by Anna Bruner
I grew up with monsters. Before the Disney Princesses, before being shown Back to the Future and Sixteen Candles by friends and babysitters, before sitting in on my mother's marathons of musicals and historical epics, my earliest films were Universal's monster movies. Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and The Mummy were all weekend staples for my father and I, and we often binge-watched them again and again every Saturday from the solidarity of a pillow fort or makeshift blanket tent. As I grew older, some of my fondest memories with my dad involved late night screenings of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and (once I got a little older) movies like Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead.
As a child, I would flip through the glossy pages of my dad's books of production stills, old horror movie posters, and glamour shots of actors and actresses in gothic and otherworldly makeup. My school notebooks and binders were plastered with images of The 50 Foot Woman and Cat People. If there was a movie I hadn't seen, my dad probably had seen it, and his memories and summaries of those movies often stood in for more traditional bedtime stories. Each of us would put on a thick European accent and recite "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright," the way most parents and children recite goodnight prayers. He told me all about the sci-fi films of his childhood: The Blob, The Thing, The Day of the Trepids, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He vividly recalled sneaking out to see Carrie when it first premiered, and how he had to walk home alone afterwards through the fog of a sleeping neighborhood. As a teenager, he introduced me to the B-movies of Ed Wood. He instilled in me a great love of the scary, the odd, the macabre, and that love is one of the strongest bonds I have with my father.
But I also grew up with war movies. Both my parents are history buffs, and watching documentaries and films about WWII were often Sunday night traditions for both of them. Indeed, the first film that made me want to become a filmmaker, the film that is the reason I ever went to art school, was Life Is Beautiful -- a movie about the Holocaust. Such films were about entirely different, real life horrors, which were all too fresh in the memory of our world’s history. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I began to realize, however, that a war movie can be a horror movie…and in turn, a horror movie can be a war movie.
In high school I reread Bram Stoker's Dracula for my AP English class. We talked about the themes to be found within it -- mostly sexual, since it dealt with a time of greatly repressed sexuality in Victorian Britain -- but also how it was a story that greatly dealt with xenophobia. Count Dracula, a foreigner from Transylvania, comes to England with the intent to buy land and reunite with a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his great love. The fear that surrounds him, the fear he instills in others, is a fear of "the other."
Here is a figure from "the old country," largely steeped in traditional folklore unfamiliar to Western Europe, perceived as strange, different. and even terrifying. This fear of "the other" can be found in the other monster films as well.
In The Wolfman, an American tourist undergoes the transformation into a local legend foretold by a Romani woman, after he murders a Romani man he believed to be nothing more than a wolf. In The Mummy, British and American archeologists are terrorized by the undead pharaoh of the civilization they are trying to colonize. In Frankenstein, the monster is not feared because he is violent, but because he is different.
When we look at the Universal monster films in this light, it's no wonder why they fell out of style in the outbreak of WWII. Fear of immigrants and foreigners was prevalent in day-to-day American life…but compared to the real life atrocities of Stalin and Hitler, no fictional monster could really compare. Monster films all but died out during the war, and the age of romantic comedies and musicals took over to provide something much more lighthearted to fear-weary movie audiences.
After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the reality of nuclear war pervaded everyday life, even in peacetime. As America entered The Cold War, the possibility of atomic bomb strikes seemed more and more likely. Even when my father was attending elementary school in the 60's, he still recalls the sirens warning people to get to their nearest fallout shelter, with regular "duck and cover" drills conducted in class. Monster films returned, but this time they were no longer the monsters of pre-WWII xenophobia. These monsters came from nuclear radiation and scientific experiments gone wrong. Giant insects and reptiles plagued New York City and Japan. Aliens from other planets no longer appeared as "the other," but rather just like us.
The alien in The Day The Earth Stood Still appeared to be an average man, while the aliens in The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers could take on the form of anybody. During the Red Scare, suspicions of Soviet spies and agents implanted in our society ran rampant among the American people. The films of this time reflected those fears, and the fears of science going too far, creating entirely modern monsters.
In the 60's, films changed to reflect the civil rights movement and the struggle in Vietnam. Romero's Night of the Living Dead became the poster child for "civil rights horror films" because of his African-American male lead, Duane Jones. While Romero has stated that Jones got the lead role just because "he was the best actor in the auditions," he has also gone on to say that the final image of the film (when Jones was shot through the head by white farmers even though he was not a member of the undead) immediately evoked images of everyday racial violence in America, and that the film has become an "undeniable" reflection of the civil rights movement.
When my father first showed me Carrie, the movie he said scared him the most when he was my age (12), I wasn't afraid of it. Interesting, seeing as even at 12 I recognized it to be a movie about repressed female sexuality -- a theme heavily explored in the feminist horror films of the 70's, from violent and even paranormal female characters, to the evolving rape-and-revenge genre that peaked with I Spit On Your Grave. The difference in these films however was that now the monsters were men, even when their female victims seemed to be more than human.
Horror films, regardless of their quality or public reception, have always been political films. They play on our fears, they reflect our realities, and they take real life terror and make it digestible by giving us a good guy to root for. Often, in real life, there are not good guys to root for. These films take the fear and paranoia of our history and make them understandable to a modern audience.
As the master of horror, Stephen King, said: "We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones."