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.

Unholy Brides

Hollywood is seldom accused of being a religious venue. Indeed, carrying on from an earlier distrust of theater as idle entertainment, some Christian groups early on deemed movies as tools of the devil. (Some relaxed that harsh assessment when Cecil B. DeMille came on the scene and started offering biblically based epics.) Many directors and writers, to judge from recent vapid box office successes, consider action or titillation sufficient to draw in the dollars. Yet, movies have often proven to be an outlet for the intellect as well, with profound, intricate, and important themes unfolding against the silver screen. The movies we watch reveal much about who we are. A surprising number of them, despite early evangelical concerns, have decidedly religious themes or messages. My regular readers know of my confession to being one of the monster kid generation, and as an adult I re-watch those movies with senses attuned to their religiosity.

Last night, as I watched The Bride of Frankenstein, I was repeatedly reminded of the role religion plays throughout the film. From the opening lines of Lord Byron through to the monster’s moral judgment on humanity as he is about to pull the switch, religious language, symbols, and implications practically tumble over each other to get to the audience. The concept of life—the divine prerogative—being absconded by human scientists forms the skeleton of this story based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original work. While Shelley can hardly be considered the poster-girl for religious scruples, her work, and its adaptation into this movie, bristle with the implications of usurping the divine. In the words of Dr. Pretorius, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”

The Bride of Frankenstein is not alone in this aspect of mixing religion and monstrosity. Hollywood of the 1930s was a money-hungry haven, but the classic monster tales that began to shape movie-watchers’ sensibilities often included religious themes. Dracula has his resurrection and aversion to crucifixes. The Mummy arises from ancient Egyptian ritual magic. The Wolfman suffers a gypsy curse. Frankenstein is the power of God incarnate. When the final reel is placed on the projector, we discover that God has rejected all these human attempts to ascend to the heavens. Hollywood gives us conventional religious endings. More recent and daring approaches have emerged, but seldom have they captured the American imagination like the creature features of the 1930s. The religious veneer may have been thicker in those days, but the underlying message could have chilled the blood of the finger-waving evangelists. Even the Bible, from the beginning, has its monsters.