Universals

It was on television that I met them.  The Universal monsters.  The entire run of films from Dracula to The Creature Walks among Us had been shot, printed, and screened before I was born.  In other words, I’m a late monster boomer.  By the time I was old enough to handle monster movies, they were on television and my early memories of them are tinged with the nostalgia that accompanies what seemed like better times, although each era is about equally difficult.  When I saw James L. Neibaur’s The Monster Movies of Universal Studios I knew I had to read it.  Neibaur goes through all the films in the series, chronologically, encapsulating the Draculas, Frankenstein’s monsters, mummies, invisible men and women, wolf-men, and the gill-man.  As I child I never watched them systematically, being subject to television schedules, among other things.

Not understanding studios or business, and certainly not copyright, I never understood why other favorites such as Jekyll and Hyde, the phantom of the opera, and various assorted ghosts and ghouls weren’t part of the collection.  Nevertheless, this study in discrete, brief chapters, treats the official canon reasonably well.  The line between religion and monsters is sometimes crossed in these movies, which gets at an underlying theme of my own interest—how horror and religion interact—but that’s not Neibaur’s purpose.  That dynamic is, however, the driving force behind my two most recent books.  A tie-in to the paranormal may also be found there.

As I dropped off some promotional material for Holy Horror at an area bookstore recently, the events manager revealed her interest in the paranormal.  In my mental schematic, it’s wedged in there between monsters—which are fictional—and religion, the antithesis of fiction for most people.  What do we do with ghosts and others that don’t fit into the neat lines of a theology that draw a stark line between the supernatural and human?  Universal’s monsters sometimes ran into problems with the Production Code for stepping over that line.  Of course, the Universal monsters are pretty tame in comparison with today’s fare.  Still, they were the monsters who showed, in many ways, what it was to be human.  Neibaur isn’t going for an in-depth analysis here, and his treatment is readily readable by anyone interested in revisiting the monsters of yesteryear.  Some of the descriptions reminded me of movies from my childhood that I’d forgotten.  It is pleasant to relive them for a few moments while the real monsters in the real world lurk not far from my door.

Frankly

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.

Saturdays Past

Feeling somewhat between a state of self-pity and that of a salmon who couldn’t find his way upstream, I turned to horror.  The weekend before Thanksgiving has traditionally been AAR/SBL weekend for me.  I missed the Annual Meeting a few times due to unemployment, but for the most part I have been there every year since 1991.  As the representative of a publisher it is an endurance-testing event.  I had half-hour meetings scheduled all day on Saturday, Sunday, and today, and even a couple for the much neglected Tuesday morning.  Then I found myself home, awaiting a suitcase delivery.  United Airlines couldn’t say where the bag would be, and it only arrived Saturday night.  My wife had to work all that day, and so I turned to my boyhood.  Saturday afternoon was monster movie time.

For my current book project I’m discussing the components of The Conjuring diegesis.  I’m also trying to do some traditional research on the films.  Airport-lagged (I hadn’t been on a jet, but at my age being awake so late and sleeping so poorly has its own consequences), I pulled out Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation.  I wondered what it would be like to see them in the order of their plots rather than their actual chronological order.  Would the story hold together?  Would I find anything new?  The films discussed in my books are those I’ve watched many times—what I like to call “guilty pleasure research.”  Or just a boyhood Saturday afternoon revisited.  I couldn’t leave the house since I was told my bag couldn’t just be dropped on the porch.

From the beginning the story of Annabelle, the “possessed doll,” takes many twists and turns.  The demon is invited into the spooky toy by distraught parents after the tragic death of their child.  It then takes over an orphan who is adopted by a couple that she murders, as their natural daughter, in the earlier installment.  The doll is possessed in that telling because the girl Annabelle had joined a Satanic cult, like Charles Manson’s, and her blood dripped into the doll as she lay dying.  After claiming another female victim, the doll is sent to a couple of nurses as a present, where she appears at the opening of The Conjuring.  The story shifts with each sequential telling, leaving the binge viewer dissatisfied.  I haven’t had time for a double-feature since moving this summer.  Thick snow still covered the ground and the sky held that solemn haze of late November.  My colleagues were discussing erudite topics in Denver, and I was home using horror as therapy.  If you’re curious for further results, the book will be out in a couple of years.  Be sure to look for it at AAR/SBL.

Let Us Prey

ProjectedFearsI grew up with horror films. Not that my mother encouraged or approved this behavior, but I was a kid with a lot of phobias. With no father around to protect us from what dangers might lurk out there, I tried to learn how to cope by watching others face monsters. That innocent childhood pass-time, like most simple pleasures, disappeared into the adult world of analyzing and being serious and making money. Then it came back. After a series of unsuccessful relationships the old rejection phobias led me back to my beloved monsters. I suspect that’s why I like reading about horror films so much—it’s an exercise in self-understanding. Kendall R. Phillips’ Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture is a pleasant Saturday afternoon’s viewing, but for adult monster boomers like myself. Phillips admits up front that academic respectability is hard to come by for horror movies, but that is starting to change. We are beginning to read the script.

Phillips walks the reader not only through the ten movies he’s selected, but also through what was happening in American culture at the time. The horror movie proper is not yet a century old, having begun with Universal’s 1931 monster pair of Dracula and Frankenstein. Phillips shows that what scares a culture changes over time. Indeed, one gets the sense that it is horror movies that lead us in our fears. Highlighting ten culturally significant films, this book guides us through the highs and lows of the last century. The last entry in the book dates from 1999, nicely encapsulating what made us afraid during a most remarkable and, if we’re honest, a most messed up century. Clearly those who purvey horror will have their own choices for significant entries. Phillips does an admirable job of justifying his choices: Dracula, The Thing from Another World, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, and The Sixth Sense. Each reflects its age, and each impacted its culture.

It should come as no surprise that religious elements—both in culture and in the movies—are up for discussion here. Consciously or not, religion deals with our fears and frequently moves us into the realm of horror. Now that we’ve entered a new era—much has happened already this millennium—the nature of our fears has been changing. To assess cultural impact we need some distance. Books like this help us to understand ourselves, but only after sufficient time has passed. I am confident, however, that when future analysts look back on this insane time that they will find unexpected answers to questions we can only begin to utter. We stare at the monster in the room with us, paralyzed and unable to scream. Or even text. And they will note that religion played a role in our nightmares even as we expected technology to save us.

Mere Monsters

While my colleagues and I wait to hear if our monster session will be approved, my thoughts naturally turn to the taxonomy of monsters. One of the perennial problems in the study of monsters is that definitions vary widely. We might all agree that a werewolf is a monster, but what of Cthulhu? Or of a horribly deformed, but completely natural animal? What about demons? Should we all agree that we know what a monster is, how do we divide them into categories for easy study? One way of doing this might be to rely on binaries. For example: natural monsters versus unnatural monsters, living monsters versus undead monsters, monsters from earth versus monsters not from earth, monsters created by humans versus naturally occurring monsters, fictional monsters versus monsters reported in nature. It soon becomes obvious that monsters are a widely divergent group of creatures.

Monsters have won an enduring place in popular culture. I think of The X-Files. Apart from the “mythology” of the series, many episodes featured a weekly scary monster. The same is true of Sleepy Hollow, now in its third season. Monster movies, although perhaps taking a back seat to super heroes of late, are regulars on the silver screen. We just can’t seem to live without our monsters. I’ve mentioned in my many posts about monsters that the connection with religion is so obvious that it hardly requires apology. But a deeper question has occurred to me. It has to do with the nature of religion (itself not well defined).

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Religions exist to deliver people from the trials they face. Offering Nirvana to break the endless cycles of reincarnation, or Heaven when we die after one go-round, religions claim to give us something of an assurance that things will work out. (Mostly.) In the light of this, why does religion give us monsters as well? Surely they are more than mere metaphors for the misfortunes of daily life. There has to be something more to it. What that more is, I’m not certain. I’m not even sure of how to approach the question. Monsters will, for me and many other Monster Boomers, remain a guilty pleasure that we are pleased to be able to address as adults. I am becoming more and more convinced that the more we learn about them, the more we learn about religion itself. And perhaps also about those who give shape to religious thought.

Monsters, in Theory

MonsterTheoryI want to understand monsters. I suppose that’s pretty common among Monster Boomers, but the thing is academics have been slow to give credence to our creatures. Yes, monsters are a throw back to the Medieval Period or worse, and reflect superstition, the supernatural, and things that go bump in the night. Our scientific worldview has no place for them, but they continually come back to peek in our windows and stomp on our cities. Horror movies, for example, consistently rate high in box-office grosses. And even adults, if caught in unguarded moments, might confess to enjoying the uncanny. So it was that I read Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Yes, it’s dated, but by humanities’ standards, it’s not too bad. Jurassic Park, one gets the feeling, was the rage when the book was being written.

As with most collections of essays, this is a Forest Gump of papers. Some of them were quite good and others were that kind filled with po-mo nougat. The one thing that was missing, sadly, is, well, monster theory. I’ve read just about every academic book available on monsters. I have yet to find a serviceable theory to help make sense of them. Yes, there are plenty of theories of origins—where monsters come from—but how to we handle them? Everyone knows that a stake is useful for vampires and a headshot is necessary for a zombie, but what are these revenants telling us really? Why do we still, when we can carry the internet in our pockets and call for help in the middle of nowhere, fear monsters? How do we construct, rather than deconstruct them?

Psychologists, of course, have a couch day with monsters. They represent parents, or phobias, or penises, or any number of things that make us uncomfortable. But how do we know a monster when we see it? Monster Theory, for example, has two chapters on conjoined twins. Now, at the time “monster” was a term used occasionally, but it is highly insensitive, let alone politically incorrect, to refer to humans that way. Then there were chapters on vampires and ghosts. Well, I suppose the dead can’t help their state either, but if they come back they could at least behave. Monstrosity is a concept, like religion, that we just can’t live without. We need our monsters in the dark just as we need dreams and desires. The question is what to do about them, and even after reading this weighty tome, I still don’t know.

Becoming an Icon

A kid among the Monster Boomers can’t let the death of Christopher Lee go by without comment. How many hours of my childhood were spent watching movies on Saturday afternoon TV with his many personae arresting my attention? And, of course, his prolific output just kept on coming. The Wicker Man, for instance, would never have been among my childhood fare, but his performance as Lord Summerisle is still captivating and sends shivers down my spine. Of course, he wasn’t always a horror movie star. His voice nevertheless conditioned us to be on our guard, for we knew something untoward was about to happen.

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

I often ponder the lure of monster movies. As a young boy, I couldn’t get enough of them. I tried to grow out of this stage, and managed pretty well through my doctoral work, but then when I found myself in a Gothic seminary where my life would be shredded and discarded, I suddenly found myself sitting up late to watch movies my family would not care to see. There was a catharsis happening here. Some would claim that it is puerile and immature—they would be the same people who’ve not been forced from careers and faced with unemployment and been dealt a failing hand by an institution that received full commitment during the formative years of an aborted career. No, those who’ve faced monsters cannot easily leave them alone.

Of course, Christopher Lee was only playing monsters. Now many people around the world can instantly recognize his name, face, or voice. We all face monsters. Our society teaches us to deny that they exist, much to our own peril. Little children, bewildered by this insanely complex world that adults have constructed, may be the ones to see most clearly. We watch the monsters on the screen so that we might figure out how to deal with them on the playground or in the boardroom. Christopher Lee was more than an actor. He was a teacher. And his best students learned something of human nature from him.