Let’s talk about monsters.
It’s a curious fact about monsters that the really good ones almost immediately cease to become scary. The same powerful iconography that allows them to so ably sum up our fears is the very thing that renders them almost immediately harmless.
Here for example is my current wallet, which I purchased at a head shop on 6th St. in Austin. Now it is impossible to know just what James Whale, Jack Pierce, and Boris Karloff had in mind when they created the screen version of Frankenstein’s Monster. But I think we can safely say that a logo for a wallet which until recently sat beneath a black light Bob Marley poster was not it.
They created a symbol so potent that eighty years later everybody knows Frankenstein's Monster, which is precisely the problem. After all as Lovecraft noted the original and most primal source of fear is fear of the unknown, and Frankenstein’s Monster is as far from the unknown as it is possible to get. He has romped with Abbot and Costello, he has sold us delicious berry flavored cereal, he keeps my Drivers Licensce and Credit Card safe. He is as they say an all right dude.
Cue also Bela Lugosi’s Valentino enthusiast and Lon Chaney Jr.’s terminal bad hair day. Part of the reason that any attempts to revive these old monsters (and I’m talking about them as characters in themselves, not the archetypes they represent which are eternal) so often ends in disaster is the simple fact that they have already been articulated. Bram Stoker’s Dracula has nothing really new to say about Dracula, so it is contented to be a simple campy overblown mess. It at least is an engagingly baroque campy overblown mess, which is more than one can say for the woeful Branagh version of Frankenstein, arguably the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Or for that matter the cheerfully incompetent Joe Johnson version of The Wolfman.
But the problem isn’t limited to this newest cycle. Witness John Badam’s inert version of Dracula that came out in the seventies, or the camp classic The Bride. It’s not just the figures of classic film who have been rendered harmless by familiarity. I hardly need to note how quickly the monster icons of the eighties became beloved mascots. The holy trinity of Freddy, Jason, and Michael and all the lesser saints quickly became safely ensconced in unplayable NES games, cereal boxes, attractions at Universal Studios not to mention their own misbegotten franchises which became less and less interested in playing their cash cows for something resembling actual scares with each passing entry. Perhaps the nadir/zenith of this absurdity came with the 1-900-Freddy line, a hotline that allowed children to call Freddy Krueger and have a little kvetch. This is the same Krueger we must remember who in his initial incarnation was a burnt demonic child molester so hateful that returned from the grave so he could keep hurting his victims. Now you can call him with your parent's permission of course.
(It should be noted that the attempts to resurrect the eighties monsters have resulted in just as little success as the attempts to remake the classic era ones, with dire fairly lifeless films the result. Rob Zombie’s Halloween being perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Though I am in the definite minority of horror fans here. Say what you will about the film it’s not the depressing fill in the blank school of filmmaking that the Platinum Dunes remakes of A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The Thirteenth were. )
It is also interesting to note how relatively little effort is needed to make something in the horror genre to make something iconic. Even a relatively minor figure such as Chucky or Pinhead whose films quickly sank into DTV ignobility are recognizable in the mainstream in a that most cult film figures simply aren’t.
Very few monsters escape this ubiquity breeds contempt theorem. If anything it seems to be increasing capable of swallowing not merely icons but entire genres (witness the current zombie meme, or sparklerific vampires) The only one who comes directly to mind is Leatherface, who despite any number of shitty sequels and unworthy remakes remains undiminished when he pulls open that metal door displays his rotting mask, and makes his animalistic gibbering as he beats his first unlucky victim to death with a meat hammer. Arguably another candidate for sustained cultural potency would be Max Shrek’s Nosferatu. Though he has done everything up to and including appearing as a punch line on Spongebob, as sure a sign of cultural saturation as exists. There remains something so fundamentally wrong about his design, so feral and wizened. Equal parts terrifying and pathetic, that he remains the go to design whenever anyone gets it into their head to try and actually frighten someone with vampires again.
This all ties into what King brings up next. That ALL horror no matter how crude is fundamentally allegorically. Please note that I am not saying (and neither is King) that all horror is consciously allegorical, which is something else entirely. I’m certainly not saying that the makers of say Friday The 13th Part 3D (which is for the record one of my favorite bad movies) consciously decided to make Jason a figure of conservative moral pressure reacting against the drug and sexual freedom of the counter culture. Far more likely that Steven Miner and company figured that since their audience was young they had better make their cast young as well, and given that their young audience enjoyed spending their time smoking pot and having sex then those would be two activities that they would be likely to engage in between their run ins with the machete wielding masked one.
But a fundamental allegory is impossible to avoid. The horror movie invites us to be both the monster and the mob. To participate vicariously both in the rampage and the relief when the rampage is ended.
It is an odd truth that while it is rare that a horror film ends without at least some token destruction of a monster: the monster being decapitated, exploded, or otherwise dispatched, it is equally unheard of for a horror film to end without what King termed “An O’Henry twist down the mineshaft.” This is not the province of so called high class horror either take the classic boo scares that end the initial entries of Friday The 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween. The enduring horror films send the simultaneous message that everything is back to the status quo and everything is not OK. Very rarely does a horror film end with evil unambiguously winning (The Wickerman, The Blair Witch Project) or losing (The Exorcist). Call it ten percent each. Probably the most representative example of this would be the ending of The Thing. In which the heroes dispatch the monster and then hunker down to die in the snow because, well you never know. Evil may have been vanquished, but there’s plenty more where it came from. Even the most mealy mouthed PG-13 remake will most likely end with a little disquieting jump to send their customers out the door thinking about a sequel.
As King points out even these horror films, the ones that are working on the most cynically mercenary, and purely physical scares, these “Tales Of The Hook” are without even trying to providing a certain amount of allegory and catharsis. As King puts it “We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings.”
In other words we conjure up the monsters because they provide a contrast to the ideal of a quiet well ordered life. We dispel them to reaffirm the strength of said way of life. They are representations of the chaos that is forever lurking at the edges of day to day life. Personifications of the bad luck and chaos that stalks the world. The aforementioned drunk who swerves across the double yellow line, the spot on the X-ray, or the random murder. It is no mistake that their victims and audience are so often young and not yet accustomed to the various ways that life can kick one square in the ass, with little to no provocation.
If there is one thing that the oft maligned slasher movement in horror can be said to have brought to the genre it is the magnification of the random in the horror genre (I’m certainly not saying that The Slasher originated this concept. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time has been a staple of the horror genre forever, The Slasher just put this in the forefront of the majority of its films). The lesser movies in the genre often feel compelled to create a convoluted reason for the killer’s rampage (Prom Night), but the majority of the genre’s victims did little to nothing to deserve their fate. The victims in slasher movies did not create a living being from the spare parts of corpses. They did not travel to the darkest woods of Transylvania or create a potion out of wolfsbane. Despite all the jokes about how smoking pot and sex lead to death in slasher movies these characters have done nothing much at all to deserve their fate. They cannot even be said to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure slasher characters have been known to take a midnight stroll into the summer camp where all those murders happened ten years ago tonight and begin to vigorously copulate (Because I don’t know about you but nothing gets my juices flowing like “site of a massacre”). But as the slashers have proven time and again they are more then happy to come to us.
It’s interesting to note that often one of the first things a slasher sequel will do is tone down this potent element of randomness. The quintessential example of this would be Halloween 2. In the original Meyer’s rampage is catastrophically random event to something with a reason. The twist of making Laurie Strode turn out to be Michael Myers sister smells of desperation to give the events some kind of reason. Any kind of reason. “Because,” you can here the woeful hack Rosenthal saying with a bit a flopsweat, “things like this don’t just happen without any reason.”
Yet the fact remains that things like this do just happen without any greater reason. They “just happen” every day and everyone who sits down in the theater knows this. It is however subconsciously why we are there.
Which brings us once again to the oddity we began with. The strange way that the monsters tend to become over the years quite chummy. As I said in my last post I believe that the great power of the horror genre is its ability to articulate the unspoken fear and dread that is present at any given time in a society and give it a shape and form that we can wrap our head around. Articulation it should be noted is a form of acceptance. And if we create monsters to help us deal with the faceless but all too real big scary forces that surround us everyday, then what is the ultimate form of that acceptance other then being able to laugh at the forms which frighten us.
The ability to turn Michael Myers into a plushie, or Jason Voorhees into a T-shirt, or yes Freddy Krueger into a 1-900 operator is an expression not of derangement, as most of horrors societal critics would have it, but of ultimate blessed sanity. The ability to take what frightens us in our cores and to completely disarm it, to turn it into a campfire tale, if only for a little while. Like the Danse Macabre itself it is a symbol that by accepting death we have conquered it.