Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

The Strong Acquires Monster Toys

Frankenstein’s Monster, 1974 Although The Strong’s toy collections have long included endearing dolls and adorable stuffed animals, recently the museum has added some creepier characters to its holdings. In an initiative inspired by the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Strong has acquired a Dracula figure made by Azrak-Hamway Incorporated, a Frankenstein’s Monster figure from Mego Corporation, and a Wolfman Assembly Kit produced by Aurora Plastic.

Wolfman Assembly Kit, Aurora, 1962 All three of these toys can ultimately trace their genesis to 1957 when Screen Gems bundled together pre-1948 classic horror films from Universal Studios and released the package for syndicated television. Marketed as “Shock Theater,” the films included Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Ray, Werewolf of London, and The Wolf Man, among others. The films usually aired on late night television, but many children snuck into their living rooms to catch the latest showing. The series launched a nationwide monster frenzy. The next year, Famous Monsters in Filmland magazine launched, filled with monster photos, movie magic, and silly puns. The films and magazine proved just the thing the nation wanted. Americans had recently witnessed the horrors of World War II and were now riddled with anxiety about the H-bomb and the Red Scare. People related to the themes of mind-control, paranoia, information-age anxiety, and security threats prevalent in the horror genre. Toy manufacturers soon caught on to the demand for monster related products.

In 1962, Aurora Plastics released a Frankenstein model kit. To proactively fend off parental anxieties, Aurora commissioned a psychological study focused on the effects of child’s play with monsters. The results—monster play was fine. Many psychologists during the period proclaimed that the manipulation of monsters allowed kids to exercise control over their fears. Aurora kept production going 24 hours a day to meet consumer demand. By Christmas that year, Aurora also produced Dracula and Wolfman kits.

Aurora continued to introduce new products including figures with “ghostly glow power,” kits for “The Pain Parlor” and “The Gruesome Goodies,” and female figures like Vampirella and Girl Victim. The Aurora marketing team created an eight-page brochure with Vampirella on the cover and copy that read, “Every family has its skeleton, but Aurora’s has more than most.” Some parents took issue with the sexy, suggestive, and flippant tone of the product.

Super Monsters: Dracula, AHI, 1974

In a July 1971, the New York Times published “Toys of the Seventies: Guillotines and Hypodermic Needles.” Reporter Grace Lichtenstein covered the physical and psychological harm done to kids by toys related to violence, including “The Pendulum,” a device used to cut a victim in half, by Aurora. In November of that year, protesters descended upon the headquarters of Nabisco, Aurora’s parent company, to disparage Aurora’s Monster Scenes as toys designed to depict violence toward women. Aurora struggled to address the litany of complaints about Monster Scenes and to calm Nabisco’s executives.

In reaction to the PR onslaught, Aurora changed the name of “The Victim,” the scantily clothed female figure that concerned parents and outraged women’s rights advocates, to “Dr. Deadly’s Daughter.” Next, Aurora eliminated “The Pendulum” from the series. And they then attempted to fight accusations that the female figures looked nude by molding the figures in red and pink. Nabisco was not convinced that the revised series would appease the public and the company’s director of publicity ordered Monster Scenes to be discontinued—at least for the time being.

Despite these criticisms, monsters and horror remained big business in the 1970s. Halloween, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, and Dracula vs. Frankenstein hit the big screen Azrak-Hamway Incorporated produced its line of Super Monsters. Mego released its Mad Monsters series. Penn-Plax marketed its Creature from the Black Lagoon figure. Mattel scored big with its two-foot tall Godzilla.

Scholars continue to debate whether the horror-genre is cathartic or gratuitous. These toys build upon characters and stories that have existed for hundreds of years and helps us to understand how horror in popular culture reflects our values, curiosities, anxieties, and play.

Neo Geo is Big

Growing up, I never owned a single video game console. I owned a few sports games that I played on my old Apple IIe computer, and I recall playing Super Mario World when I was at my babysitter’s house. But that was about the extent of my gaming knowledge. All this changed when I got married, however. My husband is a hard-core gamer. He favors RPGs, puzzle games, and platformers and also plays his share of shooters and fighting games. But what amazed me most when we met was not the breadth of genres he played, but the sheer number of consoles he played them on!

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I’m NOT a Bozo: My 15 Minutes of Fame on Children’s Television

I remember the roar of the crowd as I confidently gripped the ball and took aim—the way the noises faded as I focused on my target—and the broad smile on Bozo the Clown’s face during my successful run on the Grand Prize Game.

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Super Mario Brothers: Doki Doki in Disguise

Cataloging a large collection of video games and related materials involves a ton of research and leads to game development stories that often are as fascinating as the games themselves. ICHEG’s recent acquisition of a group of games and game systems from Japan brought Super Mario Brothers’ history to the forefront.

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CHEGheads Head to GDC

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A Final Fantasy and International Gaming Revolution

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of cataloging more than 10,000 electronic games for ICHEG. As a gamer, I’ve found this a great way to learn about the various genres and mechanics that make up the history of electronic games.

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First There Was Famicom

A few days ago a researcher in our ICHEG lab sparked a rich conversation about her favorite childhood gaming platform, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Like so many gamers in the late 80s, she spent endless hours assuming the role of Mario and squashing Goombas in the Mushroom Kingdom. Her memories of Super Mario Bros.

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Let's Get Physical! NCHEG Home Plays Finnish Game

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Russian-born Tetris Illustrates Good Design

Tetris is a great example of how simple ideas often inspire the best video games. In my recent conversation with Alexey Pajitnov, he recounted how a simple wooden puzzle game inspired him to create Tetris.

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Japanese Jewels Excite E-Bidders

Over the last few weeks my e-mail  filled up with friends and other electronic games enthusiasts bringing to my attention a couple of eBay  auctions. Amused at first, I quickly saw a collectors’ chain reaction happening.

These auctions centered on the rare and elusive Stadium Events video games by Bandai, a Japanese toy making company founded in 1900. The first e-mail I received referred to an auction on eBay for an “Old Nintendo NES system and five games” that sold for $13,105.

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A Big Collection of Little Things

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