Dr. Paul Bearer of 'Shock Theatre' introduced Triad viewers to horror

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 06:13 PM

Dick Bennick always loved this time of year.
The former Triad radio and TV personality, a horror-film fan from childhood, introduced a generation of High Pointers to the horror genre — albeit often B-movie horror or campy science fiction — as Dr. Paul Bearer, the ghoulish, gravelly voiced host of WGHP-TV’s late-night horror show, “Shock Theatre,” during the late 1960s.
Despite the late hour of “Shock Theatre” — Saturdays at 11:15 p.m. — the show’s pun-loving “master of scare-a-monies,” as he liked to call himself, attracted quite the cult following in the Triad.
“‘Shock Theatre’ is one of my favorite childhood memories,” recalls Mel McAdams, who grew up in High Point and now lives in Welcome. “It was one of my first experiences in staying up late and the feeling of having the house to myself. It was just great fun for a kid of 10 or 11.”
According to McAdams, now 54, a lot of kids his age stayed up past midnight watching Dr. Paul Bearer and his fright flicks.
“A lot of times, I didn’t even know what movie was gonna be playing,” he says with a chuckle. “It didn’t matter.”
Bennick enjoyed a pretty good run in the Triad, hosting “Shock Theatre” on WGHP from 1966 until the early 1970s, but Dr. Paul Bearer didn’t die when Bennick left. He took the character with him to Florida — WTOG-TV in St. Petersburg (or “St. Creaturesburg,” as Dr. Paul called it) — where he continued hosting a similar horror show until his death in 1995.
That nearly 30-year run earned Bennick a unique distinction — longest-running horror-series host in the country — and it all began in the old Sheraton Hotel on N. Main Street, where WGHP’s studios were located at the time.
Bennick, an Asheville native, came to WGHP from the Winston-Salem radio market, where he had been spinning records for WTOB. When he arrived at WGHP in the mid-1960s, the station was already airing “Shock Theatre,” but the host hadn’t created a character or a set for himself.
“There was really no format to what he was doing,” Bennick said in a 1991 interview. “When I learned he was leaving, having been a horror nut all my life, I said, ‘How about letting me develop a character?’ I felt if we had a definable character and a definable set, there was a better chance of gaining an audience from this. They said OK, so I dreamed up this character.”
The character was not Dr. Paul Bearer, however. It was a skeletal-looking character named Count Shockula, who wore tie and tails, an opera cape, white gloves, a white skullcap, ghastly makeup and a set of hideous teeth.
After only a few weeks, Bennick knew Count Shockula was bombing, so he decided to try again. First, though, he had to get rid of the count, so he came up with a “How Do You Kill Count Shockula?” promotion.
“I already knew how I wanted to kill him, because I knew where I could lay my hands on a magic trick where it looked like you were nailing a stake through someone’s heart,” Bennick told the interviewer. “You would be amazed, but it took about six weeks before someone finally wrote in and said nail a stake through his heart.”
In the meantime, Bennick went back to the drawing board and came up with the character of Dr. Paul Bearer, a creepy undertaker who wore a vintage tuxedo and had a sinister-looking face, complete with a goatee, exaggerated eyebrows, stringy hair parted right down the center, and a menacing scar on his cheek. (He got the scar, he would later tell viewers, from the “used scar lot.”)
The kicker was Bennick’s artificial eye — the result of an automobile accident when he was younger — which he intentionally put in his eye socket at an odd angle to make himself look creepier.
So anyway, when the suggestion finally came to nail a stake through Count Shockula’s heart, Dr. Paul Bearer did the honors and took over the show.
The new host quickly became a hit as he developed his shtick, broadcasting from a spooky-looking set Bennick designed himself — his “tenement castle” in “Die Point, North Carolina,” he told viewers — with props that included a casket he built himself, a creaky door and a large spider web inhabited by his eight-legged friend, Spinjamin Bock.
The host became known for the awful puns, campy humor and silly sight gags he used to introduce the “horrible old movies” — his pun for “horror movies” — and sci-fi flicks that aired on “Shock Theatre.”
For example, he often boasted of some of his favorite products, such as Choke soft drink, Lice Krispies and Mourn Flakes cereals, a McDonald’s “Bug Mac” hamburger, and Better Tombs & Gardens magazine. He read passages from Shakespearean classics, such as “King Fear” and “Romeo and Boo-liet.” Visitors to his set ranged from his “mummy” (on the Saturday before Mummy’s Day) to a vampire named Fang Sinatra.
“We had more fun doing that show,” recalls Charles Bowden, who worked at WGHP when Bennick was there. “He’d come up with all kinds of crazy stuff. Sometimes he’d bring one of the crew in and dress them up as some kind of creature. We never knew what in the world he was up to, but it was always fun.”
The host closed every show with his signature sign-off, “I’ll be lurking for you.”
After Bennick left the Triad in 1971 to take a job in Florida, he continued freelancing the show for WGHP for another year or so, then began doing the show for WTOG in St. Petersburg.
And while Dr. Paul Bearer may have enjoyed success in the Triad, they really dug him down in Florida. During his heyday, he did two shows every weekend and made numerous public appearances — parades, hospitals, tourist attractions, you name it — usually showing up in his signature mode of transportation, a black 1963 hearse with his name written on the side in gothic lettering.
There’s now a Dr. Paul Bearer II keeping his legacy alive in Florida, and a book has been published about the character.
And here in High Point?
“I think a lot of people liked him and still remember him,” says Bowden, Bennick’s former co-worker. “That character, he was crazy.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579