Frightening Facts About Boris Karloff, The Master of Horror

October 20, 2023 | Phillip Hamilton

Frightening Facts About Boris Karloff, The Master of Horror

It’s alive! Boris Karloff was and forever will be the master of horror. Beyond bringing to life Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, Karloff starred in hundreds of films, spanning multiple decades and genres. With his iconic look, deep and lisping voice, and chilling calm demeanor, Karloff has earned his spot at the top of the horror genre ladder. But there’s a lot more to Karloff than just a monster in heavy boots. Here are some frightening facts about Boris Karloff you may not have known.

1. The Frankenstein Flop

When Karloff starred in Frankenstein, nobody had much faith it would lead him anywhere. Karloff was not credited for his appearance as the iconic monster (instead credited as “?” for marketing purposes). Karloff was not a known star at the time, but he showed audiences that he had something special.


2. The Black Sheep

Karloff’s original name was William Henry Pratt, but he changed it for a heartbreaking reason. He didn't want to embarrass his family, who thought he was the black sheep for becoming an actor and that he would never make it in Hollywood. They had little faith in him, as they all worked for the British Service and expected him to as well. 

Boris Karloff The Deadlier Sex - 1920Robert Thornby, Wikimedia Commons

3. Odds Against Him

The odds of stardom were stacked against Karloff from the start: He was born bow-legged, with a stutter and a lisp. Though he eventually conquered the stutter, the lisp became a staple of his character, and clearly he didn’t let anything else keep him back.B&W portrait of Boris Karloff -1913Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

4. Late Start

Karloff didn’t get his first starring role until he was 43 years old, proving you’re never too old to start new, exciting things!

Boris Karloff facts Getty Images

5. It Ain’t Easy

While Frankenstein was the movie that rocketed him to stardom, Karloff starred in 80 films before it. Many of these were silent, and the work was sporadic with few leading roles.Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life - 1914Unknown Author ,Wikimedia Commons

6. Heavy Shoes to Fill

The shoes for Karloff’s Frankenstein suit weighed 11 pounds. Guess Karloff didn't skip leg day!

Boris Karloff facts Frankenstein (1931), Universal Pictures

7. Shamble to Home!

Karloff wore his Frankenstein’s monster makeup to a celebrity baseball game once, which also featured Buster Keaton. The footage is utterly hilarious. Karloff walks onto the field in his full attire, and one highlight of the game saw Karloff stomping towards home, a sight so frightening that Keaton dramatically fainted and dropped to the ground.Buster Keaton FactsWikimedia Commons

8. Scare Break

Karloff is most known for starring in horror films, but between 1934 and 1939, he took a break from the genre. The problem was that the Motion Picture Production Code began to restrict horror films, leading to their decline. Karloff acted in a string of otherwise-genred films and found much success in doing so.

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

9. Tea Time

Reportedly, the very British Karloff would often demand to have mid-day tea break on set; the habit drove his frequent co-star Bela Lugosi up the wall.Bela Lugosi FactsTHE REAL DRACULA (Full Documentary) - Bela Lugosi, Janson Media

10. Back to the Classics

Horror eventually made a comeback, and Karloff signed with Universal to reprise his role as Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein. This horror revival came after a nearly bankrupt theatre in Los Angeles played Frankenstein, Dracula, and King Kong back-to-back to try and bring in customers. Not only did it work, it lead to a nationwide revival of the genre!

Boris Karloff factsWikimedia Commons

11. Familiar Voice

Karloff voiced the narrator in the animated rendition of How the Grinch Take Christmas, as well as the Grinch himself. The film is now an instant classic, and a Grammy Award winner.

Christmas Movies FactsGetty Images

12. British Blood

Karloff had a love of all things British. He was born in London, and never gave up his British citizenship despite leaving for Canada at the start of his career. He loved the game cricket and, at the end of his life, lived in a flat in London.Boris Karloff In The Invisible Ray Trailer - 1936Universal Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

13. The Slavic Connection

While he changed his name for a few reasons, nobody is quite sure where the name Boris Karloff came from. Karloff himself claimed “Boris” was just made up and “Karloff” was due to his Slavic background—however, his daughter claims there is no Slavic background in their family. Maybe one day fans will figure out this mystery...

Boris Karloff Arsenic And Old Lace Broadway - 1943Vandamm, Wikimedia Commons

14. One Last Farewell

Karloff’s final film was Isle of the Snake People, released two years after his passing. It was one of four low-budget Mexican films Karloff signed a contract to do, getting paid $100,000 for each. The film was mostly panned, even by Karloff fans, although they were happy to see their favorite matinee idol just one last time.

Boris Karloff factsIsle of the Snake People (1971), Columbia Pictures

15. The Ghoul Talks

The Ghoul was the first British “talkie” horror film—and it starred none other than Karloff.

Boris Karloff factsThe Ghoul (1933), Gaumont British Picture Corporation

16. Behind the Neck Bolts

Karloff loved kids, so much that he recorded many successful albums of children’s stories in his iconic calming, quiet voice. He read Peter Pan, The Year Without Santa Claus, and more in various popular recordings.

Boris Karloff Radio Show Wnew - 1950Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons

17. Behind the Mask

Not everyone who worked with Karloff had glowing things to say about him. After working with the horror star on the 1965 film Die, Monster, Die!, actress Suzan Farmer had chilling memories of the actor. She said he was as cold and distant, and claimed he “wasn’t the charming personality people perceived him to be.”

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

18. Eat Your Heart Out, Marlon Brando

Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness, was Karloff’s favorite author.

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

19. Just Cake It on

Makeup takes time, especially for movies. When Karloff was acting in The Mummy, he spent eight hours per shoot in the makeup chair having the effects applied. They would shoot from 7:00 PM to 2:00 AM.

Boris Karloff factsWikimedia Commons

20. Coffee Talk With Karloff

Apart from horror, Karloff loved comedy. In a commercial he did for Butter-Nut Coffee, Karloff speaks to the viewer through the TV, and subtitles at the bottom of the screen act as your—the viewer’s—lines. It’s a fun and interesting ad, and it allowed him to show off his comedic chops. Plus, the whole thing is available to watch on YouTube!

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

21. The Stage Calls

Karloff started his career on the stage in Canada and returned to the stage later in life for a production of Arsenic and Old Lace. He played a offender who, interestingly enough, is frequently mistaken for Karloff in the play. He also played the role in the film and radio adaptations. That's right: Karloff was meta before being meta was even a thing. Boris Karloff - Captain Hook Peter Pan - 1951Peter Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons

22. Friendship: Over

The actor owed a lot to Universal, who kept him steadily employed in horror for years. In 1946, however, Karloff left the studio behind. The bitter reason? He thought Frankenstein was over as a series, and the films after Son of Frankenstein were declining in quality. He just couldn't watch his beloved character disappear into obscurity.

Family Feud factsWikimedia Commons, Malpass93

23. Santa Karloff

Every Christmas, Karloff used to visit physically disabled kids at a Baltimore hospital dressed as Santa and hand out presents. Again: He was a really great guy. Boris Karloff - The Raven - 1935Universal Studios, Wikimedia Commons

24. Karloff Hook

Karloff played the infamous pirate Captain Hook in a stage adaptation of Peter Pan later in life.

Boris Karloff in - The Ape - 1940Monogram Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

25. This’ll Take a While

Throughout his career, Karloff appeared in over 200 films, leaving fans with a lot of content to go back through. I can’t even imagine marathoning that one.

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

26. Fifth Time’s the Charm

Karloff was married five times and had one daughter. His fourth marriage to Dorothy Stine was one of his longest, lasting 16 years—but it was also the most scandalous. Karloff divorced Stine in 1946, only to take up almost immediately with Evelyn Hope Helmore. Maybe it was the right decision, though: He and Helmore were married until his passing in 1969.Dorothy Stone In Stepping Stones - 1924Edward Thayer Monroe, Wikimedia Commons

27. Karloff Meets Lugosi

Horror icons Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred in several films together. They appeared in Universal classics like The Raven, The Body Snatcher, and more—though Karloff was often given top-billing over Lugosi even when he wasn't the main character.

Boris Karloff factsThe Raven (1935), Universal Pictures

28. No More Monsters

The last time Karloff played Frankenstein in full makeup was for a Halloween episode of Route 66, a drama/anthology series. The episode, called "Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing," also featured Long Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman for the first time in 25 years. Lobby card for Frankenstein - 1931Universal Studios, Wikimedia Commons

29. The Monster and I

Karloff’s mother’s aunt was a woman named Anna Leonowens, who spent time in the royal court of Siam. If any of this sounds familiar to you, you probably know Anna now-famous stories from The King and I.

Boris Karloff factsFlickr, SarahSierszyn

30. Stolen Valor

Karloff could claim a Grammy Award on his list of accolades—but this is actually a lie. You see, Karloff won for "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," but he didn't sing the song. Yes, he provided the narration for How the Grinch Take Christmas, but the song itself was sung, (uncredited) by American singer Thurl Ravenscroft. Childhood: ruined. 

Nicole Kidman quizShutterstock

31. Double Star

Karloff has not only one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one for TV, and one for film. If anyone deserved it, it was probably Karloff.

Boris Karloff factsFLickr, Pamla J. Eisenberg

32. Lost Ghoul

Karloff’s The Ghoul was once considered a “lost film.” Somehow, every copy of it was lost after its airing, since the film wasn't very popular. However, over 40 years after the film was made, the original negative was rediscovered. Karloff fans finally got the chance to see this missing entry in their hero's filmography....and they were ultimately disappointed.

Lobby card for the 1935 Universal horror movie, The Raven - 1935Universal Studios, Wikimedia Commons

33. Comic Book Hero

Gold Key Comics was given permission by Karloff to use his likeness in their series Thriller. It was renamed to Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery, and continued after his passing, with recent reprints published in 2009.

Boris Karloff factsPixabay

34. Did He Dig Any...Graves?

When Karloff first showed up in Hollywood, Tinseltown didn’t exactly open the gates to greet him. While he found sporadic work in silent films, he wasn’t able to make ends meet on acting alone. To pay the bill, Karloff had to take jobs digging ditches and delivering materials to construction sites.

Boris Karloff, British Intelligence (1940)Warner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

35. Stamped

The US Postal Service paid homage to the great actor by putting his image as Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy on a series of stamps.

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

36. 11-Pound Shoe on the Other Foot

While Karloff is perhaps most famous for playing Frankenstein’s monster, he also played his share of mad scientists, a-la Dr. Frankenstein himself. In the film Frankenstein 1970, Karloff played that role exactly opposite a new Frankenstein’s monster. That’s a nice little callback for all those classic Universal fans.

Boris Karloff factsFrankenstein 1970, Aubrey Schenck Productions

37. A Long Life, Forever Remembered

Karloff lost his life at the age of 81 on February 2, 1969, in England. He was a smoker all his life and had contracted emphysema, which disabled one of his lungs. He officially passed from pneumonia in the hospital.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House - 1932Universal Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

38. Karloff Reborn

In 2014, a man named Randy Bowser put on a one-man play about the life of Boris Karloff. The play was funded on Kickstarter, and there was a special guest in the audience at each and every showing: Karloff's daughter Sara. The first production was successful and a second followed, showing that interest in the late great actor is still alive and well.

Boris Karloff factsGetty Images

39. Daddy's Little Monster

When Karloff’s only daughter Sara was being born, he was filming Son of Frankenstein. Reportedly, the nervous and excited father had to rush from the set all the way to the hospital, and didn’t have time to change out of his full makeup. Letting Frankenstein’s monster be the first thing your daughter sees is either the greatest or worst idea of all time.

Boris Karloff factsShutterstock

40. Brotherly Love

Karloff’s brother Sir John Thomas Pratt had little faith in his brother, even after he broke out as a horror star. One day, he gave his brother a disturbing insult. The hoity-toity Sir Pratt told Karloff while he was filming The Ghoul, “I certainly hope you’re saving it, because this can never last.” Brotherly love is great, ain’t it? 

Boris Karloff Red Skelton Show 1954CBS, Walt Davis, Wikimedia Commons

41. Karloff Vs. Lugosi

Karloff and fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi were often marketed as enemies. Although some of it was for publicity, they did have a chilly relationship. For one, Lugosi turned down the part of Frankenstein's monster before Karloff nabbed it, sniping that the role would be more suited to “a half-wit extra” than him, a serious actor.

Later, Lugosi reportedly complained, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

Boris Karloff factsWikimedia Commons

42. Frenemy

Despite Karloff’s frequent assertions that he and Lugosi were on pleasant terms, he once dealt his rival a cold-hearted betrayal. In an interview looking back on his career, Karloff sniffed and said that Lugosi was a sub-par actor who had "never learned his trade".

Horror’s Scariest Monsters Quiz

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

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