was used by The Acri Creature Feature as its theme song. The Universal Classic Monsters and the early Hammer Horror films were major influences on me as a young writer and the ACF was where I and other horror fans in my neck of the woods could watch them in days of yore before DVRs or even VCRs.


#1 Scariest Moment: “The Cemetery” (Night Gallery, 1969)

Five years after Rod Serling‘s classic Twilight Zone (1959-1964) ended that tanned man with the distinctive monotone and obsequious squint and cigarette was back hosting a new anthology series. But where TZ had ostensibly been a science fiction program that occasionally delved into horror (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” anyone?), Night Gallery was a quick walk through a graveyard.

From the Night Gallery episode “The Doll.” Eat your heart out, Annabelle.

Serling did not have the creative control that he had on TZ, but NG was still three cuts above other horror anthology series on TV at this time. It not only presented the melancholy They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Single Program in 1971, but frequently featured above average adaptations of tales by notable genre authors like H. P. Lovecraft (Cool Air, Pickman’s Model) and Algernon Blackwood (The Doll). It also presented some genuinely chilling moments that have remained with original viewers all these decades like Elsa Lancaster’s resurrection in “Green Fingers” (“Everything I plant grows. Even me.”) or the denouements of “The Caterpillar” (“And females lay eggs.”) and “A Question of Fear” (“There is nothing in the cellar.”)

But the scariest damn thing I watched as a kid was “The Cemetery,” the first of three stories in the 1969 Night Gallery pilot movie. That pilot is primarily remembered now for its second episode Eyes because it was directed by Stephen Spielberg two years before he made a name for himself with the TV movie Duel. All three stories in the NG pilot and many in the subsequent series are morality stories with O. Henry endings, but the pilot’s only out-and-out supernatural story is “The Cemetery.”

Pretty, isn’t it?

The story is EC Comics simple. Jeremy Evans (Roddy McDowell) murders his frail rich uncle William Hendricks (George Macready). Everyone knows Jeremy did it but nobody can prove it. So Jeremy inherits his uncle’s isolated antebellum mansion and the entire Hendricks fortune except for an $80 a month stipend for the family retainer Osmund Portifoy (Ozzie Davis). Hendricks spent his golden years painting and some of his works hang along the mansion’s stairway including his last: a Southern Gothic idyll of the mansion’s facade and the Hendricks family graveyard as viewed through his bedroom window. (This and all other paintings in the NG pilot were created by Jarsolav Gebr, head of the Scenic Arts Department at Universal Studios.)

Notice anything different?

Hendricks has barely been pronounced dead before Jeremy notices an alteration in the idyll: there is a fresh grave pit in the cemetery. Jeremy points it out to Portifoy but the butler claims to see nothing wrong, so Jeremy ignores it… until one dark and stormy night when an oblong box appears propped up in the pit. Jeremy rushes outside but his Uncle William’s grave is undisturbed. Going back inside he burns the painting in the fireplace, but as Jeremy goes upstairs the painting is back on the wall. And the oblong box is open and William Hendricks lies within it.

As you might guess there are further alterations to the painting over time. When Portifoy insists he cannot see the changing images of William Hendricks escaping the grave and shuffling ever closer to the mansion Jeremy fires the butler in a fit of pique.

It is a horror movie.

Jeremy is now alone and that night he hears someone trying to open the locked front door followed by a resounding pounding. In the idyll William Hendricks reaches the mansion and in a paroxysm of terror Jeremy trips and tumbles down the stairs. The front door opens… and Portifoy enters. He examines Jeremy and finds the black sheep nephew’s neck is broken. It turns out that Portifoy had hired an artist to forge fifteen paintings so he could switch them in hopes of driving Jeremy mad. (How’s that for Southern Gothic?) But Portifoy is not exactly upset Jeremy died since it makes it simpler for the family retainer to inherit the Hendricks fortune as per William Hendricks’ will.

So Hendricks has been avenged, but this roller coaster ain’t over.

After Portifoy pays the forger and the artist leaves the mansion Portifoy spots an alteration in the idyll.

There is a fresh grave pit.

Then in rapid succession an oblong box appears propped up in the pit, its lid opens to reveal Jeremy, and Jeremy heads for the mansion. Portifoy collapses, screaming for Jeremy to get “Back in the ground where you belong!” The front door opens and as Portifoy shrieks again and again the camera pans through the threshold into blackness.

“I see you.”

Fifty years later “The Cemetery” still gets under my skin whenever I watch it, but what makes it my scariest moment is the genius of its climax.

First, unlike the forgeries with William Hendricks, the genuine images of Jeremy’s vengeful spirit glare out of the painting at Portifoy. Second the climax defies THE BIG BUG BEHIND THE DOOR problem that has plagued horror writers since the folktale of Bluebeard. Horror grandmaster Stephen King describes this problem in his non-fiction horror retrospect Danse Macabre (1981):

Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as he/she (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,’ the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.’

Are you really sure you want to see what’s behind here? I mean really?

Our imagination can generally conjure worse horrors than anything described to us or seen by us. To get around this dilemma some writers take advantage of the reader’s imagination by not showing the bug behind the door in their stories. Famous examples of this are W.W. Jacobs‘ “The Monkey’s Paw,” Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and the movie The Blair Witch Project (1999). Some writers, however, will crack the door open a smidgen to keep the bug at a distance so we only get an obscured peak at it. Effective examples of this approach are M. R. James‘ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904) and most of the movies Jaws (1975) and Alien (1979). But every once in a while a writer will go for broke, throw open the door and manage to exceed our imaginations as in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and the 1982 movie The Thing.

From video to real life. Rie Ino as Sadako Yamamura in Ring (1998).

In “The Cemetery” we never see the bug… except we do. We definitely see Jeremy glaring at Portifoy… but always at a distance through the static medium of a painting. Unlike the onryo of Sadako Yamamura in the movie Ring (1998), Jeremy’s vengeful spirit never makes an appearance in reality or even in a realistic dynamic visual medium like video tape. Then when the front door opens at the end of “The Cemetery” we see only darkness… but we know Jeremy is there because of Portifoy’s shrieks. For we the viewers the bug remains behind a closed door that nevertheless has been simultaneously opened a crack and thrown wide open.

An unprecedented triple play!

A (PROBABLY) UNNECESSARY SIDEBAR: Now I am sure there are members of the Buzzkill School of Literary and Motion Picture Criticism who would suggest what Portifoy is seeing is nothing but a product of a guilty conscience. Such explanations are often prescribed to even non-supernatural horror stories like Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Tell-Tale Heart. If that works for you, fine, but as for me I did not make this list to bury Caesar, I made it to praise his ghost.


#2 Scariest Moment: “Amelia” (Trilogy of Terror, 1975)

My admiration for “The Cemetery” made me a little long-winded, so I will keep this one brief.

Trilogy of Terror is an ABC TV Movie of the Week produced by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, The Winds of War) and Robert Singer (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Supernatural) and directed by Curtis.  TOT presents three stories adapted by their author Richard Matheson, who wrote sixteen Twilight Zone episodes (including Nightmare at 20,000 Feet) and several influential horror and fantasy novels and short stories (The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, “Born of Man and Woman“) and genre screenplays (Duel, The Night Stalker, House of Usher).

“Amelia” is famous for this…

“Amelia” is famous for its fetish doll — which contains the spirit of a Zuni hunter named “He Who Kills” — that stalks a young woman named Amelia (Karen Black) in her high-rise apartment. Everything about this episode is tour de force as Amelia battles the nigh indestructible doll until finally getting the upper hand long enough to hurl it into the kitchen oven. There the doll struggles and howls as it burns. When its wailing stops Amelia opens the oven to make sure the doll has been destroyed only to be overpowered by a rush of black smoke. Something in it (the Zuni’s spirit) makes her scream and Amelia collapses. Moments later she telephones her mother — an overbearing woman bent on dominating Amelia’s life — to invite the woman to her apartment. Amelia then rips the lock off the front door, grabs a large knife, crouches to wait, and begins stabbing the floor in front of her again and again. Gradually she smiles, revealing a set of nice, big pointy teeth like the doll’s.

…but this scared the spit out of me.

That final shot really really really creeped me out. And no gushing explanations here. It just did and I’ll leave it at that.


Honorable Mentions

  • The before-mentioned “The Doll” from Night Gallery: Fans of the Twilight Zone remember Talky Tina but this doll gave thousands of kids like me nightmares, including Guillermo Del Toro, who wet his pants the first time he watched it.
  • Poetic Justice,” Tales From the Crypt (1972): I love Peter Cushing and I love Amicus portmanteau movies. My short story “Expiration Date” is a tribute to both. Cushing’s performance here is heartbreaking, but the first time I saw his shambling and decomposing Arthur Edward Grymsdyke reach for the snobbish and detestable James Elliot (Robin Phillips) is the only time I have ever screamed in a movie theater. And I even knew it was coming! The scene appeared in the television commercials!
  • Danny Glick bites Mike Rayerson: Salem’s Lot (1979). One of the few seventies mini-series that gets better with time. Directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) and based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel, Salem’s Lot was broadcast over two nights and part one ends with young vampire Danny (Brad Savage) sitting up in his coffin and biting the gravedigger Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) in a shock shot that stuck with me for a long time. That said, I would be remiss not to mention an earlier scene where Danny’s dead little brother Richie, now a vampire, floats outside Danny’s bedroom window scratching at the glass to be let in. This became one of the  most memorable moments in the mini-series for most viewers and I will admit that it’s darn eerie, just not as unnerving to me as Danny biting Ryerson.
  • “Bobby” (Dead of Night, 1977): Another trilogy directed by Curtis and written by Matheson. “Bobby” is based on one of Matheson’s own stories and is the best-remembered episode of the three. It is similar to “Amelia” except here the pushy mother, Helen (Joan Hackett), is the protagonist. Helen cannot accept that her young son Bobby is dead after he drowns in the family swimming pool so she uses black magic to resurrect him. Bobby returns, but there is something off about him, and eventually he begins hunting Helen around the house. Except this isn’t Bobby. Helen’s son hated her so much that he drowned himself in the pool to escape her and when Helen tried to resurrect him Bobby did not want to come back. “So,” the Bobby imposter says, “he sent me instead.” And who Bobby sent isn’t very nice. (And I am sure any resemblance between this little demon and and the white faced demon from The Exorcist [1973] is completely coincidental.)
  • Dracula Has Rise From the Grave (1968): This is the first film that my parents let me go to a movie theater to see without their supervision. In all honesty DHRFTG is not one of Hammer’s better Dracula films, but when I was eight years old I hid my face in my seat every time the Count showed up. At the time I found the movie scary as all get out… except for the ending. Bloody as it was, I thought it was kind of neat.


#1 Personal Favorite: Willie Frees Barnabas (Dark Shadows 1967)

This weird soap opera was can’t miss TV for the playground set in the sixties. Parents could set their watch by their kids sprinting home after school to catch the latest episode.

Set in the tiny village of Collinsport, Maine, Dark Shadows (1966-1971) began life as the kind of Gothic Romance that was then popular in paperbacks with covers that often showed a woman in a nightgown running from a spooky mansion. After a year of so-so ratings DS veered into Creature Feature territory starting with this scene in which indolent and greedy handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) opens a sepulcher expecting to find a legendary treasure horde but instead releases soon-to-be-superstar vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) from 150 years of imprisonment. (If you check out the accompanying clip it is fun watching Willie’s eyes change from wide-eyed avarice to soul-draining terror after he opens the lid.)

Original Barnabas (in portrait) and Modern Barnabas (Jonathan Frid).

This is not only my favorite horror moment from the sixties and seventies but also one of my earliest horror-watching memories. Even better it represents a pivotal moment for the horror genre, which was in the process of transitioning from the traditionally Gothic to something more modern and urban. This transition was playing out in stories by authors like Matheson and Ray Bradbury, in films like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and in TV programs like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963–1965). From where I stand only the untimely demise of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho did more to further the evolution of Gothic horror than this scene, which takes place in a secret chamber of a crumbling crypt in a creepy cemetery but the year is 1967. Soon after Barnabas is introduced as he makes a call at his ancestral home, Collinswood, but instead of wearing stereotypical evening clothes and high-collared cape he (inexplicably) dresses Savile Row dapper. (You can also see this in the accompanying clip.) In a seamless turn of hand the Gothic and the 20th Century united and proved they could comfortably, entertainingly and profitably co-exist.

Three years later Curtis remade both these scenes when he retold the tale of Barnabas Collins in the film House of Dark Shadows (1970). Curtis originally intended Barnabas to be a monster that was killed off after a few weeks, but Frid played the vampire as a sympathetic villain and not only became the soap opera’s most popular character but sparked a huge spike in ratings. House of Dark Shadows gives us Curtis’ abominable vampire in color plus more blood, violence and a better budget than Dark Shadows. The movie was successful enough that its studio, MGM, requested a sequel but Frid refused to participate, fearing he would end up being typecast. In all honesty it was already too late to shut that barn door, but Frid was adamant and Curtis knew recasting Barnabas would prove disastrous so he didn’t try. It is too bad, really, because having the same-yet-different character appearing simultaneously on TV and film would have been unprecedented and could have been fascinating.


#2 Personal Favorite: “Michael!” (Count Yorga, Vampire 1970)

The little horror film that could!

Robert Quarry as Yorga.

This is a nasty movie that started out as a soft-core porno flix called The Loves of Count Iorga, but when actor Robert Quarry (A Kiss Before DyingWUSA) was offered the script he suggested the film would find a wider market if it was made as a straight horror picture.

Apparently he was correct since Count Yorga, Vampire was popular enough to spawn a sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (1971), which was popular enough to inspire talks of a third Yorga film that unfortunately never materialized.

Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny from The Night Stalker.

Count Yorga, Vampire was released the same year as House of Dark Shadows but ups the gore and violence. Yorga likewise modernizes some popular vampire tropes dating back to the novel Dracula, but unlike House of Dark Shadows or Dark Shadows it often takes an unblinking “What if this was real?” approach. (If you love cats there is one such scene where a kitten is treated like a milk carton that you probably will want to skip.) Two years later the rating-shattering The Night Stalker — another ABC TV Movie of the Week produced by Curtis with a screenplay by Matheson based on Jeff Rice’s unpublished 1970 novel The Kolchak Papers — took this realistic approach even further to become a modern horror classic, and in many ways Yorga not only heralds The Night Stalker but could fill in as the backstory for its vampire Janos Skorzeny and how he might have come to Las Vegas. Heck, House of Dark Shadows, Count Yorga, Vampire and The Night Stalker are practically a trilogy tracing the evolution of Gothic-to-modern vampirism.

Not even hiding in a shaggin wagon will save you from Count Yorga.

Yorga drops its centuries-old vampire into bustling contemporary Los Angeles, where he acclimates to modern life as adroitly as Barnabas Collins by passing himself off as a Bulgarian mystic. Unlike Barnabas, however, Yorga is never sympathetic and always supercilious. After so many centuries he knows he is the smartest and most interesting man in any room, and, like Count Dracula, takes no prisoners in his search of fresh blood and new conquests.

My number two personal favorite moment is generally cited as the film’s best scene. The story’s Van Helsing character is Dr. Jim Hayes (Roger Perry), who doubts Yorga is a vampire until it is a trifle too late. When Yorga lures a young woman named Donna (Donna Anders) into his gated manor in the Southern California hills Hayes and Donna’s boyfriend Michael Thompson (Michael Macready) follow to rescue her.

Things do not end well for our heroes.

This guy is so screwed.

Michael and Hayes split up to find Donna as quickly as possible. (It is a horror movie). Yorga knows the two men have invaded his home, of course, and Hayes ends up in the cellar which has been converted into a throne room where Yorga’s female vampires sleep on slabs during the day. From this point you really have to watch the scene to appreciate it as the desperate and over-matched Hayes keeps Yorga at bay with a cross while calling for Michael to come help. All the while Yorga plays cat and mouse with Hayes, baring his fangs, chuckling and taunting him by shouting, “Michael!”

It is so good!

To see the scene click on the review below from the Graveyard Show Podcast and start at the 16:30 mark.

Vincent Price as the truly marvelous Dr. Anton Phibes.

A (PROBABLY) UNNECESSARY SIDEBAR: The distributor of the two Yorga films, American International Pictures, enjoyed great success in the early sixties with a series of adaptations of Poe stories directed by Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price and with screenplays often written by Matheson. Price later appeared as the disfigured genius Dr. Anton Phibes in AIP’s quirky but profitable The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its equally popular sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Between the Poe, Yorga and Phibes films it almost seemed like AIP was trying to follow in the footsteps of Universal Studios and Hammer Films. There were even rumors of a movie pitting Count Yorga against Dr. Phibes but it all turned out to be wishful thinking. AIP never produced this match up or any further Yorga or Phibes films and once more all we can do is wonder what might have been.



  • “Mrs. Benborough and Wendy. How nice to see you.”

    The Conclusion of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958): Talk about what might have been! Revenge of Frankenstein is the second and I think best installment in Hammer’s Frankenstein series and concludes with the most frustratingly intriguing ending of any of the studio’s great Gothic pictures. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Cushing), believed executed by guillotine, is alive and hiding in plain sight in the fictional Tyrolean village of Carlsbruck as Dr. Stein, physician to the wealthy and owner of a pauper’s hospital. When the hospital’s patients discover he is Frankenstein they pummel him. And I mean PUMMEL him! Not just with their fists but with anything they can grab. What they leave of Frankenstein lies at death’s door but his apprentice Dr. Hans Kleeve (Francis Matthews) transplants his mentor’s brain into a waiting patchwork body shown earlier in the movie. While Frankenstein’s dead body is buried in unhallowed ground in Carlsbruck, Frankenstein in his new body flees to England with Hans. There he sets up a Harley Street practice where Frankenstein is again catering to the wealthy, this time under the name Dr. Frank. I absolutely love this ending — even the unimaginative alias — and still wonder at its promise of another sequel where Frankenstein will go about his business in the foggy streets and alleys of London. But Hammer went a totally different direction in Evil of Frankenstein (1964), which has next to nothing to do with its predecessors, leaving all these possibilities unfulfilled. (For what it is worth I was eventually inspired to take this concept and spin it off into my sequel to Lovecraft’s Herbert West stories: “The Empty House on Harley Street.”)

  • “I’m Not You Know.” (Curse of the Demon 1957): I watch this movie at least once a year. It is so good and solid. And my favorite moment is when the blandly sinister warlock Dr. Julian Karsell (perfectly played by an understated Niall MacGinnis) is chatting with skeptic and psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a man Karwsell claims to have cursed to be killed by a demon, a threat that Holden refuses to believe. During an annual children’s Hallowe’en party at Karswell’s estate Holden spots some children playing snakes and ladders and Karswell confesses that when he was their age he preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing up the ladders. Karswell asks Holden what he thinks that might mean and Holden answers, “Maybe you’re a good loser.” To which Karswell matter-of-factly confesses, “I’m not, you know. Not a bit of it.” A-W-E-S-O-M-E!
  • Jack Palance in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1968) and Dracula (1974): Maybe AIP didn’t want to follow in Universal and Hammer’s footsteps but Dan Curtis did. Or at least it seemed that way for a few years as Curtis not only produced The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein (1973) and The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1973), but directed Dracula (from a script by Matheson) and The Turn of the Screw (1974). What sets Curtis’ Jekyll & Hyde and Dracula above his other Gothic adaptations is Palance, who proved as adept at portraying Gothic villains as he did the Western and film noir varieties. Palance is vigorous, intelligent and brutal in both these films. His Hyde is unapologetically evil and hedonistic while his Dracula knows how to feign being a cultured gentleman but at heart is a merciless warrior. Palance’s brilliance is most evident during the climax of Dracula where he is kept at arm’s length from vampire hunters Abraham Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) and Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) holding crosses. This standoff appears in most vampire films, but here Palance paces back and forth like an angry bear straining on a leash, searching for cracks in his adversaries’ defenses that will allow him to reach them and rip them to pieces. His is truly a frightening and memorable Dracula.

And there you go.

But one last memory before we go our separate ways.

I am sure you noticed some commonalities in my list. Among the most obvious are Curtis, Matheson, vampires and thingies with skull-like faces and pointy teeth, but a less obvious commonality that touches upon all these memories is my parents. Most prominently my father.

Donald “Sam” Jones and his youngest, Christmas 1963, Dayton, Ohio.

I know you have heard this song before but my Mom and Dad grew up poor and worked hard to give my brothers and me a better life than they had as kids. And they succeeded. But they also had a hard time figuring out their youngest son and not just because they were products of the Great Depression and I am a product of the Space Age. Unlike everyone in our immediate and extended family I was a writer who loved horror, mystery, adventure and the fantastic. Dad and I especially had a hard time connecting because many of the things that interested him like restoring antique cars, playing pool and listening to country music did not appeal to me, or so I thought at the time. We both liked professional football so sometimes we would watch a game together but not often since he was a Minnesota Vikings fan and I love the Denver Broncos. Dad did like to watch movies though not as much as me and his tastes ran towards old Roy Rogers and Gene Autry westerns, but every once in a while he took me to a movie like House of Dark Shadows because I wanted to see it so much. I am also a lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan so when The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) came out Dad and Mom both took me to a packed downtown theater to watch it. And when Theater of Blood (1973) with Price came out Dad agreed to take me because it was rated R and I was still too young to go to it on my own. As I grew older our roles reversed and I started going to movies with Dad because he wanted to see them but Mom did not. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Rocky (1976), which Dad told me he wanted to see because he had boxed a little at the Salvation Army as a kid. The last film I remember us seeing together was Star Wars (1977). It had been out for several months and he decided to see it because it was so popular. (FYI – Dad didn’t care for it.)

So while I was reminiscing about these scary and favorite moments I also remembered my father and the part he played in my fascination with them. For that I would like to say, “Thanks, Dad. I never said it at the time but what you did meant a lot to me then and still does today.”

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