If there is anything that we at Voyages Extraordinaires love more than a rousing tale of Victorian adventuring in a past that wasn't, it's the murky depth of a horror film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Opened up before us on monochrome celluloid is the antique romance of a bygone age so close yet elusive, and in that world there are monsters lurking in the fringes and the shadows. They hide in fog-choked forests, immense alpine passes, ruined and overgrown castles. They bid us welcome, show us what it means to trespass into the realms of God and know that which we were not meant to know, and do so in unparalleled glamour and style.
Nobody did it quite as well as Universal Studios. There were certainly others that rose to the occasion, like filmmaker Val Lewton and pictures like White Zombie... Even Mickey Mouse tussled with skeleton dancers and mad doctors now and then. None matched Universal for sheer output, enjoyment and quality. From the Silent Era to the Atomic Age, the Universal Studios Monsters are an unparalleled legacy.
The answer to why this is so, and why there has never been a good horror film in colour, may begin with the infamous and contemporaneous eccentric Montague Summers. An Anglican clergyman and expert on Gothic literature with a bent for Romanticism and writing books about vampire hunting, Summers wrote the following in his introduction to Horace Walpole's seminal novel The Castle of Otranto:
There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.
The blood, guts and gore of a horror film are not the point, at least in this Golden Age. Compared to their usurpers - the Freddies, Jasons, Ghostfaces, and Jigsaws - old Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster are anemic. Yet the comparison misses the point, which is not gore. Nor is it even the shallow fright of a "mixed up face", as the beloved Forrest J. Ackerman dubbed the mainstream view of horror films.
In their article Monster Fan 2000, Lint Hatcher and Rod Bennett outline the experience of what these films were about, from the perspective of children who grew up in the monster fad of the 1950s and 1960s:
Those kids knew that - strange as it may sound - when they were engrossed in a good old monster movie they were more tapped into who they really were and who they wanted to be than at any other time. Something was stirred up inside them - something that seemed central and true... And as their imagination meticulously worked out the parameters of these supernatural adventures. Those kids discovered new depths in their perspective on good and evil, on courage and dishonor, on beauty and ruin. They cheered one character, feared another -- and for deeply philosophical reasons that took hold in the soul. It seemed, in fact, as though these modern-day fairy tales were not only giving each fan the thrill of their life, but enlarging his or her heart as well -- and in a manner that was neither scholarly nor dogmatic, but incredibly thought-provoking, challenging, and alive.
In short, what these children were experiencing was the sublime in its most recent incarnation, the horror movie.
The idea of the sublime has always been difficult to pin down because by its very nature it defies attempts to define it. One can use words to convey a shallow impression at least compelling enough to fuel academic speculations since the days of ancient Greece. As near as can be said, the sublime is that which inspires infinite awe, dread, horror, ultimate appreciation, and an understanding of our own humble place in the cosmos and in relation to God. The sublime astonishes and shocks us into an awareness of that which is greater than ourselves: Nature and Divinity, Time and Space. The sublime is found wherever there is ruin and vastness, wherever there is darkness and decay.
Edmund Burke, the English philosopher, has perhaps the most widely held view towards the concept of the sublime, courtesy of his 1759 essay A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. In the following quotation, Burke defines the sublime as a sense of supreme astonishment and the horror that comes therefrom, prefiguring the idea of cinematic "shock value":
The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
Burke also outlines the differences between beauty and the sublime which speaks quite clearly to the sensibilities and motifs of classic horror films:
Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the Passions.
This all adds up to Montague Summers' vaunted sense of wonder and mystery, the Romance of the Saints at the heart of every horror film. The grand exterior world of picturesque mountains and sunless gorges, ancient deserts and timeless swamps mirrored in gorgeous celluloid monochrome the critical morality of the interior world, where the cosmic powers of Good and Evil waged war within the souls of mere fragile humans. Hatcher and Bennett clarify:
What exactly was the old-style monster fan "liking" when he "liked" monsters? Was it simply that they "scared" him?... But often -- probably most of the time -- they didn't scare him much. In fact, he could probably remember the last time a monster movie had really "scared" him and it was usually some childhood recollection from the time before he actually became a monster "fan." No, what he felt when looking at King Kong and The Invisible Man was something more akin to wonder -- a giddy, exhilarated appreciation is probably the best phrase. He papered his walls with stills of a particular personality like Karloff or Lugosi or of a particular "creepy character" in their repertoire -- a character that, like Frankenstein or Dracula, strangely fleshed out for him the stupendous outline of that "new world" in which he was now dwelling. They illustrated large moral dilemmas like "There are some things man was not meant to know" or riveting themes that grabbed his imagination... "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The young horror fan was inducted into a new and broader world of deeper moral dilemmas and philosophical breadth. In their "cinema-inspired life of the imagination" they would confront the dark Count Dracula amidst crumbling Gothic tombs and resist the temptations of unholy might and immortality he would offer them. They would learn about the heavy burden of obsession thanks to Immhotep the Mummy and Eric the Phantom, or about the old values of life's sanctity and nature's power thanks to the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Dr. Frankenstein's horrifying mistake. They would thrill to the exotic locations that the films would take them, from Egypt to the steaming jungle, and marvel at the vastness of it all and their place in it.
Our closing word comes once more from Hatcher and Bennett:
In truth, beneath that goofy Famous Monsters t-shirt, there beat a heart which was actually embracing -- using an admittedly limited vocabulary culled from these pop-culture icons -- a deeper, firmer belief in Good and a more dedicated refusal of evil than his parents could have imagined. Whatever else our monster fan knew, he knew that life was more than just getting through high school and college, getting a good job, and then making the bucks. And he learned it not from Socrates or the Saints, but from Frankenstein.