Trading Card Treats: Six Notable Horror Trading Card Sets

Although they’re best known as “baseball cards,” trading cards have a long association with horror, from the iconic Mars Attacks! series right through to the present. I’ve been lucky enough to collect tons of these sets through the years; I vividly recall going to the comic shop regularly to pick up packs of Gremlins 2: The New Batch cards and stickers as a kid, and taking them with me absolutely everywhere. Many of these can be found online or at comic shops, antique stores, and flea markets– they’re definitely a fun and unique way to collect horror history.

To quote HorrorHound Magazine’s trading card column, just “Don’t Eat the Gum!” 

Here are six notable horror trading card lines.

Mars Attacks! (1962)

Perhaps the granddaddy of all horror trading cards, the gory and controversial Mars Attacks! delighted kids and horrified their parents. As Karen R. Jones details in Mars Attacks! The Art of the Movie (1996), “the Brooklyn-based Topps Chewing Gum Company [developed the] trading card series to follow the preceding year’s highly successful Civil War set, which had delighted young collectors with its gruesomely rendered battle scenes.” Taking a page from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, with a dash of EC Comics, artists Bob Powell and Norm Saunders created beautiful, vividly horrific scenes with pithy titles like “Beast and the Beauty” and “Destroying a Dog.” Their instantly iconic, big brained Martians had skulls for faces and mindless destruction and depravity on their minds. Kids loved them; adults, predictably, clutched their pearls. Bad press forced the company to pull the cards before they were even released nationally, but the Martians had the last laugh.

Nearly sixty years later, the cards are still revered and have inspired reprints, new sets, comics, clothing, toys, and Tim Burton’s cult classic movie.

Creature Features (1973/1980)

Universal Studios licensed these two punny sets of classic horror images firmly in the Forrest J. Ackerman tradition. Black and white shots from the likes of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) are accompanied by groan worthy captions like “Sheesh! I better join Weight Watchers!” and “Will this cure my hiccups?” On the back were dopey jokes only grade schoolers could appreciate– which were probably the target audience for these cards.

Today they’re nostalgic, but for a generation of Monster Kids discovering these films on television, they were a fun gateway into the wonderful world of horror.

Night of the Living Dead (1987/1990)

Imagine Inc. and Fantaco Enterprises released (and re released!) a set of trading cards dedicated to the 1968 George Romero classic. (In 1992 they issued a hauntingly beautiful comics adaptation of the film.) The cards feature black and white production stills and behind the scenes shots accompanied by a green or red border and the movie logo and tagline “They Won’t Stay Dead!” The backs feature an illustrated background and the iconic Karen, with a complete recap of the plot. “Barbara flees in terror to a nearby farmhouse with her attacker following behind,” reads the first card. “Searching the house, she finds its only inhabitant; a mutilated corpse.”

Rare autographed cards and foil border cards were released, and these weren’t the only NOTLD cards issued, either; Imagine Inc. did another set of full color cards along with many other companies through the years. Pennsylvania’s long running Living Dead Festival has issued various cards of its own.

Fright Flicks (1988)

Topps really was the MVP of horror cards, producing everything from the aforementioned Mars Attacks! to the seminal Garbage Pail Kids (1985-present). With Fright Flicks they applied the Creature Features formula to more contemporary movies, pairing images from modern fare like An American Werewolf in London (1981), Fright Night (1985), and the Alien and Elm Street series with hokey one liners: “What do you mean? I just had a manicure!” As Den of Geek’s Chris Cummins wrote last year, “What made this line so unforgettable was how it utilized a bunch of R-rated films, and the images used were often packed with blood and guts – the exact sort of thing that appealed to kids and grossed out their parents. For less than a dollar, tweens could get their hands on scenes from movies that they had been forbidden to see.”

The backs identify the films but detail supposedly true stories of the paranormal under the heading “DID IT EVER HAPPEN?”, accompanied by a ghastly EC Comics style ghoul clutching a bloody knife. “*Names fictional. See disclaimer on wrapper,” reads the fine print. Whatever, brother; we came for the SFX shots.

The Ackermonster’s Cardiacards (1991)

The legendary Forrest J. Ackerman dipped into his archives for this wonderfully nostalgic set of classic posters and lobby cards. Universal Monsters are represented, as are oddities ranging from 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad (starring Douglas Fairbanks) to 1957’s The Black Scorpion, with animation by King Kong creator Willis O’Brien.

The cards are actually labeled “an educational guide for collectors,” and with their detailed descriptions of so many vintage flicks, these actually will school you on genre history. Just picture “Uncle Forry” giving you a tour of the art in his Ackermansion; that’s the vibe.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

One of the brilliant things about The Blair Witch Project was that every scrap of merchandising was posited as a piece of the mystery, from the tie-in CD (discovered in Joshua Leonard’s car stereo!) to the “nonfiction” book The Blair Witch Dossier. Topps Trading Card series was no different: in addition to the usual story recap, the cards feature subsets on Heather’s journal entries, the search for the missing filmmakers, and “the Legend.” One card contains a believably old fashioned rendering of a little girl being pulled underwater by a spectral hand, while another depicts the Blair Witch herself! It’s all wonderfully, suitably creepy.

Honorable Mentions: 

The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise got its own trading card set, and the first three movies garnered collectible stickers and an accompanying sticker book from Comic Images. I was lucky enough to get mine signed by Mark Patton (Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), who added his signature to a spread on the infamous leather bar scene. “I’m gonna put my name right on Bob [Shay]’s ass!” he quipped.

In 1991, National Safe Kids Campaign and Impel Marketing Inc. launched “Trading Card Treats,” an alternative to Halloween candy, with licensed illustrations of the Universal Monsters. This was most likely in response to the hysteria over tainted Halloween candy that had taken hold starting in the late 1980s. After all, Frankenstein’s Monster may be scary, but he’s got nothing on a razor blade in a Snickers bar!

Breygent Marketing created a set of trading cards for the first season of American Horror Story, and while the bulk of the cards are fairly standard production photos, the “chase” cards were really cool. Lucky collectors could find cards autographed by cast members like Frances Conroy (“Moira” in season 1) or containing fabric pieces from Jessica Lange’s wardrobe!

The folks at Fright Rags love trading cards enough to include one in every shipment; they’ve covered everything from classics like An American Werewolf in London and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) to, ahem, slightly less polished titles like Slaughter High (1986), each one featuring a fun fact. They’ve also done their own “wax packs” for Night of the Living Dead, Halloween (1978), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and House of 1000 Corpses (2003).

The links below aided me in my writing for this article.