Where to Experience Horror Film History in L.A.

From horror film location tours to the Hollywood Museum Dungeon of Doom, here are the best places to get up-close to cinema's most terrifying monsters and villains.

Los Angeles has experienced its fair share of real-life horrors in the form of natural disasters, serial killers unexplained deaths and other true crime stories that have been splattered all over the headlines. But that doesn’t keep us from flocking to the cinema to catch a glimpse of the most menacing monsters that the human mind could imagine.

Horrible monsters performing horrifying deeds have the unique ability to captivate an audience, push them to the brink of terror and leave them screaming for more.

And sometimes, the more grotesque, the better.

Because in the end, it’s all just fantasy – a great escape into another “universe” of mutant races, undiscovered species and experiments gone wrong.

It’s a legacy that started on the pages of books and made its way to the radio airwaves, silver screen, and even television – permeating nearly every aspect of entertainment and pop culture.

And some of those first anti-heroes are still as popular today as when they made their Hollywood debuts.

Here are the 6 best places where you can get the “origin stories” of cinema’s most terrifying monsters and villains, from classic sci-fi to “creature features” and nearly every shade of celluloid gray in between.

1. Natural History of Horror, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Exposition Park

An exhibit that’s been several years in the making, “Natural History of Horror” links science, history, and the art of movie making by exploring the inspirations for some of cinema’s most iconic monsters – from early experiments in “animal electricity” and unexplained illnesses to the excavation of King Tut’s tomb, as seen through the lenses of Brazilian mythology, German expressionism and more. This special exhibit tells the story through items on loan from Universal Pictures and other third parties as well as rarely seen objects from the Natural History Museum’s own collection, which it began assembling all the way back in 1930.

In total, 17 objects from NHM (rare movie props, film footage and specimens) help illuminate four of Universal Pictures’ iconic monster movies: “Dracula” (1931)“Frankenstein” (1931)“The Mummy” (1932) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). On display alongside the iconic “Creature from the Black Lagoon” movie poster, you’ll find silicone replicas of Gill Man’s full body suit and original mask. Special effects artist and costumer Milicent Patrick, who designed the originals, drew inspiration from real “creatures,” both living and extinct – including the coelacanth, once believed to be the ancestor of all land animals. In keeping with the theme, the museum has displayed a reproduction of the fish, whose unusual limb-like fins make it look like it’s ready to crawl from the sea onto land. Ask where you can see a real preserved specimen in a big tank, which is outside the special exhibit.

“Natural History of Horror” is on view during regular museum hours through April 19, 2020. Entry is free with NHM General Admission or NHM Membership. You may also view the exhibit in conjunction with full-length film screenings during “Fright Nights: The Science Behind Scary Movies” – February 14, March 26, and April 10, 2020.

Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour, Universal City

After hitting the Natural History Museum, the next natural step is to go back to the original source of those classic monsters: Universal Studios. In the 1930s, Universal Pictures monopolized the mainstream horror movie genre and created the “golden era” of movie monsters.

Originally part of what was considered “Laemmle’s Folly” – that is, Universal founder Carl Laemmle’s creation of the world’s first movie-making city – the studio tour debuted in 1915 and then took a nearly 30-year hiatus when “talkies” required quiet on the set. The theme park and backlot tour as we now know it originated back in 1964 – although over time, the fact that movies are actually made there has become less important of a visitor draw. Still, it can be pretty thrilling to pass by the Bates Motel from “Psycho,” “King Kong” and the “Jaws” shark on the “regular” tour – and to get exclusive backlot access on the VIP tour.

Halloween Horror Nights Hollywood, where you can come face-to-face with some of the most classic Universal Monsters – this year, namely, Frankenstein and Wolf Man. Past years have included mazes themed after more contemporary (but still classic) thrillers like “The Shining,” “Friday the 13th,” and “Poltergeist.” Horror Nights runs select evenings through November 3, 2019.

Halloween Horror Nights 2014, Universal Studios Hollywood | Inside the Magic/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Halloween Horror Nights 2013 at Universal Studios Hollywood | Inside the Magic/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Halloween Horror Nights 2014, Universal Studios Hollywood | Inside the Magic/Flickr/Creative Commons License

3. Halloween Horror Film Location Tour, Dearly Departed Tours, Hollywood

Every year for Halloween, Dearly Departed Tours offers a tour specifically for horror fans to visit famous horror film locations and other sites of significance for horror icons like Bela Lugosi (a.k.a. Dracula). From classics like “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959) to “Halloween” (1978), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), and even current scary movies, this 2.5-hour tour takes small groups across town to the front lawns, hillside mansions and creepy houses that have thrilled and chilled audiences for decades.

The tour takes place at 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays only, starting at the end of September through the end of October. As tours usually sell out, advance reservations are required. The tour meets at the headquarters of Dearly Departed, on Santa Monica Boulevard across from Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

And if you find yourself thirsty for more real-life locations of horror’s most famous scenes, head over to Malibou Lake near Agora Hills (where the “Frankenstein” monster met the little girl, Maria) or Franklin Canyon Park Lake (where the Gill Man from “Creature from the Black Lagoon” lives).

Ennis House | Sandi Hemmerlein
“Thriller” House, Angelino Heights | Sandi Hemmerlein
Franklin Canyon Park Lake | Sandi Hemmerlein

4. The Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills

The L.A. outpost of The Paley Center for Media provides more than just special public screenings, new television series previews and classic T.V. cast reunions. It has an enormous collection of television and radio programs – which it shares with its New York City outpost – which you can watch or listen to onsite. That includes both the made-for-TV documentary “Universal Horror” that originally aired on TCM in 1998 and the original 1938 radiobroadcast of “The War of the Worlds.”

You’ll find no shortage of vampires (like “Dark Shadows“), aliens, witches and forays into “The Twilight Zone.” Plus, there are plenty of Halloween-themed television episodes available for viewing, including those from the long-running “Treehouse of Horror” series from “The Simpsons.” Just request your program from the library, and then enjoy it at either an individual or family console (which accommodates up to four people).

The Paley Center is open daily 12:00-5:00 p.m. except Mondays and Tuesdays and major holidays, when it’s closed. Admission is free, although a suggested contribution is accepted.

The Paley Center in Beverly Hills | Maciek Lulk/Flick/Creative Commons License

5. The Hollywood Museum Dungeon of Doom, Hollywood

A perennial horror favorite is at The Hollywood Museum in the Historic Max Factor Building – the exhibit “Monsters, Mummies and Mayhem: Your Worst Nightmares Come to Life” in the museum’s basement level, a.k.a. its “Dungeon of Doom” (sometimes referred to as its “Chamber of Horrors”). It’s an impressive collection of sets, props and costumes from some of Hollywood’s most memorable horror-themed productions of film and television.

You can get a close-up look at screen-used pieces from “It,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “Jason Goes to Hell,” “Annabelle,” and more in a deliciously ghoulish setting, as you’re surrounded by life-sized figures of the likes of Elvira, Vampira, Freddy Krueger, Pennywise, and Frankenstein and his bride. Perhaps the highlight of the collection is Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell from “The Silence of the Lambs” – which was fabricated by the studio with stunning authenticity and relocated as part of an entire cellblock (including a padded cell) to the museum. One cell even contains Anthony Hopkins’s original costume and mask.

It’s particularly fitting that a tribute to the history of horror would be located in the historic Max Factor Building – the former site of Procter & Gamble’s Max Factor Museum of Beauty, which closed in the 1990s. Max Factor himself had manufactured camera-friendly makeup for a number of movie monsters in the 1930s, although credit has mostly been given to makeup designers like Jack Pierce (“Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Wolf Man” and more) and John Chambers (“Planet of the Apes”) – both of whom are featured in a display adjacent to the dungeon. A Max Factor historical exhibit remains on the lobby level by the front entrance.

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The historic building also houses three additional floors of Hollywood memorabilia – including some from genres that overlap with horror, like sci-fi and fantasy.

Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

6. Hollywood Horror Museum (permanent location TBD)

Established in 2015, the Hollywood Horror Foundation is dedicated to creating the world’s largest and most comprehensive horror museum, to be located somewhere in Los Angeles once it finds its forever home. There, you’ll be able to learn about horror in films, TV, art, literature and pop culture – not only its historical aspects, but also creative, technical and psychological perspectives as well. That may include anything from makeup, costumes and special effects to model making and CGI.

While it establishes a permanent venue in L.A., you can visit its pop-up displays at horror and comic conventions, such as LA Comic ConWonderCon, and Comic-Con International in San Diego. Its collection of artifacts, props, and memorabilia has been assembled with the help of such horror luminaries as Clive Barker, Bruce Campbell, John Carpenter and Robert Englund (a.k.a. Freddy Krueger).

Stay tuned for upcoming appearances and updates on its construction.