Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary. I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films. They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.” (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.) Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me. The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion. The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then. And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters. God is assumed.
Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix. His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey. Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents. Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life. Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen). Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological. Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.
Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre. It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be. Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them. Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense). The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution. These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime. Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.