First a bit of introduction, Hi, I’m an academic who loves everything about horror movie, horror tales and all aspects of culture that make people shudder. While I am working on a nice boring series of articles on those subjects for review and eventual publication I thought I might share with the gang here my interests and see what you all have to say about the subject. So lets go!
We are all frightened by things known and unknown. They beset us every day and they keep many awake at night. When we are kids we know the boogie man lurks down the hall no matter how many times our parents lie to us and tell us he isn’t. Then we grow up and get rid of these childish fears…or do we? How many of us turn on lights when we work late at night even though we know there is no one there but our coworkers? And, when was the last time you walked under a ladder even when there is nothing on it? But, for the sake of this article I am not talking the harmless amusements of Halloween or pleasant tingles of the funhouse. No, what we will look at are the deep seeded fears that plague the American people. The public has long found itself to be the victim of mass anxieties that seem to take hold of us and don’t let go. These anxieties are the persistent nagging fears that our expectations for life, society and security that we hold so dear are not as secure as we wish them to be. But, despite all assurances, we fear they are actually quite tenuous and subject to the whims of the unknown. The identity, motivation and public expression of these fears is what we are looking at in this work.
While these dark fears can be exhibited in many ways, it is the horror film that we are focusing on. Why film? Because it is the modern eras most widely viewed method of popular entertainment, that’s why. Since their invention, people have flocked to the theaters, later they sat glued to their TV screens and now to their computers or mobile devises watching these packaged nightmares. Among the first movies ever filmed was a horror film. Thomas Edison himself made an adaptation of Frankenstein back in 1910. From there it was not long before horror films were produced at a regular pace. This interest in horror films was not only true in the United States. France gained fame the world over with the whimsical production of Georges Miles and Germany terrified film goers with its expressionistic endeavors. This never flagged over the decades as horror films seem to have survived the changing tastes and technology, delivering to audiences mad scientists, giant bugs, beasts of the netherworld and assorted spookiness throughout the years. Even today this continues with, as of this writing, no fewer than three TV channels are dedicated to the genre. There are so many horror films that multiple festivals restrict themselves to only this branch of entertainment. Why do horror films have such a lasting appeal? Well there are many reasons but for this particular exercise we will look at their role in expressing our cherished cultural mass anxiety attack. In the medium of movies, it is the iconic monsters of film that represent our fears and how we view these threats throughout history. These monsters serve as more than just focuses of amusement or escapist entertainment. They are symbolic representations of our fears and allow us insight into the monsters of the popular mind.
Now that we have clarified our subject and established our thesis, let’s start looking at some monsters. One may wonder how we are going to cover every monster in the lexicon of the horror film. Let’s look at a few of these just to show how wide these variations can be. Throughout the history of the US horror film the monsters that appear have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.
You have the towering crystals crashing across the dessert in “The Monolith Monsters”.
There are super intelligent ants in “Phase 4”.
The giant snails in “The Monster that Challenged the World”,
A cobweb covered land octopus consumes all in “The Beast of Haunted Cave”.
Funguses are among us in “Splinter” and “Matango: Attack of the mushroom people” .
Even fish men seeking a suitable mother prowl the shore front in “Humanoids from the Deep”.
How could we possibly give this menagerie the attention they deserve? Well, we can’t. To make things a bit more doable we will be breaking things down. How will we break this down? That is a very good question. There are numerous ways to deal with this topic; chronologically, regionally, technologically and many others. For our purpose we will take a thematic approach by dividing the monsters into general categories based on the fear they represent.
Why this thematic approach? Well it allows for the broadest reach and the most consistency to our narrative. Politics, economics and technology change over time and the popular whims of the general public change even faster but some anxieties stand the test of time. Furthermore, it is just more logical to break down an essay about monsters by dividing the study according to type of monster. The monsters we are talking about are supposed to be representing the ageless fears that plague us so we will stick to this category. To put it simply, the state of the art of film may evolve but these monsters remain a constant despite the changes in media.
Now let us get to the monsters. In order to keep our focus clear and keep this little essay from becoming an epic novel we will keep things concise and limit our categories. The monsters examined are divided into five general types. Each of these is not confined to or defined by appearance for the look and behavior of these monsters, like we have previously said about the technology of media, has changed and evolved as the country has changed. The top of the line effects, or what the industry would call “state of the art” are changing so fast that what is astounding today is yesterday’s news almost before tomorrow comes about. Todd Browning’s Dracula did not even have a synched musical score whereas a few years later the soundtrack to “White Zombie” was one of the best things about the film. Stop motion effects that terrified everyone in Ray Harryhausen film such as “The Beast from 20000 Fathoms” suddenly seemed childish with the CGI effects that appear in every horror film. In a case of everything old is new again, CGI is now experiencing a backlash calling for persons with stop motion and model skills. Indeed, the film “The Millennium Bug” was specifically marketed for its lack of CGI effects. Even the world of make-up has moved from classic theater technics to the cosmetic animation brought to national attention in films such as “American Werewolf of London” and “The Thing”. We must find a new way to explore.
What we will base our description on is what they represent. This works well for us as from their beginnings, monsters have represented fears that do not have a convenient face. Even in this modern age what we still dread is something that does not provide a convenient identification or a target at which to shoot. The monsters are symbolic of the threat they represent and how they challenge our notions of the American Dream. These monsters and what they represent arebroken into five basic categories, each representing a different anxiety and each given equal attention. It should be noted that multiple monsters may be present in a single movie. Now let me be perfectly clear, I do not mean in the physical form such as the films like House of Frankenstein and Cabin in the Woods. It seemed like all a studio like Universal had to do was put the word “House” in the title and they would find employment for any number of their cast of monsters including some of their relatives. Of course many of us grew up on the Toho films where Godzilla would battle everyone from King Gidorah to a lump of pollution, “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster”. These monsters are scary but I am talking about much more than just an elegant mask or creaking door. I am referring to the themes that motivate these creatures to do what they do and the results of their running amok. We will look at these fears and how we manifest them in the medium of the silver screen.
Right now let me take a moment and let everyone know what monsters we will be looking at. Again, I want to reiterate that these are not based on appearance. A more detailed description will come up in their respective chapters but for now let’s just be clear of the 5 beasties we are looking at. They are:
1. The Vampire
2. The Werewolf
3. The Outsider
4. The Human Monster
5. The Man-Made Monster
Would anyone like a quick definition of these monsters before I start supporting my thesis? Thought so. Let me give everyone a bit of a taste at what I am getting at. A little teaser as to the sort of monster interpretation I am hoping you will all accept when all is said and done
Vampires= life sucker. Probably the easiest to define of the group, the vampire is anything that takes the life away from those around it in order to prolong its own existence. That is not to say it has to be much of an existence but an existence none the less. We will explore this taking of life in all its forms from characters that do the familiar feast on blood to those who absorb the life energy of those around them. Also looking at different forms of the creature which range from old dudes in capes,
to hot young women
all the way to entire planetary populations that devour passersby.
Werewolf=ultimate temper tantrum. This is the unbound emotion that makes a beast of us all. Be it lust, murderous rage, or just that idiot who is talking on their phone instead of looking at the light, we all feel the beast within us. When we lose that control that keeps us in polite society we get to be in the presence of the werewolf. This losing control makes its appearance in a seemingly endless number of forms. From the classic wolf to big green monsters
to snake people
to even a were cicada, Yeah, the loud bug that shows up every 17 years.
We have to be able to look past the physical and get into the emotions behind it.
The outsider= Well you can probably guess. Anyone or thing that is so different it scares us is the outsider. What can be easier to define? Well, the problem arises in that everyone has a slightly different idea of what is different enough to be scary.
Some require a giant gastropod, while others only require a slightly different tone to the skin. Either way they are the outsiders. Monsters in this range need not even be corporeal or come from a place we can point to, unless you have the map directions to the netherworld or parallel dimensions.
The Human Monster= someone who has stopped being the second word. Anytime someone puts their own ambitions or takes on the world before the comfort or even the lives of others then we’ve got ourselves a human monster. This one is the easiest and the hardest to spot because they look just like everybody else. Mind you, some of these that look like the rest of us are the scariest images in our minds. I should probably mention Dr. Frankenstein himself and his attempt to feel like God.
There is also the rationalizing turncoat scientist from “Thing from Another World” who encourages the growth of the outsider to the point he becomes a homegrown, no pun intended, terror.
A few brain cells down the cultural ladder there is the psycho crew from “Last House on the Left” .
And the icon of the 2000s, the master of puzzles Jigsaw himself.
The possibilities to explore the subtle variance here are endless.
The Man-Made monster= when our toys don’t behave. We love our toys and the things we play with. What happens when they don’t like us, or worse, just don’t care? Then we have made our own monster! These are the ones that usually involve a bunch of people in lab coats running about. Not that it does them any good but they still run about. Forget about Dr. Frankenstein. Let’s look at his neglected child, the monster itself. He is the quintessential definition in this title. He would be joined by other animated experiments and a plethora of giant pets during the 1950s. Even some classic outsiders such as the family in “Hills have Eyes” and the murderous jelly of “The Blob” were rewritten to be the result of man’s misguided efforts.
Now that the little bit of business of defining the monsters has been taken care of let’s take these one at a time and see how they fit into the American mindset and the variety of appearances each has in the world of horror. We will begin with a monster that, as of this writing, seems to be everywhere in media. Currently there are multiple series in prime time that include vampires in their cast. This is actually an aspect that makes this classification the most difficult to argue and simultaneously illustrates the point I am trying to make. Let’s dive into this…..next time.