The faces are weird and twisted. A malevolent mummy sneers through a veil of rotting flesh. A sickly green skull’s glowing eyes burn with the fires of hell. A grimacing ghoul named Mikey Sevier sports makeup that resembles an undead roadie for Kiss.
Sevier is the creepy alter ego of Davidson-based artist, performer and horror aficionado Michael Pergola, and this murderer’s row of frightful faces comprise his Spookshow Monster Masks, a product line of horrible handcrafted creations that collectors snap up for $175 or more a pop.
Mikey Sevier (pronounced “severe”) is a cross between a Transylvanian nobleman and a Borscht Belt comic, a character the 41-year-old Pergola launched more than a decade ago as part of a cabaret performance. Like a virus transmitted by a zombie’s bite, Sevier’s baleful influence has spread beyond his creator’s control. He’s also the star of a series of gory yet goofy Instagram posts that feature monster Mikey butting into classic, and not-so-classic, horror movie clips and posters like a frightful Forrest Gump.
Pergola’s masks, performances and posts are valentines to visceral horror, tapping into our cultural monster-loving DNA that found fruition in the 1960s horror boom. It was a world where classic creature features were screened on late-night TV, curated by horror movie hosts like L.A.’s Vampira, Chicago’s Svengoolie and Philadelphia’s Zacherle; when television sitcoms featured creepy clans like The Munsters and The Addams Family, and kids could thumb through macabre magazines like J. Forest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland or scare their friends with a glow-in-the-dark wolf man assembled from an Aurora monster model kit.
The lure of monster culture is so powerful it’s lived on in countless iterations ever since, a hall of mirrors where the black and white nightmares of the 1930s are reflected as the lurid Technicolor scream fests of the 1960s, the winking gore hound nostalgia of the 1980s and contemporary creep-outs like American Horror Story and Stranger Things. And Mikey Sevier loves them all.
Queen City Nerve: Which came first for you, art or horror?
Michael Pergola: Monsters have always figured into my art. I grew up in northern New Jersey in a town called Ringwood, which was really interesting. It’s a much wooded area at the top of the Appalachian Mountains. It has a lot of ghosts, witch stories, UFO sightings and things like that.
I was interested in Halloween and the classic monsters when I was very little. I went through my goth phase in second grade when I started wearing vampire makeup to school — delicately applied red eyeliner. When the teacher said I had to go see the nurse, I tried not to say in front of the other kids that I was wearing makeup.
When I was 11, Freddy Krueger was really big and I got into [horror movie magazine] Fangoria. Reading Fangoria, I learned about Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I was like, “Wow, this is where it’s really at!” It seemed a lot cooler than what was going on in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the slasher and body horror [genres] were dying down. This was something that was classic and yet it was infused with a psychedelic life from that mid-20th century drawing style. To me as a teenager, it was inspiring to see [monsters] represented in what was even then a cool retro way.
When I was a teenager I started in rock ‘n’ roll bands and the first song that I ever recorded and released on cassette was called “Dracula Died for Your Sins.” It was a mash-up of noise music and ’70s soul. It was obvious to me at the time that my childhood obsessions were figuring into my adolescence. They carried through until now. It’s always been about monsters for me, even when I was trying to be serious and doing punk rock in my twenties.
That led to a performance art thing. About 10 years ago, I [joined] a couple of cabaret-type outfits for burlesque places in New York City. That’s where the character of Mikey Sevier first came to fruition. I wanted to sing in front of people and do my routines, but I couldn’t think of a character. Suddenly I realized: Do what you know. I ended up being this down-on-his-luck horror host, a very glamorous yet totally silly character.
From that cabaret act, I started doing [the character] on the internet because it was so much easier. Instead of having to put on makeup and get all this stuff together and go from Jersey into the city, I could just drop a video on YouTube or Instagram.
Mikey developed more and more through making Instagram posts. I was doing Instagram and people were interacting with the character. They’d ask me a question and I’d provide some funny quip that would relate back to a little piece of history that I didn’t know was there in the formation of the character. So now I have this really thorough backstory for Mikey Sevier going back 500 years.
What’s Mikey Sevier’s backstory?
Mikey Sevier is every kind of monster put together with a little bit of Gene Simmons, Elvira and Groucho Marx. He was a rich man who got bitten by Dracula. He was a vampire for years and eventually was attacked by a wolf man in the middle of the night. Later he bumped into Dr. Frankenstein, and Frankenstein put him back together after he was torn apart by angry villagers.
He eventually moved to the U.S. and started doing vaudeville. He got into silent pictures [and] then went into talkies. He fell down on his luck and then came back in the early ’60s through a horror hosting gig. [Throughout] the ’70s he got into psychedelia. He eventually lost the family castle and had to start doing shows from the family crypt. He was relegated to public access TV before finally finding his way to Instagram and YouTube, so he had a little bit of a rebirth.
You’re also a horror movie host.
I had to rediscover horror hosts. When I was a kid in the New York area they had Chiller Theatre [a TV show that was cancelled in 1982]. By the time I was able to stay up late enough, it was off the air. The only horror host that I remember was Elvira when she would do her Halloween specials on MTV. Even when I started doing the Mikey Sevier horror host as a cabaret act 10 years ago, I didn’t realize how big horror hosts were across the U.S. There were millions of them! There are still tons of horror hosts today who are doing it on public access. And I thought I was doing something that was totally original!
What are your favorite monsters?
It’s Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi in Return of the Vampire. Anything where they’re wearing more makeup and it’s especially caked on, or it looks like they’re wearing lipstick, those are my monsters.
When did you come to the Charlotte area?
I moved to Davidson three years ago. I’d already been doing the Mikey Sevier character for about three years. I was painting original prints and selling those. I’m always looking for a way to monetize the character. I love doing videos but I couldn’t turn out [content] on YouTube as quickly as I wanted to in a way that would pick up steam. The [videos] all needed to be of a certain quality. The idea was that they all were fake TV shows so they had to look right.
It was difficult to get them out that fast. But I could shoot out short Instagram posts every day, because I had been honing my digital manipulation skills with Photoshop, After Effects and digital music production for the 10 years before I started Mikey Sevier. So by the time I started doing Instagram I could start a video, spend two hours on it, and get it out by five o’clock and be a horror star.
What sparked your interest in making monster masks?
I moved to the masks about two years ago because of people that I’d been following on Instagram and who had been following me. I found a couple of mask-makers. They were doing it in an old-school style that I found very exciting, because I started becoming obsessed with the old Ben Cooper masks — the plastic ones with the strap. I really didn’t like them as a kid because I wanted to be super realistic as I honed my makeup skills. But as I got older, the artificiality of that art and those designs really turned me on. Then I thought I could make these masks. So I bought some clay, some plaster and rubber and I just started doing it. To my surprise it turned out well and people wanted to buy them.
A lot of the stuff is based on off-model brands. There are off-model toys which were not exactly perfect. You get a Yogi Bear [toy] but the colors are wrong or the eyes are a little too far apart. There’s a lot of art like that happening in the ’50s. They would rip off one illustration by one guy who did it for a magazine. Then these Japanese guys would repaint it differently. Then somebody in the States would repaint that and have it look a little bit different by changing the colors around. I love it when that happens. I like to think of a lot of my stuff as like a 19th-generation Lon Chaney Junior Frankenstein mixed with a Glenn Strange Frankenstein, then done in the colors of the Ben Cooper masks which would have come out in 1965, or some variant thereof. I don’t want to make it sound like there is a ton of planning involved in this procedure. I have to follow what I find exciting or else I’m not going to do it
Who is buying your masks? Is your demo all across the board or it mostly older white guys?
It’s a lot of older white guys (laughs). The people I sell to are mostly high-end collectors who are totally cool with paying $200 for an expertly made monster mask that’s going to look good in a display next to items that cost thousands of dollars.
I find that a lot of kids are really intro Mikey the character and they think the masks are cool. To them it’s brand new. A bright green skull with red eyes, we’ve all seen that in a die-cut Halloween decoration, but to a kid that’s a brand new thing. When they go to a Halloween store [they’re not into] all this ultra-realistic or otherwise super-cutesy Halloween stuff. But when they see something that has more of the retro-feel, they’re like, “Wow!” And I love that.[The below masks were made my Michael Pergola. Click to scroll through.]
I want people to get a fun, creepy, maybe nostalgic Halloween vibe. I want people to be able to feel that excitement that I got on Halloween as a kid. That’s really inspiring in my line of work. I get a real kick out of it when people get in touch with me and say, “I look forward to your Instagram posts every day. I know you’re going to inspire me or make me feel like I’m six years old today.” I get a lot of that. I can’t tell you how gratifying that is.
Furthermore I love people to have a blast and appreciate horror. I think horror is a noble genre. It teaches you a lot about life. You can learn a lot from horror movies and fairy tales. And monster masks are just cool. They look good in your house. Everybody should have cool monster masks on display in their house because it’s art that’s fun.
What is the overarching lesson from horror movies, if you had to distill it down to a tweet?
I don’t think they’re about good vs. evil. I think it’s an introspective thing. It’s about recognizing that which scares you and making it your buddy. It’s about confronting your own mortality through the art. That’s probably why little kids like it. That’s why guys who are my age and older like it. If you can make that cool, palatable, sexy or glamorous or psychedelic, that’s fun! Happy Halloween!