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Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Children of the Monsters You Couldn't Mash - The Universal Appeal of the Undead

"It's alive!"

We all know the line Dr. Frankenstein shouts in maniacal glee. Thunder crashes outside the castle walls as if in response, heightening the drama of the moment. This, however, was merely due to censorship on the part of the Production Code Administration, which came about after the initial release of 1931's Universal classic Frankenstein. In the original film, the mad doctor continues with "It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God, now I know how it feels like to BE God!" Under the Hays Code, which came about in the mid-1930s, the line was considered controversial. It was thought Christian audiences might object to a character presuming to be on a par with God, the folly of which is rather central to the plot. Most audiences who have ever seen the movie are only familiar with the crashing thunder and lightning response, and it's become iconic enough to have become the stuff of parody. Although not intended, and only brought into being through happenstance, the substitution of a natural weather event for a blasphemous line about the almighty is very appropriate- and intimates clues about the reality of the Universal Monsters.

The studio that produced the monsters we know and love couldn't have been more aptly named, given the enduring appeal of the movies that featured them. There's something of a universal, archetypal resonance that these undead characters perpetuate, both backwards and forward in time. Ostensibly the villains in the story, they nevertheless inspire sympathy or otherwise illuminate all-too-human struggles in the world. Marginalized people throughout the last century have found avatars of alienation in the characters of the films, and outsiders of all types have used these icons to help orient themselves. Beyond that, generations of movie-goers have watched and loved the old monsters, who seem to exist in a timeless black-and-white realm where anything is possible. Countless sequels and spinoffs, along with imitators and remakes throughout the history of cinema speak to the groundbreaking impact of these old films. Count Dracula, for instance, has been portrayed in movies more than any other literary figure- and most often, depictions harken back to Bela Lugosi's portrayal. 

The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.
-Professor Van Helsing, Dracula

Dracula's literary origins, of course, go back to Bram Stoker. Lugosi's version of the titular vampire differs significantly from the literary source's, which itself was patched together in a Frankensteinian manner from folkloric source materials, historical figures such as Vlad the Impaler, and perhaps from the author's own longings and self-image. The origin of Dracula as a character is an entire niche field of study and conjecture on its own, and many of the popular ideas make their way into articles around Halloween or the release of a new Dracula movie. But what of the real Dracula? What if the count, as well as the other famous monsters, have a reality apart from their fictional representations, their presences in the public consciousness, and their historical associations? Could all of these aspects be part and parcel of emanations of conscious beings from another realm?

In his narrative, Stoker quotes Arminius (whose origin is also the subject of debate among Dracula enthusiasts) in saying that the Dracula clan had been students at a school of the Dark Arts called Scholomance. Located underground, somewhere in the Transylvanian mountains near the fictional Lake Hermanstadt, classes were said to be taught by demons and the school run by the Devil himself. The word "Scholomance" is a Germanized version of Romanian folk descriptions of the student body of the school, called the Solomonari. It is thought that the name refers back to King Solomon, who of course controlled legions of demons and to whom systems of Goetic magic have been attributed. Among the skills learned at the school were those of weather magic, and a designated student would become the Weather Maker at the end of years of subterranean study. Weather Makers would bring rain while riding on the back of a flying dragon, the very creature from which Dracula derives his name. This has resonances with tales of the Tempestrarii, weather wizards who work with the sky people of Magonia, and of the Naga, dragons who bring rain in Tibetan traditions that can be negotiated with by Lamas. Here we begin to see the themes of mad science and mysticism, nature versus God, and conjuration over creation spin themselves into expression from an ambiguous otherworld.  

"Follow the lead of nature- or of God, if you like your Bible stories. Male and female created to them. Be fruitful and multiply. Create a race. A manmade race upon the face of the earth."
-Dr Septimus Pretorius, Bride of Frankenstein

Dracula as a student of the Black Arts gives him some common ground with Dr. Frankenstein. Sorcery, alchemy, and various traditions of magic have intertwined with the history of science, and in the heightened forms given to us through fiction become nearly indistinguishable. Mad scientists in modern works are, for all intents and purposes, the dark wizards of old with a touch of futurism involved; their motivations are nearly identical, and the result of their efforts ends in a similarly tragical fashion. Mad science is a devil's bargain, as it were; from the very first Universal horror film in 1913, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to The Invisible Man and Frankenstein the hubris and folly of playing God is met with catastrophe. Dr. Frankenstein seems to have been impelled by a need to know the secrets of life by bestowing it on an inanimate form, and perhaps unlocking the keys to immortality. In this respect, he mirrors the tale of Faust, whose thirst for worldly knowledge led him to exchange his soul for 24 years of life with supernatural powers and abilities. Johan Georg Faust is another character whose origins are murky and debated, but it is widely agreed that a person or persons called Faust traveled through Europe in the 16th century, acting as a physician, astrologer, and magician. After his death, stories circulated about him culminated in the Faustbuch by Jonathan Spies, who sought to embellish the sins of the sorcerer's life as a cautionary tale to Christians. This was the basis for the play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and later, Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust makes these arrangements through the intermediary of a devil called Mephistopheles, who fulfills his wishes on the material plane. He is a spirit who, in his own words, is "A part of that Power / Which always wills evil, always procures good." (Goethe). While we're led to believe that Faust conjured the demon using his necromantic powers, and of his own free will, it's revealed by Mephistopheles in Spies' version "so soon as we saw thy heart...even then did we enter into thee, giving thee divers foul and filthy cogitations, pricking thee forward in thine intent, and persuading thee that thou couldst never attain to thy desire, until thou hast the help of some Devil." The Mad Scientist pursuit then seems to be impelled by a grandiose, demoniacal force which only needs to gently encourage the would-be demigod into heresy, into committing the sins which seal his fate. Bride of Frankenstein brings us the character of Dr Septimus Pretorius, who acts as a kind of Mephistopheles to Frankenstein's Faust. He also parallels occultists of the past; after toasting to "a new world of Gods and Monsters" he shows Frankenstein his experimental results in generation of life- tiny people in jars. This harkens back to Paracelsus, and his writings on how to produce homunculi. Dr Frankenstein is repulsed, saying it's alchemy and not science- which contrasts with his character in the book who, not a doctor but a student, began his journey into unorthodox science by reading the works of Paracelsus and Agrippa. Frankenstein and Pretorius represent the divergent interests of Shelley's Victor Frankenstein as much as they mirror Mephistopheles and Faust, but in either case the union of opposites- the supernatural and the scientific- is the catalyzing force that manifests an uncontrollable monster. The creator becomes criminal, cast Lucifer-like into the ranks of the damned instead of being deified. It is fitting that Bride of Frankenstein ends with the destruction of the tower in which the "friend" created for the original monster is brought to life, as it echoes the story of the Tower of Babel. "We belong dead." says Boris Karloff, in his role as the Monster, pulling the self-destruct lever on the wall. Dr Henry Frankenstein and his new bride escape, which also alludes back to Faust, who ultimately finds redemption in the works of Goethe.

The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.
Maleva, The Wolf Man

The varied iterations and interpretations of these characters, connecting one another like a spiderweb in an old castle stairwell, are consistent with themes of transformation. Whether the transformative aspect is physical, spiritual, or psychological, whether borne of a curse or of Satanic power, it is the reification of some spirit or demon near to our plane of existence. It is fortuitous that Swan Lake became the musical backdrop in both Dracula and The Mummy, as the ballet's story centers on a woman who is cursed by an evil magician to life half of her life as a swan. Tchaikovsky's original ending was tragic, but was revised so that the spell was broken by the hero of the tale proving his love for the swan maiden, dying with her at the lake- and for their sacrifice, are raised to divine status. Just as the monsters of the films never really seem to die, the romantic pair at the heart of Swan Lake gains immortal life through apotheosis. (As a fun aside, Elsa Lanchester based her iconic hiss in her portrayal of the Bride on the sound swans make when they are defending their young.) Physical transformations are at their most obvious in The Wolf Man, in which the similarly cursed Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr, grapples with forces he can't understand or control. Dracula is also capable of such transformations, at times becoming either a black dog or a bat- and doing so at his whim, rather than against his will. In Stoker's book, the moment the Demeter lands on the shores of Yorkshire, a large dog was witnessed bounding out from below deck and disappearing up the cliffside. Reverend Donald Omand (who has been covered on this blog before), an exorcist who tangled with real-life vampires, also performed such a rite at Kettleness to address reports of a phantom black dog. He speculated that Stoker himself had visited the area, and that he may have had the psychic sensitivity to pick up on the presence of the phantom beast. Omand went so far as to suggest that Stoker's encounter with the beast not only inspired his novel, but that the spectral hound established a psychic connection with the author, transmitting the idea of itself into his mind. While this seems quite a stretch, one wonders at the concept of these monsters being very real forms of invisible life, attaching themselves in an incubus-like fashion to the minds of creatives in order to be brought to the attention of a greater public consciousness. Mephistopheles, who above alluded to the demonic subtle push toward the material world and infernal forces, seems to back this up- and also initially makes himself known to Faust in the form of a black dog.

Werewolf lore holds that the power to become a wolf is a product of black magic, usually achieved through pacts with the Devil and the donning of wolf skin, often in the form of a belt. The Universal movies established the modern werewolf myth, as a transmitted curse or contagion through a bite rather than an intended magical feat. Traditions around the world have variations of phantom dogs and wolfmen, which at times are indistinguishable with folklore about vampires, witches, and incorporeal spirits. In some cases, as in the Irish lore of foaladh, werewolves are seen as protectors and guardians of villages. In the modern day, werewolvery has become associated with stories such as that of the Beast of Bray Road and Dogman, a legend which seems to have had its origins in a myth concocted for an April Fool's Day song. As we have seen, and will continue to elucidate, these ideas have a way of delivering themselves by way of an unseen supernatural wind of creative fancy- so why wouldn't the song produce, or conjure, existing forms? 

Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright
-Maleva, The Wolf Man

Universal's now all-prevalent werewolf mythos began with the oft-overlooked movie Werewollf of London, in which a Dr Glendon is bit during an expedition to Tibet in search of a rare plant that only blooms in moonlight. Glendon is a scientist, and his lab is much more futuristic than that of Dr Frankenstein. The fictional plant, mariphasa lupina lumina, introduces the importance of the Moon in werewolf lore, as the impetus for Glendon's unfortunate affliction. This is mirrored in The Wolf Man with the references to wolfsbane blooming related to the werewolf curse, and also the idea that Talbot only transforms under the light of a full moon. Glendon searches for a cure, hoping science will rescue him from the curse- it is said that if he fails to kill during his time as a wolf, he will become one permanently. It's unclear during these transformations how much the human mind is active while in the wolfman form and, notably, the physical transformation is much less complete for actor Henry Hull than it would later be for Lon Chaney Jr. While his scientific endeavors weren't particularly extravagant, he fits into the mad scientist / black magician archetype in his ambiguous moral handling of the situation. Chaney, as Talbot on the other hand, is among the more sympathetic monsters Universal produced. He is horrified and grief stricken upon realizing he has killed Bela the Fortune Teller who he only saw in the form of a wolf. In the sequels he keeps coming back, an unwilling initiate to the damned undead- forced to walk the earth in search of a final rest or a cure. The curse for Talbot is seemingly immortality, and as is eventually intimated, the only release possible is to pass on the curse. The idea that werewolf bites cause werewolfism begins with these movies, and the idea of a supernatural contagion perpetuates itself much later in zombie films ala Night of the Living Dead and ones centered on demonic forces such as The Evil Dead movies. Thinking of monsterism in medical terms seems another way of squaring the supernatural with the scientific, the amalgam of which results in the mind virus of our modern monster lore. It also perpetuates the spirit of these entities in subtle ways, throughout time and history.

Dr Glendon, the best-dressed werewolf.

The werewolf films of Universal had no singular literary source from which to draw their stories, unlike Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. The same was true with The Mummy. Karloff returned to play Imhotep, a mummified Egyptian priest who was reanimated through supernatural means accidentally. He had been killed and mummified for his own attempts to reanimate his dead lover, and returns to the land of the living to find her in a reincarnated form. The themes of transformation, sorcery, and tragedy are altogether obvious here, but a look at the historical Imhotep and his elevation to godlike status is worth pursuing. Little is known about the man, but it is agreed that he lived in the 27th century BCE and a chancellor, high priest of Ra, and possibly an architect. In the centuries following his death, he became venerated, attaining the level of a demigod- a rare example of someone other than royalty being thus glorified. Egyptian traditions don't contain any examples of reanimated mummies, but there had been literary precedent for such a thing that was not used for source material in the movie. Jane Webb's The Mummy! A Tale of the 22nd Century, published in 1827, is a story about future scientists reanimating a mummy using electrical shocks. Edgar Allan Poe also uses the idea of electrical stimulation in the resurrection of a mummy in his 1845 satirical short story Some Words With a Mummy. It's interesting to consider that Universal's Dr Frankenstein harnesses the power of lightning in order to bring his monster to life, while this is conspicuously absent in Shelley's source work. Shelley is, perhaps wisely, not terribly forthcoming with details about the methods by which her Frankenstein reanimates the dead, but she does make passing references to the experiments of Giovanni Aldini and Luigi Galvani who famously proved that the nervous system can be stimulated with electricity. It was one of these references which inspired Webb, then 22 years old, to write her mummy story. 

That body is not dead. It has never lived. I created it. I made it with my own hands, from the bodies I took from graves, from the gallows, anywhere! Go and see for yourself.
Dr Henry Frankenstein, Frankenstein

The idea of a mummy climbing out of a sarcophagus and walking away is horrific and reanimation in its truest sense. (The witness to this in the Universal movie has probably one of the best reactions in any horror movie ever. He just completely cracks up, and can't stop laughing. The shock of seeing an ancient corpse "go for a walk" instantly demolishes his grip on reality.) While Frankenstein's creation is a patchwork of composite parts creating a new form of life, harkening back to the folly of "playing God" in a demiurgic display, Imhotep is whole and ancient, for all intents and purposes eternal. Even though there are no walking mummies in Egyptian lore, one of the primary stories in ancient Egypt was that of the resurrection of Osiris after being killed and dismembered by Set. Isis collects the parts and, with the help of Thoth, brings him back to life. The Scroll of Thoth in the movie serves the same purpose. A degree of authenticity was leant to the script, since it was written by John L. Balderson, who had covered the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb for the press in the 1920s. This expedition, led by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvan, has its own intendant stories about curses, which were popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, of course, is known for creating the second most portrayed character on film, Sherlock Holmes, who also tangled with phantom dogs. Doyle was also an ardent Spiritualist, a believer in fairies, and wrote his share of Egyptian curse and mummy stories.

Balderson was given the task of reworking an existing script to make it about a reanimated mummy, drawing from his experiences as a journalist in Egypt. Imhotep's love interest, Anck-es-en-Amon, was named after King Tut's bride. The original story, which had come far enough along in development to have had promotional materials made, would have featured Boris Karloff as Alessandro Cagliostro. Cagliostro is very much in the tradition of real life magician bordering on mad scientist, and is widely thought of and remembered as a con artist and mountebank. He was, however, extremely influential in his lifetime and some have looked back on his career more favorably. Dying in prison, a victim of the Inquisition in the 1790s, he's considered to have been the last of the great magicians. With his death, so went the world of rennaissance occultism, sorcery and alchemy. A new world, with "Gods and Monsters" of industry, democracy, and technology loomed large in the future and cast its shadow into the past, creating- or perhaps simply evoking- the monsters that live in our minds and in the earth itself.   

I may be able to bring you proof that the superstition of yesterday can become the scientific reality of today.
Professor Van Helsing, Dracula

Cagliostro is widely agreed to have been born Giuseppe Balsamo, a crook who dealt in magic tricks and cons in Italy. Goethe, who is thought to have been partly inspired by the life of Cagliostro in his presentation of Faust, even visited Balsamo's village to interview family and others who knew him. Colin Wilson writes extensively about Cagliostro in his book The Occult: A History, presenting the story of a man who actualized his greatest aspirations to rise from the level of a street crook to a high society, flamboyant magical personality. Upon being accepted into the Freemasons he established the Egyptian Rites, owing to his mythologized history as having Egyptian ancestry. Whether a flim-flam man or a master of mysticism, Balsamo / Cagliostro transformed himself in the most magical way- His Grand Copt manifestation is the apotheosis of his humble beginnings. The stories around him that exist for us to find are wildly inconsistent but never boring, including the idea that he, like Count Saint-Germain (who he claimed to have known) was over 1000 years old. Cagliostro was the stuff of legends, and like Imhotep being turned into a deity and later, into a monster, or like Faust becoming an over-the-top example of the blackest of black arts only to be redeemed later, the cyclical nature of human folly repeats itself with monstrous regularity down through the ages. 

As long as the stories are told, the spirit lives on wearing any number of masks. Immortality is sought by the maddest minds, but as we've seen it can be a curse when actually attained. The truest form of ever-lasting life is ephemeral; any material manifestation of immortality is unnatural and grotesque. Shelley's Frankenstein is so horrified by what he's accomplished he runs away and abandons the creature, reminiscent of some tellings of the birth of the demiurge Ialdabaoth. He is forced to create a mate for the monster, but changes his mind at the last minute, tearing her to pieces. He is afraid of what the pair of monsters could create. The creature is an abomination, but he's sympathetic. He never asked to be created, and he is left to wander the world and learn how to survive on his own. Karloff does an excellent job of highlighting this type of pathos, largely without words, particularly in the scene with the young girl in the first film and in his friendship with the blind man in Bride. Both scenes are touching, but both end tragically. The monster is a hulking mass of mismatched material, pure emotion without context. Neglected, he searches for meaning, and consciously decides to inspire fear and ultimately to destroy himself.

Suddenly I realized the power I held: the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet. 
-The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man

Good and evil become difficult to parse, and are not so black and white as these movies appear. The question is the lengths to which someone will go for their own personal, material gain. Shelley's narrative is told from the perspective of a ship's captain who reasons that it's better to die attempting a fantastic feat than it is to live the life of one who has failed; Frankenstein warns him against this way of thinking, using his own experience as a cautionary tale. This mindset applies also in The Creature From the Black Lagoon, where the team searching for fossil remains of fish people refuse to abandon their cause even after several deaths at the hands of Gill Man. Pride and hubris are the main monstrosities on display; The monsters themselves are just freaks, each with their own simple needs. The archonic impetus as explain above by Mephistopheles, pricking forward humanity's curiosity and desires with no consideration for the spiritual cost, is expressed in the basest terms- while a more ethereal consciousness animates the horrors.

There are tales about Cagliostro using mirrors to conjure people and places from the past, and Faust is said to have manifested the characters from the Odyssey during a lecture in Erfurt. According to the account, this included the giant cyclops Polyphemus, who threatened to not leave the stage and shook the hall by pounding his spear and terrifying the crowd. Similarly earth-shaking, these films left an impression so deep they are still relevant and entertaining audiences nearly a century after their releases. The mad scientists at Universal Studios who brought life to the monsters played a hand in reifying the disembodied entities on celluloid. Actors like Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, and Rains embodied the classic monsters whose stories were brought to life by alchemical processes in the lab of a soundstage. Groundbreaking cinematography from Karl Freund, continuing German expressionist techniques in a new Gothic horror style set a backdrop in Dracula and The Mummy, while James Whale brought theatrics learned on the British stage to heighten the drama of Frankenstein and its first sequel. Jack Pierce, the make-up man, was said to wear a surgeon's smock and was something of a mad scientist himself, crafting the faces of the monsters we know and love. Gill Man would not be as well-remembered without the creative, life-bestowing magic of Millicent Patrick in her costume design. Every element of the production in these films is crucial to the evocation. One thinks of seances, and the manifestation of spirits, or perhaps the conjuration of demons in a magic ritual. In a sense, the fleeting images projected on a screen, emanating from a systematic tradition of creation have a life of their own- and perhaps always have.  

It's a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.
Mary Shelley, Bride of Frankenstein

It's as though the Frankenstein monster, along with other demonic hordes, had always existed in the earth- perhaps in some Scholomance classroom, a vanity project by students. The idea form, the romantic vision of mastery over nature and the power of a god represented by the shuffling corpse of Karloff or the superhuman literary predecessor, waited in some cthonic realm to be reified. Then, in 1815, Mount Tambora erupted, spewing forth lava and ash like a dragon who has awakened after centuries of slumber. It was the most powerful volcanic eruption in human history, and the ash sent into the heavens had lasting global effects on climate and weather, as though solomanarii were directing the rains. Nearly two decades after the age of magic ended with Cagliostro's death in a jail cell, a young Mary Shelley and her husband decided to spend the summer with Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori. The incessant, almost supernatural rain kept them cooped up and eventually led them to pour through the books on the estate for ghost stories, then to challenge one another to see who could write the best one. Could it be that this Frankenstein consciousness, the once and future monster story, existed fully formed in an idea space, only to be released in a massive explosion - and then be precipitated down to a young Mary Shelley in the form of a vision? It's worth mentioning that Polidori's tale, The Vampyre, was also written that summer and undoubtably had some impact on Stoker's later vampire story. Shelley's story, however, is the one with staying power. She is hailed as the Mother of Science Fiction, and as a founder of horror stories. In a world where the magical was being supplanted by the mundane, where science was entering the business of slaying superstition, Shelley created a space for fantasy and horror of the deepest kind. Touching on fears of the unknown, and combining the "what if" of technological becoming with the most obscured of occult horrors, we worry about being swindled in a Faustian bargain of folly and hubris, tricked into conjuring demonic forces we're led to believe we created. Stealing fire from the gods is ever-tempting, but we must measure the costs, lest we become the monsters we fear.

Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, with Byron and Percy

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