Most responsible parents will tell you that using the television as a surrogate nanny is bad for kids. My own experience as a child would argue against this. My parents knew that they couldn't raise me alone, 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 was heightened by a creepy old man coming onto a dimly lit theater stage, offering viewers a “friendly warning” about the frights to come. As the credits rolled, my anticipation intensified. Soon the first unforgettable images of James Whale’s Frankenstein rolled across my five-year old eyes and plunged me into a realm I have never entirely escaped.
In subsequent years I would revisit this world with greater frequency. Frankenstein opens with a marvelously constructed graveyard set. The mourners are surrounded by looming grey sky, skeletal trees, and morbid gravestone figures. The clanging church bell and quiet sobs of the grievers sound as if they were recorded in a dank well.
The looming angles and impossibly long staircases of Frankenstein’s castle draw from the nightmarish qualities of the Expressionistic German horror cinema of the 1920s. When I watched UFA productions like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Vampyr years later, I would experience these angular horrors in their purest form.
What struck me as a child watching these old Universal films for the first time, and what still amazes me, is the concentrated power of their characters. The dead stare, wild arm movements, and disconcerting forward lurch of Boris Karloff’s Creature have become iconic. They are easy to imitate, as I would come to learn by donning a “Frankenstein’s Monster” costume the following year. However, there is nothing quite as compelling as the real thing.
In the days before VCR, one could experience the most arresting images of horror classics repeatedly through grainy photographic reproductions. Magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Fangoria 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.
Yet the classic Universal monsters also offered a more profound attraction: compassion. The Monster of Whale’s Frankenstein is a creature more sinned against than sinning. He appeals to children because he is a child himself, his momentary joys pathetic against a background of perpetual torment and tantrums. In the famous scene in which he throws a trusting little girl into the stream moments after tossing daisy petals with her, his regret and shame is as poignant as the horrific senselessness of the act.
Monsters, like children, can be cruel. However, the tragic fate of figures like Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and King Kong taught me something essential about human behavior. Where strangeness and difference tread, the torches and pitchforks aren’t far behind. Classic monster movies don’t just depict the monstrous. They convey what it feels like to be monstrous.
Since my first encounter with them on that Halloween night long ago, monsters have helped me cope with feelings of alienation and anxiety, teaching me a valuable lesson: friends may come and go, but monsters are forever.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.