A QUAINT & CURIOUS VOLUME
OF FORGOTTEN LORE
The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films
Preface: Once Upon A Midnight Dreary
I can date the birth of my fixation on horror movies almost exactly. In 1957 Universal Pictures packaged some of its 1930s and 1940s horror movies into Shock Theatre, which it leased to television stations across America. My family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and our television broadcasts came from New York City where Shock Theatre played late on Friday nights, well after the bedtimes of seven year-olds like myself. Some Fridays, while I slept soundly, my nine year-old brother crept out of bed and talked my parents into letting him stay up. On Saturday mornings, he would tell me the wonders that he had seen.
One night Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man aired, and the next morning I listened in awe to my brother’s description of the two monsters’ climactic battle. At that moment—sometime before lunch on Saturday—I knew that I must see this movie and all the late-night horrors for myself. I did not know that I would see them over and over again, read all I could about them, write about them, lecture about them. And still, like Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man and Count Dracula, I would find no rest. At the time I could not appreciate that my mission had a few of the trappings of the gothic melodramas that would captivate me: a nocturnal quest driven by familial tensions, a search for arcane lore, and a fixation with a terrifying and fascinating past.
* * *
Until that Saturday morning, I was not a likely candidate to be a “monster boomer,” one of the post-World War II generation obsessed with old monster movies. A few years earlier my mother had taken me to a matinee of War of the Worlds. Science fiction was then the rage and had temporarily pushed the gothic monsters out of the limelight. When the alien spaceships appeared, I screamed. I continued screaming and crying for the rest of the film. This outburst led to a decree in our household that I not be exposed to such terrors in the future, either at the movies or on television. Dismissed out of hand was my request a short time later to see Rodan, a Japanese epic about gargantuan flying reptiles.
My scheme to master the lore of movie monsters took some time to launch, and I received help from an unexpected quarter. In my earliest years, my favorite television program was The Abbott & Costello Show. In their comic banter, Lou Costello—the short, fat, stupid one—is constantly browbeaten and conned by Bud Abbott. Circumstances often let Costello triumph, but only after Abbott had either berated the hapless little man or done his best to explain the real world to him. Abbott in his exasperation with Costello became one of the unsung educators to my generation. Week after week, Abbott parried with Costello on topics as diverse as playing baseball or craps, paying or dodging the rent, dealing with lawyers, judges and police, visiting doctors and dentists, caring for the very young and the very old. Poor Lou never quite grasped what Abbott was talking about, but we kids did. For their young audiences, the genius of Abbott & Costello was that explaining their jokes was part of telling them.
* * *
By 1960 Abbott & Costello’s television series had long been in re-runs, but the comedy team’s feature films from the 1940s were regularly shown on Saturday afternoons at 2:00. On one such afternoon—I believe it was a sunny day and I felt some guilt that I was not outside playing—I first saw Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Bud and Lou deliver two large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors. The crates contain “the remains of the original Count Dracula and the body of Frankenstein’s Monster.” The first crate is opened; Abbott pulls away a canvas shroud to reveal a coffin. “The Dracula Crest!” he says on seeing the emblem on the coffin lid. Did everyone know this insignia except Costello and me? Was this something I was supposed to recognize?
Lou understands just enough to be terrified. Exhibit posters in the museum tell him a bit more. With a few fits and starts, he and Abbott work through the first one:
Count Dracula sleeps in this coffin but rises every night at sunset. Dracula can change himself at will into a vampire bat flying about the countryside. He keeps himself alive by drinking the blood of his victims. Count Dracula must return to his coffin before sunrise where he lies helpless during the day.
Abbott then reads the second poster:
Frankenstein’s Monster A scientist named Frankenstein made a monster by sewing together parts of old dead bodies. He gave the Monster eternal life by shooting it full of electricity. Some people claim it is not dead even now—just dormant.
Purists might argue with the wording, but I had at last all the information I needed to start my quest. Even at this early point in the movie, Lawrence Talbot had already transformed into The Wolf Man. A few scenes later he explains: “Years ago I was bitten by a werewolf. Now, when the moon is full, I become a wolf, too.” The eternal question about vampires and werewolves—if you have to be bitten by one to become one, how did the first one become one—already nagged at me, but I left that issue to later musings.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was once dismissed as juvenile fare. Into the 1960s it became a guilty pleasure, and as the years pass it is increasingly acknowledged as the witty thriller it is. Whatever its merits, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was the key film for many monster boomers like myself, for our introduction into American horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. This brilliant little movie encapsulates all the virtues of far more ambitious gothic tales: a quest for eternal life, a tortured protagonist, a death struggle between intractable foes, a forbidden text with unholy knowledge. And even this movie blatantly aimed at a young audience has a curious subtext, especially in relation to the monster films that precede it.
* * *
In the film, soon after Abbott & Costello read the primers for the two great movie monsters, came the moment which sealed my fate. The pivotal character in the story is Count Dracula, whose plot to revive Frankenstein’s Monster drives the other characters’ actions. I did not know then that Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula was legendary, or that his long association with the role had come to dominate his career and his legacy. All I knew as I watched Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was that Lugosi’s Dracula was the most awesome and magical figure I had ever seen. Lugosi’s first scene in the film is without dialogue. From his coffin, Dracula locks on Costello a stare more than human, rises and waves his hand and fingers with amazing fluidity. The vampire gently taps Costello’s chest to be sure that his victim is fully under his spell, and steps back to admire his handiwork. Costello was literally dumbfounded and so was I. The comedian shakes off the trance in a few minutes. I proved not so strong—more than 40 years later I am still under Lugosi’s spell. I had yet to hear him speak, to hear that magnificent voice.
By the time that I saw Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, I had television programming on my side in my plot to see all the old horror films. By the early 1960s, the old black & white horrors were no longer deemed to pose a threat to the young, and the airwaves were flooded with them at all times. Saturdays were saturated with 1930s and 1940s monster movies. Before the weekly Abbott & Costello movie at 2:00 on Channel 5 came a horror film at 1:00. At 7:30 on Channel 11 came Chiller Theater, and late night Saturdays usually had at least one horror. I first saw the early horrors of Universal and the German expressionists on Silents Please, a short-lived television series that played abbreviated versions of old silent films. The less specialized movie anthology programs had their share of monsters. Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 played a single film repeatedly for a week—twice or three times each week night, and almost continuously on Saturday and Sunday—and gave the pre-video generation the opportunity to watch the same movie over and over.
Within a few years I was something of an expert on 1930s and 1940s monster movies. I read all the monster movie magazines. The first hardcover book I ever bought was William K. Everson’s The Bad Guys, about movie villains. The first poems and short stories that I read of my own volition were the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first novels I chose to read were Dracula and Frankenstein. My first sojourns from New Jersey to New York City were to museum auditoriums and revival theatres to see obscure horror movies that had yet to be released to television. My first use of a reference library was to lookup reviews and articles of horror movies in old newspapers. Horror movies, in short, were always there as I grew up, and shaped my first forays into the world beyond my home.
By the late 1960s, I had written a few articles on old horror films for Photon, an amateur magazine. In the late 1970s, I drafted five essays on Bela Lugosi, with the intent of collecting them into a book for his centennial in 1982. But adult life caught up with me—marriage and family, a house, a lawn to mow, a career—and I abandoned the project. I remained a fan of old monster movies, but nothing more.
Fast forward to Christmas morning, 1991. Like countless divorced dads, I puttered around my apartment, waiting for my assigned time to gather up my sons. As I ironed my shirts, I watched a documentary about philosopher and historian Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With A Thousand Faces. I pondered as I folded a shirt that the great silent movie star and master of makeup, Lon Chaney, was known as “The Man of 1,000 Faces.” Campbell explained that everyone believes in a mythology, whether its basis is historical or folklore, religious or political. He described how a mythology is necessary to fit the real world into a comprehensible pattern based on some values and tenets. I believed Campbell, but could not identify my own mythology. Time had come to fetch my sons, and I tossed the question into the heap with others just as probing.
About a year later, I first saw a copy of Cult Movies Magazine. Inside was an ad for a video, On the Trail of Bela Lugosi. The Cult Movies gang had taken a video recorder and visited “Lugosi sites” around Los Angeles: homes and apartments where he had lived; theatres where he had appeared; studios and outdoor locations where he had filmed. Not bad for $9.95, so I ordered one. The video soon arrived, and on its heels came a letter from Mike Copner, editor of Cult Movies:
I remember your name as a Lugosi fan who wrote a Karloff/Lugosi piece for Photon magazine about 20 years ago or so. I thought that was a great piece, and hope that some of our stuff will live up to your high standard…Are you doing any writing these days? I haven’t seen your name lately, but then I don’t read all the zines available, since there are so many out there these days. We don’t pay much, but if you had an article or something related to any variety of cult films, I’d sure be honored to run it in our magazine.
* * *
I was stunned. The article he remembered so well had been published in Photon more than 20 years before. In my job—I was then an engineer in the oil industry—my memos and reports were forgotten almost immediately, as were the dozen or so technical articles I had co-written. Mike vividly remembered something I had written almost a generation before. I dug out my draft articles on Lugosi—four of the five had survived, all handwritten—and read them for the first time in many years. Still pretty good, I thought. I sent one to Mike, telling him that I would type it into a word processor after I had revised it. I was sure some of its ideas and information would be dated. After perusing recent writings on Lugosi and horror films, I was surprised that my articles still seemed rather fresh. Over the next year, Mike had published all of them in Cult Movies Magazine. In the meantime, I had recreated my fifth article on Britain’s so-called ban of horror films in 1937. Unlike the first four pieces, which are basically historical—new facts that I had unearthed on Lugosi’s life and career—the fifth article strayed into horror films’ subtext, into what may lurk just beneath the surface. Or, perhaps more accurately in the case of 1930s horrors, into what the filmmakers might have included in their works that censorship pressures of the day forced them to mask.
I had no plans to do anything more until a friend, Egyptologist Bob Brier, asked me to look at his chapter on mummy movies in a manuscript for his new book. I had little to offer until a strange epiphany came over me. A co-worker had just returned from a business trip to China, carrying with him the latest strain of influenza. I caught it and for a week had no strength for anything more demanding than downing cold remedies and popping videos in my home machine before collapsing in bed to watch them. Universal’s four Kharis movies of the early 1940s have a combined running time of just over four hours. I watched them in sequence, again and again. Perhaps it was my near-delirium, perhaps I was unconsciously looking for something fresh to offer Bob, but I found meanings and themes that I had never seen before. It occurred to me that this is how Poe might have conceived his stories—half-asleep and half demented from drugs. At last I had something unique to give Bob. Bob loved my rewrite. His publisher and editor did not, and deleted it. Mike Copner thought it manna from heaven and printed it immediately. I recovered from the flu, but perhaps not from the delirium. Since then, about 1994, whenever I watch an old horror film I think of something I want to write about. Some of my ideas are in the pieces, which follow.
* * *
In the late 20th century, interest in old horror and monster movies rapidly grew into a legitimate field of study. Renewed interest in old horror films gained momentum long before I re-entered the field. In the 1960s, histories of horror films rarely rose above the level of juvenile fare. By the 1990s, research into the making of the old horror films and the lives of the people associated with them was well established. Thanks to many dedicated film lovers, dozens of people who worked on the old monster movies have had their memories recorded; old newspaper features, trade journals and diverse documents have been digested; “lost” and unavailable films have been brought to light.
As the history behind the films was slowly documented, speculations on what might be within the films themselves multiplied rapidly. The growth of home video made such musings inevitable. For the first time, a wide viewership could watch movies often and closely, could freeze frames to study minute details (such as the contents of Dr. Frankenstein’s journal, or Carl Denham’s map of Skull Island in King Kong), and could replay garbled dialogue until it was deciphered (such as the German-accented Latin read by Van Helsing’s assistant in Dracula). In short, thanks to video, film could be studied as thoroughly as painting. And just as some meaning could be found in every detail of a Renaissance masterpiece, so could film students search for some overlooked gem in a film frame.
Many 1930s and 40s horror films have proven particularly fertile ground for interpretative analyses. Is Frankenstein’s Monster a stand-in for the unwanted child; is the doctor a classic case of womb envy? Is Dracula’s duel with Van Helsing actually between the devouring and the nurturing parent? Is King Kong the avenging black man who has broken his chains, or the natural world lashing out against technology? Or perhaps, as King Kong’s creator once said, “sometimes a black gorilla is just a black gorilla.”
Over the past 30 years, horror and monster films have been proposed as allegories for sexual and gender anxieties, intergenerational and familial tensions, racial and class struggles, economic and political instabilities, and fears over aging—both growing up and growing old. Whether a viewer sees any such ideas in the shadows or sees just a big black gorilla is entirely a personal choice. But whether one relishes the subtexts or simply cannot accept them, these films achieved a rare blend of entertainment and mythic power.
* * *
The popularity of 1930s and 1940s horror films with the post-war baby boomers may be an accident of timing. Universal released its old movies en masse to television just as the boomers began to outgrow children’s fairy tales. The monster boomers replaced one set of myths with another. Fairy tales and monster movies can be cast as sequential mythologies for young people. In their original forms, neither was intended primarily for the young. In time target audiences for fairy tales became those not too far from the womb, and for horror movies those not too far from puberty.
Fairy tales and horror both invite a wide range of interpretations, but at the cores of the perennial favorites are familial dramas. Long before the 1950s, those dramas might be quite diverse. In early variants of Cinderella’s tale, the villain is as often the father as the mother or stepmother. Tallies of 19th century vampire stories show undead women outnumbering men. By the time the baby boomers arrived, the evildoers in fairy tales were mostly women, while in horror movies they were almost exclusively men. Portraying fairy tales as basically about bad mommies and horror movies as about bad daddies is an oversimplification, but not one that is trivially dismissed.
Many fairy tales open with a family in crisis. Snow White lives with a murderous stepmother; Cinderella with a sadistic one. Rather than feed Hansel and Gretel, yet another stepmother drives them from their home. By the end of the tales, the evil stepmothers are dead or vanquished, and the children are living happily everafter. Not quite, for horror movies then pick up their stories. The movies often began with young people somewhat older than in the fairy tales, living in that promised everafter. But young Dr. Frankensteins and Dr. Jekylls are compelled to abandon their comfortable lives to pursue strange and dangerous quests. The happy unions of young Mina Sewards to young Jonathan Harkers are threatened when Count Draculas come calling. Evil is again defeated, but not all the young people find a new happy-everafter, and some do not survive.
Persistent themes in fairy tales are that obstacles in life must be confronted, and that young people must master their weaknesses and summon their strengths to prevail. The same is true of horror movies, but with a new concern. The dangers often include actually becoming the evil that must be destroyed. Those who confront vampires and werewolves may join their ranks. Universal’s mummy series begins and ends with the same plot: a young woman learns she is the reincarnation of the Egyptian princess and may become a living mummy. Anyone can become a Mr. Hyde or an Invisible Man. Frankenstein’s Monster is literally an amalgamation of victims. Four of the eight Universal Frankenstein movies involve a new brain going into The Monster. Only one of them is a willing donor.
Varied and scholarly interpretations abound, but fairy tales are essentially a mythology for those entering adolescent life and horror movies for those entering adult life. Horror films with their more varied plots and complex characters may be much more. Just as fairy tales are not great literature, most 1930s and 40s horror films are not great cinema. Taken as a whole, they are a rich and detailed mythology.
The subtitle of this book is “The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films.” History and mythology are inseparable. Delving into what is on screen means delving into what happened off it. All the chapters in this book combine mythology and history. A few, such “Makers of Monsters, Makers of Men,” and “Monstrous Ambition” are primarily histories. Each chapter has a historical postscript with an anecdote in a some way related to the main text: incidents in the lives of the people how made the films, events from outside the world of film that either influenced the movies or were influenced by them.
Movie horror’s surges in popularity coincide with the Great Depression and World War II, when real-life presumably offered terrors that more than matched those in the movies. The early horror films owe as much to the coming of sound films in the 1920s and the aftermath of World War I as to the headlines of their own decades. Horror and monster films certainly appeared before the advent of sound in the late 1920s; but the first sustained craze for the genre came a short time after the cinema found its voice. Sound also brought increased outcries from the reformers on the evils of the movies. Increased pressures from the censors soon followed. Some studio bosses ignored or opposed the objections of the watchdogs, but most eventually ceded the fight.
Horror films were sometimes in the forefront of the never-ending debates on film content, but by any measure of explicit content they were hardly the most daring. Yet movie censors, particularly in Britain, singled out horror for special scrutiny. That scrutiny led to a virtual ban on movie horror from 1936 to 1938. The next-to-last essay in this book, “‘H’ Is For ‘Horrific’,” deals with the protracted battle in Britain over horror films.
Many of the movie monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde, Svengali, The Invisible Man and others—were born in 19th century novels. The 19th century saw the Industrial Revolution, the Darwinian revolution and the Freudian revolution. The horror novels reflect anxieties over technology and over questions of what is man and what is self. Each of the monsters embodied the new tensions introduced by the then-modern world. Horror movies took those characters, simplified them and usually altered them, and served them up to the movie-going public of the 1930s and 1940s.
The prisms that focused the past and contemporary inspirations into the films were the people who actually made the movies. Some of the same names appear over and over in the films of the 1930s and 1940s: Lionel Atwill; Lon Chaney, father and son; Boris Karloff; Carl Laemmle, father and son; Bela Lugosi; James Whale and many others. Their backgrounds and personalities are reflected in their films.
This book collects my essays on the horror and monster films that I first saw on television in my youth. Most of the pieces have been previously published in Cult Movies Magazine, but I have never stopped writing them. None of the movies that I write about ever frightened me, but they captivated me at an early age, and have never let go. Like my obsession with old black & white horror films, the writing of my essays never ends. The essays may be read individually, but have been sequenced and edited to allow a smooth progression and to remove unnecessary repetition.
The collection begins with the character and the actor who for me started it all.