Monster-model madness descended upon the youth of America in the 1950s, when Universal Pictures’ classic horror films enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Universal had launched the golden age of monster movies in 1931 with its adaptation of “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi, followed quickly by “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff. The hits continued throughout the 1940s with movies like “The Wolf Man,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Mummy,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “The Bride of Frankenstein.” But in 1956, when Universal licensed its monster movies to television stations, the studio unleashed a new craze for the films’ spooky stars.
TV-show horror hosts like Vampira and magazines like “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” which debuted in 1958, helped make the campy classics popular with new audiences, as did their return to double-feature matinees at certain theaters. By the 1960s, fear had been replaced by fun—the song “Monster Mash” was on the radio and the schlocky vintage flicks were as cool with trendsetting teenagers as their little siblings.
The monster-model phenomenon was engineered by the Aurora Plastics Corporation, founded in 1950 to produce standard plastic toys and figure kits. A decade later, the company’s first customer survey revealed that people were anxious to get their hands on models of these popular movie monsters.
Frankenstein became Aurora’s first monster model in 1961, and the kits were in such demand that the company had to extend production to 24 hours a day (average output was three kits per minute). Aurora hired the realist painter James Bama to illustrate the packaging for its monsters and placed ads in the back of DC comics, “Mad Magazine,” and “Famous Monsters of Filmland.”
Over the next six years, Aurora created 13 different monster models, starting with Dracula and the Wolf Man in 1962. The last kit in the original series was made in 1966 as a joint effort with “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” and featured a decomposing skeleton called The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré.
However, the characters were revived for the “Frightening Lightening” kits in 1969, made with glow-in-the-dark plastic. Though these novelties were first sold in rectangular boxes like the original monster models, after a few months, Aurora switched to square boxes with new artwork so customers could tell them apart. The hot-rod trend of the ‘60s also spurred Aurora to create a new hybrid called “Monster Rods,” like the Wolfman’s Wagon and Dracula’s Dragster.
Aurora tried a different tactic in 1971 with its “Monster Scenes,” featuring familiar characters in ghoulish environments such as the Pain Parlor or the Hanging Cage. Yet an ill-...
The company’s final attempt to market monsters was made in 1975 with the “Monsters of the Movies” line, which added Japanese figures like Rodan and Ghidra. However, the success of Aurora’s original monsters inspired several copycat versions in the following decades, such as the glow-in-the-dark models made by Ani-Forms or the vinyl versions produced by Tsukuda. More recently, companies including Monogram, Revell, Polar Lights, and Moebius Models reissued some of Aurora’s original designs, receiving great fanfare from those who loved the kits during their childhoods.