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A Beginner's Guide to DC Horror

A Beginner's Guide to DC Horror

By Joshua Lapin-Bertone Tuesday, October 27th, 2020

What’s that hiding in your closet? It’s not a scary monster, it’s the stack of horror comics DC has published over the years! Yes, as the nights and shadows grow longer and we creep ever closer to October 31st, it’s a great time to remember that the DC Universe is more than just superheroes. So, if you’re looking to explore the world beyond capes and spandex, make sure you bring a flashlight, because things can get pretty spooky...

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Cain and Abel, but are you familiar with DC’s version of the biblical brothers? In the Silver Age, each brother hosted their own horror anthology book, with Cain headlining House of Mystery and Abel introducing House of Secrets. Mystery began in 1951, with Secrets following shortly behind in 1956. Both of them represented the latest salvo in the horror comics craze, joining classic titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Once the anti-horror backlash began, however, the two titles switched their focus to science fiction and fantasy, with Martian Manhunter finding a home in the House of Mystery and Eclipso making his introduction in House of Secrets.

Thankfully, you can’t keep a good ghoul down, and horror made a comeback in the late 1960s. Both Houses returned to their chilling roots and no matter which one readers chose, they were guaranteed a fright in every panel. House of Secrets’ most famous story was found in issue #92, which introduced the monstrous and mossy antihero Swamp Thing. Yet, there were plenty of chilling stories from beyond the swamp, like issue #94, which features a deadly serum that can turn an ordinary man to a mindless strangler or issue #97, which presents the dangers of using black magic. Try any one of these stories the next time you’re around a campfire.

You should also sample House of Mystery or Cain might get jealous. (He isn’t the type of person you want to upset…trust us.) You might try issue #294, featuring a chilling tale of a monster that appears whenever the lights go out, or issue #296, where a doctor discovers his patient is a witch. House of Mystery #290 introduced Andrew Bennett, a vampire who struggled to control his bloodlust. After House of Mystery closed its doors, Andrew terrified readers in his own title, I, Vampire.

With horror experiencing a resurgence, Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion was the next piece of spooky real estate to come from DC. Originally published as The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, this unsettling comic is an anthology series featuring short stories with a horror twist and boasting the work of comic legends such as Denny O’Neil, Jack Kirby, Joe Orlando and E. Nelson Bridwell. Each tale was introduced by Charity, a witchy-looking female host. Her appearance might not have been too frightening, but her stories were plenty scary.  We’d recommend checking out issue #12, which features the story of a pirate haunted by a princess he’s murdered. Or if you’re in the mood for something “festive,” issue #15 features a Santa Claus killer. Ho-ho-HRRK—!!!

The hosts for these anthologies didn’t disappear when their books ended. Charity creeped her way into the pages of Starman, while Cain and Abel resurfaced in Swamp Thing. If you’re wondering what the difference is between House of Secrets and House of Mystery, the question is answered in 1985’s Swamp Thing #33 in a blood-curdling conversation between Cain and Abel that only one brother walks away from. (This issue also includes an early appearance of the Dreaming, the dream realm made famous in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.) Speaking of Cain and Abel, DC’s iconic Vertigo imprint became a second home for the brothers along with other former horror hosts, like the witch sisters Cynthia, Mildred and Mordred, who hosted the anthology title The Witching Hour. All three horror books received new mature readers relaunches at Vertigo, with House of Secrets running a cool 25 issues in the late 1990s and House of Mystery running for even longer from 2008 through 2011. The Witching Hour, on the other hand, only received an extra-sized one-shot—but it’s a good one!

However, with Vertigo fully continuing DC’s horror tradition, scary comics published under the DC label became less common. They never went away completely, though, and even the characters from Wildstorm got into the spirit in 1997 as they took on elements of the supernatural in the Wildstorm Halloween Special. It was a tradition that would soon be followed by the superheroes of the DCU through a series of DCU Halloween Specials. Check out the 2009 edition if you’ve ever wondered how Halloween is celebrated on Bizarroworld...

While DC would eventually ditch the formal “Halloween Special” name, the idea behind a yearly horror anthology featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and the rest of your favorite superheroes and villains hasn’t gone away. Noteworthy recent anthologies include 2017’s DC House of Horror, which paired up writers drawn from the world of horror fiction with superstar comic artists for some of the most disturbing comics ever published under the DC banner. There was also the following year’s Young Monsters in Love, an unholy mashup of horror and romance comics that somehow works (you can read all about that one here). And finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention DC: The Doomed and the Damned, our newest horror one-shot which came out earlier this month.

As you can see, the DC Universe is more than crimefighters and super-villains. Like every place, it has its own dark and unexplored corners. So next time you’re looking for some bedside reading, light a candle, lock your doors, and enjoy the world of DC horror!
 

A version of this article originally ran on DC Universe. Be sure to subscribe to DC Universe Infinite for unlimited access to more than 24,000 comics from every era of publishing, plus original titles, special fan events and more!

Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.