Since delving into the world of horror hosting, I have come across many diverse points of view. Debates regarding who is worthy of the title of “horror host,” who’s the better and most original host, or whether or not true hosts even exist in a post local TV world often come up. This is not surprising since hosts and their fans are, above all else, human beings. Despite all these varying opinions, I was surprised to discover that there was one thing just about everyone agreed on –
Horror hostess, Penny Dreadful is the one to watch!
What is it about Penny Dreadful that has earned such strong admiration from her peers? What sets her apart from her public access brothers and sisters that even the few remaining “classic” hosts turn their heads and nod in approval? To find the answer, one has only to meet her alter ego, Danielle Gelehrter.
“Penny Dreadful’s Shilling Shockers” has been entertaining New England horror fans for nearly five years. Prior to this, Ms Gelehrter was a classically trained actress who, ironically, found inspiration to become a television witch while performing as one on-stage. While portraying the mythological “Medea” from Ancient Greek literature, the seeds of Penny Dreadful began to slowly take root backstage. “I joked with the cast during a rehearsal,” says Penny. “The thought of this vengeful sorceress from a Greek tragedy making morbid puns seemed very horror host-like.” Leaving her fellow cast members in stitches, Danielle realized that she was definitely on to something.
Like many of us, Penny grew up a fan of classic horror. Although she did not have the privilege of having a horror host/hostess of her own, she was not without a facilitator. Her own Uncle Valdemar encouraged her love of the genre by feeding his niece a steady diet of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,”classic Universal horror, the film’s of Hammer studios, low-budget/Roger Corman classics, the literary works of Edgar Allen Poe, and television’s “Dark Shadows.”
It would not be until the 1980’s that Gelehrter would witness an actual horror host via 1980’s cable sensation, Commander USA. While she enjoyed this program, finding it “a lot of fun,” she was to discover her true inspiration via a New York cable access program called “Ghoul a Go-go.” The show has been described as “American Bandstand with monsters” and, as Penny states, “Combined elements of horror hosting, kiddie shows, 50’s educational films, and 60’s rock n’ roll.” I have since previewed some of these shows courtesy of my friend Larry Gibbs (a.k.a. horror host underground archivist – Uncle Lar), and the shows are indeed LOTS of fun.
“Ghoul a Go-go” illustrated to Penny just how far an independent, public access show can reach. Realizing that her home state of Massachusetts (famous for it’s Salem witch trials) has never actually had a witch hostess, the decision to assume the mantle was, in her words, a “no brainer.”
One might consider a witch to be a relatively easy character to assume. Not so in the case of Penny Dreadful, who is far from simplistic. In fact, she has one of the richest character mythologies I’ve seen applied to any host.
Penny Dreadful XIII is a 600+ year old witch who retains her youthful beauty courtesy of a supernatural elixir (addressed in more detail during her show’s seventh season). A fan of motion pictures, the ambitious Penny decides that she would make for a wonderful screen legend herself. Not wanting to bother with such mundane tasks such as screen tests or the dreaded casting couch, Penny concocts a spell designed to grant her instant fame. Unfortunately, the spell doesn’t work out as intended and she is transformed, instead, into a horror hostess – destined to show cheesy movies for the rest of her long years.
Thus, “Penny Dreadful’s Shilling Shockers” was born (eliciting no complaints from us mere mortals). Aside from the premise, Gelehrter also carefully selected the names of both her character as well as the show by taking a nod from 19th century literature. During this era, horror stories were often sold in chapter installments for the price of a cent. These stories, referred to as “penny dreadfuls,” were often quite lurid, containing graphic illustrations to accompany it’s gruesome subject matter.
Later on, similar stories were released (containing fewer illustrations) called “shilling shockers.” After choosing the name Penny Dreadful for herself, Gelehrter felt that calling the show “Shilling Shockers” was a logical choice. Making its debut in 2006, it was originally featured on public access channels located in New Bedford, Boston, & Salem Massachusetts as well as Providence, Rhode Island. It has since spread (as Penny describes it) “like a plague” across the United States, currently airing in over 150 cities nationwide!
Many horror hosts are accompanied by supporting cast members and Penny Dreadful is no exception. Joining her on the show is her werewolf companion, Garou (played by her real life husband Magoo Gelehrter). Garou adds humor to the show while also serving to humanize his wicked witch co-star. “He’s just fantastic with all the facial expressions and physicality,” says Penny. “I thought he’d be great as a sort of funny, growling werewolf sidekick and he just completely took to it and made that persona come to life.” Having met Garou at the Indianapolis Horrorhound Convention, I’d have to concur with Penny. That meeting, along with Penny’s, is covered with greater detail in an earlier post (Horrorhound Part 3).
Other regular cast members (not present at Horrorhound) include Penny’s foil, Dr. Manfred Von Bulow, and her insane friend, Luna. Dr. Von Bulow (played by Ivan Bernier) is described by Penny as “a funny, cranky Van Helsing type.” He is a vampire hunter who reluctantly assists Penny on her many misadventures – despite his aversion to the underworld. It’s always great fun watching Dr. Von Bulow and Penny volley sarcastic jabs at each other during the course of each episode.
The insane Luna is played by real life friend, Rebecca Paiva. Ms Paiva often makes appearances on the show playing various supporting characters when required. My favorite of which was during an episode where she plays Dr. Von Bulow’s mother-turned vampire. Chiding her bachelor son as his ring-less hand thrusts a stake into her heart, her last words are, “When are you going to marry a nice girl?!?!” Most of Ms. Paiva’s work, however, is done behind the camera. A talented cinematographer, she is also the show’s esteemed director and editor.
During the shows early years, episodes featured skits that played throughout each night’s presentation. Penny welcomes her viewers, whom she refers to as her “Dreary ones,” before setting the show’s premise – often designed to compliment the movie. In one of my favorite first season shows, HORROR HOTEL, Penny Dreadful visits downtown Salem, Massachusetts. While enjoying the sites, Penny (a “real” witch) encounters a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as her iconic character, Samantha, from “Bewitched.” While hilariously trying to contain her disgust, she is suddenly accosted by a disgruntled group of Wiccans. Displeased with her stereotypical (and less “empowering”) image, they bring the Salem witch saga full circle, by having Penny stand trial for her “negative energy.”
Both situations were handled with great comedic flair and showed, early on, the potential of its hostess/comedienne. “I was half expecting Wiccans to get annoyed about my on-screen persona…,” says Penny. “Instead we have quite a number of Wiccan viewers who get a kick out of the show.”
Despite Penny’s growing popularity and demography, she has retained a strong connection to her New England home. This has been particularly fascinating for me (a Midwestern guy) to be introduced to this region’s rich culture and history. Penny accomplishes this by flawlessly blending local history within her own fictional story lines.
During the seventh season, Penny discovers that her aforementioned youth elixir has been stolen. Without her frequent dosage, she quickly begins to revert back to her true age. With time as a factor, Penny realizes that she’s better off trying to recreate the potion first, as opposed to locating the culprit. Needing the blood of a vampire to complete the potion, she heads to real life Rhode Island cemetery, The Baptist Church of Exeter, to locate the remains of Mercy Brown.
Mercy Brown is prominent in New England lore as being a documented case of vampirism (in truth, most likely a victim of tuberculosis, but let’s not ruin the fun). Without the benefit of modern science, Brown’s body was exhumed and remains (no pun intended) one or the few documented cases where an undead ritual was performed in the United States.
For those interested in horror hosts, one of Penny’s finest contributions was her 2007 special which paid tribute to the hosts of New England. I found the show fascinating (having watched it several times) and particularly enjoyed seeing the work of deceased host, Simon (Gary Newton), from “Simon’s Sanctorum.”
Penny Dreadful’s versatility and innovation will be further illustrated in her highly anticipated eighth season. Boldly treading where no horror host/hostess has before,” six of the season’s seven episodes will feature classic silent films such as Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. Penny hints that, during this season, her character may even make a trip into the future. There is little doubt that as far as this hostess is concerned, it’s destined to be a bright one.
Critics of public access hosts have, no doubt, been struck silent themselves at the genius of Danielle Gelehrter. Through her own brilliance and drive she has created a character that will leave as lasting an impression on New England as the infamous Salem witch trials themselves. Far from a modern day Elvira, her seductive cunning is matched only by the great Vampira herself – whom Penny sites as an influence. Like the great Maila Nurmi, Penny Dreadful is a rare combination of beauty, brains, and savvy that should inspire all of her fellow hosts. She is, to use one of her own terms, simply Hex-cellent!