The following article appeared in issue number seven of the now-defunct magazine, "Wonder." It was brought to my attention by several monster fans who cited it as one of the most eloquent descriptions of monster fandom ever written.
I applaud "Monster Fan 2000" for vividly capturing what it means to be a "monster kid." I remember thinking and feeling the very same things as the article's hypothetical monster fan of 1964. This in spite of my having been born in 1968 and discovering horror movies in the 1970s. (Don't let anyone tell you the "monster craze" ended in the 1960s. I am living proof that it was alive and kicking a decade later.)
But modern horror fans be warned: there are passages in the latter half of this article that may enrage and frustrate you, especially if you love "Night of the Living Dead."
For the record, co-author Rod Bennett said he and co-author Lint Hatcher consider NOTLD to be "one of the most amazing and effective pieces of celluloid ever created." They just consider it to be "a little immoral," he said.
The following article is re-printed here by permission of the authors, Lint Hatcher and Rod Bennett.
For another eloquent, but much shorter essay on monster fandom, check out David Colton's "The Monster Kids."
Monster movie fans have always had to face a certain dilemma. Take, for example, the fans who grew up in the Sixties, reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, building Aurora monster models, and watching the TV releases of the Universal Studios monster films. When parents saw these kids staring with glee at the horrific Frankenstein monster up on the TV screen, and when parents didn't feel glee at the same sight but terror or disgust - well, Mom and Pop naturally wondered if there was something wrong with little Bobby or Suzy. They began to worry that he or she was "sick." They began saying cautious, tiresome things to the kid like, "Well, you know all that stuff isn't real..." or "Why don't you go outside and play in the sunshine..." or "Now, I don't want you getting any nightmares...."
Of course, at first the kid simply balked at how his parents just didn't get it. But then, ever so gradually, an alarming, unbelievable fact crept into his mind. Yes, Virginia, it is actually possible for someone not to like Frankenstein!
With a jittery, placating smile, the kid calmly reassured his parents of his basic normality and mental health - mentioned a few baseball scores, told a knock-knock joke or two. But deep inside a line had been drawn. The love he thought to be commonplace had been shown to be as rare and strange as the "moon flower" of Werewolf of London. He knew now that he was different, a weirdo, a monster movie geek. And from someplace deep inside, where lifelong convictions are formed, his little heart cried out, "If this be abnormal, then let me never be normal!"
All across the country, this same shadow of suspected abnormality fell across the lives of thousands of monster fans. Each faced this dilemma and very likely most formed his or her own silent resolve to remain true to their monster madness. As a result, back in the early 60's when TV fright show host Ghoulardi used to tell kids to "Stay Sick!," the kids who were monster fans got a heckuva big kick out of it.
Perpetually "staying" their particular kind of "sick" was top priority to monster fans. Kids who were monster movie nuts knew that something extremely exciting, fascinating, even important was going on as they settled down to watch Peter Cushing's Dr. Abraham Van Helsing square off against Christopher Lee's Dracula in Horror of Dracula. Or Frederick March slowly give way to his "darker self' in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or the amoral Dr. Pretorius share some wine and sardonic humor with the Frankenstein monster deep in the belly of a crypt in the amazing Bride of Frankenstein. Something was happening - something as fun as it was momentous and meaningful. And as momentous and meaningful as it was fun.
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. Late at night after the monster movie was over - once the TV was turned off with an otherworldly chatter of static electricity. and once the bedsheets had been tucked under the chins of
perhaps a hundred monster fans who had watched the very same movie on that very same local channel - each fan stared up at his or her own ceiling and pondered what had taken place, letting their imagination sprint across a whole new landscape of images and ideas. They pondered what they might do if they were in the same situation as the wise Dr. Van Helsing or poor Larry Talbot or the hapless Frankenstein monster. They clenched their teeth and wondered, "Is there anything you can do if you meet a werewolf on some cold, moonlit night? And if you don't happen to have any silver on you?" They wondered how it was that Count Dracula had gotten to be so bad. 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.
When Larry Talbot gave no heed lo the "old ways" and fell under the spell of the werewolf, this kid knodded sagely, taking on a wisely open heart toward truths and traditions undreamt of in his home-spun philosophies. When the risen mummy, Ardeth Bey, pursued his reincarnated princess by destroying the lives of every person in his way, our monster fan had a first enlightening taste of love bitterly denied. And when villagers pursued the Frankenstein monster, demanding justice without mercy, this kid's heart "grew three sizes that day." He knew what poor Frankie had suffered and that somewhere the hermit, O. P. Heggie, was mourning and praying for his "good friend." Even as the kid was entertained to sheer giddiness and delight by these films, he also felt this was important stuff not at all far removed from the horrors and tragedy and heroism of the "real world." As a result, this kid listened - and believed - when the wise Dr. Van Cushing said, "Listen to me! This is a matter of life and death. Your very soul is at stake, my friend!!"
For these reasons, the aforementioned parent/kid monster-gap sometimes resulted in an amazing discovery. "Psychologists may be interested in what I will call the Karloff Syndrome," Famous Monsters editor Forrest J Ackerman once wrote, ". . .that those who deeply care about monsters are finer people than most." Strangely enough and to most parents' surprise, it gradually became clear that their monster fanatical kid - this "day dreamer" with horrific Dracula drawings and Frankenstein stills all over his room - was often actively, painfully conscious of "doing right" by his fellow man. Not only did this child read and write all the time. Not only did he or she have a vocabulary a mile long. Not only did he try to emulate favorite filmmakers by developing his own talents as a writer, a painter, a sculptor, a make-up artist, a Super 8 cinematographer. More importantly by far, he had taken the horrific mistakes and loneliness of monsters to heart.
It might not have been easy for parents to pick up on this monster-motivated sensitivity to kindness and cruelty. Often enough, their monster-fanatical child might even have seemed a little anti-social. After all, he had rejected the "normalcy" of his parents in favor of monster mania. Yet, part of his love for these movies was the exciting way in which they dramatized the worthiness of laying down one's own life to protect the "normal" people of this world (even the normal people like his parents who don't understand) from the forces of chaos and evil which take them by surprise. In other words - and as the Karloff Syndrome suggests - it wasn't that a monster fan was a "bad boy" who despised the "norrnalcy" of his parents. It was simply that he lived in a bigger world. Normalcy isn't ultimately going to be enough to defeat Dracula... or any of the true-life Draculas this world has to offer. Our monster fan wanted more than normalcy. He wanted to live in that world where the stakes are much higher, where only the dynamic, capital "G," Goodness of a Dr. Van Helsing can ultimately hope to suffice.
After all, the monster fan wasn't just wrestling with playground bullies - he had vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, and evil sorcerers to contend with!! In his own cinema- inspired "life of the imagination," he had faced temptations and confrontations galore! He had listened as, with cool, nocturnal logic, Dracula himself presented the invitation to become one of the undead. "Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven" the King of Vampires had smiled toothily. His mesmerizing, Transylvanian voice offered the kid immortality, power, and a certain hinted-at sexual prowess as well. And yet, our kid could see death in the Count's eyes and the cold of the grave in his heart. "But you cannot love!" the kid replied with mile-high monster movie drama. "And your laughter is cruel and empty. You offer me your so-called gift only because you want my blood and my soul. You never have and never will give anything away that is really worth having. Better to be just another kid on the block than to rule with the likes of you!" And so, with this valuable insight, the kid drove the vampire away - and a whole host of real-life temptations along with the satanic Count. 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.
But like just about everyone who gets a real glimpse at a larger world, our monster fan was misunderstood by "good" folk like his parents. He took a lot of heat for it, too. He got a little older and all those young girls sitting around him in Science class made it known that they didn't like all this monster business any better than his folks did. Yes, there was a price to pay... but the monster fan knew that it was imperative that he "stay sick" or lose his soul. He'd gotten a little taste of cosmic good and evil and now somehow whether or not he was wearing the right shoes to school this year just didn't seem to matter much. Not only did his beloved monster movies give him a heckuva big kick, their fearful tales of the life & death struggle between beauty and blasphemy, between the sign of the pentagram and the sign of the cross, between the dark of Dracula's coffin and the light of the sun - these things practically trained him for knighthood.
Nowadays, however, things seem to have changed.
Modern kids live in a different world.
Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and The Mummy are still available at the horror section of the monster fan's local video rental store - but these weird, quixotic fossils sit surrounded by examples of a whole new breed of monster experience. Nine out of ten of the videos our kid will find on those shelves in 1993 are "splatter" movies - movies that achieve most if not all of their effect by vividly portraying, not the conflict of souls we find in the antique black & white museum pieces, but the sheer biological trauma inflicted by their monsters, ghouls, or (more commonly) psychotic killers. No easily discernable holds are barred in these modern (and often technically deft) freak shows. In fact, an explicit gore "arms race" will be noticed in them - a sort of war of special-effects one-upmanship to see who can dream up a way to die that no other "splatter" movie has tried yet. The result is a collection of visions so extreme and unflinching - so absolutely indifferent to any of the old "taboos" about human dignity - that to have exhibited the same films in the 1930's would have meant police arrests and pad-locked theaters. But today, these films are simply the norm. This is what a horror movie is as the year 2000 draws nigh.
A modern, up-to-date, young monster fan is part of a brave new breed. His resemblance to the fan of `64 - that crew-cutted little creature who sliced up his copy of Famous Monsters #21 to make a Frankenstein scrapbook- is almost a coincidence. If he decorates his room with posters and stills from Night of the Living Dead, or Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th, he is surrounding himself with a totally different mood or experience than if he had used stills of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. A difference not only in degree but in kind.
What exactly is this difference? The "splatter" fan of today may simply explain it as cultural evolution. In other words, what was scary to the kids watching Zacherley introduce Ghost of Frankenstein back in `64 simply isn't scary at all today. To get the same shock in 1993 that Jack Pierce got from dressing Boris Karloff up as a mummy in 1932, one has to show things much more horrible and make them much more convincingly real. Gore and guts have had to increase because audience sophistication has increased.
Pretty simple explanation, right? And, in fact, this is the usual line offered and commonly accepted. But perhaps something deeper is going on. Perhaps the simple explanation is too simple.
What exactly was the old-style monsterfan "liking" when he "liked" monsters? Was it simply that they "scared" him? If so then the simple explanation will do nicely, thank you. 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." In other words, such stills focused on the enduring, endearing value of human individuals (the beloved actors) and on the cosmic entertainment value of moral choices and conflicts (the beloved monsters).
Publicity stills from Friday the 13th or Alien are very different indeed. The fan that hangs them on his walls simply can't be indulging the same emotions that inspired his `64 counterpart. These stills primarily focus on horrific situations - a bloody teenage girl fleeing from Jason, a nameless teenage boy's prosthetic decapitation at the hands of Micheal Myers, Leatherface chasing someone through the woods with chainsaw held high, or the Alien - more a horrible "fact" than a personality - poised to kill and mindless as a spider. These stills are about power and anger and watching fascinated while dreadful mechanical things mess up something... like David Letterman running a steamroller over a watermelon. Even a Freddy Krueger portrait shot puts Freddy across not with the charismatic personal presence of a Lugosi villain, but simply as the sneering incarnation of a bad series of events - literally your "worst nightmare" in person. If he has any individual attractiveness, it is the attractiveness of sheer success... they' ve tried seven times to kill him and nobody better mess with Freddy because he's a bad dude. In this modern brave new world of horror, the moral overtones have disappeared almost entirely. The scares no longer come out of our fears about what a Man may become in this world if he doesn't watch out - or worse, what I may become - but simply from watching the sheer mechanics of what happens "when bad things happen to good people." And, needless to say, not one of these modern films has produced any actors or monster beloved in anything remotely resembling the way Karloff, Lugosi, or Lon Chaney are still beloved these 60 years hence.
Here, therefore, is a generation gap worse than the one the monster fan endured between himself and his concerned parents; a generation gap between monster fans! What happened to estrange these sets of "blood brothers" from each other?
In trying to figure all this out, let's begin by taking a closer look at Night of the Living Dead - the film that broke the gore barrier back in the late 60's and gave birth to the "splatter" genre - and try to see just exactly why it was such a breakthrough movie.
If a kid sits down to watch a horror movie these days there's a good chance that film might be George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. If he does, he'll see an absolutely amazing movie. Very likely, it will scare the living crap out of him. But his fear will not be tapped into the old traditional theme of good vs. evil. Night of the Living Dead is, as they say, a whole different trip... a trip which our old-style fan of 1964 often doubted was really necessary. In fact, director Romero made such a firm break with past horror film conventions with Night of the Living Dead that he probably deserves the dubious title "Father of the Modern Horror Film." The difference between Night of the Living Dead and anything that might have gone before is simply stupendous. To step into Romero's Night of the Living Dead is to step into a different universe.
Compared with past monster movies, Romero's zombie apocalypse is quite a different rollercoaster ride. The plot is simple. A plague is sweeping over the world (the reason is never really given - it may have something to do with radiation brought back from space on a fallen satellite) - a plague in which the recent and unburied dead come back to life as mindless zombies hungry for human flesh. Order begins to break down world-wide and the ghouls are able to corner a group of frightened people in an old farmhouse. Everybody dies. While such a completely grim ending was still pretty unusual in 1968, nothing else about Night of the Living Dead is particularly novel or unique. Except all that gore. Except for the fact that it was the first movie to achieve wide success in which major characters are reduced to piles of guts... on-screen (the filmmakers obtained the "special-effects" at a local butcher shop). This is not to say that Night of the Living Dead is not a good movie; on the contrary, it achieves it's chosen effect with an economy and perfect fusion of form & theme almost unparralled. If you're going to make a film about chaos swallowing up cosmos this is the way to do it; no acting, no "production values," absurd music, and grainy 16mm photography in bleak monochrome. It doesn't really matter whether these effects were quite intentional or not.
Now what precisely is going on in Night? - why is it so titanically different from say, Invisible Invaders (1958) or Invasion of the Body Snatchers ( 1956)... two earlier films at least superficially similar in plot and incident? First of all, the conflict in Romero's film doesn't depend upon on a rich, operatic theme of good vs. evil; there is only bitter survival. As Mark Spainhower puts it in Research 10: Incredibly Strange Films, "A moral ambiguity suffuses [Night of the Living Dead]: while the gore is indeed hideous, it lacks actual sadism.. Far from being gratuitous, the carnage is simply there, a byproduct of opposing biological imperatives..." In other words, the total extinction of the living at the hands (and teeth) of the revived dead may as well be called a "natural event." The plague has no mad scientist behind it, no witch or sorcerer; it is not sent to mankind as a test, or a curse, or a punishment. It simply happens. It is more like an incurable disease rather than an inscrutable evil. "Remember. This is a plague," cautions Dr. Grimes on the emergency television broadcast. "The bereaved, I'm afraid, will have to forego burial for their loved ones. Throw them out into the streets and set them on fire." There is no supernatural threat, no overarching moral theme - only nature, only cause and effect. Life in Night is an endless and ultimately pointless effort to keep from being swallowed up by the unthinking, machine-like forces of nature that - entirely careless of the "value" or "purpose" of human life - give locomotion and hunger to the dead. This is a far cry from the cosmic-level moral conflicts of Universal horrors or the meaningful scientific heroics of Fifties sci-fi monster movies.
This reversal of past horror film perspectives is not limited to the "situational landscape" in which Night takes place. The same moral ambiguity and bottomless despair creeps into the actions of the film's characters. As R. H. W. Dillard explains, "A group of people (three men, three women, and a child) seek shelter [from the flesh-eating zombies] in an isolated farmhouse. There they struggle for their lives. Some of them respond to the challenge rationally and bravely. One of them responds with hysteria and cowardice. One retreats from the fight into a state of shock. All of them are killed, either by the living dead or each other, except for one. He is killed by the posse who assume him to be one of the living dead. Within that simple plot line, the characters exhibit traditional virtues and vices, but the good and the bad, the innocent and the guilty, all suffer the same fate: they lose. In fact, those virtues that have been the mainstay of our civilized history seem to lead to defeat in this film even more surely than the traditional vices. Helen Cooper dies because her mother's love for her daughter renders her incapable of defending herself against the child's ghoulish attack. Tom and Judy die because they have the courage to try to help the whole group escape and because they love each other. Barbara dies because she snaps out of her moral lethargy and goes to the aid of Helen Cooper at the door; there she sees her brother, Johnny, now one of the living dead, and is carried away to her death by him. Ben, whose strength and reason keep the group functioning as long as possible, sees all of his ideas fail and prove destructive, finds himself driven by rage to kill one of his fellow living men, and ends by retreating into the very cellar that his reason had earlier branded `a death trap.' His death at the hands of the posse is only the final blow of a long series that have been slowly draining the life from him throughout the film....The plot is, then, one of simple negation, an orchestrated descent to death in which all efforts toward life fail.... When the first ghoul's hand bursts through [Ben's] handiwork (the boarded window), it signals the beginning of the end, the descent into Stein's `symphony of psychotic hands,' the inexorable movement away from reason and value into mindless terror and loss of meaning..." (italics mine).
It's pretty clear that somewhere along the way, a dramatic shift occurred in someone's idea about what makes a good horror movie...about what kind of form the horror in a horror film should take. For example, filmmakers of the old school felt a certain necessity to make horror films that had a relatively happy ending. The studio decision-makers, for instance, demanded a hopeful resolution be filmed for Invasion of the Body Snatchers to replace the downbeat, panic-stricken "You're next!" finale of the first cut. Filmmakers felt that certain plot situations were acceptable to audiences...and others were unnacceptable to audiences. When the little Mexican kid in The Black Scorpion was chased by a giant trapdoor spider, it was frightening - but nobody thought for a moment that we would witness the spider calmly draining the fluid from the boy's frail little body. Our "splatter" fan - if he doesn't simply think of himself as more sophisticated and hip than those innocent rubes of the 50's- will explain this as the effect of censorship. Audiences wanted gore back then, but "society's control mechanisms" denied them their pound of flesh. This explanation simply won't do. Censorship, in this case, was not unilaterally imposed from above by force. This "censorship" was actually a popular mandateit was a then accurate idea of "what the people will pay to see" vs. what they would stay away from in droves. The actual truth about the meekness of the old monster movies is, in one sense, purely economic - a fact that shouldn't be surprising to anyone who knows what really drives the film industry. Giving the audience happy endings and a camera that turned discreetly away from the bloodletting was, in a very real sense, giving the audience what they wanted back then. And if a film wasn't an "audience pleaser" it wouldn't do well at the box-office.
So now we're getting at the real heart of the matter. What was it about audiences of the old days that made them spontaneously want these toothless old horror tales without a single sanguine drop in the whole spool of film?
Dr. Francis Schaeffer has pointed out that everyone is a philosopher in the sense that everyone has beliefs - beliefs about why we are here, what our lives amount to, why some choices are "good" and others "bad," and so on. Perhaps the truth about the "gore watershed" we're talking about is that audiences really have changed... changed in the way they think, in what seems important and real to them and in what seems frightening.
In other words, perhaps past audiences watching old horror films wanted a hopeful ending because they believed in having hope. Perhaps an entirely hopeless ending didn't match their idea of reality. Audiences wanted heroes because they believed that reason and courage would eventually win out over adversity - even if that adversity took the form of an "intellectual carrot" from Mars with a taste for blood or a mindless blob of red goo from space. Even if the trapdoor spider did catch little Pepe and kill him they wanted the director to take what they would have called a "decent" attitude toward the depiction of the event. They wanted the camera to respectfully turn it's back. In short, they wanted the film to help them reinforce an attitude toward such a death - in society and in their own minds. Many modern horror films boast of "unspeakable horror" - and then immediately go on to speak of it. Fluently. These old films seem to have been insisting that such a death - a child with a whole life before him suddenly eaten by a spider - was literally unspeakable... or unshowable. They seemed, by this ritual turning away, to be insisting that to voyeuristically record every last twitch and drool of a child dying such a horrifically degrading death would be to violate and degrade - almost to rape - him, and to pollute and debase those who watched it.
This is not to say that these earlier audiences wanted to deny that life has real horror in it. The older films didn't deny that deaths very similar to those in the "splatter" universe actually happen in real life; people are, in fact, tortured to death, ground up in auto accidents, blown instantly into small pieces in war, eaten by sharks. In fact, these sorts of things happened rather more frequently then than they do now. Father's legs had been run over by a tank at Verdun and he came home without them. Brother got snake bit while plowing and swelled up dead. Little sister was fished out of the river. Grandpa died raving in a bed upstairs and then sat in a box in the parlor all weekend, getting stiff. To have denied the reality of horror and gore would have been to lose a 1930's audience just as surely as an audience of modern "sophisticates." More surely, in fact. These primitive and largely rural Americans (who watched hogs slaughtered and who had a one-in-four chance of watching their first child die in their arms before it reached it's first birthday) were certainly, on the whole, much more familiar with the actual "faces of death" than the jaded modern horror fan who seeks out the current video series of that same name. The difference seems to have been that - somehow, someway - the older audiences had looked into the face of Death and come up wanting films that helped them believe that he wasn't all powerful .. . that something else, called Meaning, was more powerful, living on past death. Thus, it was more important to make the right choice and then to die because of it, than to make a cowardly wrong choice and escape death. Thus, their camera emphasized powerful conflicts and meaningful heroics and chose to de-emphasize the horrendous details of death. They wanted heroes that struggled and prevailed, and if not that then heroes whose death had glory mixed in it. They wanted young lovers to be together at the film's finale because they told their teenage sons and daughters "you'll find that special someone one day" and it was unthinkable that true love should be gobbled up by vampires, bugeyed aliens, creeping blobs, or giant insects - or at least unthinkable that, should that death somehow happen, it should be treated as anything but a profound tragedy or a martyrdom. Certainly, it must not be simply a horrific accident - simply an "event" devoid of meaning. What kind of world would that be, anyway?!
Just "what kind of a world" that would be is exactly what is being explored by modern horror films.
When an old time monster movie fan bemoans the fact that "monster movies just ain't what they used to be," he or she is commenting not so much on the filmmakers' craft, but on the realization that these old ideals about the value of human life, the meaning of moral choices, the hopefulness of man's future are treated differently by modern monster movie makers. As a matter of fact, the meaningful perspectives on life - what Faulkner called "the eternal verities" - don't amount to a hill of beans in the modern horror film.
The atmosphere of utter gloom - of inexorable movement away from reason and value into mindless terror and loss of meaning - is the recognizable signature of modern horror films. It's like a layer of flaking dead paint coating the rural deathtrap of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's in the air of every splatter film summer camp - so thick that we wonder why the teenagers can't sense the inevitability of their doom - and it permeates the black void of de-romanticized outer space in Alien. Even if you mix in a little Sam Raimi slapstick or Clive Barker "beauty of evil," the main ingredient is still, plainly, the sense that this is a situation that has no hint of hope, no glimmer of good. Even if one person manages to escape Freddy Krueger,our feeling of relief is empty because the nightmare never ends.
Today's monster movie makers no longer cater to the same meaningful perspective on life as past filmmakers. And, if the tremendous box-office success of Night of the Living Dead and other modern "hopeless horrors" is any example, it would seem that they no longer have to in order to please their audience.
The general audience's perspective on "the way things are" seems to have changed. What was heroic or heart-stirring in past films is now sentimental or even laughable; what was too awful for past films is right up our alley. Old timers may be grumbling, "Something ain `t right about them new horror movies," but modern horror fans are crying out for more. The filmmakers are pushing radically different buttons - but the message they get back from audiences is that they are the right buttons. Apparently, modern horror films are "true to the way things are" according to the hopes and philosophical beliefs of their modem audience.
What perspective, then, has replaced the old "eternal verities" that had past audiences yearning for heroes, hopeful endings, and meaningful moral conflicts? What point-of- view prompts someone to look up at helpless victims, bleak finales, and gore and say, "...cool..."?
In the case of Night of the Living Dead - and, for my money, most other modem horrors to some extent - the philosophic system called scientific materialism seems to be the prevailing outlook. Scientific Materialism is the belief that everything we see and everything that is exists is the result of the operation of chance upon a universe which consists of nothing but time, space, energy, and matter. In other words, reality is ultimately a big, complex machine. In contrast to the world's ancient notions that Mankind is here on purpose and that each individual's soul is made in the image of God (or a local manifestation of god, or, at the very least, a spirit living in a world of spirits), scientific materialism presents Man as simply the lastest shape matter has assumed in a 14 billion year flux which began with the "Big Bang." Of course, most people aren't neccessarily used to speaking in these "professional philosopher's" terms, but for various reasons - including the enormous importance of science and technology in the modern world, plus a growing cynicism toward the hope of philosophical and religious answers - materialism has become a monolithic influence, to the extent that it is practically treated as a "given." Modem Americans have for the most part become at least faintly conscious that even if they still personally believe in a God, nevertheless, there are purely scientific explanations on the market for how and why we are here which seem to explain everything pretty well without Him. They may or may not go on to make any inferences from these explanations. Most folks have accepted them on the word of "authorities" and schoolteachers without working out in their own minds just what it might be like to live in a world where nothing - nothing at all - will stop cause and effect from taking it's course when chance happens to put, for instance, a starving wolf and an abandoned infant into the same mountain cabin. Most folks haven't. . .but modern horror and monster filmmakers aren't most folks.
Mainstream artists and writers (from Nietzche to Jackson Pollack) had been trying to express what happens to Man's sense of his own identity within this chance-driven framework for some years, but scientific materialism really found its first powerful expression in popular entertainment with Night of the Living Dead. And those ashen, emotionless skies that spread an "indefinable, ominous pall" over the opening scenes of Night established what has been the prevailing mood in horror films ever since, transforming both monster movies and monster fandom. As Dillard suggested, "[Night of the Living Dead's] characters die because they are inhabitants of a world of blind and deadly chance." And the real horror of the film is that we get to watch as those characters gradually realize this fact.
In one of the most horrifying scenes in Night, the two young lovers, their hopes of marriage and dreams of the future ahead of them ("You always have that smile for me.. ."), set out on a daring escape from the zombie-besieged cabin. As they try to gas up their truck, something stupid, meaningless, and accidental happens. Their escape attempt isn't going quite as planned. They attempt to get away in the now flaming truck, the truck explodes, and then the zombies enjoy a barbecue banquet... filing by the burned out cab and picking out left-overs like the Sunday crown at Morrison's cafeteria. This comes as a complete shock. Completely absent is the old sentimental Hollywood framework of meaning that would have bent the plotline in favor of a young couple's "togetherness." In otherwords, the idea of a meaningful existence tends to make us think of our lives as stories - full of meaningful passages and an ultimate purpose. If we have troubles or set- backs . . .well, these things build character. They are only the trials that the hero (namely me) will ultimately overcome before the fade-out. Night of the Living Dead is a deliberate attack on this almost unconcious mental habit humanity acquired during the ages in which Man believed the gods were watching. A horror filmmaker wants to scare people, right? Here's the most effective scare tactic in film history. The young lovers in Night thought they had a future together. We thought they had a future. We thought we had a future. And yet a sudden roll of the dice illuminates the actual state of things. Our lovers were nothing more or less than a pile of guts waiting for that accident to happen...and they never knew it.
In the universe described by Night of the Living Dead, the young lovers' hopes and dreams don't fit the way things really are. In this way, humankind appears absurd. Our desire for meaning appears irredeemably lost in a universe where there is no God to answer our prayers or to give us a framework of knowledge about ourselves and why we are here or even to look down on our tragedies and feel bad. There is only silence. And in a mindlessly moving, cause & effect reality, anything can happen. On the way to marrying the girl of our dreams, we can drop dead of a heart attack or become food for the zombies.
The Alien films are another and more recent example of how the materialistic underpinnings of how we look at life today have influenced our monster movies. In this case the old idea that man is, in the ultimate order of things, "a little lower than the angels" has been discarded - replaced with the notion that man is just another animal. In true monster movie form, Alien pushes this idea to it's own horrific yet logical extreme. It artfully and effectively sums up the idea that man is just another animal by making hirn just another caterpillar - for the spider to lay her eggs in. Man is moved just one notch down on the food chain and the insects just a few links up. The result is that what spiders do to grasshoppers is now being performed - meticulously - on your dear, sweet grandmother.
This is the focus of the Alien films not merely because the Aliens exist - after all, spiders do exist in all their predatory horror - but because the spiritual aspect of man that makes him "a little higher than the animals" is downplayed. Instead, the context of the conflict with the xenomorphs is all technological, all mechanical. It is very like having all the cold, calculating strategy and harsh natural forces of The Thing From Another World without the warmth of the Kenneth Tobey/Margaret Sheridan love interest, the wonderfully human dialogue, and lovable character actors like Douglas Spencer. There is no good or evil in the war with the Aliens (the only "bad guy" in the story is a self-serving capitalist "corporation"); there certainly is not a pause to beg a Higher (supernatural) Power for assistance (especially considering the two-dimensional, skinhead fundamentalists in Alien3). Once again, there is only blood, sweat and survival in a cold, mindless universe that seems much more suited to producing a merciless, instinctive Alien than a Shakespeare (or a Peter Cushing).
Similarly, and most telling of all, if there are any heroes in monster movies these days, it is not because a character has championed the good at all costs, but because they had "what it takes" to escape the chaotic forces that tore out their best friend's throat. Despite Ripley's self-sacrificial transcendental end in Alien3, the strong fascination for the series remains firmly focused on the implacable Aliens and the nagging feeling that they have usurped our place (spectacularly) on the evolutionary ladder. From Halloween, to Predator, to Silence of the Lambs, to Terminator, even to the supernatural mayhem of The Evil Dead, when the "good guys" win it feels less and less like a noble victory and more and more like survival of the fittest. And, thanks to the tiresome preponderance of the "double ending" - in which the psycho sits back up again with fifty bullets, two butcher knifes, three cork screws, and two atom bombs in him - the "good guys" almost never win. No matter how spectacular or artful the film may be, one leaves the theater - virtually every single time - feeling like you've barely survived a bone-crunching car wreck. Not like a spectator who found himself drawn into a soul-stirring battle.
This is partly because, under the shadow of materialism, there is no place for the moral "absolutes" that once gave fire and dignity to Peter Cushing's Van Helsing in the Harnmer vampire films. As Tom Hutchinson has noted, "A deeply sincere man, [Cushing] once said that he fervently believed that the reason the kind of horror films in which he was involved had found such favor with the public was because they were about the eternal conflict between good and evil; something he thought was too often dismissed in the other arts of contemporary days." Well, the anti-philosophical, materialistic element only present in the "other arts" at the time of Cushing's rnajor films (late Fifties, early Sixties) has finally caught up with the horror film. Today, officially, there are no eternal, objective standards of good from "on high" to back up Van Helsing's unflinching condemnation of Dracula's corruption. (Nor is there a Christ to back up that crucifix he is carrying). Thus, even if materialism isn't an obvious theme in modern cinematic horror, the influence is still there. And this is shown by the painfully obvious fact that filmmakers are losing their belief, not merely in the power of good to overcome evil, but in the credibility of any good at all.
In the famous monster movies of yesteryear, man is bigger, more important. The stakes are higher, because there are spiritual dangers to face, not merely the (admittedly horrible) possibility of being consumed. People don't cower like deer hiding from a larger, ferocious carnivore. They steel themselves against creatures of the night who command all the forces at war with heaven. Count Dracula possesses a strange wisdom-the perilous result of a fierce intellect and centuries of unlife coupled with satanic motivations of pride and dominion older than the Earth itself. When Dr. Van Helsing cuts off Lucy `s vampiric head, it is not to search for alien spawn or to deactivate her zombie brain, but to save her soul and the souls of others. And, as most monster fans know, after Dr. Frankenstein shouts, "It's alive! It's alive!!", he goes on to shriek with Byronic pride, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
Like modern horrors, the old monster movies do pursue the possibility of terrifying events that sweep away unsuspecting victims. In fact, like any monster movie worth its salt, they energetically assert the reality of pain and death and decay. But they also insist that our choices at every step in our journey are meaningfulto God, to other people, to the angels, and to the demons. In this way, each death in the old monster movies becomes a tragedy, or a crime, or a "just reward," even a glory if the person somehow died to save another - not a mere "occurrence" or "tick of the clock." Today's horror films seem to laugh at this, practically rubbing our noses in the fact that today's explanations for how and why we are here are materialistic and provide no basis for present-day meaning or future hope. Things just happen. And, no matter how horrible and tragic circumstances may appear, each event is swallowed up like a drop of water in an ocean of unmeaning. One minute, you're fighting to survive an onslaught of the living dead. The next minute, like Ben at the truly heart-wrenching end of Night of the Living Dead, your carcass is being thrown on a pile to burn with the zombies who ate your friends.
All of our ideas about beauty, honor, hope, and love go up in that same crackling bonfire - for when people are thought of as mere machines, then personhood and all of its attributes disappears. Is it any wonder, then, that modern horror films, for all their daring and frightfulness, seem positively soulless when compared to past horrors?
In the past, monster fans tapped into the old classic creature features partly because those films dealt with themes that fan related to and believed in. This has not changed. Night and Alien and the many films which have followed also allow fans to tap into a world-view that they believe in (or at least find themselves surrounded by) today. As we have seen, it's a different world view entirely. The end result is that when the fan of today's monster movies determines to "stay sick," the monster fan state-of-rnind he embraces may be a heckuva far cry from what the Sons and Daughters of Forry embraced while ogling the latest issue Famous Monsters of Filmland or staying up late to watch Son of Dracula. Thus, to quote Dr. Carrington, it may be that the monster movie fan of the year 2000 will be as different from the fan of 1964 "as one pole is from the other."
It's one thing to say, "Materialism is at the heart of why modern horror films are cruel and soulless. Modern audiences accept this because they are influenced by the same materialism."
It's quite another thing to figure out why so many people seem to like the treatment. After all, some folks are very enthusiastic fans of modern horror films.
Certainly, not every single fan of Romero's Dead trilogy, or slasher films, or Alien is a punked-out nihilist dressed in black. Some fans are fascinated by the mechanical effects, for instance, and try to recreate "splatter" effects with the same gusto earlier fans showed when attempting Harryhausen-style stop-motion photography. (Just take a look at some of Full Moon Video's "making of" treats after a showing of Dr. Mordred and you'll see what I mean). Also, some people may love it for the roller coaster thrills alone - and too desensitized by real-life violence to be "moved" by Lewton, Castle, Hitchcock, or Universal monsters, they find themselves shrieking at today's outrageously graphic depictions of chest-bursting aliens and hatchet-swingng psychos. Likewise, it's too much of a sweeping generalization to say that spiritual fragmentation and cosmic absurdity are what psychotronic films covered in Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Film Guide and Psychotronic Video magazine are "all about;" the scope of psychotronic is wider than this one philosophical nitch, ranging from the boyish lyricism of Jason and the Argonauts to the point-blank goofiness of Teenagers From Outer Space to the brainless sleaze of Demon Warp.
However, it appears that some people are made excited, invigorated, really happy specifically by films that take the alleged randomness of reality, the absurdity and soullessness of man. and push these ideas to the limit. These folks are. in fact, at least as excited about these rather depressing possibilities as other fans are about the entirely opposite meanings inherent in the Universal Studios monsters. Such fans search out a good print of Twitch of the Death Nerve with the same gusto which the fan of `64 reserved for The Leopard Man or The Old Dark House. Also, it appears that gore is a very big part of this experience and that the "mad thrill of ultimate absurdity" is at least part of what makes quite a few films worthy of the label psychotronic in the judgment of this "next generation" of monster movie fans.
It also appears that this enthusiasm for fantasy films that flesh out the anti-philosophies has become pretty wide-spread. It is not, however, a form of film scholarship in which the themes in the films are openly discussed, but more a general tone in monster movie fandom. Fans are actively (if subconsciously) embracing the materialism in these films because the films express in graphic, exciting, convincing terms what the fans have grown to accept as the bitter truth about life - these films, they feel, admirably reject the old ideas of morality and ultimate meaning. Fans seem world weary, cynical, but somehow reinvigorated by the thrill of smashing the old taboos (anything will do) and working up the guts to stare into the darkness and emptiness that lies beyond.
In other words, the fan of modern horror watches gleefully as a zombie's head is blown to bits, or a tongue is cut out in a Hershell Gordon Lewis flik, or a man in a wheelchair is given chainsaw hari-kari by Leatherface partly because this fan perceives the human body isn't sacred anymore. It's just a fleshy machine. And somehow it is tantalizing, mind-reeling, to feel the tension of old taboos about the human body stretched to their breaking point. It's eye-popping, conscience-twisting to watch as a zombie reaches into this former "temple of the Holy Spirit" to rip out a handful of intestines. It's a super-charged moment to see the shock of the man who is being eaten as he sees - just before he dies and with his own two bulging eyes - the "proof" that he is just a bag of bones and meat predestined to be food for the worms. It's no coincidence that Herschell Gordon Lewis proclaimed himself "the first director to show people dying with their eyes open." That moment of comeuppance - when a confrontation between the "lie" of meaning and the "fact" that you are just meat takes place in the characters eyes is what makes "the face of death" tantalizing to some gorehounds. It is certainly more than a little presumptious to suggest I can peer into the heart of the modern horror fan . Nevertheless, it is my guess that there is apparently some vibrance and self-satisfaction to be had from this pursuit in the sense that you are one of the few individuals gonzo enough to stare cruel, mindless Unmeaning right in the face. While everyone else is in denial, still bowing and scraping to morals and religious hopes (allegedly) disproven long ago, at least you are honest. You come from an ape and you're going to a hole in the ground - but, by golly, you still have your dignity. In a sense, it's like dancing at your own funeral. Not in joy at a meaningful continued existence in an Afterlife. But in sheer defiance at the Despair that materialism - if it is true - builds into the present moment and all future moments.
So what's a classic creature monster fan to do? And what of the new fan who actually has the heart of a classic creature fan (in a jar beside his bed) and yet finds himself in the same generation as Hellraiser and (Lord help us) David Cronenberg. Well...
If you are a person who's focus is often on the `sense of wonder;' if your mind is drawn to the good, the true, and the beautiful even in films about the malevolent, the false, and the frightening; if you can say such words as "the good, the true, and the beautiful" out loud without a smirk on your lips; and if you are interested in present-day monster movies and modern horror fandom - we may as well head your enthusiasm off at the pass. To a growing degree, the world of monster movie and schlock film fans out there is not on your same wavelength. If you go into a video store specializing in these films thinking the walls will be covered with 30's monster and 50's sci- fi film posters and the feel of the place will be a pleasing, light-hearted, retro-chic (a la Jane and Michael Stern) don't be surprised if the walls, instead, are covered with posters of horror/sexploitation films like Nekromantic and Succubus, along with a photo or two of "John F. Kennedy's actual death stare," and if the feeling of the place is more than a little dark, sleazy, and burdensome. Also, cliquish. Because your confused frown will soon betray you as one of the uninitiated.
And don't be surprised if you find, after you watch a current horror film or two, that your mind is mulling over a perplexing spiritual aftertaste that just won't go away. It's a feeling that carries a lot of philosophical baggage with it - a possible way of seeing life that couldn't bare to glance at "normal, Saturday afternoon living" in some small town without imagining a Scripture-muttering, child-beating, dog-kicking, hatchet-murdering psychotic in that quaint little house right over there as a sort of contemptuous retort. As though the evil or even the chaotic somehow disproves or nullifies the good. At such a time - as that point of view begins to tug at your mind with "gluey, bottomless horror" - remember Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, and Cushing. Remember that odd but appropriate mixture of monsters, fun, and kindness in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, if you can. Don't let the ashen face of modern horror convince you of despair on the basis of first strike, emotional impact alone. Blink hard and consider what it's saying to you about life, about yourself, about other people. Argue with it. Go to the library even and check out a couple of books that present "the case for the good in life"
(G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis are highly recommended). And take Oswald Chamber's words to heart - "...beware of anything that takes the wonder out of life and makes you take a prosaic attitude; when you lose wonder, you lose life."
And - what of the modern monster movie fan who might actually like these films for the very reasons I've guessed at and who probably hates my guts by now?
Forgive me if my observations are all wrong. But, if they are at all close to correct, then all this should point out the obvious. If you're going to get off on the thrill of staring the horrors of materialism in the face, if you're going to teeter playfully on the edge of that abyss you're a hypocrite if you don't jump off into it with the all-or-nothing zeal of a true believer. You have to JUMP - to let go of the warmth and graciousness of Forrest J Ackerman, the wisdom and integrity and loving grace of Peter Cushing, the stern bravado of Christopher Lee, the humility and gratefulness and grandfatherly charm of Boris Karloff, the mesmerizing pride and charisma of Lugosi, the exuberance and unending hope of Ray Bradbury... It's all got to go. You can't believe in Nothing and treasure these Somethings at the same time. You can't demolish the spiritual, moral foundation these men all consciously and subconsciously stood on and expect them not to fall with it. Nor can you expect your love for the Meaning in their performances to survive for long if you toy with Unmeaning.
So twist, turn, and bang away at those heartstrings that still ring with ideas like love, and hope, and meaning, and truth - make them shudder with empty, cacophonous noise. Wallow in a filmwatching "mood" that upends those ideas with unmeaning and absurdity. But be honest go one way or the other. Believe in Unmeaning or in Meaning. Pursue the non-content of matenialism or the content of the love you have for the classic creatures (or family and friends) don't try to keep the "perks" of both points of view. Embrace the films that have to do with a real good and a real evil and thus a real hope, or jump off into the abyss. And leave your "self" behind.
Here's hoping that the Monster Fan of the year 2000 will turn away from that abyss . And that he or she will return to the rickety steps, creaky door and "I bid you... Velcome" of home.
Thank you Lint Hatcher and Rod Bennett, both for your permission to present "Monster Fan 2000" on the web, and for writing such a splendid article.
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