How ‘The Terror In The Wax Museum’ (1976) Scared And Scarred Me Into Horror Writing

What’s In The Basement? 

It was 1982 and I was just six-years-old the first time I saw him at the bottom of my basement stairs – his pale face set amongst black cloak, black suit, black hat and shiny silver knife. His lips were almost red and his grin was pearl white. As he looked right at me, tears caught in my eyes. I slammed the door to the basement and incurred the wrath of my parents.

But how could I explain a specter that wasn’t there?

He, as I will now refer, made his first appearance soon after I saw him in Terror In The Wax Museum on the Sunday afternoon 3 p.m. movie when it aired on WNEW Channel 5 on June 6th (I actually found the TV listing on My grandmother, from Virginia, was visiting us in Northern New Jersey. My parents went out for the day, so she was left to watch me. Earlier in the day, I saw the commercial: “Terror in the Wax Museum today at 3!” I begged my grandmother to let me watch it, and she did.

Terror in the Wax Museum was made in 1973. The film looked decades older because of its B-movie/Hammer Studio aesthetic. It was heavy on atmosphere and short on story. Terror combined two sub-genres of horror—Jack the Ripper and wax museums.

A Little Bit On Terror In The Wax Museum

John Carradine played Dupree, the owner of a wax museum. The museum featured wax tableaus of famous  murderers and killers like Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Lucretia Borgia, and Attila the Hun.

Dupree negotiated the sale of the museum to American Amos Burns (Broderick Crawford), when the Jack the Ripper figure (Don Herbert) came to life and stabbed Dupree to death.

Immediately, Margaret Collins (Nicole Shelby) and Julia Hawthorn (played by the Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester) inherited the wax museum, along with the malformed mute Karkoff. The day to day operations of the museum fall to Harry Flexner (Ray Milland – remember him in The Thing With Two Heads with Rosie Grier?), while Scotland Yard Sergeant Hawks (Mark Edwards) investigates Dupree’s murder. Throughout the movie, Jack the Ripper continued to wreck havoc on the museum and anyone associated with it.

Does He Still Wait?

How did this horror movie stay with me and others have not? My response is this image that I tried to get off a poor copy of the movie on YouTube:

It’s not a big deal to a man in 40s, but most fear – that horror writers write about – can be traced to that one incident (whether it be a movie, actor or story). The goal of the writer is then to hold on to that experience and share that feeling with their audiences  – again and again and again and again.

God help me, I still remember that feeling. I can still see when my hand touched that brown basement railing, Jack the Ripper’s devil-red grin offset by pail white skin, a black cloak and hat. He held that blade in my direction and dared me down the steps.

I have not lived in that house since 1997. I have driven past it numerous times. It has been rebuilt and added on. But I know somewhere in that basement, Jack the Ripper is still pale, still dressed in black, and he still holds that knife and he still smiles.

He still waits for me to come down those stairs one more time, and one day I will.

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