Dr. William Harman
Satanism, Witchcraft & Spirit Possession, 3/23/2011
1931: The American Abyss, Chapter Four in The Monster Show
There have been many deeply and profoundly challenging times in American History. According to David J. Skall, the author or The Monster Show, A Cultural History of Horror, one of the most significant of these was the year 1931: what some consider to be the darkest days of the Great Depression. If there is any truth to the idea that the attraction to the horror genre for many people is archetypically based on the idea that seeing monsters on a screen helps process and overcome real-life monsters, then this year should cast a strong light into this seemingly dark question: in a time of such crisis – what did Hollywood do? This question and others are answered in Chapter 4 of Skall’s book, aptly titled 1931: The American Abyss.
Skall presents the history of four now-classic movies that lit up the silver screen in 1931, all of which – in their respective & unique ways – represented “instructive and therapeutic escape” (115) for movie goers: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Fredric March’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks. Skall quotes Gilbert Seldes who aptly noted, “The rich could still go to the South Seas Islands; the intellectuals went to Mexico; the poor went to the movies” (115). When the financially downtrodden were actually able to trudge into the darkened cinemas so that they could be temporarily distracted from the veritable, actual horrors of their respective plights in 1931, they would be watching these movies; each of which came to represent significant contributions to the history of American cinematography.
Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is distinctive in that Lugosi became one of the seemingly ‘larger then life’ characters because of his role as Dracula. Lugosi’s Dracula was directed by a former carnival regular Tod Browning (126), who would later go on and direct the soon-to-be notorious Freaks (148). Lugosi quickly became completely absorbed in being the count (118) and is reported to have spent hours just looking at himself (ironically) in the mirror (118). Dracula came to be seen as a metaphor for frustrated and degenerated sexual energy (126), whereas, another creature would come to soon represent the degeneracy of technology. In a case where art imitated life, Lugosi is said to have become addicted to a regimen of drugs to remain functional (254). He was buried in his count costume (255).
Whenever one thinks of Frankenstein, the default image is almost always the feature of Boris Karloff is his role of Frankenstein. Karloff played only minor roles as a gangster before he has passed a note, while eating at the commissary at Universal Studios, asking him if he would like to audition for the part of a monster (130). There was a tremendous amount of thinking that actually went into the design of Frankenstein in terms of what he would come to actually look like. The bolts in Frankenstein’s neck were actually borrowed from a design that Universal’s poster illustrator Karoly Grosz had submitted, which had represented a stylistically mechanized concept. Ironically, it was the these bolts that helped fixate Frankenstein in the fevered imaginations of movie goers – a small detail that would serve to “symbolize the total Frankenstein ethos” (132): a stylization that in the terms of Max Ernst, essentially embodied the idea of a man “reshaped…to conform with the machine world” (132). While many were feeling like the depression was draining their life’s blood away, by way of failing banks and lost wages, instead of Dracula’s fangs, they also surely distinctively felt like the industrial revolution had come upon them and crushed them in such a way that they had been brought back from the dead and into a state that was neither life – nor death; but something that was both awkwardly and truly horrifically in between.
If Dracula represented the enslavement by evil powers and the loss of vitality (blood) and if Frankenstein represented the working man transformed into a mindless and staggering automaton; working outside his own will and even that of his maker – then Fredric March’s character in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is yet another itineration of a fear of what might be termed ‘the loss of existential stability’. The Robert Louis Stephenson story about a mad scientist who drinks a portion that inadvertently and unpredictably turns him into a monster, surely set people on edge; not just in terms of the potential unpredictability of ever-evolving vaccines, but with deep reservations as to what kinds of real monsters might be locked within the most dignified of men – just waiting for something to release them. March would win the nomination for best actor in the 1932 Academy Awards (145), but the next movie by Dracula director Browning, Freaks, would freak so many out – that according to legend – its original print negative would eventually be thrown into the waters of San Francisco Bay (16)– in an attempt to forget that they had ever even actually filmed it in the first place.
Freaks was openly sensationalist and exploitative (157) and during its production several attempts were made (one even by MGM executives) to have the film shut down. None of them succeeded (153). Browning essentially took the public’s long-standing fear of and its attendant fascination with traveling circus ‘freak shows’ – and created a plot involving real-life ‘freaks’ as actors. During production, ‘the actors’ eventually had to be separated from the other production staff while eating in the commissary – because people would unsuspectingly walk in and literally be completely horrified (153) at the disfigured; the so-called ‘pin heads’ (victims of a condition called microcephalopathy) and other real-life horrors (152). The script, which legitimately horrified many involved in its translation into celluloid (150), tells the story of a stunningly beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (who was actually played by a famous film siren named Olga Baclanova) who falls in love with a midget named Hans. In one of the classic scenes, all the freaks give a rallying cry; “she’s one of us!” – after they have gotten married. Later, however, she falls for the show’s strongman, Hercules. The freaks, in due time, have what is tantamount to a freakish revenge by orchestrating a terrible accident, whereby Cleopatra loses her illustriously long legs and is terribly disfigured. Cleopatra becomes a freak herself – truly ‘one of them;’ but this time in the literal sense – as she takes on the role of a grotesque chicken-like creature as the show goes on (149).
Freaks would be disowned by the studio and repressed by censors for the next 30 years and ‘show would go on’ for another eight years for Tod Browning – but he would never be given the finances, nor the freedom that he had once commanded as a previously well-respected director (156). For the genre of Horror, however, the show did go on – and in ever bigger, always evolving, and more amazing ways. Like Freaks, many would try to forget the pain, insecurities, and monstrosities of the Great Depression. Eventually, many of its financial monsters were relegated to the history books. But the silver screen monsters that it had helped spawn could not be put away. Like it or not – they were loose (159).
Skal, David J. The Monster Show, A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Farber and Farber, Inc., 2001.