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Tabula Rasa

Classic Monsters

and Witty Comebacks

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#7, 1995

This is immortality
Never dreamt of yet:
Life because a child sits by
A television set.
A Child in the Eighties, Derwent May
It's a simple fact that most of our staple monsters date from the previous century -- and this as we're nearing the close of the present one. They all have elder antecedents, it's true, and it has always been interesting to one or another author or filmmaker to go back to them, and come up with a variation on the canon. It has also always been interesting to try showing Vampires or Frankensteins in a contemporary light. But the canon has been in place for a long time. How did it happen that the great 'classic' monsters were canonised? Saints Vampire, Werewolf, Frankenstein and Mummy, each with their own iconography, not to mention anthology. A case could also be made for a Saint Slasher, but even he, I contest, has a very well-established Victorian archetype, right down to the signature weapon and little rhyme.

These monsters must be considered as belonging to that mass which is western culture, the second even partially international language, and the most successful competitor of the first, (the latin mass). Monsters are a peculiarly vital part of any vocabulary. And when you witness Monkey, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven in a Japanese TV series based on Buddist myth, battling a black-and-scarlet caped vampire by zapping it with crosses, you begin to see just what sort of vitality and success we have to deal with.

To give Monkey (Kokusai Hoei, NTV, 1979) its due, it did utilise a wide variety of intriuging local demons. But here we are dealing with international monsters. If we are going to give Jung and his collective unconscious any credence, it's going to be here, where there is a shared dream-imagery lorded over by the archetypes. And international is perhaps the best term; even in America, there exists doubt as to the existence of an American culture, and the stability of what there may be when confronted by the international culture [1].

Not that I have anything against Saints Vampire, Werewolf, Mummy etc. Perish the thought! And the fact is that individual innovation is possible, and it makes the scope of these concepts near infinite and so rich. It has been said that there are vampires in every culture, and this can be bourne out with only a slightly creative interpretation of terms like striga and rokuro-kubi [2]. But this does not mean that there is Dracula in every culture. And this is a situation where, still, the first thing any mainstream studio or director who wishes to 'do horror' will try, is remaking one or four of the classic tales, and a film can be sold with the pitch 'It's Dracula versus the Nazis' [3].

As stated, our classic monsters all took shape during the last century. Frankenstein/the Creature appeared with the publication of Mary Shelley's novel in 1818, a novel that has never since been out of print. Dracula was published in 1897 by 'Bram' Stoker, who attributed it to bad dreams caused by eating too much seafood. But it certainly drew on the decades-long popularity of the figure of Lord Ruthven, who from the original tale of The Vampyre by Doctor John Polidori, graduated to the stage and opera.

The Werewolf; well. It appears there has always been one main reason to write about werewolves, and that's because too many people are already doing vampires. So with the success of Varney the Vampire in 1845, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf by George M. Reynolds appeared in 1846. The werewolf had a multitude of short stories at this time, and although perhaps the quintessential novel is Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris (1933), the level of contemporary interest can be judged by the appearence of a scholarly compilation in 1865, The Book of Were-wolves by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould.

The Mummy was the result of Victorian archeology. It was now that dilletante and professional alike conducted the plundering of Egypt that shows to such advantage in the British Museum today. The Mummy Room has always been popular, and stories such as Theophile Gautier's novel Le Roman de la Momie (1857) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lot 249 (1890) only increased it.

Even in these quick snapshots, our icons may be seen clearly and all in place. We have the lumpish, powerful Creature and the refined and fanatical Doctor, with their essential duality, and all the connotations that produced the adjective 'Frankenstein'; the irrecovable colouring of even 'stein', that has led to such permutations as Doctor Freudstein in Lucio Fulci's Quella villa accanto il cimitero (The House by the Cemetery, 1982). We have Count Dracula, the master vampire who can say; 'Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine -- my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed;" with all the subtext that makes this a potentially attractive prospect. Then there is the Werewolf, the uncontrollable beast who can unleash that power, or have it unleashed against their will, on the night of the full moon, to target their families and loved ones; demonstrated in, for instance, Captain Frederick Marrayat's The Phantom Ship or A Tale of the Hartz Mountains (1839). And as for the Mummy, Conan-Doyle published another short in 1890, The Ring of Thoth, which is practically the text for that first Boris Karloff movie. I am not going to attempt to explain why these monsters became so popular. I merely evince that it is so.

One may ask what these new monsters superceded, and there is a point. Behind them seems to lie no equivalent set of literary figures. To find anything remotely similiar one has to go back to the late Middle Ages, where the saturation of the Christian religion in every field resulted in popularised folk tales of the devil -- the 'old Nick' whose rage at one saint or other caused the local rock formation known as the Devil's Marbles, or who agreed to build a magnificent new millhouse for the local miller in exchange for his soul, only to be outwitted at the last moment. Variations on the Faust legend were perhaps the most common theme, (apart from young women at the mercy of megalomaniacs), in the first Gothic novels, and a certain Faustian accent, sans devil, does undeniably carry over into Frankenstein. And folk tales are, of course, our basis for what became the vampire, the werewolf and the shambling, walking dead. But there is a difference between folk tales and novels or films; in any case the kind of popular culture that has only really existed since the last century, as an industry.

Granted we are talking about the British Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century and the concurrent shift in population from the country to the cities, the switch from folk tales to 'popular culture' can be considered a literal thing.

In the culture industry, everything works by symbols. And these creatures, formed as they were, became the symbols for horror. And as the industry prospered and took in more and more countries, the language-symbols of western popular culture spread. With the success of their experimental Frankenstein in 1932, Universal Studios immediately looked to the other monster stories of the era; in 1957 when the new Hammer Studio was looking to kick off production, they followed suit. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola came up with Bram Stoker's Dracula, to be followed in 1994 by Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Mike Nichol's Jack Nicholson's Wolf. A Mummy remake was proposed by Universal a couple of years ago with Clive Barker to write and direct, but apparently Mr Barker's concept was seen as not sufficiently traditional. Sometimes, at any point, it seems that a film doesn't have to be frightening to count as horror, because all it needs is the presence of one of the recognised monsters.

Perhaps the most telling example of this is the idea of teddy monsters; the vampire, werewolf -- in deference to strong female characters, of late you tend to get the Medusa as well -- as children's characters and toys. Children like monsters, it's a recognised fact; but as is noticeably the case with fairy tales these days, you can't have them being actually scary. The children can't possibly like being scared. So the Count in Sesame Street (Children's Television Workshop: ad infinitum) is a vampire whose every appearence is heralded by thunder, lightning and cute, little bat puppets, who consumes milk and cookies and wears stripey pyjamas at night. He never sleeps in a coffin. In the A Monster in My Pocket animated spin-off, Dracula, the Medusa and the Slime Monster are the bad monsters, while Frankenstein, the Werewolf and the Invisible Man are the good monsters. The bad monsters thrive on the power of screams, the good ones on the power of laughter. Draw your own conclusions, but at least the kids are getting it in some form. You need to know your monsters to function properly in a society where the bad guys wear black.

Which is exactly the point. And exactly our saturation in these modern 'folktales' has assisted as many books and films as it may have doomed. The fact is you can sell a rather moody and eclectic little story such as The Keep as 'Dracula vrs the Nazis', and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hotel Transylvania as 'A disturbing recreation of the Dracula legend'. And the canon can and always has inspired unique examples of genuine horror, from the girl brought up on teddy monsters in the approved fashion, who writes, 'Then that night th Vampir came an took my little sister an drank her blud but I was hideng;" to Anne Rice and the whole nineties subculture of darkness.

Perhaps the mark of a nineties' monster is that their survival is something of a moral imperative. The very earliest of our canon spends quality time on the monster's point of view, but whatever quirk you wish to put it down to, a werewolf or ,especially, a vampire in the current climate is likely to be the outright hero, and very likely to survive. Because; we might call this the Rice aesthetic; being stronger, more sensitive, more in touch with reality and simply more interesting than humans, they deserve to. The official explanation would probably be that we're only doing what was implicit in all the original works but simply couldn't be said at the time. The same explanation is offered for the sex; fair enough, really. The villian always was the most interesting character, and often for that very reason.

It's pretty clear, anyway, how Anne Rice's and any number of subsequent vampires derive from Dracula. There are corrections made to the canon -- I always found it interesting that Rice adopted and made superb use of a limiting factor, the sunlight. That is not in fact in Dracula, but counts as canon through its sheer popularity -- and that vital essence -- 'We must be beautiful, powerful, and without regret' -- which is the appeal of the vampire, is refined and redefined. Consider the whole Gothic subculture, surely one of the most dramatic demonstrations. When did trash-filled alleyways half-lit by street lamps, and smoking industrial sites, become suitable territory for a vampire? [4] When did vampires begin to dress in 'negative punk'? Gothic Industrial, music and dress, is the style of a modern city's night terrors suitably romanticised. From Joel Schumacher's film The Lost Boys (Panavision, 1987) onward, an element of the alternative was vampirised; just as with heavy metal an element of rock was occulted. To go Gothic is to deliberately identify with the idea of the dark danger, something better than gangs and robbery and vandalism, (except, perhaps in cemeteries), and utilise it's symbols. And vampires, genuine ones, faces white without makeup, begin to appear wearing ragged coats and torn fishnets, in books such as Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls (1992). And what better indication of how lively this variation, of positive darkness, has become, than of people creating such a lifestyle? Better even than children playing let's-tie-up-Peter-in-the-vampire's-larder.

To take another example; how about Romero's zombies? A 'dead' story is very different to a mummy story; but are they still related to the canon? As a matter of fact, we don't tend to get mummy stories these days. The dynamic is certainly different -- swarms of uncontrolled creatures plaguing the countryside and destroying civilisation -- to the classic curse-and-destroy, but the same thing has also been done with vampires; by Richard Matheson, for instance, or Brian Lumley in the 'Necroscope' series. But is a mummy, with its essence of embalming, the oriental and mystical, the same thing as a ravenous corpse animated by scientific forces gone astray? I only know one example of a mummy being brought back by mad science, Edgar Allen Poe's spoof Some Words With The Mummy (1845). Is the 'Dead' a different concept?

In effect, is this how the canon can actually change, and has changed? In the line up of Universal Classics; the video release, the trading cards et al. it will still be the Mummy. But we are not considering now so much the classics, as how they are used. Descendant or sequel, the Dead is a very powerful and effective monster of the eighties and nineties, that has become symbolic in its own right of a certain kind of horror. A traditional mummy would be no good at expressing mass dehumanisation or apocalypse. Is there a general trend in contemporary horror towards less exoticism? I'm sure I haven't seen much voudoun or even a Catholic mass for a while. Time will tell, and the telling will inevitably involve people decrying how the great originals have been degraded in the name of sensationalism and cheap thrills.

Not all productions wish to distinguish themselves from the canon. In fact, in many films, referencing has become something of a game. And 'game' is appropriate, because such drop-ins as footage from the first Dracula and Nosferatu in John Landis' Innocent Blood (1992), seldom seem to serve any purpose other than to remind the audience that this is indeed a horror film. There are exceptions. The Dracula novel in Tommy Lee Wallace's Fright Night II, (1989) was at least utilised in the plot as a reference of vampire lore (even though the Fright Night vampires can't walk in sunlight); but the pinnacle of the game must be reached in Brian W. Aldiss's novels, Frankenstein Unbound (1973) and Dracula Unbound (1991), where combining the original novel, the original novelist and a time-traveller, there is created something rich and strange. This game is a form of Trivial Pursuit, that depends entirely upon the popular, or in some cases more esoteric knowledge of the canon, a nod to the fans. It has its uses. Then there is the spoof. A spoof uses the same conventions and references, and most especially the audience familiarity, with the idea of showing them up. 'Frankensteen, my name is Frankensteen!' goes the running gag in the pointedly titled Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, TCF, 1974). Calling on the pure tradition is not anathema; I am quite fond of some of the direct remakes. Where it becomes a problem, which is perhaps another trend that may be carrying us in the nineties, is when it becomes a substitute for attempting to create. And to scare, for always, the purpose of these creatures is to terrify. Terror can be inspiring, alluring, refreshing and even fun, but fear is what lies always at the crux. Does familiarity, sometimes, breed contempt?

There have been attempts to displace or straight out substitute the canon. This is the resource of many local monsters and pantheons. But why is it that so many native spirits, once they make it big time, start exhibiting behaviour reminiscent of Freddy Kruegar? Why should, for instance, a manitou, a native American nature spirit or general personification, start making a redneck (with a complete and utter lack of shamanistic leanings), turn into a werewolf and kill his father? [5] The answer is, of course, it theoretically makes a good story. We're used to the classic story lines. As said, a monster such as the vampire or werewolf can have its storyline changed and still retain its identity, but it must still bite and grip. It is altogether possible for a non-traditional storyline; involving, for instance, a figure in one of the Australian Koori myths of a cannibal with the head of a currawong, who was none the less important for the secrets of hunting he possessed and taught, to be a successful book or film without having him searching for his long lost love who has been reincarnated as the hero's girlfriend. It is just harder, both to work with: the classic narratives provide a wonderful support system for a writer and director: and for the viewer, used to playing all the subtleties of theme-and-variation. And of course, an absolute nightmare for the advertisers.

Which brings us to market forces. The situation is far too complex to blame any one thing, or even to attribute to any one thing the continuation of the great classic monsters. The devoted horrorphile plays their part as well; in the histories and tributes and encyclopedias that replay the schemata over and over. Each new 'Generic Vampires in the Cinema Book' contains a few more years worth of examples. The simple fact is that international western culture does allow some of us to make a proper living as authors. These monsters, products of mass culture, fulfil their function as they have done, with development, for over two hundred years. In many ways, we who partake of it are fortunate to have such a variety of strong, secular monsters in our vocabulary. In any case, even among the sternest advocates of the kappa and the rakshasha, I think there would be few who would deny the sheer power and thrill of the original Dracula, Frankenstein, the wolf howling at the moon, and the mummy lurching in the shadows.

Bibliography

[23] The Dead That Walk, Leslie Haliwell, Halliwell's Moving Picture, Paladin 1988 c.1986

[80] Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling.

[163] The Face of Tutankhamun, Christopher Frayling, Faber and Faber, London, 1992. Attached to a fascinating documentary, The Rape of Tutankhamun (BBC, 1992) that he compered. But this contains reprints of all the stories. As scholarly, useful and intriuging as it's predecessor. And more evidence for my theory!

Notes

[1] There was a New Global Popular Culture conference in Washington in March 1992, concentrating on the questions 'Is it American?', 'Is it good for America?' and 'Is it good for the world?'. I might add the answer was yes.
[2] Respectively, a wild-haired, night flying witch reputed to suck blood in Ancient Rome, and a Japanese goblin whose head detaches from the body at dusk and flies about seeking prey.
[3] The Keep,  Michael Mann, 1983. Be glad they used a different hook line. And that the idea didn't surface in the 40s when they would have done it for real.
[4] I'd hazard with film noir. For that matter, I suggest that the aesthetic also roots in the 50's Bad Boy with the motorcycle from out of town, by route of black leather jackets and dark glasses.
[5] 'Shapes', The X Files, Season I, ep. 19. All the more remarkable because The X Files (Chris Carter, Fox, 1993 -- long may they reign) is a mainstream show that has made a point from the beginning of attempting to twist their stories.
 

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