Metallica guitarist scares up a vintage poster collection

A vintage movie poster from 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” part of Kirk Hammett’s collection on display at the Peabody Essex.
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A vintage movie poster from 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” part of Kirk Hammett’s collection on display at the Peabody Essex.

SALEM — The movie was “The Day of the Triffids,” and Kirk Hammett still recalls how it made him feel.

“I was so transfixed,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this isn’t Saturday morning cartoons.’”

No, the 1962 film about poisonous mutant plants that walk on their roots and get sustenance from rotting human carcasses is part science fiction and part horror. And for a pre-school kid with absent parents, it was unimaginably great.


Indeed, Hammett reckons the experience of watching that movie by himself — at the age of 5 — has a lot to do with who he became: Hammett is the lead guitarist in Metallica, the influential heavy metal band known for its punishing riffs and ominous song titles — “Leper Messiah,” “To Live Is to Die,” “Enter Sandman” — that invoke a vintage horror movie vibe.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett at the Peabody Essex Museum.
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That’s no coincidence. Hammett, 54, has integrated his love — call it an obsession — for all things horror not just in his music but in his life. Over many years, the guitarist has painstakingly — and at enormous expense — assembled a peerless collection of horror and sci-fi movie posters that is the subject of a new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Titled “It’s Alive!,” the show includes some of the most coveted — and thus valuable — movie posters in the world, fantastically evocative promos for films from the 1930s and ’40s featuring the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. In 2012, Hammett published a book about his collection, called “Too Much Horror Business,” but this is the first time his remarkable archive has been shown in a museum. The show runs through Nov. 26.

“I feel like a proud parent seeing his kid off to college,” Hammett says. “My collection has matured and become its own entity and it’s time to go see the world.”

The original posters for “Frankenstein,” which came out in 1931, and “The Mummy,” released the following year, are exceedingly rare — and unquestionably cool — but do they qualify as art that belongs on museum walls? You bet, says Daniel Finamore, the Peabody Essex curator who put the show together.


“I’m always on the lookout for exhibitions that challenge our notions of what we think we understand about art,” Finamore says. “At a very populist level, this stuff connects with people. The truth is, the conversation about what is art and what isn’t becomes immaterial if you want to reach people at a level that really matters to them.”

The exhibition includes 135 pieces — there are also spooky toys, guitars, masks, and sculptures — and Finamore says that represents just a fraction of Hammett’s holdings. The curator culled the items during visits to the guitarist’s two houses in San Francisco.

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1954’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

“He has the 7-foot-high poster for ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ in the entryway of one of his homes. It’s like the wallpaper. It’s unbelievable,” says Finamore, who “poked and opened drawers and looked behind doors” to find the best stuff.

In May, before Metallica’s sold-out concert at Gillette Stadium, Hammett and his wife Lani spent a few hours at the Peabody Essex. Looking every bit the rock star — silver Judy Jetson boots, skinny black pants, a bold print shirt, and black velour jacket — Hammett talked excitedly about horror movies and music, and how those twin interests intersect.

“They’re like mirror images of each other,” he says.


Hammett grew up in the ’60s in San Francisco’s Mission District, which was then a perilous place for a boy whose parents were, at best, inattentive. Left alone for long stretches, he found safety and solace in movie theaters, or in front of a television, watching horror flicks.

‘I’ve always felt like an outsider. I had problems figuring out how I fit into situations, andI felt an instant kinship withthe monsters.’

“I’ve always felt like an outsider. I had problems figuring out how I fit into situations, and I felt an instant kinship with the monsters,” he says. “These mournful characters, these beings, they all kind of had the same predicament as me. They were looking to be accepted, looking to belong. I totally related to them.”

Hammett supplemented his movie habit with comic books and horror magazines like “Creepy” and “Eerie,” which he bought with his lunch money at the San Francisco Comic Book Company, the country’s first store devoted to comics. It was a refuge for Hammett, who remembers seeing celebrated cartoonist Robert Crumb there many times.

In his teens, Hammett began listening to — and then playing — music, preferring heavier, hard rock bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to, say, the Beatles, whom he still considers “too happy-sounding.”

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1932’s “The Mummy.”

“When I heard music with a dark edge to it, I knew I was hearing something familiar even though I’d never heard it before,” he says. “It was like a sermon, the equivalent of a bunch of demons raising their trumpets and blowing their horns. I was hearing their call and saying, ‘Yes, take me, I’m a devotee.’”

Wise move. Since Hammett joined Metallica, in 1983, the band has sold over 110 million albums and won eight Grammy Awards. Though sometimes melodic, Metallica’s music is more often characterized by flurries of minor-key arpeggios played frantically and adorned by James Hetfield’s growled vocal. At their best, the band, which also includes drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Robert Trujillo, is capable of conjuring serious dread.

At home, Hammett sometimes spends hours on the couch with a guitar, drawing inspiration from the oversize images of undead creatures that loom all around him. Because the sun can damage the posters, the shades are usually drawn. (Understandably, Hammett’s wife and kids live in the house next door.)

He still watches old horror movies to spark his creativity.

“If you’re not acclimated to it, the classic stuff can be like watching paint dry,” Hammett says. “If you watch a classic horror film and think it’s going to be modern like ‘Insidious’ or ‘The Conjuring,’ that’s like listening to Louis Armstrong and expecting speed metal. They’re two different things.”

1931’s “Nosferatu.”

Hammett says having his poster collection exhibited in a museum has been a goal for 25 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s not a personal thing about me,” he says. “I just want to share how beautiful this stuff really is.”

From the beginning, Hammett has used the money he’s made — and there’s been a lot of it — to purchase movie posters, which, depending on their condition and scarcity, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. He employs a buyer — “my personal archeologist,” he says — to help track down items he’s looking for and to avoid the “celebrity tax” that’s assessed if a seller knows Hammett is the buyer.

Because no one valued the posters at the time, many were discarded or destroyed. Those that weren’t often show up in unusual places — used as insulation in attics or under linoleum, for example. Hammett’s three-sheet poster for “Frankenstein,” believed to be the only one of its kind left, was found in a boarded-up projection booth of a movie theater in the Midwest.

“The unpredictability makes the discovery that much more exciting,” says Hammett. “There’s a movie poster sitting somewhere in the world right now that I, personally, think is the holy grail because of the demand and the cloak-and-dagger stuff that goes on with acquiring these things.

“But I can’t tell you any more about it,” he says with a smile.

IT’S ALIVE! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art From the Kirk Hammett Collection

At Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Aug. 12-Nov. 26. Hammett exhibition-catalog signing and conversation with curator, Aug. 19 (tickets limited). 866-745-1876,

Mark Shanahan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan