Most responsible parents will tell you that using the television as a surrogate nanny is bad for kids, but my own experience as a child would argue against this. My parents were wise enough to know that they couldn't raise me alone, that there were some places in the child mind that parents shouldn't go, and the only reliable guides were creatures of the night.
This first became clear to me on Halloween night, 1971, when my mom promised my sister and me a very special evening’s entertainment. As the clock ticked towards 8:00, the lights were dimmed in our basement rec room, the jack o’lanterns were lit, and the popcorn was popped. Though I’d probably seen programs in black and white before, what soon appeared on the TV screen would surprise me: these images seemed to come from a different world than the Technicolor landscapes I had known. The sense of drama, of dark revelations about to unfold, was heightened by the entrance of a creepy old man onto a dimly lit theater stage, offering viewers a “friendly warning” about the frights to come. As the credits rolled, my anticipation intensified, until the first unforgettable images of James Whale’s Frankenstein rolled across my five-year old eyes and plunged me into a nocturnal realm I have never entirely escaped.
In subsequent years I would revisit this world with greater frequency, delighting as much in the foggy atmosphere of the great Universal monster movies as in their narratives. Frankenstein opens with a marvelously constructed graveyard set, the mourners gathered together on an improbably vertiginous hill, surrounded by looming grey sky, skeletal trees, and morbid gravestone figures. The clanging church bell and quiet sobs of the grievers sound as if recorded in a dank well, soundtrack and set-design alike marked by the claustrophobia of closed soundstage footage. As with the looming angles and impossibly long staircases of Frankenstein’s castle, such sets draw from the nightmarish qualities of Expressionism, closely linked with German horror cinema of the 1920s. It was not until I saw great UFA productions like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Vampyr years later, as a college student, that I would experience these angular horrors in their purest, undiluted form.
Watching the Universal films now, I am as aware of their flaws as of their flickering moments of brilliance. Carl Laemmle’s productions suffered from the curse of the early “talkies,” lamely interspersing arresting visual drama with perfunctory drawing room chat, light romance, and insipid comedy. But to paraphrase Norma Desmond: the monsters are big, it’s the pictures that got small. What struck me as a child watching these for the first time, and what still amazes me, is the concentrated power of character evoked by Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney. The dead stare, wild arm movements, and disconcerting forward lurch of Karloff’s Creature have become iconic, and while they are easy to imitate, as I would come to learn by donning a “Frankenstein’s Monster” costume the following year, there is nothing quite as compelling as the real thing.
In the days before VCR, it was easy to forget the less compelling qualities of uneven horror classics. But one could experience their most arresting images repeatedly through grainy photographic reproductions in magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Fangoria. These were the pulps of my youth, their garish covers splattered across drugstore and supermarket magazine racks across suburbia. The amount of time I spent gazing at still images of movie monsters dwarfs the time spent watching moving images on the television screen. Thanks to a series of Revell model sets, children of the sixties and seventies were even able to experience these creatures in three dimensions, and in painstakingly painted color. Monster magazines and model sets formed the youth culture of many of the great horror film innovators of the seventies, a point emphasized in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979), whose youthful protagonist, Mark Petrie, adorns his room with posters and hand-painted models of the classic movie monsters.
These figures have an undeniable charisma, a glamour that attracts while it repulses. It is an effect I had become familiar with from book illustrations to the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other nursery chillers. I cherish having grown up with books as physical objects: an octavo or quarto tome can be haunted in ways a Kindle cannot. One particular image comes to mind, from Brunhoff’s Babar the King, which depicts, in a two-page spread, a horrific nightmare suffered by the elephant hero. I believe I gazed at this image more often than any other illustration from my childhood library, but each viewing involved a prolonged ceremony, as I worked up the courage to open the page, gripping the covers to shut the book quickly if the excitement became too much. This tense and awestruck mode of viewing is the essential posture of visual horror, one I would repeatedly resume in watching films as disparate as Dracula, Polanski’s Repulsion, Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.
Yet the classic Universal monsters also offered a more profound attraction: compassion. Although Whale’s Frankenstein owes little to Mary Shelley’s novel, it retains the novel's essential moral framework in portraying the monster as a creature more sinned against than sinning. The monster appeals to children largely because he is so much a child himself, his momentary joys pathetic against a background of perpetual torment and tantrums. It is a quality most visible in the famous scene where he throws daisies into a stream with a trusting little girl. When he eventually tosses the daisy-like damsel herself into the stream, his regret and shame is as poignant as the horrific senselessness of the act. As a child I identified with the panicking creature even while I pitied the girl.
Monsters, like children, can be cruel, but in pondering the tragic fate of figures like Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and King Kong, I learned something essential about human behavior: where strangeness and difference tread, the torches and pitchforks can’t be far behind. Classic monster movies don’t just depict the monstrous: they convey what it feels like to be monstrous. It was a lesson that would later serve me in good stead. As the moon rose one Halloween night I set off to meet a group of boys I had just met after moving to a new neighborhood. I stood on the corner waiting to go trick-or-treating, proudly dressed in a clever costume my mom had just made for me, consisting mostly of a black sweatshirt with sections of a black umbrella stitched to the sides and inner sleeves. An hour later I was forced to acknowledge that I’d been ditched, as I walked sadly home, tears running through my Dracula make-up.
Had I known the work of Ed Wood, I might have taken consolation and courage from Bela Lugosi’s immortal speech from Bride of the Monster: “Home? I have no home. Hunted . . . despised . . . living like an animal. The jungle is my home!” Thankfully, I’d already learned the monster movie’s most essential truth: friends come and go, but monsters are forever.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.