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.
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.