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.

Frankly Frankenstein

As a novel, like its monster, Frankenstein trespasses all kinds of boundaries. Is it science fiction or horror? Is it Gothic or presciently modern? Is it feminist or conventional? One thing about it is certain: it has been immensely influential. Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey have created for the world a truly wondrous treatment of this meme. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives is perhaps the most engaging monster book I’ve ever read (and there have been many). One of the main reasons for this is that Friedman and Kavey are keenly aware that binaries don’t necessarily exclude their opposites. Frankenstein is about both science and religion, and it treats both profoundly. Considering that Mary Shelley was only 21 when the novel was published bespeaks a rare genius in blurring boundaries and making those on each side think.

Monstrous Progeny considers multiple issues associated with Frankenstein. Should science be approached alone, or should peer review be involved at every stage? Is religion eschewed by this woman so strongly influenced by atheism, or is it the very crux of the matter? And what about the incredible and continuing afterlife of Shelley’s story? Friedman and Kavey survey not only the novel but several movies associated with, or based on ideas from, the book. Modern science, if we’re to be honest, also owes much to the fictional musings of a 19-year-old girl on a dark and stormy night. The tale of the tale is nearly as fantastic as its progeny. Challenged to write a ghost story, Shelley produced an undying Zeitgeist feature instead. Monstrous Progeny delves deeply into this unexpectedly profound idea, showing how it grips the heart of many contemporary nightmares.

Genres can be deceiving. Shelley wrote her tale as a “ghost story.” It received literary acclaim, becoming one of the best selling books in England in the nineteenth century. Only when Universal found success with Dracula in 1931 and followed it up with Frankenstein the same year did film critics want something to call movies like this. The term “horror film” was invented. There is certainly horror in Frankenstein, but there’s much more to it than that. The relationship between religion and science, and the very real ethical issue of making something because we can, are never far from the reader’s mind. Giving life to the creature only underscores the conflicts and contradictions of life in a world where to be gods risks destroying any possibility of heaven. Monstrous Progeny is a thought-provoking book that will, in its own way, brings our present fears to life.

Mysterium Tremendum

HistoryHorrorFor those of us accustomed to ancient things, horror movies are remarkably new. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are scarce or even easy to understand. While it is beginning to erode, the academic derision of popular culture has long avoided the decidedly low brow genre of horror. It doesn’t know what it’s been missing. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is an insightful attempt to make some order out of a century of monsters and mayhem. Beginning at the stage when “horror film” was still just a demonic gleam in some vampire’s eye, Dixon points out that from the very earliest experiments with movies “horror” was a popular trope. It seems only natural that the idea of a full-length scary movie would be the expected development. What happened in Universal Studios in the 1930s is that business began making money out of monsters. Where there’s money, there be monsters.

Dixon takes us through the early days into the tired era in the 1950s when life was, apparently just so darned good that people weren’t really thinking about monsters. (Dixon’s analysis is a bit more sophisticated than that.) Horror films matured in the 1960’s and spun out of control in the ‘80s. His book continues up to the first decade of our current century. There’s obviously a lot that can be said about this, but what caught my attention, naturally, was how quickly religion entered the discussion. Those of us who approach horror with an open mind know that religion is its next-door neighbor. Indeed, one of the nihilistic aspects of the proliferation of horror movies since the 1980’s has been the lessening of this getting to know the neighbors. Horror, as Dixon notes, seems to have devolved to brutality and cruelty with no real message.

I’ve never been a fan of gore. I’ve watched my share of slashers, I suppose, but they’re not my favorites. Horror can—in the best of its offerings—be very profound. Indeed, it can even inspire thoughts not so terribly far from those generally classed as religious. For what is worship if not carefully managed horror? The concept of the holy as mysterium tremendum underscores this dynamic. Part of this connection is the appeal to emotion. Horror movies make you feel something, and that is a large part of their appeal. They can be more, however. A smart horror movie will feed your brain rather than just having zombies eat it. Academics, eventually, will catch up with it. Dixon starts to show the way.