When Metallica lead guitarist Kirk “The Ripper” Hammett was 5 years old, he sprained his arm, and to calm him down, his parents plopped him down in front of the TV. You’d think something like a marathon of Bugs Bunny cartoons would have been the perfect distraction. But young Hammett only forgot about his aching arm when the movie “The Day of the Triffids” came on the screen—with its oversize carnivorous space plants terrorizing humans—and he discovered the thrill of being scared.
“My whole perspective on life is colored by horror films. Just naturally, I live in a minor key. And horror movies are in a minor key.”
His love of monster movies was solidified after he turned 6, when he watched “Frankenstein” with his father. “I was transfixed by ‘Frankenstein,’” Hammett tells me over the phone. “So much of it was unworldly to me—from James Whale’s direction and the black-and-white, surrealistic, impressionistic look of the movie to Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup and Boris Karloff’s incredible performance, not to mention the storyline itself. I was just taken over. From there, I started buying monster magazines, horror comics, and Aurora monster models. I didn’t have a whole lot of disposable income as a child, but I just made do with what I could and tried to earn money here and there.”
Although Hammett, who’s now 52 years old, also fell in love with music as a teen, it never diminished his obsession with horror films. When Metallica started to bring in some cash in the mid-1980s, he started collecting the monster magazines, masks, comic books, and toys of his childhood in a more serious way. Before long, Hammett became one of the top collectors in the horror-memorabilia field, buying some of the rarest horror-movie posters and props known to exist. Recently, he’s started sharing his collection with the world in hopes of connecting with other like-minded horror lovers.
In 2012, he published a book on his collection called Too Much Horror Business, and the following year, he created “Kirk’s Crypt” to display some of his horror memorabilia at Metallica’s second Orion Music + More festival in Detroit. Kirk’s Crypt inspired him to launch a full-on three-day horror convention, Kirk Von Hammett’s Fear FestEvil, in his hometown of San Francisco in 2014. The annual event has featured interactive displays, including one on Hammett’s monster collection; performances by metal bands like Carcass, Death Angel, and Hammett’s pre-Metallica band Exodus; and guest appearances by modern horror actors, directors, and makeup artists, as well as the children of classic horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Currently, travelers going through San Francisco on Virgin or American Airlines can view part of Hammett’s horror collection at the San Francisco International Airport Museum’s “Classic Monsters: The Kirk Hammett Collection” exhibition in Terminal 2.
Hammett grew up in the Mission District during San Francisco’s psychedelic ’60s era—a dangerous neighborhood in a tumultuous cultural landscape. In the introduction to Too Much Horror Business, he explains that horror movies took him to another world, a spooky dreamscape that soothed him. Hammett identified as an outcast and feared he might turn into that skinny kid in the Charles Atlas ads getting sand kicked in his face. In the book, he tells music journalist and co-author Steffan Chirazi, he felt particular sympathy for Frankenstein’s monster, a misunderstood misfit who wanted to connect to his dad, because Hammett’s relationship to his own father was “not strong.” When he donned a cousin’s Wolf Man mask, he felt a jolt of power, the ability to take control of his life and retaliate against bullies.
“Believe it or not, I’m a totally introverted person,” Hammett tells me. “People see me onstage and see that I walk out in front 50,000 people not even batting an eyelash, but I’m just used to that. Because of my family history, I always felt like an outsider. I was super shy as a kid, very quiet and observant. I had trouble fitting into a lot of situations, and I felt like a monster myself. A lot of the stuff I saw the monsters experiencing on the screen, I had a version of that in my own life.”
If you look at a random sampling of heavy-metal album covers, it’s obvious Hammett is not alone in relating to monsters. This fascination with outcasts and deviant behavior is a thread that runs throughout film history, too. During the silent era, stark visuals, exaggerated facial expressions, jumpy strings, and swelling organs indicated depravity, in films such as the 1920 German Expressionist “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the 1920 American “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and the Dracula-inspired 1922 German Expressionist “Nosferatu.”
Universal Studios recognized the riveting potential of movies about misfits deemed monsters, and in 1923, introduced “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Lon Chaney, the first monster movie of its decades-long horror franchise. Two years later, Universal hired Chaney to embody another bitter, deformed outcast in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
But it wasn’t until “talkies” were all the rage in the 1930s, that Universal debuted its Big Three: “Dracula,” played by Bela Lugosi in 1931; “Frankenstein” played by Boris Karloff in 1931; and “The Mummy,” played by Karloff in 1932. At the time, the experience of watching talking pictures—and in fact, the experience of going to the cinema itself—was new to audiences, who were genuinely frightened by these films and their rudimentary special effects. By 1933, though, directors were starting to inject a bit of self-aware humor into Universal horror films like “The Invisible Man” and the 1935 “Frankenstein” sequel, “The Bride of Frankenstein.” In the 1940s and 1950s, Universal introduced two other well-loved beasts with “The Wolf Man,” starring Lon Chaney, Jr., and “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
In the aftermath of World War II and the early days of the Cold War, films about oversize radioactive mutants and evil aliens and space robots expressed Americans’ paranoia about nuclear technology and space exploration. As televisions became more ubiquitous, movie houses employed every promotional gimmick they could think of to draw teenagers out to see B horror films like 1959’s “The Tingler.” Meanwhile, the 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent” led to a panic, and even a congressional hearing, over the belief that gory comics like “Tales From the Crypt” were corrupting youth, turning them into juvenile delinquents. In the face of the publishing industry’s new self-imposed Comics Code, EC Comics abandoned its horror titles in 1955.
“I know people who are so ruthless and so cutthroat about movie posters, I bet you they would sell their own mother to get certain posters.”
In 1957, Universal Studios—just a few years away from ending its horror franchise—figured out how to shore up its monster legacy: syndicating its spookiest movies to television stations as a “Shock Theater” package. Stations would hire campy costumed hosts, inspired by Vampira at L.A.’s KABC-TV, to introduce the films. In the 1960s, these programs, usually shown after 8 p.m. on Friday or Saturday night, became known as “Creature Features.” Magazines like “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” which debuted in 1958, only amplified the popularity of this phenomenon.
By then, classic Universal monsters films from the 1930s to 1950s were no longer seen as frightening or disturbing to adults but spooky, campy fun for children, like treat-or-treating on Halloween. In 1961, Aurora Plastics Corporation produced its first paint-it-yourself monster model kit, based on “Frankenstein,” which was so popular with kids that the company had to manufacture them 24 hours a day to meet the demand. In 1962, musician and actor Bobby Pickett hit the top of the Billboard chart with his perky novelty tune, “Monster Mash.” Soon, toy shelves at stores were filled with monsters in every form imaginable—soaps, bobbleheads, board games, puzzles, target sets, remote-control figures, chemistry sets, Pez dispensers, and a wide range of craft kits.
Monster-mania was rampant in the late 1960s, and it possessed 6-year-old Hammett. Walking to Catholic school in the Mission, as he recounts in Too Much Horror Business, he imagined that the people he encountered were monsters or mad scientists. Every day, Hammett’s parents gave him 25 cents to buy milk and a doughnut. Instead, he pocketed the quarter, and after school, he’d buy monster magazines, like “Creepy” and “Eerie”—which were really horror comics repackaged as “magazines” as a way around the Comics Code—and movie-focused publications like “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “The Monster Times.” Called “the monster kid,” he’d read these comics in class instead of doing his schoolwork.
Hammett also religiously watched the Saturday Creature Feature on TV. On weekends, when his parents hosted drug-addled hippies who drank and acted strange, Hammett explains in the book, he would escape to triple-feature matinees at the Grand Theatre on 23rd and Mission streets.
“At the time, the Mission District in San Francisco was not a safe place,” Hammett tells me. “It’s not what it is now, as it’s been totally gentrified now and taken over by yuppies and dot-commers. Back then, there were roaming packs of gangs everywhere, and kids out to steal your lunch money or just plain beat you up. But the movie theater was a safe place for me. I went to the movies at least twice a week. I would try to go on Fridays, and to a matinee on Saturday or Sunday, sometimes both. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was totally immersed in late ’60s, early ’70s conventional cinema. I wasn’t just seeing horror movies, I was seeing movies like ‘The Godfather’ and all these comedies and kung-fu movies like ‘Enter the Dragon.’ It was a great thing for me.”
After school, he’d linger at San Francisco Comic Book Company on 23rd Street, which, when it opened in 1968, was the first store in the United States devoted exclusively to comic books.
“The San Francisco Comic Book Company was another safe place for me to go,” Hammett says. “The proprietor there was this guy named Gary Arlington, who is a legendary figure in comic-book history. He supported underground comix—which were otherwise only sold at head shops, stores that offered pipes, bongs, and other drug paraphernalia. I remember seeing Robert Crumb at Gary’s store when I was like 9 or 10 years old. He had quite possibly the thickest glasses I have ever seen.”
Arlington became a father figure of sorts to Hammett, introducing him to the fundamentals of buying, selling, and trading comics. “I spent a lot of time at the store, reading comics, buying comics, absorbing all these different experiences,” Hammett says. “I drove Gary and all his employees crazy. As a little kid, I was trying to finagle my way into collecting by finding comics and then turning them over for profit. I built my collection that way. I remember a whole slew of different comic-book artists coming through the store. I was absorbed in it all and felt really comfortable around comic book people—the collectors and dealers and artists.”
At home, Hammett played monsters with friends and cousins. His favorite toys were Aurora monster models, and he was buying them when the glow-in-the-dark Frightening Lightning series was out. In the book, Hammett says his first model was Frankenstein’s monster, which he tried to paint as true to the movie as possible. As he accumulated more and more models, he’d go to bed early some nights, just so he could stare at his glowing creature collection. But as much as he loved his monster models, he also loved destroying them.
“I always felt like an outsider. A lot of the stuff I saw the Universal horror-film monsters experiencing on the screen, I had a version of that in my own life.”
“I’m fully aware that I wasn’t alone with this,” Hammett remembers. “I would go into the bathroom and find the rubbing alcohol, pour it all around the model, and light it on fire. I would tape firecrackers in their hands, light them, and run. I would throw them off the roof with lit firecrackers. We would propel them through the air with handmade catapults. Anything we could think of, we would do to those models. It was hilarious. As a result, I’d buy every single one of those monster models and at least seven or eight times over because I loved building and painting them. I loved the characters so much, and I loved destroying them. The best one was the Phantom of the Opera. His pose had one arm up, holding the mask. You take the mask out of his hand, and you can put a firecracker right in there. We were just trying to be as destructive as possible.”
When Hammett was 12, his family moved to El Sobrante, a small suburban town next to Richmond, California, a Bay Area city 20 miles outside of San Francisco. “All of a sudden, I didn’t have the resources that I had living in the city,” he says. “The closest comic-book store was in Berkeley, which was at least an hour-and-a-half bus ride, so my comic collecting took a big hit. I started getting into building model rockets and listening to music.”
In his early teens, Hammett turned his obsessive attention to collecting records by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy, Cream, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana, and Black Sabbath. One summer, he saw a documentary on Jimi Hendrix at the local cinema, and it changed his life forever. A month before his 15th birthday, he bought his first guitar, and at age 16 in 1979, he formed Exodus, one of the most influential bands in the Bay Area’s burgeoning thrash-metal movement.
When Metallica fired its lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (who went on to form Megadeth) in 1983, the other members recruited 20-year-old Hammett to join the band as it prepared to record its debut record, “Kill ’Em All.” In the book, Hammett says he particularly bonded with late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, who loved horror films and Victorian horror writer H.P. Lovecraft as much as he did, and the whole band went to see “The Evil Dead” at a drive-in movie while working on the album.
“Starting from age 14, I lived and breathed music,” Hammett says. “If I wasn’t playing my guitar, I was going to rehearsal. When I wasn’t rehearsing and playing guitar, I was playing shows. If I wasn’t doing those three, I was traveling. That took a priority in my life over my interest in horror. But I was still watching horror movies in my spare time. I was grabbing comic books and monster magazines here and there. When I was 16, the horror-film fanzine ‘Fangoria’ came out, and I started to read it even while I was heavily into music. It wasn’t like a black-and-white change. I still had my foot in the genre, but I just wasn’t putting so much time into it as I used to.”
After Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” came out in July 1984 on Megaforce, the band members started to receive bimonthly salary checks for their album sales—albeit a meager amount.
“It wasn’t very much money, but it was something that I could use to start my collection up again,” Hammett says. “I started buying comic books again and collecting toys. I started going to toy shows, comics shows, and antique shows. I hit up all the local pawn shops and flea markets. Around 1986 [when Metallica was on tour for ‘Master of Puppets’], I was looking for stuff at comic-book stores, antiques stores, and toy shops out on the road. As soon as you know it, I’m fully into horror-collector mode again—just like I was as a kid. And I haven’t stopped. From about 1984 on, that’s been my thing, other than music, my family, and surfing. I am a horror-movie nut.”
Many of Metallica’s album titles—“Kill ’Em All,” “Master of Puppets,” etc.—sound like great horror movies themselves. The 1989 music video for the band’s song “One,” from the acclaimed album “… And Justice for All,” was a remix of the 1971 anti-war film, “Johnny Got His Gun.” In it, an American soldier serving in World War I is hit with artillery shell that severs his arms and legs, and destroys his eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. The harrowing, syncopated lyrics relate to the footage: “Darkness imprisoning me / All that I see / Absolute horror / I cannot live / I cannot die / Trapped in myself / Body my holding cell.” Two years later, Metallica unleashed the “Enter Sandman” single, a song about a child’s nightmares. Based on a haunting guitar riff written by Hammett, it became a Top 20 hit and received endless accolades. Clearly, Hammett’s love of horror and music are deeply intertwined.
“My whole perspective on life is colored by horror films,” Hammett says. “I’m so enmeshed in that sensibility that it just naturally flows through me and out of me into my music. I listen to a lot of dark stuff all the time. I’m not the type to sit down and play happy songs, even when I’m by myself or with my kids. I’m saying, ‘Hey, kids, check out this cool Black Sabbath riff that you’ve never heard before,’ or ‘Hey, doesn’t sound this like a haunted house?’ or ‘Hey, this sounds like Godzilla walking through Tokyo.’ Just naturally, I live in a minor key. And horror movies are in a minor key.”
In fact, much of the heavy metal genre, which first emerged in the late 1960s, revels in menacing sounds and horror-film imagery. Pioneering metal band Black Sabbath, led by Ozzy Osbourne, took its name from a 1963 Italian-French horror film starring Boris Karloff and produced the famous monster tune “Iron Man.” Bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Morbid Angel all play with themes inspired by horror films and the occult—which is obvious when you sift through their album covers, adorned with pentagrams, melting skeletons, crypt keepers, bloody knives, hellfire, and horned demons. In Too Much Horror Business, Hammett says, “Anyone who plays or listens to heavy metal understands horror movies, because it’s all the same shades of dark and light.”
It might have something to do with the fact these musicians were raised on B horror films at the cinema, Creature Features on TV, and monster mania at the toy store. But it’s also likely a backlash to the sunny, gentle “peace, love, and music” ethos of 1960s hippie culture.
“I have to tell you, living in San Francisco as child, I saw psychedelic stuff and long-haired hippies not wearing shoes everywhere,” Hammett tells me. “Everyone was barefoot. It was insane. I didn’t understand it. Even my parents embraced it, but it went against my own sensibilities. Maybe as a knee-jerk reaction, I went the other way, into the darker stuff. I’m not a Beatles fan. Why? Because it’s too happy-sounding all the time. Even when they try to get down and aggressive, it still has these happy colors that I hear in it. It’s just … ugh.”
“I would go into the bathroom and find the rubbing alcohol, pour it all around the monster model, and light it on fire. I would tape firecrackers in their hands, light them, and run.”
Hammett is such a horror fanatic, he now has some the most far-out monster toys from the 1960s and ’70s, including a speaker shaped like Frankenstein’s head and lots of toys he couldn’t afford as a kid. He also owns life-size figures of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff wearing original costumes from horror films and original props from monster-movie sets, including prop heads and hands—the most fascinating being two heads from “The Return of the Vampire,” showing the bloodsucker Armand Tesla in the process of being destroyed by the sun. On his walls, Hammett has several pieces of original art, including Basil Gogos paintings created to illustrate the covers of “Famous Monsters” magazine and fun, campy James Bama paintings done for the packaging of Aurora’s monster hot-rod models.
But the most cutthroat field he deals in is the world of movie posters. Original movie half-sheets, one-sheets, two-sheets, three-sheets, six-sheets, inserts, window cards, and lobby cards from the 1920s and ’30s are so valuable, that counterfeiters have figured out how to replicate the look of a French stone-lithography print using high-quality ink-jet printers. In the book, Hammett tells the story of how an auction house phoned him because they had received a call from the FBI, who believed his “Son of Frankenstein” window card was a phony. He had to send the card back to the auction house for forensic testing.
Looking for original posters from the 1930s often means reaching out to people who used to work for Universal during its monster heyday. Hammett has a collector friend who helps him with the buying and selling so he doesn’t get charged a “celebrity tax,” which means sellers often bump up prices when they know they’re dealing with famous people. Despite that, Hammett tells me he feels as though he’s finally found a place where he belongs.
“The movie-posters collectors network is totally dysfunctional and insane,” Hammett says. “The craziest collectors and dealers that I’ve ever met are movie poster collectors and dealers. It’s like these dealers get gold fever. They find a poster that’s worth five figures, and all of a sudden, they act like they’ve found a bonanza. Well, they have found a bonanza, but it’s weird. I’ve seen people change once they’ve gotten a certain poster. I know some collectors are on their second or third mortgage because they need to raise income to buy more posters. I know people who are so ruthless and so cutthroat about movie posters, I bet you they would sell their own mother to get certain posters.
“I just think, ‘Wow, I’ve finally found a group of people who are just as nuts as I am,’” he continues. “I completely fit in with the whole movie-poster collectors mania. I want the same great posters as everyone else. And as a result of that, I can’t really talk to these guys, so I need someone like my friend, who’s a little bit more diplomatic, to be an intermediary for me. He can negotiate all the temperament, dysfunction, and passion that comes along with these movie posters.”
Too Much Horror Business describes the story of this friend getting a message from a man in New Zealand, who had eight 1930s half-sheets—two variations for “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Dracula’s Daughter,” “The Raven,” and “The Invisible Ray.” As it turns out, the guy discovered them while remodeling his home, which had once belonged to an employee of Universal Poster Exchange, the distribution center for movie prints and posters. He found them on the attic floor, being used as insulation. The book explains that before Dow Corning fiber was introduced, waste paper had been a popular insulation material. Another rare insert for “A Mask of Fu Manchu” was discovered under the carpet an old movie theater; the person who bought it spent $600 restoring it to remove soda stains and the like.
A particularly valuable poster in Hammett’s collection is for 1922’s “Nosferatu,” an unauthorized German adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula.” Stoker’s widow took the movie company and director to court, which ruled in her favor and ordered the company to destroy all “Nosferatu” promotional materials. But “Nosferatu” one-sheet Hammett owns had been shipped to Spain before the court order. Only a handful are known to have survived.
In the book, Hammett’s assistant recalls how, to score the only known copy of a 1932 one-sheet for “The Mummy,” he spent months and months working on the owner to give it up in exchange for a hefty sum and an exact replica. Unlike later reproductions, the original one-sheet has “It comes to life!” scrawled right next to Boris Karloff’s head. Onstage with Metallica, Hammett plays custom-made ESP guitars based on the original posters for “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and “The Bride of Frankenstein,” but the guitar inspired by this rare “Mummy” poster is most popular with his fans.
“The longer I stay in the movie poster world, the more stuff keeps showing up,” Hammett says. “I never thought I’d ever see a ‘Frankenstein’ six-sheet, and lo and behold, one exists. Now that we have the Internet, it inspires people to actually look at a movie poster that’s been on their wall for 45 years and go, ‘Hey, you know what, that’s a “Murders in the Rue Morgue” one-sheet, and I think that might be worth maybe a few grand.’ Next thing you know, they go online and find out it’s worth more than just a few grand. At the end of the day, that helps all of us collectors and the movie-poster-collecting world in general.”
When he’s not on tour with Metallica, Hammett lives in San Francisco with his wife, Lani, and two young sons, Angel Ray and Vincenzo. Hammett, of course, has introduced his kids to the joys of monster mania that he discovered that fateful day “The Day of the Triffids” came on TV.
“I’m fully indoctrinating them in all this,” Hammett says, “And I have to say, I’m doing it for selfish reasons. Someone has to look after the collection after I’m gone. I want them to know what they’re dealing with—what everything is and what everything means. As long as they know that, after I’m gone, it doesn’t matter what they do with it, whether they decide to keep it together or disperse it.”
But before that time comes, Hammett has plans for more books, more Fear FestEvils, more exhibitions, and perhaps even a monster museum. “Ultimately, I want to find a permanent place for this stuff and make it accessible to the public so that people all over the world can travel to see it,” he says. While Metallica is his priority, “I’m just as involved with the horror world as ever—and loving it to this day.”
Wiggle-Ick wind-up bobbleheads of the Mummy, Dracula, and Creature From the Black Lagoon from 1967. (From "Too Much Horror Business")
(“Classic Monsters: The Kirk Hammett Collection” is on display at SFO Museum’s exhibition space in Terminal 2 of the San Francisco International Airport through December 6, 2015. To learn more about his collection, pick up the book “Too Much Horror Business.” To see images from the last Kirk Von Hammett’s Fear FestEvil, visit the event’s website. Follow news about Metallica tour dates and releases at Metallica.com.)