One of the unique features of Halloween, compared to the rest of the year, is the celebration of monsters. An idea that would seem macabre or silly in July seems perfectly reasonable and at-home in October. This is due to the spooky spirit of the Halloween season. Around this time of year, you’ll see all sort of ghosts and goblins, though these days, they tend to be the kids down the street.
These creatures of the night (the ghosts and goblins, not the neighborhood kids) also begin to creep up in movies and television. While ghost stories have existed essentially since ancient time, the other classic movie monsters we closely associate with Halloween all seem more fleshed out. Universal’s classic monster collection — like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster — all draw on very specific traditions and very specific fears. Each of these Halloween monsters tell us a lot about what we fear and what makes us human.
The modern vampire is built upon layers of history, each bringing its own context and rereadings of the creature. Mainly, vampires come from a fear of disease and the belief in the dead rising from the grave. Nearly every culture has a vampire, specifically a revenant or a being that’s returned from the dead to harm the living. Vampires are often tied to deadly outbreaks of disease in a town, especially tuberculosis (also called consumption or wasting disease), when concerned locals would dig up bodies and see natural signs of decomposition but confuse them for the signs of a vampire (flushed features, blood around the mouth, etc.). This wasn’t just among Medieval Europeans either, as the most famous American vampire story, Mercy Brown, will show.
Stoker combined elements from historical people like Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory, to create his vampire of the nobility.
The largest influence on vampires was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Before this novel, vampires were ghoulish, disgusting creatures. Certainly not the refined, suave bloodsuckers we know today. Stoker combined elements from historical people like Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory, to create his vampire of the nobility. The story derives much of its horror from lingering fears of the Old World, Victorian fears of unrestrained sexuality, and a not unsubtle mix of fear of the mystic foreigner. (It’s no surprise that Count Dracula is from mystic and backwards Transylvania and travels to modern London).
More recent iterations of vampires drop the fear of the Old World and foreigners and focus more on sexuality and hedonism. (Think Anne Rice’s vampires, and to a lesser extent, the vampires from the famous book series Twilight.) These are less-scary creatures and much more sympathetic (like the film and television series What We Do in the Shadows). They can be anything from love interests (Twilight), to heroes (the movie Blade), to a mix (like in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and HBO’s True Blood). Of course, you still have scary vampires, like in Let the Right One In, but even then, they’re more sympathetic than in Stoker’s day. Clearly, the vampire is a creature that refuses to be tied (or “staked”) down to a single interpretation or fear.
The Wolf Man
Like tales of the vampire, werewolf tales have changed much in history. While now, we often see the werewolf as a tragic figure (like Lawrence Talbot and Universal’s The Wolf Man), that’s not how it started. Nearly every culture has some sort of human that transforms into animal monster. Whatever the most feared or apex predator in the region was became the were-creature (were-tigers, were-bears, etc.). To have this power wasn’t always a bad thing, with berserkers of Norse culture believing they transformed into bears before battle. (Berserker comes from Old Norse for “bearskin”).
In Medieval Europe, animal attacks were more often by wolves. When attacks got especially bad, they suspected a werewolf, such as the beast of Gevaudan. The blame often fell on to the local loner or community outsider, similar to what occurred in the witch trials that burned throughout Europe and the Americas. There are a few historically famous “werewolves” that have been recorded. Often, these creatures were used to also explain horrific serial killers, like with Peter Stubbe the Bedburg Werewolf.
What makes werewolves so scary is explained pretty succinctly in the poem from Universal’s The Wolf Man.
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
The fear associated with werewolves is threefold. First, losing your humanity to an animalistic nature and completely losing control. Second, the fear of the thin line between man and animal and how easily it is traversed. (Think of the contrast between a pure, pious man and a savage beast he can become completely against his will.) And third, the final terror of the werewolf, is the beast in other people. Werewolves hide in plain sight; it could even be a man who is pure in heart. This animalistic nature is inside us all, and we don’t know who is a beast and who isn’t.
It may be funny to call it this now, but the novel Frankenstein, where we get this character, was originally a science fiction horror story. What makes Frankenstein’s monster so scary for many is flying too close to the sun. The central theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one man’s crazed pursuit of power over life and death. The subtitle of Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”) ties to the true horror of the novel. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. In much the same way, Victor Frankenstein steals a power the novel says belongs only to a god, immortality and resurrection. In the original myth, the theft of fire brings down a great punishment on Prometheus. In Frankenstein, Victor loses everything as the direct result of his scientific meddling — his health, his family, and eventually his life. It’s a very personal horror that we contend with in the story.
Many argue that the real problem is not Victor’s experimentation, but his lack of care for the creature that causes the problems.
The modern idea of Frankenstein’s monster is actually quite different from the novel — he ends the story quite well-spoken and intelligent. Many argue that the real problem is not Victor’s experimentation, but his lack of care for the creature that causes the problems. What’s stuck with us, however, is the near-mute creature found in the immediate aftermath of its resurrection. Instead of the personal terror of the costs of scientific advancement, the consequences are expanded to be the outcomes wrought on mankind by science run amok. As a result, there’s a super strong, impervious creature causing havoc. In many ways, the lesson and fear of the Hollywood Frankenstein is from another “science gone too far” movie (Jurassic Park), that states “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
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Often seen as the big three of Universal’s classic movie monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster are quintessential parts of Halloween. As such, they’re scary, but the reasons that they’re scary aren’t just in the macabre and often terrifying settings of the films they inhabit. Instead, the fears they touch on are embedded deep in our culture and history. In many ways, these monsters aren’t simply things that go bump in the night anymore. They are dark reflections of our own humanity, which is telling, as all three have been become more sympathetic over the years. As we seek to understand our monsters, we can grow to understand the fears that created them.