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
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
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.