I recently watched the DVD of Dracula with Bela Lugosi directed by Tod Browning, the Universal 75th anniversary edition. To think of where vampires have been since his 1931, iconic performance! He is the father of a veritable hell’s worth of pointy teeth and neck fetishes, blood lust and sexual dysfunction. Those eyes! Those hands! That accent! No wonder he is a cult hero.
The accompanying featurette entitled Universal Horror and narrated by Kenneth Branagh was however, a reminder of something we tend to forget: the monster movie genre grew in parallel with the effects of the First World War and matured in tandem with the Second World War. The monster concept, whether mad scientist doing unspeakable experiments on helpless victims, deformed and vengeful creatures driven mad or to rage by social repudiation, or the poor, alienated victim whose longing for kindness and love is misunderstood by those he frightens, ‘the 20th century creature’ is not an imaginary invention. As attested by scenes from J’Accuse, the 1919 film by Abel Gance, the ‘monsters’ in the physical world became the veterans returning from war hideously maimed or disfigured, or horribly traumatized and terrified, and abandoned by the societies they served.
They say that the process by which tolerance is built up to something strange or frightening is slow and incremental: one small relaxation of the fear leads to another until it disappears altogether. You would think therefore that our society, bombarded as it is by images from war zones, terrorist strikes, natural disasters, abuse, assaults and on and more would be done with fear and respond courageously, compassionately and with ready help to those who are traumatized or victimized in our world.
Alas, no. Fear is apparently not enough; we now need to be terrorized. What we seem to have developed is not a tolerance but a hunger, even a vampire-like lust, for horror. It turns out we like being appalled. We want to be taken to the brink of our instinctive flight reaction. We find it titillating, exciting, as long, that is, as we can sit safely in theaters or in our homes and watch it happen to others. Films today indulge us, especially with the wonderful capabilities of animators sitting at computers who indulge hyperactive directors, who indulge box-office-mad investors, who cater to addicted gamers and thrill seekers. But even more, the news indulge us, by bringing to our very living rooms the images and the experiences we are hugely relieved not to be experiencing ourselves.
So we come to the horror scale, or to the horror of scale. In movies, the bad guys have had to buff up, they’ve had to become more ingeniously evil, more gigantic, and more resilient to death. Battles must now involve the entire galaxy – our poor heroes can no longer ‘just’ be human, they must be enhanced by technology (magic is for children!) and grown in labs, or better yet, replaced almost entirely by machines. Where once ‘average persons’ had the possibility of rising above their human smallness to achieve great, heroic deeds, now they need a state-of-the-art, fully staffed, small country-sized laboratory and a bank account to match to even step out of their living rooms. The Greek (geek?) gods have returned thanks to state of the art technology! How physically puny the ‘normal’ person ha once again become in our fantasies, and how monumental has become the arsenal behind which he must hide!
But so-called ‘real’ life horror has also reached such monstrous proportions that it dwarfs, no, it micros the average person. Think of landscape-devouring pipelines that can eat up entire First Nations’ rights and threaten land and sea. Think of resource and worker consuming multi-nationals. Think of weapons easily available to any fundamentalist hive, weapons that can be snuck in to public places and take out people by the hundreds. It’s a competition between them and those who not only deny (thrive in?) the horrific effect of greenhouse gasses, but also eagerly plan and wait for the day Armageddon may come to pass. Talk about a blockbuster!
Well, there are increasingly powerful social forces that push the horror factor way off the tolerance scale for me. Even the visual arts, my home, have become the domain of the gigantic: huge installations, massive sculptures, land-art that covers miles of territory, production costs off the accessibility scale…
I think, looking back, that Bela’s Dracula was plenty monstrous, and King Kong or Godzilla were big enough in their original format, making them bigger has only proven we’re running out of original ideas (by the way, get new characters and story lines, Star Trek movies! Tolkien adapters, write your own romances!). We’re just trying to outdo what has come before, bigger, meaner, louder, more expensive, art imitating life or life imitating art, both out of ideas and unable to envision a future or to stop or change the flight response.
Maybe we’ve ‘monstrosified’ so much we’re hyperventilating, gone so far we’ve titillated ourselves into irreversible terror. Maybe we’ve come to realize we’re not the be-all in this world, that we really are puny and vulnerable and not as smart as we thought we were since all our arrogant ingenuity might be the end-all of the world. You’d think it would make us want to scale back, to slow down, to breathe a little. As I said, maybe we’re not that smart, maybe now we’re just prey for our monstrous creations.
It’s too bad. Because I, for one, still like my heroes even Frodo-sized, and while I think having a home 3D printer, a talkative, interactive house - I’d like mine to sound like Bela Lugosi please - or a personal slave android that looks like Johnny Depp might be nifty, I still prefer to get my own hands on a bag of wet clay and make a sculpture I can load in the kiln by myself, or tap my fingers arthritic writing a children-sized story or diary-style Blog entry maybe a few people might read. Then, I’ll walk my dogs and go sit my happily tired body to rest as I sip a delicious cup of coffee watching my flowers grow.
Who needs flesh-eating, invisible alien invaders with impenetrable exoskeletons only a nuclear explosion will deter (or terrorists or pipelines?) The mosquitoes are monsters enough for me.