Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 125: The floating trumpet in 'Night of the Ghouls' (1959)

Let's talk about that trumpet.

I will never forget my first screening of Night of the Ghouls (1959). I saw it on Friday, October 30, 1992 as part of an Ed Wood quadruple feature, alongside Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). This was my first time seeing any of Eddie's movies, and it was the night that made me a fan for life.

Accessibly weird and endlessly quotable, Glenda and Plan 9 were the hits of the evening, as you might expect. The organizers of the marathon wisely scheduled Night of the Ghouls (aka Revenge of the Dead) to run last. The supernatural thriller, a film both sluggish in its pace and confounding in its construction, just about cleared the room. I stuck it out and have since come to love Ghouls, though I admit that my first viewing was an endurance test.

In particular, the séance scenes in Night of the Ghouls caused multiple walkouts. If you'll recall, the film's plot revolves around a fraudulent psychic called Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan), who bilks customers out of their money by pretending to communicate with their dead relatives. The con artist demonstrates his "skills" through a variety of cheap theatrical tricks, the kind a Scooby Doo villain might use to scare meddling kids away from an amusement park. One particularly obscure detail: a trumpet dangling from wires so that it looks like it's floating in midair.

For years, I felt the trumpet in Ghouls was just a random inspiration from the warped mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the kind of eccentric flourish only Eddie could conceive. Recently, though, I was rereading Stephen King's novel Carrie (1976) and came across this remarkable line:
The idea of telekinesis itself has been a bitter pill for the scientific community to swallow, with its horror-movie trappings of ouija boards and mediums and table rapping and floating cornets; but understanding will still not excuse scientific irresponsibility.
Floating cornets? Really? And not only that, but this quote makes it seem as though floating cornets were some kind of overused horror movie cliché that readers would instantly recognize. ("Oh, right, the old floating cornet trick. I've seen it a million times.") Maybe the random hovering trumpet in Night of the Ghouls was part of a time-honored, cinematic tradition.

I started looking for pre-1959 horror and suspense movies with séances in them. There were plenty, it turns out, including at least three with Bela Lugosi: Night of Terror (1933), You'll Find Out (1940), and The Thirteenth Chair (1929). I tracked down as many of these spooky old flicks as I could find streaming online (either on YouTube or The Internet Archive), impatiently fast forwarding through minute after minute of plot and dialogue, just to get to the precious séances. And what did I get for my troubles? Not a single floating trumpet. What was Stephen King talking about?

At that point, I gave up on the old movies and started looking elsewhere for floating trumpets or cornets. A possible breakthrough came in the form of an article about spirit trumpets by Alessandra Koch at a site called The Austin Séance. According to Koch, a spirit trumpet is a cone-shaped device commonly used by spiritualists of the late 19th century to amplify the voices of spirits, sort of like megaphones. Still today, you can find spirit trumpets on Etsy, where they are marketed as séance trumpets.

Rose Mackenberg with a spirit trumpet.

Do these trumpets ever float? Apparently, some mediums made them look as though they were floating, but it was all an act. The Saturday Evening Post has a photo of famed psychic debunker Rose Mackenberg (1892-1968) with a spirit trumpet hovering over her head. She was attempting to demonstrate the tricks used by so-called spiritualists and mediums. Rose would've been the first to sneer at Dr. Acula and label him a fraud. It's possible that the floating trumpet in Night of the Ghouls is Eddie's obscure reference to the spirit trumpets used by phony psychics of the past.

The problem with this theory is that spirit trumpets were (and are) just cones. I've compared them to megaphones, but they're also similar to ear trumpets, those primitive hearing aids we sometimes see in old movies and cartoons. In sharp contrast, the floating trumpet in Night of the Ghouls is an actual musical instrument, the kind with valves and a mouthpiece. Other than having a bell on one end, it bears little resemblance to the spirit trumpets of the Victorian era. Maybe Ed Wood had heard of psychics using some kind of trumpet in their act, and he just assumed it was a brass instrument.

Or maybe the floating trumpet in Night of the Ghouls is destined to remain a mystery, just another bizarre flourish of Ed Wood's pickled imagination.

ADDENDUM: Reader Rob Huffman points out that the Haunted Mansion, the beloved dark ride that opened at Anaheim's Disneyland Park in August 1969, features a Séance Room with floating objects, including a trumpet! By the looks of this picture, the horn in question is a buisine (or herald's trumpet), a straight medieval trumpet bearing the banner of a nobleman. In this case, the banner reads, "X = ?" This is supposedly a reference to Disney storyboard artist and writer X. Atencio.

There's a floating trumpet (upper right) at Disneyland in the Haunted Mansion.