Gods and Monsters: An Introduction to the Universal Horror Collection

“An audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn’t I write of monsters?” – Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Visiting Spirit Halloween at the beginning of September feels like arriving for a funeral to discover that the person has recovered. It’s relieving, confusing, and you’re still in a graveyard. I recently wandered through one of these shops and accidentally walked into a plastic knife. I am fine, everything at Spirit Halloween is supposedly child proof- except for the traumatic garden displays that jump out – but it struck me that this is a rather bizarre store. This place sells plastic knives and cheap costumes so you can look like a horror icon without replicating what that icon does. Each area is dedicated to a specific horror movement or character, like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and clowns. Just the literal concept of clowns gets an aisle. I usually love Spirit Halloween; it reminds me of the Octobers I spend dressed up as a screaming banshee for my high school’s haunted barn. This time, however, something interfered. These figures feel slightly lackluster in our desolate COVID-era, and I was having trouble understanding the vast difference between the horror monsters in the store and those in the real world. There had been a ‘protest’ that same day at a hospital near me- a group of selfish idiots spat at people, spoke nonsense, and refused to wear a mask or get a vaccine. I saw footage just before walking into the store, in fact, I went to the store to feel a better. This irredeemable mob was angry about necessary vaccine mandates, and caused delays outside, even forced immune comprised cancer patient to wade through to access chemo appointments. It also led to panic and anger inside from patients and overworked staff. I realized something quite bleak while wandering through these crowded aisles of plastic monsters: I have absolutely no sympathy for that ridiculous and ill-informed group, nor any desire to know them. As I considered the weight of that thought, and its lack of compromise, I came across a familiar face: Boris Karloff’s Creature from the 1931 Frankenstein. I thought, ‘now there’s a figure who knows a thing or two about an angry mob’. Movie monsters are different than the ones we experience, but they still help us contextualize that experience.

Monsters are supposedly repulsive and horrifying yet, as the Spirit Halloween proves, our culture can’t get enough of them. Cinema horror icons murder innocent people and wreak all kinds of mayhem, but we love them for it. This love is not as extreme or problematic as real-world monster worship, like serial killer fans and anti-vaxxers, but how do monster films make this distinction? Simple. Hollywood markets it’s monsters in a specific and sympathetic light by comparing them with real world monsters. That approach began with the classic Universal monster catalogue.

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” – Dracula (1931)

Our current cultural definition of monster and monstrosity comes from the Universal horror collection, where literary characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster were cinematically reborn. While these figures came from established literary works, these film transforms the way we characterize and interpret these texts. It’s hard, sometimes impossible, to disassociate our cultural image from textual, like the Creature from Mary Shelley’s text. When we mention Frankenstein, we instinctually picture a Boris Karloff looking figure, not at all what Shelley describes. The classic Universal horror films thus shape their original source material, to the extent where you cannot distinguish the original text from what it inspired.

I am dedicating September to this incredible collection, with particular emphasis on how these works operate independently and collectively, or how they work alongside their later adaptations.  I did a unit last year on monsters, but I now want to specifically focus the Universal canon. If you have read this blog before, you’ll know that I am especially interested how horror challenges its audience by using monsters as metaphors for ongoing systemic trauma and transgression. I truly believe that these early Universal films established much of this horror language, and so I feel compelled to discuss these works before examining other/newer horror films in October.

I should also note, there are three Universal monster movies I will not be discussing in this unit: Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, and The Mummy. I wrote a lengthy thesis on Frankenstein, Guillermo del Toro, and James Whale’s 1931 film for my Masters, and I am slightly worried about plagiarizing myself. I will describe certain elements of it here in my introduction, but that is all. I also spent all of June discussing adaptations of Phantom of the Opera, including the 1925 film. Now, I have not written on The Mummy, but I have mixed feelings about analyzing the original and the later Brendan Fraser classics. The original especially, perpetuates a lot of harmful stereotypes about Egypt, and although I love the later 1999 and 2001 films, they also make history and people spectacles. It’s the same reason I won’t discuss Indiana Jones on this blog, as it’s not something I’m interested in perpetuating myself. That noted, I love the Universal Monster collection, and much of my critical gaze comes from that admiration. These films are quite old, but they are still effective, and provide a good method to discuss deeply troubling things about our world. My goal this month is to examine what makes monsters so appealing, and why monster films are an important way to study our society and ourselves, however depressing that realm might be.

“The air itself is filled with monsters.” – Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Universal Monster collection constitutes a series of films released between 1925 to somewhere in the mid-1950s, depending on what you classify as the ‘last’. Famous entries include Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man, and so many others which continue to be remade and incorporated into contemporary works. I’ve always found it funny that we call them Universal Monsters, because yes, they were released by Universal Pictures, but the name also feels poetic. These monsters are universal, in that they represent universal fears, and are ‘universally’ known and cited by later filmmakers. These early films essentially taught us how to see horror, a gaze which went on to influence the way we visit Gothic texts and themes now. While these films didn’t invent every horror trope, they ushered how we experience horror, on the screen and otherwise. They establish a specific formula of costume, score, practical effect, and sound which reappears in modern cinema. Their influence is so extensive that they remain relevant to modern horror, even real-world horror, almost 67 years since their release. I believe these early films provide the language through which we define our fear, and so you can never really escape from them. The very way you hold your camera or pose a shadow is in some way connected to these classics, even if you are unconscious of it. One Universal film influenced the next, and then that influenced a different production company and director, and so forth. Horror was made in literature and reborn in film, and the prevalence of Universal’s tropes influence the way we recognize and describe monsters today.  

Dracula is a good example of this rebirth, as it owes its enduring popularity to film. Bram Stoker never achieved mainstream success until after his death, when his work was used for the iconic German film Nosferatu (1922). Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe, was still alive when the film was produced, and she filed a lawsuit against the creators for copyright infringement, as they stole her husband’s work. This was still in the early days of cinema, so such a lawsuit was rather unheard of. After she won her case, many copies of the film were destroyed, which, in addition to the press reports, led to an upsurge in Dracula book sales and Universal Picture’s interest in the story. Although Dracula is better known for the later 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi, this lawsuit demonstrates that Stoker’s work has a foundational relationship with cinema. Had it not been for Balcombe’s efforts, we never would have heard of Dracula, nor its definition of vampires. It’s a shame we don’t talk about her more, as she is an incredible figure in her own way. Stoker was just one of the literary figures she is associated with. Balcombe supposedly dated Oscar Wilde before meeting her husband, a fact which Stoker was deeply uncomfortable with (allegedly). It is very funny to me that Stoker had a vendetta against Wilde, just this image of Stoker glaring at the very mention of more successful author who also dated his wife.

Dracula and Frankenstein are similar in various regards, as both were released in 1931 by Universal, making them equally literary and cinematic, and each install a sympathetic lens which went on the influence other Universal pictures. This version of sympathy is specifically invented by these films. You can read the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as either sympathetic or as a pathological liar who brutally murders several people. The novel ultimately implies that Victor Frankenstein is the actual monster for trying to usurp nature and refusing to take responsibility, but that is just one reading you can take. The 1931 film enhances the sympathetic  version of Shelley’s work by removing the more problematic aspects of the Creature, making him mute. The Dracula film does something similar, as it transforms Stoker’s ancient bloodsucker into a dangerous foreign rebel, who lures and literally empowers women. So, although you can read Dracula or Frankenstein in a sympathetic light, that is not the only reading available. It’s also impossible to tell how much of that sympathetic gaze is the direct result of these later representations, and their influence on us.

“It’s ALIVE!” – Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein was one of the first films to suggest that men are the true monsters for ostracizing marginalized peoples and groups, something which Shelley initially suggested but which the film takes further. It acknowledges that the term ‘Monster’ is traditionally used to avoid association with a person, to suggest that they are something entirely different from you. That approach similarly distances us from whatever terrible thing makes them monstrous, whether it is how they act or appear. But Frankenstein and the other Universal horror films also question the distance between us and the monster, something which Gothic texts had already spend a considerable time doing. Works like Jekyll and Hyde, Jane Eyre, and the stories used by Universal, each suggest that the relationship between self and monster is far more complex and blurred. Jekyll and Hyde, for instance, argues that monstrosity can exist in anyone, even a proper gentleman. The monster does not always appear monstrous, which means that any person can be sinister, not just someone who looks sinister. Universal began workshopping this approach in its early 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Quasimodo is fully sympathetic while a church leader (or brother to one in this version) is morally corrupt. Universal’s later films take this even further by suggesting that by distancing ourselves using the term ‘Monster’, we create the very thing which we are afraid of. We thus get two monsters in each Universal film: the sympathetic monster and the institutional monster, or a mob. Victor’s Creature only becomes monstrous because he is rejected by Victor, which makes his violent story sympathetic.

The mob which surrounds and kills the Creature in the 1931 film is more threatening and alarming that the Creature, because unlike Victor’s creation, their ignorance exists before and after the events in the film. There are mobs in nearly every Universal horror film, and they are always sinister. This brings me back to my experience at the Spirit Halloween, and the mob I was busy thinking about. I am not simply rejecting them from myself, because there is a fundamental difference between the mob and monster in these works. The monster is a critical individual, even well-educated and perceptive, especially in Shelley’s text. The monsters in Universal works and Gothic texts are confused and violent but are also quite conscious of their monster position and label. The mob, by contrast, is unthinking, more zombie than Universal classic. They’re a plot device, not a character. More importantly, Universal Monsters are often ostracized for their knowledge, whether it’s the formula to turn invisible, or the secret to eternal life. The mob is always mistaken and selfish in these films, as unlike the monster, they have no development, redemption, or intelligence. The monster knows that there is something wrong with them and the world, the mob wants to maintain that wrong rather than change. The monster has everything to lose; the mob is privileged in their ignorance.

“I meddled in things that man must leave alone” – Invisible Man (1933)

Cinematic monsters, meanwhile, are complex metaphors which criticize the culture watching the film. Monsters are not simply a reflection of a culture or audience, as this relationship is far more intrinsic. We create the monster, we create the danger, and ultimately, we create our own undoing. It’s why I can’t help but laugh when I see people complaining about modern ‘woke’ horror, and it’s use of metaphors. Horror is political, always has been, that is why it’s scary. There is also something universal, forgive the word, about the fear in this original Universal collection. We have never really recovered from these monsters, nor the issues and politics that they represent and are quite conscious of. The Universal Monster collection was one of the first times cinemas really focused on what moved people, not just what made them laugh or feel outraged, but what stayed inside a person, a fear that they would bring home with them. You could only see these films for a limited time in a theatre, and after that infectious moment, you left the movie with something. Universal Pictures encouraged fear, even circulated shocking stories about people passing out or fleeing during the movie, terrified of both the object of fear (the monster) and the experience of it (the big screen). Combined, monster and big screen, the movie theatre became part lab, part therapy. A place to experiment with what we are afraid of, how, and why.

So why do we worship monsters, as I saw in Spirit Halloween? This sympathetic lens has developed since the Universal days, and we now have directors who grew up on these films and relate to these banished figures. Directors like Guillermo del Toro have called monsters “the patron saints of our blissful imperfections” (Golden Globe Awards 2017), which puts us in direct relation to the monster. By sympathizing with the monster, we put ourselves in the same position and find the parts of ourselves which we have either learned to suppress and manage or the parts we didn’t know about ourselves. These monster films suggest that each of us have the capability to be monstrous, that there is something inside of us, some invisible agent or monstrous thought which could spring out and attack. We can no longer distance the monster; it is already inside of us.

Looking at monsters brings us closer to them, as though they can touch us with their gaze. It might look at us with longing or sadness, maybe hatred. Or, perhaps, it’s watching and hunting us. Regardless, by going to the movies to look at monsters, we are simultaneously locating, deconstructing, and reinstating social taboos, while also reconsidering what makes us human, or rather, what makes us monstrous.

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