The name “Universal Monsters” is a fitting one. The entire planet knows the iconic images of Karloff and Lugosi, the familiar lines, and the names of those fascinating and frightening creatures. Something special happens when you sit down in a theater and the cool flickering on the silver screen starts up to transport you to those dark gothic worlds of gods and monsters. Yes, these movies are the pioneers of horror on film, but they are special for so many more reasons.
Maybe you saw these movies for the first time at a drive in, or on lazy Sunday-afternoon TV. Maybe an older relative showed them to you, or maybe you sought them out after seeing their likeness in Bugs Bunny cartoons, or parodies like Young Frankenstein. Whatever the case, these movies hold a different place for everyone. Some of us who saw these movies at too young of an age were genuinely terrified of them, like those original 1930s audiences who had never before seen this kind of blasphemous terror invade their complacent lives. For those of us, these movies burrowed into our psyches as something elemental and dangerous, a sociological thunderstorm. Every shadowy staircase and pale moonlit night brought a procession of dark imaginings from the recesses of our minds, scaring us back under the covers for fear of what lurked in the night.
Yet for others, these monsters are a new paradigm of badassery; they’re beholden to no man’s rules, inflicting their unstoppable will on the world. No one tells Dracula what to do, they just fear him and run. Born into the world as aberrations of power, these monsters are subversive idols for every misfit, delinquent, and rebel. For whatever wrong they do, whatever horrors they inflict on the foolish mortals who barge into their domain, they are eternally cool pillars of raw power. Those of us who have no problem with the darkness find these monsters on our side as icons of rebellion, strength, and danger, cocking their heads back at the moon and screaming “I am the thing to be feared in the dark!”
But then there is also a contingent of people who celebrate these monsters as campy mascots of a bygone era. The thrill and shock of yesteryear has worn away into the simple fun of seeing these creatures stomp around with unabashed flair. Maybe they’re not as scary anymore, certainly not as scream-inducing as whatever new horror movie came out last month, but they are the originals and they represent something more. A higher echelon of pop culture relevance that leaves hulking slashers and pale ghost girls in the dust. There are some of us who can see past the monstrousness of these creatures to the humanity within; however appalling they appear, these creatures are just as alive as you and me, deserving of understanding and dignity.
You could see them as inherently evil, or you could just see beings who happened to be born with gills, or of corpse parts and electricity. Their mere existence seems to be enough for society to shun and condemn them to death. Any one of us who has ever felt like an outcast or reject, who has ever had to hide a part of ourselves for the sake of fitting in, simmering on the fear of getting found out for being whatever it is society deemed unacceptable, we all know that feeling. We can see the fearful and angry faces of the townsfolk lit by torch light for the real terror that they are. And just as deft as the artistry of these movies, we can see our suffering turn into something beautiful.
So when you come out to celebrate these iconic monster movies, celebrate yourself and what these creatures mean to you. Whether as icons of fear, power, pop culture, or pride, the appeal of the Universal Monsters is just that: universal. Those directors like James Whale and Todd Browning could not have known they were creating cultural touchstones that would last for centuries to come, but they did know how to conduct the orchestra of fear that practically invented cinema horror. And they did it with impeccable style.