It’s the 50th anniversary of the most horrific kids’ toys ever

Table of Contents “Rated X”“Sick toys”“Holy smokes!” A nameless young woman, dressed in a halter…

A nameless young woman, dressed in a halter top and short shorts, is screaming.

A hunched-over mad scientist in a blood-stained apron, with a deep gash above his forehead, leads his victim into a hanging cage shaped to accommodate a human form, locks her in, and motions toward the poker and tongs set by a brazier of red-hot coals.

In the doctor’s nearby laboratory — cluttered with skulls, rats, a fanged rabbit, and beakers of blood — a skeleton lies shackled on an operating table. A voluptuous, scantily clad bloodsucker and a green-skinned reanimated corpse lurk, awaiting their ghastly orders.

Dr. Deadly and The VictimRob Mattison

If the scene sounds just a little torture-porny, that’s because it is. Amazingly enough, this is just one scenario suggested by a line of toy playsets that were marketed to children ages eight and up. These Monster Scenes model kits from Aurora Plastics — first introduced in early 1971 — made such a, well, scene that they spurred a nationwide controversy that became a very public black eye for one of the country’s most recognizable brands.

Nabisco, the cookie and cracker conglomerate that bought Aurora soon after these kits were released, found itself in a world of pain after horrified parents, op-ed writers, and boisterous protesters decried the toys as misogynistic and grotesque — and wholly inappropriate for kids. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the torture-toy scandal, during which public outcry led to not only the discontinuation of an outrageously successful toy line, but also to the passage of legislation that would keep similarly objectionable toys off store shelves, at least in California.

But a half-century later, these kits still thrive, thanks, of course, to the internet. In addition to multiple Facebook groups (like Aurora Monster Scenes), there are Pinterest pages, web forums (like Hobby Talk), and numerous YouTube videos devoted to Monster Scenes. Obsessed collectors scour the internet for vintage models — which can fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay — and post loving tributes, while a cottage industry has developed around meticulously curated reissues and aftermarket accessories. “The internet just opened up a whole nother aspect of it,” says contemporary model maker Mark McGovern.

Rob Mattison, whose Monster Model Review site features nine videos on Monster Scenes alone, has long been one of the Monster Scenes’ biggest champions, but even he is flummoxed by Aurora’s original concept. “What 10-year-old wants to have a doctor putting a girl into a hanging cage?” he wonders. “There were a bunch of adult men sitting around thinking — and this is what they came up with?”

“Rated X”

In the late 1950s, a perfect storm of horribleness began to form. A syndication package of Universal monster movies started running in heavy TV rotation (presented by the likes of New York’s Zacherley and Cleveland’s Ghoulardi), the U.K. horror studio Hammer was packing thrillseekers into theaters with movies like The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, Godzilla and his kaiju pals began reaching these shores, and the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland published its first issue. A generation of “monster kids” — boomers weaned on scary media — was born.

To capitalize on the craze, in the early ’60s, the Long Island, New York–based Aurora Plastics Corp. began issuing models of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong, and their ilk. The company struck a raw nerve, selling a reported 40 million kits in less than a decade. Then came other TV and movie tie-ins, such as The Munsters’s living room, Land of the Giants’ colossal snake, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s flying car. One secret of Aurora’s success: comic-book advertising, through which the company could reach a captive audience of adolescent boys.

After many years of wear and tear, the molds that were used to make the classic kits began deteriorating, and research showed that kids craved more accessories and enhanced gameplay. Aurora listened, and came up with kits that went smaller but wider — that is, more playable. Charles Diker, a former vice president of the cosmetics giant Revlon, took over Aurora in 1969 and presided over the release of this new line, called Monster Scenes. “Since ’65 we’ve been making Frankenstein kits, the Hunchback, and Godzilla, well-known concepts in folklore,” he told The New York Times in 1971. In other words, this current series was just business as usual.

Product manager Andrew Yanchus coordinated the effort. Instead of the previous 1/8 scale figurines, Monster Scenes were 1/13 scale kits (every inch of the model equaling 13 inches in real life). Sculpted by the late Bill Lemon, the simple cartoonish figures, scenery, and equipment were not very detailed, but could snap together in minutes — without glue. Some even came with multiple appendages that afforded different poses and added to the playability. “Monster Scenes were almost an evolution,” Yanchus said in an interview for the 2010 documentary The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze That Gripped the World!. “The only way to go from the original monster kit line.”

Eight Monster Scenes kits were introduced in February 1971. Four were figurines: Dr. Deadly, Frankenstein, a female Victim, and Vampirella (the star of her own comic from Warren Publishing, the home of Famous Monsters). The others were sets and supplementary components: The Pain Parlor (a lab replete with skeleton and operating table), Gruesome Goodies (more lab accessories, including tables, beakers, and a rabid bunny), The Pendulum, and The Hanging Cage. Since all of the parts came unpainted, The Victim and Vampirella originally appeared flesh-colored, which to some eyes read as naked. Each kit contained a comic booklet and instructions illustrated by Marvel and DC stalwart Neal Adams. The figurines retailed for about $1.30, the scenes for less than two bucks a box.

To promote the line, Aurora naturally turned to comic books. At the time, Bill Silverstein — a partner in an advertising firm with the TV comedy stars Don Adams and Bill Dana called ADS — led the company’s promotional efforts. He introduced the characters via a full-page strip that ran in books such as DC’s From Beyond the Unknown. The art was originally drawn by the comics legend Wally Wood, whose eerily rendered panels were redone and brightened by an unknown cartoonist for the published version.

One panel depicted Frankenstein’s monster manhandling The Victim as she screamed, “Help! Help!” while Vampirella reassured Dr. Deadly, “Don’t worry, this is New York. No one will help her.” Though this reference likely went over the heads of most kids, their parents — had they been reviewing what their children were reading — would no doubt have noticed the gobsmackingly tasteless allusion to Kitty Genovese, a young bartender whose 1964 murder in New York City was witnessed by dozens who did nothing to help.

This was ADS trying to provoke a reaction, according to Dennis L. Prince, coauthor of Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation. “Because there’s that edge,” he says, “that glibness. This was what you would call today a very enlightened, empowered philosophy on how we’re going to engage with the public, how we’re going to shake things up: ‘Let’s shock some people!’ And so they did.”

As a horror-loving teen, Toledo, Ohio–based professional model maker McGovern, now 66, was initially disappointed by the smaller scale of the Monster Scenes, which seemed dinky next to Aurora’s classic monsters. But those larger kits had a major drawback. “You built them, you put them on the base, and that was pretty much it,” he says. The beauty of Monster Scenes, McGovern says, is that you could build your Frankenstein, put him in the lab one day, on the operating table the next, and in the torture chamber the day after that. “There was a lot of play value,” he says. “It horrifies me today because when I finish [building] a model, I don’t want anybody handling it. Back then it was a different story.”

As for Prince, he started collecting the kits as an eight-year-old in 1971. Now 58, the Sacramento, California, marketing copywriter saw them as a way to tame his fear of monsters while satisfying his penchant for model-making. “I never made the connection between sexuality and torture,” he says. Others most certainly did though, and they were horrified by it.

“Sick toys”

The year 1971 convulsed with violence — in the streets, in the news, in the culture. Charles Manson and his followers were convicted in March of murder and sentenced to life; the Attica prison riot in September claimed 43 lives; and grisly battle footage from Vietnam aired on TV news nearly every night.

Horror movies followed the zeitgeist and moved into a decidedly more graphic direction, with grindhouse and drive-in marquees trumpeting 1970 titles like I Drink Your Blood, Mark of the Devil (self-rated V for Violence), and The Wizard of Gore, while the likes of Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange brought ultraviolence into more urbane cinemas.

Also in 1971, wily producers began applying the X rating to their hardcore pornographic features — co-opting the certification Hollywood began using in 1968 to denote extremely adult mainstream fare. So when the colorful Monster Scenes box art, which rendered the characters and scenarios in all their lurid glory, appeared with a starburst that teased “Rated X… for Excitement,” eyebrows were collectively raised. “Probably not the best ad campaign for a kid’s toy,” says Prince. “Catchy? Absolutely. But it made my mom scratch her head. It required some active parenting.”

In 1970, the U.S. toy industry was worth $3.625 billion ($25.4 billion today, adjusted for inflation). So it was only natural for a conglomerate like Nabisco to want a piece of that action. But the cookie and cracker company likely had no idea what it would be getting into when it bought Aurora in May 1971, three months after Monster Scenes hit stores.

The kits flew out of five and dimes and model shops like bats from Dracula’s belfry.

That month, Ohio’s Dayton Daily News ran an upbeat story in which Aurora salesman Tony Mangino labeled the new kits “collector’s items, conversation pieces” and defended calling them toys. “Vampirella can romp bloodily with all her pals in those horror chamber settings,” staff writer Dick Danis offered cheerily, before noting the playability benefit. “When you build a plane, all you can do is wait around for it to break.”

But not everyone felt so sanguine. Parents and some press outlets had already begun complaining about what they saw as sexual and sadistic content unfit for children. In June, the massive retailer Montgomery Ward pulled Monster Scenes from its shelves. Sears refused to even carry them. But the kits flew out of five and dimes and model shops like bats from Dracula’s belfry. Aurora claimed that by summer, it had sold 800,000 kits.

In June, an overheated editorial titled “Stinkweed and More” appeared in the Parsons Sun of Parsons, Kansas, offering a brutal takedown of Monster Scenes: “One is moved to ask if the profit system is wholly without social responsibility and if those who cater to the kindergarten trade are totally without compunction in devising and peddling their wares.” It continued: “Encouragement of violence as a childhood play is such a repugnant idea that a rational explanation of it, much less a defense, is beyond the realm of the possible.”

Apparently, Aurora couldn’t help putting its severed foot in its mouth. In a widely syndicated Chicago Sun-Times article, also in June, a company spokesperson defended Monster Scenes by citing the recent crucifixion murder in San Francisco of a toddler by two boys, aged 7 and 10, punctuating his spiel with the rhetorical flourish, “Do you abolish Easter?”

As the bad buzz became deafening, Aurora halted production of The Hanging Cage and The Pendulum soon after Nabisco took over, but not before moving 40,000 units. (Aurora had unwittingly courted controversy seven years earlier, when it released a guillotine model complete with basket and decapitated head. It had hoped to sell other kits in the Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors line, including a torture rack, an electric chair, and a hanging tree, but those plans were soon scotched.)

Other factors fed into the Aurora hysteria. Toys That Don’t Care, a popular 1971 book by lawyer Edward M. Swartz, argued against unsafe toys: those that had sharp edges, were electrical hazards, might result in suffocation and strangulation, or could cause psychological harm. Monster Scenes even made it onto primetime television, when the hit sketch-comedy series Laugh-In gave them the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award, a dishonor usually reserved for such objects of derision as the KKK, telecoms, and the Pentagon.

Finally, on November 15, three groups — Parents for Responsibility in the Toy Industry, Women Strike for Peace, and the National Organization of Women (NOW) — sent representatives to protest in front of Nabisco’s Manhattan offices. One picketer dressed as a hangman, while others carried signs with slogans like “Sick toys for children make a sick society!” Nabisco executives met with a few of the protestors and told them that Monster Scenes had been a terrible embarrassment to the parent company.

According to a New York Times story from November 27, Nabisco announced nine days after the protest that it would discontinue the other six kits. The company also told picketer Jacqueline Ceballos, the head of the New York chapter of NOW, that it was considering yanking the toys from stores altogether. “We got quite a bit of mail [from supporters],” she told the Times, “and seven new members.”

For Nabisco, the protest at the mothership was the clincher, though the company couldn’t admit it. Its decision to pull the plug on Monster Scenes “was made not because of the pickets,” a Nabisco flack told the Times. “We’ve been looking into this all along.” In the wake of the move, Aurora sent inventory to Canada to be sold off. (For Canada, The Victim was renamed Dr. Deadly’s Daughter, which kind of made things worse.)

In December 1971, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that prohibited after July the manufacture or sale in California of violent toys — including toy bombs, hand grenades, and Monster Scenes kits. Remaining U.S. stock of Monster Scenes could be found in other states — at a heavy discount. By November 1973, the Pain Parlor, Pendulum, and Hanging Cage were being advertised at an Ohio variety store for 25 cents apiece.

Aurora regained some footing in 1972 with its Prehistoric Scenes dinosaur dioramas, but it wasn’t enough to set the company right. In 1977, Nabisco unloaded Aurora’s kit fabrication business onto Monogram, one of Aurora’s competitors.

“Holy smokes!”

But the undead and nearly dead live on — online. Mattison, who has uploaded more than 200 model-related videos to YouTube, says he created Monster Model Review “to promote a dying hobby.” He adds, “I don’t do it for money. I almost never get kits even given to me. I generally buy and build and then promote.”

Mattison, a 58-year-old videographer at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, has been involved with model fandom for decades, first using his Commodore 64 to contribute to alt and rec newsgroups on bulletin board systems. It was the webzine Gremlins in the Garage that revealed to him the opportunities the internet could provide to those wanting to trade information and kits. “That was the first time a bunch of us got together on the web — and holy smokes!” he says. WonderFest, an annual modelers convention held in Louisville, Kentucky, could be considered their E3.

Today, the online hobby shop CultTVman sells aftermarket tchotchkes to help add creepy details to Monster Scenes dioramas. McGovern, for one, appreciates the ability to customize his kits with unofficial extras and even sculpts his own. When he transformed a Dr. Deadly into a Sister Deadly, he thought it would be funny to have her holding a flask with eyeballs floating in it. So he created one out of clear tubing, with orbs made of epoxy cement. He even fashioned a pincer-like “eyeball extractor” tool from styrene sheets.

Dennis L. Prince and Moebius Models’ recent additions to the Monster Scenes universeRob Mattison

Longtime superfan Prince began seeking out and collecting original kits again in 1987 and went ahead and secured the trademark to Monster Scenes so he could release some collectible boxes (with no toys inside). Then, after teaming with a company called Moebius Models, he reissued a series of full Monster Scenes kits in 2007. He added to the mix Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Animal Pit, and The Dungeon — four Monster Scenes kits that Aurora developed but never released. Morrison couldn’t get enough of Prince’s kits. “They reproduced the art, they reproduced the instructions,” he says. “It was like going back in time.”

Prince even created and sold new kits: Saber Tooth Rabbit, Feral Cat, and a glow-in-the-dark Skeleton. In 2010, he began collaborating on the Monster Scenes book with Andrew Yanchus, which they launched four years later at Wonderfest. Meanwhile, monster kid Cortlandt Hull, 68, was so inspired by Aurora’s models, he created the Witch’s Dungeon classic-monster museum in Bristol, Connecticut, and co-directed The Aurora Models documentary, which features a section on Monster Scenes.

Monster Scenes were hardly the last questionable toys to end up in the hands of kids: Matchbox’s Talking Freddy Kreuger (a serial killer of children) and some The Walking Dead action figures have been marketed to those aged eight and up. But Mattison chalks up the enduring appeal of Monster Scenes to their uniqueness. “Things were not so mass-produced and available back then,” he says. “The original 13 Aurora monsters, Monster Scenes, and Prehistoric Scenes were [nearly] all that was there.”

But as with so many obsessions, Mattison admits, this one is primarily about nostalgia. “Us monster kids, we live in the past,” he says. “We would rather watch 90-year-old films than the ones from today.”

Fans of Aurora’s Monster Scenes play down the scandal now. Hull calls it “ridiculous by today’s standards,” adding that Aurora’s key audience was adolescents, not little kids. Mothers, he says, conflated the kits with the gory horror films of the day, “which made it all sound actually worse than it really was.”

“The Monster Scenes series took a beating for all the wrong reasons.”

Reflecting on the brouhaha, Prince says, “People will sometimes see what they want to see because it makes an exciting narrative. The Victim kit is flesh-colored because it’s a human being; Andy [Yanchus] wanted to save kids from having to paint. And she’s in short shorts and a halter top? It’s 1971 — look out the window. That series took a beating for all the wrong reasons.”

The author and kit-maker’s view of the controversy aligns with that expressed by Richard Schwarzchild, Aurora’s onetime vice president of marketing, at the time of the protests: “Children do not see the same things in the toys that an adult would.”

Prince takes similar issue with present-day, politically correct culture. “I like to think that we’re all adults and we’re all discerning,” he says. “But we’re too busy trying to protect the person who might not be able to discern this. Maybe we’re doing more harm than good trying to squeeze people into groupthink.”