Let There Be Fright! Remembering Dr. Shock

horror_drshock_buttonOne of the fringe benefits of producing Ghouly Irv’s MovieFrightFare videos is how often I can wax nostalgic—both inside my head and occasionally by way of little nods in our programs—about Dr. Shock.

Remember Dr. Shock? If you’re a monsterfan of a considerably younger vintage, or if you grew up outside the Philadelphia area, you may have no recollection at all of television “horror host” Joseph Zawislak (the Doctor’s “real” name). He was one of my local region’s most beloved TV personalities from 1970-79—the period of time also known as the pre-home-video era, also known as the time of great hardships, when you could see your favorite fear films only when they were broadcast on television. Zawislak, a former stage magician, adopted–some may say inhabited–the creepy doc’s skin after being inspired by the success of John Zacherle’s popular “Roland” character.   

First broadcast on weeknights and then famously occupying a time slot on kid-friendly Saturday afternoons, the program variously known as “Scream-In,” “Creature Features,” “Mad Theater,” “Horror Theater,” and “Shock Theater” found the friendly Dr. Shock providing funny introductions and comedy bits before and after the commercials, as well as performing kooky magic tricks (and offering the occasional piece of terror-ific trivia) to a captivated audience.

The result was a steady stream of eerily fun enchantments for youngsters (and perhaps even adults) eager to revisit their love of favorite genre classics or feast their eyes on never-before-seen A-, B-, or Z-grade shockers.

drshock-book-cover-largeI recently revisited memories of Dr. Shock’s all-too-brief tenure on the tube by reading John Skerchock’s marvelous book, The Frightful Dr. Shock. Those of you from other areas around the country may owe your thanks to a different small-screen personality, but you’ll still reap many benefits from reading this slim-but-substantial tome, which offers an all-American success story steeped in nostalgia and touched by melancholy.

The greatest shock came to his admiring fans when Zawislak passed away from a sudden heart attack on September 28, 1979, at the most untimely age of 42. Zacherle provides a warm introductory remembrance for Skerchock’s book, and there’s a fun afterword from actor Daniel Roebuck, who created a charmingly creepy horror host act of his own.

In addition to chronicling Zawislak’s affecting personal story and delivering a wealth of fond-memory-inducing photographs, Skerchock’s book offers many factual tidbits that’ll send you paging through your favorite horror encyclopedias and video catalogs in search of titles that—shudder!—somehow escaped your notice.

As for me, I went directly to the last film Dr. Shock introduced before his sad departure from this world: Curse of the Faceless Man. The 1958 film is a bottom-of-the-barrel treasure, an enjoyably clunky creature feature that comes complete with one scene where star Richard Anderson (later to be admired by tykes when he played Oscar Goldman, boss to The Six Million Dollar Man) enters the frame only to awkwardly bump into the furniture while squeezing his way around another cast member. They had to use the take. That’s just how the makers of no-budget chillers rolled in those days.

Dr. Shock, many thanks again. You can still steer a fan towards some welcome goosebumps and a smile before the show.