Writings by Boris Karloff


- "With A Grain of Salt", a playlet (with Helene Ripley). Registered for copyright on 21 October 1913.


- "Cricket in California". The Screen Player, 15 May 1934.


- "Diary of a Monster ... By Boris Karloff ". The Atlanta Constitution, 11 October 1936.


- "Houses I Have Haunted". Liberty, 4 October 1941.


- "Foreword". Charles Addams, Drawn and Quartered, (Random House, 1942).


- "Tales of Terror". Anthology. (New World Publishing Company, 1943).


- "And The Darkness Falls". Anthology. (New World Publishing Company, 1946).


- "My Life As A Monster". Films and Filming, November 1957.


- "Oaks from Acorns". Screen Actor, October-November 1960.


- "Memoirs of a Monster". (With Arlene and Howard Eisenberg). Saturday Evening Post, 3 November 1962.


- "The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology". (Avon Books, 1965).









A monster and a murderer tells all … Secret : He's really a very mild man !


Being a bogeyman – like baggage smashing and truck driving – is apt to be a rather exhausting occupation. I know, because I've tried all three. On the whole, I think I would prefer truck driving were it not for the fact that my current job is apt to be more remunerative. And, of course, you meet the most interesting werewolves !


Nevertheless the Hollywood horror man runs into numerous occupational hazards that have nothing to do with the hours of work or the risk run in actual performance.


There is, for example, one's social life to consider. Although Hollywood actors have long since come to realize that their private lives are every one's concern but their own, they have at least the comfort of knowing that their public is certain to be reasonably well disposed toward them. Not so in my case.


For, no matter how pleasant the company in which I find myself, there is always that awkward moment when newcomers become aware of the fact that the quiet, soft-spoken man in the corner is actually Boris Karloff. (The more horrific my current role, the more I tend to modulate my voice off duty.) Nor are hostesses ever quite sure upon what I feed myself while other guests are sipping their whiskey-and-sodas.


According to the popular impression, my hostesses regard me variously as a zombie, a ghoul, an ogre, a vampire, and a monster.


As a result, they become convinced that a typical dinner for Karloff should consist of a) a steaming witch's potion, b) one piece of raw red meat ripped from a live and struggling anatomy, c) one seething bowl of fresh blood. But, whatever the jest with which hostesses try to pass off their uneasiness, I am often aware that they look upon me with about the same degree of trust and confidence as they would upon a cobra de capello !


Acquaintances, asking me to their summer homes, fill their medicine cabinets with such niceties as arsenic, old daggers, strychnine, cyanide, and ground glass – somehow feeling that this will make me happy.


Why, even Russell Crouse, co-producer of „Arsenic and Old Lace“, a veteran newspaper man who will draw to an open straight without blanching, admits that he spent two weeks shuffling around Hollywood before he could screw up sufficient courage to approach me about playing the role of Jonathan Brewster in the Joseph Kesselring comedy.


Nor do I find New Yorkers accepting me with any greater degree of self-assurance than their cousins on the Coast. Even my fellow commuters from South Norwalk, Connecticut, whose composure is shaken neither by missed trains nor by grand-slam bids, are apt to be taken aback on first discovering that the timid gargoyle in the next seat is Boris Karloff.


For all these reactions I have naturally no one else but myself to blame. For years now I have been haunting houses – motion picture houses – ever since I first strode on the screen in full horrifying armor as the Monster of Frankenstein.


Guilty must I plead likewise to supplying the goose pimples in such pictures as The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Ghoul, The Black Room, The Raven, Devil's Island, The Man they Could Not Hang, The Man with Nine Lives, and The Devil Commands, each with its full complement of shudders.


Nor is my present Broadway role calculated to inspire confidence in the New York playgoer, to persuade such widows and orphans as attend the Fulton Theater to entrust me with the management of their estates. True, Arsenic and Old Lace tends to spoof the more serious-minded of the horror films. Yet, all the same, I find myself playing a murderer of considerable distinction, while my fellow players garner the lion's portion of the laughs. If that all sounds rather sinister, I might add that the author makes a good deal of fun of Jonathan Brewster, but that does not prevent the role from being reasonably grim and gruesome.


Typical of the embarrassment attendant upon my sort of career was an incident that occurred shortly after the filming of Frankenstein. Mrs. Karloff and I had gone up to San Francisco to visit one of her schoolfriends. To our surprise, we found that Frankenstein, which we had not yet seen, was playing across the bay, in Oakland. What could be more natural than to invite our friend to a performance ?


I had, of course, seen rushes of the picture, but never a connected version, and as the film progressed, I was amazed at the hold it was taking upon the audience. At the same time I couldn't help wondering how my own performance would weather all the build-up.


I was soon to know.


Suddenly, out of the eery darkness and gloom, there swept on the screen, about eight sizes larger than life itself, the chilling horrendous figure of me as the Monster !


And, just as suddenly, there crashed out over the general stillness the stage whisper of my wife's friend. Covering her eyes, gripping my wife by the shoulder, she screamed :


„Dot, how can you live with that creature ?“


I was really surprised on arriving in New York to find people quite as apt to stare at me on the street as in Hollywood. Even in the theatrical hotel at which I first registered I seemed to attract more than what I consider my share of attention.


But actually not everyone cringes in horror at my approach. On the contrary, I have encountered an amazing amount of sympathy and understanding for parts that seemed to me fairly loathsome. Yet there is always a touch of wonder that I'm not given to eating eight or nine orphans for breakfast. People are inclined to take somewhat the attitude of the famous Marquise du Deffand. Once, during the course of conversation, some one asked her :


„My dear madame, do you believe in ghosts ?“


And she smiled sagely and replied, „No – but I'm afraid of them !“


Speaking of ghost stories, my presence at any gathering seems to be all that is needed to inspire an endless flood of them. Even when I returned to England five years ago, I found myself listening to an entire evening of such tales in my home town of Dulwich.


One of the most famous of all English ghost stories – which may perhaps be less familiar to American readers – was told again that night. It concerned Harriet Westbrook, unhappy wife of the poet Shelley, who drowned herself more than a century ago in the Serpentine, the famous sheet of water that winds through Hyde Park.


One day, just before the first World War, two elderly English ladies were taking a stroll through the park. It was a chilly, windy afternoon in early autumn. The park was almost deserted. As the ladies paused at the bank of the Serpentine, they noticed a series of curious ripples on the water, which caused them to wonder, for they knew there were no fish in the Serpentine.


As they watched the ripples, fascinated, a hand suddenly pierced the surface of the water – a human hand, thin and white, a woman's hand ! It clutched frantically, desperately, at the air. It clutched like the hand of a drowning person. It then disappeared again under the surface of the water.


But on the middle finger of the hand, both elderly ladies had seen a heavy gold ring, flashy and bright against the drabness of the bleak afternoon.


The two old ladies were dumbfounded, petrified in their tracks, for they knew, as all London knew, that according to history Harriet Westbrook Shelley drowned wearing such a ring – a century ago !


By way of a leavening note, I might add that the only time I really enjoyed playing the Monster was at the last annual charity baseball game in Hollywood between a team of comedians and a team of leading men. I strode up to the plate for the occasion in my full make-up as Frankenstein's Monster – whereupon Buster Keaton, who was catching for the comedians, promptly shrieked at the sight of me, did a backward somersault, and passed out cold behind the plate.


I waved my bat. The pitcher tossed the ball in my direction, and I swung at it as best I could, encumbered as I was with the Monster's metallic overalls. Luckily enough, I managed to tap the ball, which bounced crazily in the general direction of the pitcher's box. It should have been an easy out at first. But as I approached each base, the opposing player fainted dead away. And the Three Stooges, who were playing second, all passed out cold. It was a home run – though horrible !


But I can't possibly take leave of you without one last plea for my personal character. I am a normal and quiet soul. My wife will tell you gladly of the time we had guests in the house and the radio blared forth the report of a murderous lunatic who had broken loose and was in the vicinity of our neighborhood. The radio suggested the forming of a neighborhood posse.


Well, one of my guests rose and said : „Karloff, let's take a quick drink before going out after that murderer.“


They all went to the bar and drank – except me.


„Have a drink, Karloff,“ my friend insisted.


But I wasn't in the mood. „No thanks, not me,“ I replied. „It gives me too much courage !“


All of which, the reader may surmise, is offered in substantiation of the argument that I am really a mild and harmless sort of fellow who likes his coffee warm and his fruit juice cold ; who enjoys nothing more than puttering around his garden or lying in the sun and reading Joseph Conrad. Which, as a matter of fact, happens to be true, as I could illustrate from now to the last page of Liberty.


And just to prove that I am not alone in this conviction, I might add that the producers of Arsenic and Old Lace thought it might serve to promote the cause if I appeared as Santa Claus at a Baltimore party for crippled children. Which I did, successfully !


And on a recent radio program I managed to get away with one of the sweetest and most sentimental scenes of Smilin' Through !


But, of course, such performances are as unusual as they are gratefying to a professional horror man. On the whole, I suspect that I am likely to spend the rest of my career as a purveyor of the macabre, constantly adding to the perils of life on the screen.


Actually, my life is nowhere near as bleak as I like to make it sound. For every correspondent who writes that my last picture kept her awake all night (obviously an exaggeration intended as flattery) there are a dozen tending from curiosity to sympathy. Whoever said that nobody loves a zombie has never peeked into my fan mail ! Even the children who write seem to understand the motivation behind my misdeeds, a motivation that occasionally eludes me.


On the whole, I have no complaints to make about the roles in which in have appeared. Even Jonathan Brewster of Arsenic and Old Lace has his good points. He is almost kind to his maiden aunts – up to the moment where he finds they have beaten him at his own game of homicide.


From what I have confessed in this article, you must realize at long last that, despite the movie houses I haunted, I am not a vicious ghoul.


In fact, I let you in on a tremendous secret. When I opened on Broadway early this year in my second legit play in two decades, when my shadow fell upon the door and I, the murderer of twelve persons, walked out upon the stage – all the man-sized frightening was done not by Boris Karloff but by the audience.


Because, for all the houses I have haunted, on that opening night, while every one else was feeling fine, I, Boris Karloff, was absolutely and positively scared stiff !



Memoirs of a Monster.






At Halloween the world's most famous bogeyman looks back on his thirty-year career in horror


It is not true that I was born a monster - Hollywood made me one. That was thirty-one years ago, and I've lived accordingly ever after. While some potential victims have eluded my fangs, claws and other assorted horrors, I myself have found it almost impossible to escape monster roles.


Take the memorable time in 1947 when I was offered the gentle part of Professor Linden in a forthcoming Broadway production of The Linden Tree. I was delighted - but the playwright, J.B. Priestley, was not. "Good Lord, not Karloff," he told producer Maurice Evans. "Put his name on the marquee and people will think my play is about an ax murder."


I cabled Priestley in London :




Upon that solemn assurance, he withdrew his objections. The part was mine. But The Linden Tree folded in less than a week, and I've always been haunted by the thought that possibly Priestley was right after all.


On rare occasions I have managed to stay out of character : As jovial Father Knickerbocker in a Shirley Temple Storybook television show ; as a wise Seneca Chief in Cecil B. De Mille's The Unconquered, and in my favourite role of the kindly Gramps in On Borrowed Time in stock. But even then I felt the audience was waiting for me to unmask and exterminate the rest of the cast.




Such morbid expectations also appear to shadow my offstage life. If I stroll into the garden, spade in hand, the postman is almost certain to quip, "Disposing of another body, Mr. Karloff ?" Groucho Marx' standard greeting to me is, "How much do you charge to haunt a house ?"Bright young advertising men are forever soliciting testimonials from me for such things as Devil's food cake.


Actually I am assured that I was a quiet infant, and a gentle boy. No whippings by cruel stepparents scarred my childhood. No sadistic governesses read me horror stories by flickering candlelight. My childhood as William Henry Pratt in the serene London suburb of Enfield was extraordinarily tame. Both my parents died during my childhood. I was reared by one amiable stepsister and seven stern older brothers, who knew exactly what I was going to be - a government servant in the family tradition. But my scholarship, or lack of it, during four years at Uppingham, a boarding school I attended 1902-06, bespoke my disinterest in any profession based on higher learning.


Actually my macabre career was already settled. At the age of nine, I had appeared in a Christmas-play version of Cinderella. Instead of playing the handsome prince, I donned black tights and a scull cap with horns and rallied the forces of evil as the Demon King. From then on I resolved to be an actor.


At Kings College, London, years later, the first-term reports amply reflected the fact that I had attended more plays than classes. I was, in fact, fast becoming a disgrace to the family name. In those days black sheep were exported to Canada or Australia. When I blithely flipped a coin in the family solicitor's office, the unfortunate losers were the Canadians.


At 4.30 one morning, a month or two later, I found myself in a Canadian pasture, halter in hand, wondering how to round up four reluctant horses.


A week or so later, at Vancouver, British Columbia, I landed a pick-and-shovel job with the B.C. Electric Company - $ 2.50 for a ten-hour day - digging drainage ditches and clearing land.




Then one day in an old copy of Billboard, I came across the advertisement of a theatrical agent in nearby Seattle. His name was Kelly. I went to him and shamelessly told him I'd been in all the plays I'd ever seen, that I was forced to retire to Canada temporarily for my health and was now hale and ready for a comeback. Two months later, while chopping trees, I received a brief note, "Join Jean Russell Stock Company in Kamloops, B.C. - Kelly." I left my ax sticking in a tree.


On the train I concocted my stage name. Karloff came from relatives on my mother's side.  The Boris I plucked out of the cold Canadian air. I had finally become an actor, but I mumbled, bumbled , missed cues, rammed into furniture and sent the director's blood pressure soaring. When the curtain went up, I was getting thirty dollars a week. When it descended, I was down to fifteen dollars. The play, significantly now, was Molnar's The Devil.


I learned the acting trade during the next six or seven years, playing vintage pieces like East Lynne or Charlie's Aunt all over Western Canada and the United States, and living on eggs fried on inverted pressing irons in "no cooking" boardinghouses. Then I wandered into movies, via a five-dollar-a-day extra role as a swarthy Mexican soldier in a Doug Fairbanks Sr. film, His Majesty, The American. For the next eight or nine years, I played extra and small featured roles when things were good, loaded cement sacks in warehouses when they weren't. At 42 I was an obscure actor playing obscure parts. I quit writing home - for I had nothing to write about.


My big break came while I was downing a sandwich-and-tea lunch in the Universal commissary. After a string of sweet-and-kindly roles, I had played the diabolical Galloway, the convict-killer in The Criminal Code. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Mr. Whale would like to see you at his table." Jimmy Whale was the most important director on the lot. "We're getting ready to shoot the most important Mary Shelley classic, Frankenstein," Whale said, "and I'd like you to test - for the part of the monster."


It was a bit shattering, but I found that any part was better than no part at all. The studio's head makeup man, Jack Pierce, spent evenings experimenting with me. Slowly, under his skillful touch, the monster's double-domed forehead, sloping brow, flattened Neanderthal eyelids and surgical scars materialized. A week later I was ready for the test, I readily passed as a monster.


To fill out the monster costume, I had to wear a doubly quilted suit beneath it. We shot Frankenstein in midsummer. After an hour's work I'd be sopping wet. I'd have to change into a spare undersuit, often still damp from the previous round. So I felt, most of the time, as if I were wearing a clammy shroud myself. No doubt it added to the realism.


The scene where the monster was created, amid booming thunder and flashing lightning, made me as uneasy as anyone. For a while I lay half-naked and strapped to Doctor Frankenstein's table. I could see directly above me the special-effects men brandishing the white-hot scissorslike carbons that made the lightning. I hoped that no one up there had butterfingers.


Frankenstein was the first monster film of any consequence ever attempted. That, plus the sensitive theme of a man, Doctor Frankenstein, playing at God, made the then-powerful Hayes office hesitate to release it. But director Whale had filmed it with restraint and delicacy. It finally was released for its premiere on December 6, 1931, at Santa Barbara. I was not even invited and had never seen it. I was just an unimportant free-lance actor, the animation for the monster costume.


Then my agent called one morning and said, "Boris, Universal wants you under contract."I thought, "Maybe for once I'll know where my breakfast is coming from, after more than twenty years of acting." I soon found myself mildly famous - although not by name. On a motoring holiday in France, for example, I lost my way. In the dreadful remains of my schoolboy French, I inquired in a tiny village butcher shop. The proprietor looked me in the face and exclaimed, "Frankenstein's Monster !" That sort of thing has lasted for thirty years.




In a Hollywood studio baseball game, Leading Men versus Comedians - my category escapes me at the moment - everyone fled in mock horror when I batted, allowing me to lumber around the bases for the home run. At radio-show rehearsals the orchestra hissed me realistically, and I leered back. Columnists imaginatively concocted the Karloff cocktail - one sip sent the drinker into shock. Monster fans sent me such birthday gifts as voodoo dolls.


Not everyone, however, felt enthusiasm for monsterism. Some parent and civic groups felt Frankenstein was too horrifying for children to see and should be limited to "adults only". The children thought otherwise. On the very first Halloween after the film's release, a crowd of laughing pint-sized ghosts and goblins rang my doorbell and invited me to join in their trick-or-treat rounds. As I wasn't appropriately costumed, I had to decline. Over the years thousands of children wrote, expressing compassion for the great, weird creature who was so abused by its sadistic keeper that it could only respond with violence to violence.  Those children saw beyond the makeup and really understood.


Frankenstein transformed not only my life but also the film industry. It grossed some $ 12, 000, 000 on a $ 250,000 investment, started a cycle of so-called boy-meets-ghoul movies and quickly made its producers realize they'd made a dreadful mistake. They let the monster die in the burning mill. In one brief conference however, they brought him back alive. Actually, it seems, he had only fallen through the flaming floor into the millpond beneath and could now go on for reels and reels.


The watery opening scene of the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, was filmed with me wearing a rubber suit under my costume to ward off chill. But air got into the suit. When I was launched into the pond, my legs flew up in the air and I floated there like some sort of obscene water lily while I, and everyone else, hooted with laughter. They finally fished me out with a boat hook and deflated me.


In March, 1933, I returned to England. My two eldest brothers, Ted and Fred, had retired from Indian Civil Service and were living in London. Jack had been transferred from China to take charge of Far East Affairs in the Foreign Office. 


A little later I got a surprising reaction from my staid and proper English brothers. Some friends from Hollywood were in London, and before they left for home we gave a sort of joint cocktail party. All went well until a newspaper photographer approached me. "I understand you've some brothers here," he said. "Could we get a photograph or two ?" I was appalled. I thought, How am I going to break this to them ? They won't approve at all. I got them off in a corner and mumbled, "Awfully sorry about this but, you know, publicity and all that, I swear I'm not responsible for the photographer being here. But, well, to cut it short, they want to take pictures of us. They want us in the next room, lined up against the mantelpiece."


Well, you never saw such a stampede. The three reserved, distinguished elderlies - Ted, who'd been judge of the High Court in Bombay ; Fred, who'd administered an entire province in India ; and Jack, who'd been chief magistrate of the Consular Court in Shanghai - all but got stuck in the door getting through. And there was quite a to-do about who was to stand where. I fought to keep my composure, but inwardly I was laughing.


Returning to Hollywood, I played the monster in Son of Frankenstein - my third and last such role. Others perpetuated him in later films. In a switch, I twice took the part of Doctor Frankenstein myself and found it comfortable to be less loaded with makeup.


Next I became a succession of crazed scientists. The formula was successful, if not original. The scientist would set out to save mankind. His project would sour and he with it. In the end he'd have to be destroyed regretfully, like a faithful old dog gone mad. The scriptwriters had the insane scientist transplant brains, hearts, lungs and other vital organs. The cycle ended when they ran out of parts of anatomy that could be photographed decently. While it lasted I :


* Robbed graves in The Body Snatcher

* Slew with an ax as the leering executioner Mord, Tower of London

* Frightened my enemies to death in The Walking Dead


I also :


* Cheated the hangman in The Man They Couldn't Hang

* Invoked the curse of the pharaos as a vengeful mummy  in The Mummy

* Aggravated the hells of eighteenth-century prison life as the warped warder in Bedlam

* Ruthlessly pushed dope to little Jackie Cooper as a dope peddler in Young Donovan's Kid


I must confess that I didn't accept this constant and continual madness quite placidly myself. Once, during the crazed scientist cycle, I said wearily to the producer, "These things are all right, but don't you think we should perhaps spend a little more in the writing, or change the format ?" He was in an expansive mood. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a great chart. "Here," he said, "Here's your record. We know exactly how much these pictures are going to make. They cost so much. They earn so much. Even if we spent more on them, they wouldn't make a cent more. So why change them ?"


During my most monstrous years, I naturally associated with such aristocrats of Hollywood villainy as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Lorre and John Carradine. Offscreen I found them to be the gentlest of men.


One of my own most terrified moments came in 1940, when the noted playwrights Lindsay and Crouse offered me the part of Jonathan in the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Keep in mind, I'd never acted on Broadway, but only in the sticks, or in films. What really sold me on taking the part was a line of Jonathan's in the first scene. He'd just murdered a kindly motorist. Another character says, "He was a nice chap, that man who gave us a lift. You shouldn't have killed him. Why did you do it ?"And Jonathan replies,"He said I looked like Boris Karloff."


I expected that I line like that, spoofing me so early in the play, would disarm any New York audience. Then I began wondering : Would it ? Could I put over a big stage role ? By the time I arrived in New York, I was almost shaking from sheer fright. I'd rushed through a hard week at Columbia studios, then taken an all-night flight East. At the theater they handed me a script, and we did something I'd never done in stock or repertory - we sat down, cast and director together, and read cold turkey. I was so tired,and so frightened of my New York role, that I began to stutter - something that always besets me when I'm tired. I rehearsed in stutters for three days, continually thinking that it would cure itself. But instead it grew worse. The third night I wandered the streets of Manhattan wondering what to do. I thought I'd have to walk up to the management and say, "I'm very sorry. I've made a mistake, and so have you. I've got to get out of your play. Do I owe you anything ?"


I walked some more and thought, if I do that, honest though it is, I've certainly had it in New York and haven't done myself an awful lot of good in Hollywood either. Somehow I've got to go through with the play."


At 5.30 am I returned to my hotel, catnapped briefly, then went to rehearse. I'd always stuck on the word "Come" in the first line. Now I walked on, took a deep breath and said,  "Come in, doctor." Not a stutter. By that evening all was OK. The show's reviews were better than OK. It was a big, beautiful hit, and we settled down for a long, happy run of about 1,400 Broadway performances.


Later I played Captain Hook, the villain with the wicked, steel-hooked arm, to Jean Arthur's Peter Pan on Broadway. At the end of the first act at matinees, we'd peek from behind the curtain and watch the kiddies leaping hopefully off their seats, trying to fly like Peter Pan. After the show I'd corral as many as my dressing room would hold and ask, "Would you like to try on my hook ?" Even little blond angels would reply, "Yes, sir."


They'd turn to the mirror, put on the most terrible face they could make and, without fail, take a terrific swipe at themselves in the glass. Far from being frightened by the villainous Captain Hook, they had caught on to his fun and pomposity. For it is a fundamental instinct of kids to play games, and they knew very well that the swordplay, the ominous crocodile, the poisoning of Peter Pan and all the assorted stage violence was just a game - just good, scary fun.


Villain by profession though I may be, however, I must say that my approval of good scary fun does not extend to shows where blood and guts are sloshed about wholesale, simply to create nightmares.




Nowadays I find time to play occasional light comedy in Milquetoast roles, to give syndicated radio advice to parents on child rearing and even to make phonograph recordings of childhood favourites such as Mother Goose and The Reluctant Dragon.


Occasionally someone asks me if I regret my years as a monster, if the role hasn't been like an albatross around my neck.


Rubbish ! Thanks to the monster I've worked steadily at the work I loved best. And I've been well paid - in more ways than with money. Here I am, 75 years old this month, no longer the black sheep of the Pratt family, still hard at work, still enjoying life to the fullest. With my wife Evie I commute some 12,000 miles between my old stomping grounds in England and this country. But I must admit one unfullfilled longing. I would love to be in a play in London.


The only time I ever trod the boards there was in a benefit for the Actors' Orphanage, doing a comedy sketch with Hermione Gingold. Even at that, I was absolutely thrilled. But

if I never get to do the "real" thing in London, it would be indecent for me to grumble.


After all, I've always been a very happy monster.
























New Biography by Stephen Jacobs
New Biography by Stephen Jacobs
Boris Karloff 1887-1969
Boris Karloff 1887-1969