Confessions of a Bogeyman — By Boris KarloffA monster tells all — secret: he's really a very mild man.
September 1941 - Being a bogeyman—like baggage smashing and truck driving—is apt to be a rather exhausting occupation. I know, because I've tried all three. On the whole, I think I would prefer truck driving to house haunting were it not for the fact that my current job is apt to be more remunerative. And, of course, you meet the most interesting werewolves!
Nevertheless the Hollywood horror man runs into numerous occupational hazards that have nothing to do with the hours of work or the risks run in actual performance.
There is, for example, one's social life to consider. Although Hollywood actors have long since come to realize that their private lives are every one's concern but their own, they have at least the comfort of knowing that their public is certain to be reasonably well disposed toward them. Not so in my case.
For, no matter how pleasant the company in which I find myself, there is always that awkward moment when newcomers become aware of the fact that the quiet, soft-spoken man in the corner is actually Boris Karloff. (The more horrific my current role, the more I tend to modulate my voice off duty.) Nor are hostesses ever quite sure upon what I feed myself while other guests are sipping their whisky-and-sodas.
According to the popular impression, my hostesses regard me variously as a zombie, a ghoul, an ogre, a vampire, and a monster.
As a result, they become convinced that a typical dinner for Karloff should consist of (a) one steaming witch's potion, (b) one piece of red raw meat ripped from a live and struggling anatomy, (c) one soothing bowl of fresh blood. But, whatever the jest with which hostesses try to pass off their uneasiness, I am often aware that they look upon me with about the same degree of trust and confidence as they would upon a cobra de capello!
Acquaintances, asking me to their summer homes, fill their medicine cabinets with such niceties as arsenic, old daggers, strychnine, cyanide, and ground glass—somehow feeling that this will make me happy.
Nor do I find New Yorkers accepting me with any greater degree of self-assurance than their cousins on the Coast. Even my fellow commuters from South Norwalk, Connecticut, whose composure is shaken neither by missed trains nor by grand-slam bids, are apt to be taken aback on first discovering that the timid gargoyle in the next seat is Boris Karloff.
For all these reactions I have naturally no one but myself to blame. For years now I have been haunting houses—motion-picture houses—ever since I first strode on the screen in full horrifying armor as the Monster of Frankenstein.
Guilty must I plead likewise to supplying the goose pimples in such pictures as The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Ghoul, The Black Room, The Raven, Devil's Island, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man with Nine Lives, and The Devil Commands, each with its full complement of shudders.
Nor is my present Broadway role calculated to inspire confidence in the New York playgoer, to persuade such widows and orphans as attend the Fulton Theater to entrust me with the management of their estates. True, Arsenic and Old Lace tends to spoof the more serious-minded of the horror films. Yet, all the same, I find myself playing a murderer of considerable distinction, while my fellow players garner the lion's portion of the laughs. If that all sounds rather sinister, I might add that the author makes a good deal of fun of Jonathan Brewster, but that does not prevent the role from being reasonably grim and gruesome.
Typical of the embarrassment attendant upon my sort of career was an incident that occurred shortly after the filming of Frankenstein. Mrs. Karloff and I had gone up to San Francisco to visit one of her school friends. To our surprise, we found that Frankenstein, which we had not yet seen, was playing across the bay, in Oakland. What could be more natural than to invite our friend to a performance?
I had, of course, seen rushes of the picture, but never a connected version, and as the film progressed I was amazed at the hold it was taking upon the audience. At the same time I couldn't help wondering how my own performance would weather all the build-up. I was soon to know.
Suddenly, out of the eerie darkness and gloom, there swept on the screen, about eight sizes larger than life itself, the chilling horrendous figure of me as the Monster!
And, just as suddenly, there crashed out over the general stillness the stage whisper of my wife's friend. Covering her eyes, gripping my wife by the shoulder, she screamed:
"Dot, how can you live with that creature?"
I was really surprised on arriving in New York to find people quite as apt to stare at me on the street as in Hollywood. Even in the theatrical hotel at which I first registered I seemed to attract more than what I consider my share of attention.
But actually not every one cringes in horror at my approach. On the contrary, I have encountered an amazing amount of sympathy and understanding for parts that seemed to me fairly loathsome. Yet there is always a touch of wonder that I am not given to eating eight or nine orphans for breakfast. People are inclined to take somewhat the attitude of the famous Marquise du Deffand. Once, during the course of a conversation, some one asked her:
'"My dear madame, do you believe in ghosts?"
And she smiled sagely and replied, "No—but I'm afraid of them!"
Speaking of ghost stories, my presence at any gathering seems to be all that is needed to inspire an endless flood of them. Even when I returned to England five years ago, I found myself listening to an entire evening of such tales in my home town of Dulwich.
One of the most famous of all English ghost stories—which may perhaps be less familiar to American readers— was told again that night. It concerned Harriet Westbrook, unhappy wife of the poet Shelley, who drowned herself more than a century ago in the Serpentine, the famous sheet of water that winds through Hyde Park.
One day, just before the first World War, two elderly English ladies were taking a stroll through the park. It was a chilly, windy afternoon in early autumn. The park was almost deserted. As the ladies paused at the bank of the Serpentine, they noticed a series of curious ripples on the water, which caused them to wonder, for they knew there were no fish in the Serpentine.
As they watched the ripples, fascinated, a hand suddenly pierced the surface of the water—a human hand, thin and white, a woman's hand! It clutched frantically, desperately, at the air. It clutched like the hand of a drowning person. It then disappeared again under the surface of the water.
But on the middle finger of the hand, both elderly ladies had seen a heavy gold ring, flashy and bright against the drabness of the bleak afternoon.
The two old ladies were dumfounded, petrified in their tracks, for they knew, as all London knew, that according to history Harriet Westbrook Shelley drowned wearing such a ring—a century ago!
By way of a leavening note, I might add that the only time I really enjoyed playing the Monster was at the last annual charity baseball game in Hollywood between a team of comedians and a team of leading men. I strode up to the plate for the occasion in my full make-up as Frankenstein's Monster— whereupon Buster Keaton, who was catching for the comedians, promptly shrieked at the sight of me, did a backward somersault, and passed out cold behind the plate.
I waved my bat. The pitcher tossed the ball in my direction, and I swung at it as best I could, encumbered as I was with the Monster's metallic overalls. Luckily enough, I managed to tap the ball, which bounced crazily in the general direction of the pitcher's box. It should have been an easy out at first. But as I approached each base the opposing player fainted dead away. And the Three Stooges, who were playing second, all passed out cold. It was a home run—though horrible!
But I can't possibly take leave of you without one last plea for my personal character. I am a normal and quiet soul. My wife will tell you gladly of the time we had guests in the house and the radio blared forth the report of a murderous lunatic who had broken loose and was in the vicinity of our neighborhood. The radio suggested the forming of a neighborhood posse.
Well, one of my guests rose and said: "Karloff, let's take a quick drink before going out after that murderer."
They all went to the bar and drank —except me.
"Have a drink, Karloff," my friend insisted.
But I wasn't in the mood. "No thanks, not me," I replied. "It gives me too much courage!"
All of which, the reader may surmise, is offered in substantiation of the argument that I am really a mild and harmless sort of fellow who likes his coffee warm and bis fruit juice cold; who enjoys nothing more than puttering around his garden or lying in the sun and reading Joseph Conrad.
And, just to prove that I am not alone in this conviction, I might add that the producers of Arsenic and Old Lace thought it might serve to promote the cause of good will during our Baltimore tryout if I appeared as Santa Claus at a Baltimore party for crippled children. Which I did, successfully!
And on a recent radio program I managed to get away with one of the sweetest and most sentimental scenes of Smilin' Through!
But, of course, such performances are as unusual as they are gratifying to a professional horror man. On the whole, I suspect that I am likely to spend the rest of my career as a purveyor of the macabre, constantly adding to the perils of life on the screen.
Actually, my life is nowhere near as bleak as I like to make it sound For every correspondent who my last picture kept her awake all night (obviously an exaggeration intended as flattery) there are a dozen tending from curiosity to sympathy. Whoever said that nobody loves a zombie has never peeked into my fan mail! Even the children who write seem to understand the motivation behind my misdeeds, a motivation that occasionally eludes me.
On the whole, I have no complaints to make about the roles have appeared. Even Jonathan Brewster of Arsenic and Old Lace has his good points. He is almost kind to his maiden aunts—up to the moment where he finds they have beaten him at his own game of homicide
From what I have confessed in this article, you must realize at long last that, despite the movie houses I haunted, I am not a vicious ghoul.
In fact, I'll let you in on a tremendous secret. When I opened on Broadway early this year in my second legit play in two decades, when my shadow fell upon the door and L the murderer of twelve persons, walked out upon the stage—all the man-sized frightening was done not by Boris Karloff but by the audience.
Because, for all the houses I have haunted, on that opening night, while every one else was feeling fine, I, Boris Karloff, was absolutely and positively scared stiff!
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