1. Dollhouse (Unexpected #161, 1975)
House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected, The Witching Hour, Ghosts, Weird War Tales… From the 1950s to the 1980s, DC published hundreds of horror comics under several titles, many of them featuring early work by some of the industry’s best artists. And while a good percentage of the stories were genuinely spine-tingling, every once in a while you would come across a tale in which someone is haunted or hunted by slightly ridiculous representatives of things that go bump in the night. Take “The Haunted Dollhouse,” a story that delivers exactly what its title promises. When a father returning from a business trip in Europe brings home a massive dollhouse for his daughter (“built by an ancient sorcerer,” he’s told, a sign of quality craftsmanship if there ever were one), he’s disgusted to find grotesque-looking dolls inside (begging the question of how one buys an antique dollhouse without looking inside). Things get worse after nightfall, when the father discovers the dolls come alive and feed on “the brain-wave energy” of humans by poking tiny holes in people’s foreheads. But even zanier than that, the dollhouse itself changes into a more evil-looking version of itself each night when its residents come to life because… I’m going to guess ambience? Little wonder the story ends with Dad lighting a big bonfire in the backyard, and likely swearing never to buy anything but Mattel-brand products ever again.
2. Rag doll (Black Magic #8, 1975)
Lest you think Chucky or Elf on a Shelf were the first dolls to cause nightmares, here’s a story about a father nearly driven mad by his son’s new doll that I like to call “My Dolly Is the Devil!” (mostly because that’s what the title says). The story doesn’t waste much time turning up the creepy (“I found it, Daddy! It called to me! It said it belonged to me!”), and before you can say “Sure, why not let the kid sleep with something he found lying in the street,” Daddy is falling down the stairs, the live-in nanny is found dead from a gas leak and the boy’s room is mysteriously catching fire (“My dolly started it! He said fire was pretty!”). Convinced the doll’s switch is permanently set to evil, the father snatches it from his son and throws it into the furnace… and we then see the father reacting to the doll’s screams as the fire consumes it. So… was it alive? And if so, how did that happen? Did it have a plausible reason for trying to kill everyone in the house? It’s not a good sign when the script for a Child’s Play sequel makes more sense than your story.
3. Toys animated by the murderous hatred of a town’s children (House of Mystery #191, 1971)
I mean, take this story, for instance — when all the dolls and toys come alive, you know damn well what’s animating them… and you make a mental note to never, ever piss off a town full of angry kids. In “No Strings Attached,” a kindly toymaker beloved by all the children in his town is evicted from his home by Lucas Stone, a greedy man who wants to make a bundle off the land the old man’s house sits on. Not only does Stone have the old man sent to jail (…because being homeless is a crime in this unnamed town, I guess), he also makes sure none of the children’s letters reach him while he’s in jail. So the old man thinks the children have forgotten him and he dies of a broken heart, and that night all the children go to bed thinking the same thing: “Hate Lucas Stone… hate him… wish he was dead… hate!… hate!… hate!” And just like the plot of a very disturbing Pixar movie, all the toys in the old man’s house come to life and exact the children’s revenge on Stone… by turning him into one of them, with the final page showing a familiar-looking puppet. Personally, I love the fact the teddy bear in the panel above has claws. That’s the kind of attention to detail that only happens when you’re dealing with the focused hate of a child.
4. Marionette (The Witching Hour #23, 1972)
It’s called automatonophobia, and it’s loosely defined as the fear of wax figures, humanoid robots, mannequins and other figures designed to look like humans. A subset of that is pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, ventriloquist dummies and marionettes. Whichever word you use, it’s highly unlikely a renowned puppeteer would suddenly suffer from it, but in “Death Pulls the Strings” the Great Giovanni appears to go mad when he sees his two prize marionettes, Gino and Nicole, move by themselves while displaying their affection for each other in ways that fans of Team America: World Police would appreciate. After Giovanni smashes Gino to pieces, he’s aghast to find Nicole crying (“That’s not in the act!”) and breaks down in despair; the next morning, he’s found hanged by one of his own wires. “How could grief drive a groovy doll to revenge — or did Giovanni flip his wig?” asks the book’s narrator. And… seriously? We’re supposed to feel a tingle in our spine from wondering if a revenge-fuelled princess puppet knocked him off? Even if eldritch dark forces granted her life, how does a block of wood in an evening gown even lift a fully grown man off the ground? Oh, right, it’s a mystery. Whoooo….
5. Table lamp (The Witching Hour #19, 1972)
The tale of Aladdin’s lamp is one of the better-known stories from One Thousand and One Nights, and recent re-tellings of the story (including the 1992 Disney film) tend to feature a “be careful what you wish for/stop being greedy for shit” subtext that frankly more people need to hear. Unlike the other antagonists on this list, the “genuine 17th-century table lamp that’s been electrified” doesn’t cause any explicit harm to Jennie Doldrum, a frustrated wife who berates her husband for bringing home all kinds of antique junk. Then again, you could argue that tantalizing a depressed, materialistic woman with the power to step into any life she wished — and then leaving her hanging after your bulb burns out prematurely — is the finest form of psychological terror. That said… a table lamp shaped like a genie is a little too on the nose, no? And how would such a magical artifact end up in an antique shop to begin with? Now, if this were an IKEA lamp speaking to her in instructional pictogram, that would be scary.
6. Disembodied brain (Unexpected #198, 1980)
If you ever watched the opening credits to Malcolm in the Middle, then you’ve seen a short clip from The Brain from Planet Arous, a 1957 film starring aliens who look like giant floating disembodied brains. There’s a reason why giant floating disembodied brains are a B-movie staple: they’re just so weird. Normal-sized brains in jars, on the other hand, are… well, still weird, but not “go-pee-pee-in-your-pants-from-fright” weird. “Rage of the Phantom Brain” introduces August Brueger, a genius whose brain is so important to science he voluntarily chooses to have it removed from his aging body so that he can continue his work. But his assistant, seeking something better than staring at a brain in a jar all day, tries to use Brueger’s genius to plan the perfect heist. When things go wrong (as they tend to in stories like this), Hugo decides there’s only one way to avoid prison. I’m surprised he didn’t realize the brain was pulling a fast one when he asked it how to score big without getting caught and the brain didn’t come back with “Start a Wall Street firm; crash economy; get bailout money because you’re ‘too big to fail.'”
7. Flowers (Ghosts #39, 1975)
There are only two reasons why you should ever be afraid of flowers: (1) if Poison Ivy from the Batman comics is coming after you and (2) ditto Swamp Thing. Despite claims of plant sentience in the 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants (which is name-checked in this short story), there’s little reason for anyone to fear the wrath of vengeful violets, punitive petunias or retaliatory rhododendrons. But try telling that to Lal, the humble Bangladeshi gardener living in a house commandeered by an invading army in this short story titled “Blossoms in Blood.” “Plants are the most sensitive of all living things… they know who their friends are — and their enemies!” he tells the commanding officer, shortly before one of said enemies murders the old man and orders all the plants removed from the house. Later, as the officer is recuperating from a minor gunshot wound, he turns into a “screaming, maniacal mass of horror” at the sight of a plant with Lal’s face reaching towards him. The next day, everyone is baffled by the signs of strangulation despite no one having access to the officer. So… yeah. Screw mowing the lawn, I’m not taking any chances.
8. Oak tree (House of Mystery #2, 1952)
Thanks to the Comics Code forbidding any actual horror in American comics between 1954 and 1971, DC’s House of Mystery and House of Secrets both went through periods of sci-fi suspense and superhero adventure before returning to their horror roots. And by roots, I literally mean those days in the early 1950s when House of Mystery offered blood-curdling tales of… homicidal oak trees? “Tree of Doom” introduces two cousins, a famous painter and a ne’er-do-well slacker with a weird obsession about a giant tree in his family’s backyard. Seriously, we don’t even get off the splash page without this guy bitching about the tree, and we’re even treated to flashbacks explaining how his feud with the tree began. Therapy, dude. Anyway, the guy plays nice because he’s next in line to inherit the house when his cousin dies, and when he accidentally kills his cousin in a moment of rage he decides to look on the bright side: he’s finally rich and he can now get rid of the blasted tree… except for the small detail of his cousin’s will forbidding him from harming the tree at the risk of losing his inheritance. What follows is a hilarious attempt at a suspense thriller in which a grown man is convinced a tree is stalking him — an object that, note, is literally rooted to the ground. An errant branch cutting the power and phone lines in a wind storm convinces him to act, and so he climbs into the tree intent on burning it to the ground. You can probably guess what happens next. “Long-distance flamethrower? Molotov cocktail? Wait until morning and hire an arborist to do the job right? No, this tree’s reign of terror ends tonight! And I’m gonna watch it die up close and… hmmm, I’m pretty high up here. Better watch my step, up here in the branches of this tree I’m convinced is trying to murder me.”
9. Television (House of Secrets #84, 1970)
Teacher, mother, secret lover… Homer knew the score. Stories about the perils of television addiction have been around as long as television itself, and there was even a movie — 1992’s Stay Tuned, starring the late, great John Ritter — satirizing the idea of a TV junkie literally getting lost inside his TV. But 1970’s “If I Had But World Enough and Time” went there first, with a cranky couch potato finding himself acting as different characters inside a Western, a cop show and a science-fiction movie. At the end of the story, his wife is horrified to discover he’s gone, his clothes and beer can marking where he once sat. “A wise man once said that too much of anything is no good for you,” our narrator says. “I guess this proves his case!” So as far as I can tell, this guy’s only crime in life (aside from being snippy with his wife) was watching a little too much TV, and for that his punishment is to spend eternity cruising through TV shows. Does that seem right? And what about all the other people who watch too much TV, or spend all their waking hours playing online role-playing games, or constantly check their Twitter feeds, or post thousands of trolling comments on YouTube boards? My God, what if excessive blogging is a crime? A fine time to tell me that!
10. Tiny forest creatures (House of Mystery #217, 1973)
“There is beauty in the woodland,” our narrator tells us, “a serene symphony in the chatter of the animals and the warbling of the birds. Yet, nature has an evil side as well.” No shit. After reading this story, I’m tempting to pave over every last marsh, swamp, meadow, forest and national park out there. It’s them or us, people! THEM OR US! Ahem. Anyway. “Swamp-God” introduces the guardian of the swamp, a massive tree with a face that serves as a god to all the swamp’s creatures. When a picnicking family ventures too close to their sacred spot, three of the animals — a squirrel, a raccoon and a beaver — decide to get back at the humans and their “pieces of crumpled grease-splattered paper” by luring away one of the little humans as a sacrifice to their swamp-god. But their god is not pleased by the boy’s drowning death — “He was YOUNG! He was not one who DEFILED our pure and natural world!” — and so it orders the birds to come down and pick the animals’ bones clean. I don’t know what’s more unbelievable, that a squirrel would moonlight as a child-killing eco-terrorist or that a raccoon would take sides against the trash-generating humans.
11. The wind (House of Mystery #199, 1972)
In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, the big reveal is that (spoiler!) plants and trees are pumping neurotoxins into the air that suppress our self-preservation instincts, causing mass suicides. It’s a silly idea, but no less silly than hundreds of other horror story premises. What is silly is how the script deals with visualizing such an invisible, diffuse threat: by having the characters stare in terror every time the wind picks up. No matter how you try to finesse it, turning the wind into a scary slasher-film stalker is a tall order. Witness “The Haunting Wind,” a tale of an explorer who finds an ancient treasure cache in the mountains of Tibet and takes a bauble despite warnings the “wind god” will punish him. In short order, his mountain-climbing partner is whisked off a cliff, he’s swept overboard at sea by hurricane winds, and when he reaches land he’s buffeted by gusts strong enough to collapse the Golden Gate Bridge. Only then does he think there might be something to this whole “wind god” curse. So he climbs through a window to take shelter in the first building he sees… but the dramatic reveal is he’s standing inside a wind tunnel, and the artificial winds smash him against the far wall. And lest you think this was all just a coincidence, the ring he stole ends up back with the rest of the treasure. Dun dun dun. Huh. I didn’t know wind tunnels had windows.
12. The Easter Bunny (Unexpected #202, 1980)
I did a piece about this story a little while ago, so feel free to go check that out for more artwork and commentary. Long story short: “Hopping Down the Bunny Trail” finds a group of kids get lost in a house during an Easter egg hunt, fall into a giant vat of chocolate, and get their heads bit off by the giant Easter Bunny they assumed was a grown-up in a costume. True, Santa Claus and leprechauns have seen their share of exploitative slasher films over the years, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone came up with a horror tale starring the Easter Bunny. On the other hand… it’s the freakin’ Easter Bunny! And like I said before, what’s really bizarre thing about this shock ending is the children aren’t guilty of anything worse than eating their chocolate bunnies head first. Are we supposed to believe that a piece of the Easter Bunny’s soul is in every chocolate bunny, and so he feels justified in hurting those children in the same way he’s been writhing in agony for centuries? Is he avenging the deaths of sentient foodstuffs that, a la Sausage Party, have suffered at the hands of hungry humans for centuries? If that’s true, then what other horrors can we expect from the legions of consumed marshmallow peeps, goldfish crackers and gingerbread men? Is every grocery store snack aisle just a massive pre-teen bloodbath waiting to happen?
13 “The worst possible demons — an editor and a writer!” (House of Mystery #180, 1969)
And now, a true tale of terror that only a comic-book artist can appreciate. “His Name Is… Kane!” opens with comic artist Gil Kane bemoaning his lot in life, forced as he is to illustrate terrible scripts and deal with a “stupid editor” (Inside Joke #1: the issue’s editor is Joe Orlando, who is anything but) who sticks him with “the worst inkers in the world” (Inside Joke #2: this story was inked by Wally Wood, who is also anything but). Arriving at the House of Mystery in search of peace and quiet, Kane goes ballistic when his editor shows up, to the point of stabbing him with a pencil (no doubt acting out the workplace fantasies of many real-life artists). The editor and writer of this issue of House of Mystery exact their revenge by pulling Kane into his own artwork, which is then framed by Cain and placed on the walls of the House of Mystery. A bit of fun between professionals enjoying the chance to write themselves into a goofy story… or an ominous warning to all artists who dare consider defying their corporate masters? You decide!