Why Monsters?

When I was a child, I was easily scared by movies. If a movie sent signals that it was trying to be scary – ominous music, characters looking frightened, and so on – I got scared. To this day, it’s not unheard of for me to close my eyes in anticipation of jump scares during trailers for horror movies.

And yet…

Halloween, with all of its spoooky accoutrements, is my favorite holiday. I’m fascinated by the books that provided the inspiration for many of the classic movie monsters. I own and have read multiple times the first few volumes of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, a boundary-pushing horror comic. I will go to any Guillermo Del Toro movie without hesitation, drenched as they are in the monstrous.

I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing a distinction between the classic horror movies and today’s scare-fests. As foundational and archetype-setting as they are, their horror comes more from creepiness and atmosphere than from something leaping into frame with a musical sting as accompaniment. I appreciate that more methodical, less adrenaline-spiking horror.

Additionally, even with the occasional over-the-top performance or now-underwhelming special effects work, the old movie monsters often did an excellent job revealing the tragedy or other complexities of these monstrous figures. It is now cliché to ask who the real monster is in a given monster tale featuring humans behaving abominably, but these movies made sure to raise the question back when film was still a medium in the process of defining itself. That’s got to count for something.

As consumed as U.S. society (of which I am a part) is with difference and defining the boundary of the “acceptable,” I find it oddly reassuring to look back eighty-five years and see stories grappling with the dimensions of monstrosity. I also think it’s notable that these stories illustrate the distinction between the outward features reflexively associated with monster-hood and the terrible actions that define the worst monsters, regardless of their physical appearance.

Given this, it seems appropriate to revisit (or in a few cases, visit for the first time) these central figures, some of their predecessors, and several of their descendants. Along the way, I hope to grapple with my own inner monsters and shore up my knowledge about one of cinema’s more interesting neighborhoods.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to stock up on garlic and silver bullets…

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