In working on this little monster story of mine behind the scenes last night, I came to a realization that I think is a more than a little disturbing. But I’m wondering if this is really happening this way, or if it’s my own perception. Figured I’d toss it out here for my readers to chew on, see what you think.
When it comes to the classic monsters, we tend to think of them as classics because they are the brand names: Dracula, Frankenstein, and so forth. In most cases, they were classics before Universal got a hold of them, made more so because they had the right talent behind them and were released at the right time as escapism from the Depression and later from World War II. And they were scary for their time, in their own way. The world wasn’t a completely known commodity then. There were still unknown places of darkness where maybe the rules you understood didn’t apply. These monsters exemplified that. They represented an existential crisis to the notion of everyday understanding. The last of them, The Creature From the Black Lagoon and its sequels, were based in science fiction, not gothic horror. We’d seen that previously, of course, with The Invisible Man, obviously Frankenstein had a foot in both camps, but when things turned to aliens and bug-eyed monsters, Universal gave up because “horror was dead.”
Universal then funded and back-managed Hammer’s attempts. The classics lived again, this time in color, and they maintained their gothic horror elements. But they were wildly successful not because of what they did, but because of how they did it. Television had become a thing, and teenagers suddenly wanted out of the house. Combine that with the newly-minted X rating (which the films would lean on heavily as years went by), and Hammer carved a niche. The smuttier it became, the less it worked, and they passed the torch to their rivals, Amicus, who really didn’t do much with classic monsters. When you look back to either Hammer or Amicus, neither one of them are really regarded as “classic.” Instead, they often get the slam for being “cheesy but fun,” an assessment I can’t really dispute, even if it does seem like they’re getting short shrift for what they did accomplish from the outset.
Thing is, even as a kid, I knew the difference. I’d watch these movies on weekend afternoons, a double bill marked as “Double Shock Theater.” All year round, they’d show “cheesy” sci-fi and horror films, and then come October, that’s when we saw the top shelf Universal movies. I loved Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I worshipped at the altar of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, probably because they were so rare in the lineups. But the weekly exposure to Cushing and Lee made me respect them more and more over the years to the point where I don’t even try to compare the two eras much anymore. It happens, but not on purpose.
Here’s where it gets tricky. I grew up in the age of the slasher film. While I was consuming a steady visual diet of classic monsters on TV, the theaters were bringing new levels of fear and blood to more sophisticated audiences. Jaws, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street… these films changed the landscape forever. Even films that came before that were simply bloody for the sake of being bloody, which is a direct influence of Hammer. Iconic as they are in their own way, few ever seem to lump them in the same “classic monster” category. They’re “old” by current generation standards, but that’s really about as far as it goes. There are “monsters,” and there are “slashers.” The differences are academic, but that seems to be how that works. What they do have in common is that most reboots of them just don’t seem to live up to any measure. They miss on the nostalgic beats, and they never seem scary enough to be truly horrific. They exist not for story, but for name recognition. Part of that, I think, is due to fans of these movies being desensitized, so even the writers and directors are getting lazy. That was the biggest part of the message of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, that the monster had become a pop culture buddy instead of something truly frightening.
Today, the classic monsters are more action / adventure films than horror, and horror movies tend to be extensions of ghost hunting shows or deal with standard serial killers (a la Halloween without the panache). The monsters used to mean something because they were representations of larger thematic ideas. Now… zombies seem to be the only ones that do that? Yay?
Now that I’ve got all that preamble, this is my question: is this really the case? Have we grown so desensitized that the classic monsters cannot be truly scary anymore? This is the problem I’m wrestling with on my side hustle, because I want these monsters to live again for the right reasons, to be representative of the nightmares they embody. So far the approach I’m taking is verisimilitude. I figure if I treat them as creatures to be feared, for the right reasons, they will be feared. But is that enough anymore? Frankenstein’s creature seems to be the only one that really holds any true horror anymore, though I grant that most of that is psychological. The more you think about it, the scarier and freakier it gets. But… Dracula? Vampires are ubiquitous these days. Drac’s been out on the field more times than any other character in any genre (save for maybe Sherlock Holmes), and sometimes a creative effort comes along that makes it worth it.
The Phantom of the Opera seems to illustrate the exact point I’m wrestling with right now. This one’s actually the one that got me thinking about this last night. Somehow that tale got reduced to a love story in the minds of a doe-eyed audience. Nothing against the musical at all — I rather love it — but Erik is supposed to be irredeemable in the extreme. That’s what makes Christine work in the story, that she can see past even his level of horror. Like our modern audiences, she grows numb to fright and resigns herself to what’s really there. It’s excellent commentary when you get down to it, but it’s more complex than what people think they want it to be. She’s not supposed to fall for him. Pity, yes. Her heart goes out to him in the end, but it’s not truly love in the traditional sense of the word. It’s as version that’s as twisted as he is. Nor is it truly love on his part either, not that he’d have any means to understand that. This accentuates the point, though. Audiences have grown to sympathize so much as to love, and that not only removes the horror, it twists it into something that maybe the original creators of these monsters never intended. So because it has been twisted like this, we as a pop culture collective are incapable of seeing the monster anymore. Erik could go running through the night, garroting a thousand throats and dropping chandeliers in his wake. No one would care about the body count so long as he got the girl in the end.
Or am I wrong?
It could — and probably should — be argued that my job as the writer is to make people be horrified by these monsters. I’m just wondering what that actually takes these days.