The New Yorker has a profile of author Gene Wolfe. “His narrators may be prophets, or liars, or merely crazy, but somewhere in their stories they help to reveal what Wolfe most wants his readers to know: that compassion can withstand the most brutal of futures and exist on the most distant planets, and it has been part of us since ages long past.”
Posted October 18, 2012
When I was in grade two, my school thought it’d be a great Halloween activity to have a movie screening of old horror films. They showed us the 1931 adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, the original 1932 The Mummy, and the 1954 3-D classic, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. At age eight I had not yet acquired a taste for the macabre. That came a little later, with my grandfather’s old Chas Addams cartoon collections and the Edward Gorey “Gashlycrumb Tinies” poster my mother hung in her office. At eight, those movies gave me nightmares.
What I found interesting later was which ones bothered me and how. Frankenstein seemed like the odd one out to me even then, although I couldn’t have said why. Although it was framed in much the same way as Universal’s other 1930s horror films, with dripping script proclaiming it terrifying and fiendish, Boris Karloff’s performance still captured some of the ethical and emotional complexity of Mary Shelley’s novel. Victor Frankenstein creates his monster in every way, giving life and then shirking his responsibility, abandoning his creation to violent rejection at the hands of society. I remember feeling ambivalent about it, which I think prevented me from really being frightened. I felt bad for the monster but I couldn’t conscience absolving him. I found it troubling and ultimately a little boring.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon, by contrast, was just plain entertaining, even when I was eight. It didn’t really scare me either, but I think that was largely the extreme 1950s B-movie-ness of it. The trailer calls it “A Creature to Confound Science!” As I remember it, the actor in the creature costume pops out and runs after people exactly like a guy in a rubber suit and flippers. Not sure if you’ve ever watched someone run in flippers, but it’s really not scary. On a scale from “you can’t possibly run fast enough to save yourself” to “you have to actually crawl into its maw to get yourself eaten,” Creature doesn’t score quite as low as The Blob or The Creeping Terror, but I recall it taking an awful lot of standing still and looking panicked before anyone got caught.
The Mummy, again with Boris Karloff, genuinely gave me the creeps. Another early 1930s Universal horror production, it boasts about the “awful creeping crawling terror” of the mummy, and honestly the story is pretty horrifying. I think the 1999 version of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser is a lot of fun, but I have to admit that it downplays the psychological ick factor of the narrative. It’s not a stretch to imagine why I was disturbed by Im-ho-tep trying to kill and mummify a woman so he could use her body to house the reincarnation of his lost love. It’s non-consensual, and really just not ok. At the time, I was upset enough by it that I intentionally gave myself nightmares about Dracula in order to avoid thinking about The Mummy.
Which brings us to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the film that gave me nightmares every night for a month. What happened in those nightmares? Heck if I can remember, and watching it later I couldn’t figure out why exactly. I know it wasn’t the huge fuzzy bouncing bat on strings that he turned into periodically, ‘cause even at eight I didn’t think that was scary. I can put a whole different spin now on the way the women he seduced with his vampirism felt alternately compelled by and ashamed of giving in to their desires, and the anguish the proper menfolk experienced over it, but there’s still the unpleasant underlying current of non-consensual sex and the fundamental horror of being forced to do something against one’s will. I’d put my money on that and the drinking of blood for why Dracula was the one to take home the gold ribbon.
A question I know my parents asked themselves, and possibly also my school, was what were they thinking showing these films to young children? I suppose they must have been unable to take them seriously, with the old-fashioned special effects and theatrical presentation, but I was emotionally and psychologically unequipped to deal with the actual horror of the stories. The concepts of the 1930s films are actually disturbing. Adult audiences found them terrifying when they were released. There was screaming and fainting, disclaimers beforehand, and assorted melodramatic gestures such as theatres hiring nurses to walk down the aisles and parking ambulances outside, or the warning to the faint of heart the studio inserted at the beginning of Frankenstein.
For all the good it did me, I’m sure my teachers had some kind of educational Q&A session with us afterwards – it was school after all – but I think they must have had some other kid in mind when they decided we were old enough for a Golden Age creature feature. Like my friend Lisa, who one year on my birthday convinced my friends and I to sneak out of the gymnasium where my parents thought we were all safely watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks to the one where the older kids were seeing The Watcher in the Woods. All I remember is a creepy pair of eyes framed by foliage, and again, nightmares. She was also the one who used to drag me down to into our unfinished basement and tell scary stories until she freaked herself out and ran off with the flashlight, leaving me to feel my way through creepy racks of old clothing in total darkness.
And the thing is that I let her do it. Repeatedly. Just like I’ve watched movies that scared me by choice many times since I was eight. I finally stopped having nightmares about Dracula when I learned how to change the ending in my dreams. I’ve since forgotten that useful skill, but now I know that dreams are metaphors, and vampires are metaphors, and I don’t need my teddy bears to protect me. Nope. Not at all.
alex MacFadyen recommends running when faced with any kind of creeping, crawling or otherwise slothlike menace.