It was a dark and stormy night in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron gathered a group of friends and authors to the shores of Lake Geneva and proposed a contest: He read German ghost stories aloud, and then challenged the attendees to write their own horror story. A 19-year-old Mary Shelley submitted a retelling of a feverish dream about a scientist reassembling and reanimating pieces of a man's body. It was a tale about science gone amok, man playing God and good intentions turned deadly—enduring themes—and, the resulting novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus has been in print ever since.
But for generations after Shelley, the horror genre was widely considered to be low culture. Just a few decades after the book Frankenstein was brought to life it seemed as if the genre of monster-lit had slumped. In 1852, Queen Victoria labeled a stage production of
The Vampire "very trashy," in a diary entry. There were exceptions—Bram Stoker's Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lent legitimacy to monsters as a subject for high art—but, by and large, overworked horror stories, gory and torrid, severely out numbered those with any depth.
The case for monsters as a subject of quality art wasn't helped any by early Hollywood films. Universal Studios produced a "monster series" (1923-1960), which only reinforced the pop-trash perception. Leading men Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi portrayed The Hunchback
of Notre Dame, Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera. The films were scary, but shallow and stumbling. This superficiality was compounded further by a heap of chainsaw wielding, sweater-clad nightmares in the '80s. Certainly, there were still writers like Steven Spielberg who launched his career with imaginative monster fiction like Poltergeist and E.T., but for the most part, monster movies were a steaming pile of Leprechaun and The Toxic Avenger.
But that was the last century.
Starting with the revival of horror in the Scream film series in the mid '90s and especially since the dawn of the millennium, some of the most talented artistic minds have taken the horror genre seriously, creating monster-driven masterpieces that delve deeper into psychological and sociological terrors. And it's not only filmmakers, but novelists and even musicians (um, Vampire Weekend anyone? Or Blitzen Trapper's greatest song "Furr," ostensibly about an adolescent turning into a werewolf. Not to mention Say Hi to Your Mom's lo-fi concept album Impeccable Blahs, which is entirely about vampires despite sporting a robot on the cover.)
Perhaps it was the momentum from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a clever, but corny movie turned seven-season hit TV series—that brought the genre around. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, essentially a nobody at the time of the film's release in 1992, Whedon is now considered one of horror's most innovative minds as the writer and director of Cabin in the Woods and Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers. Buffy was over-stated at times, (her hometown, Sunnydale, literally sits on the mouth of hell producing demon after demon for B to karate kick), but the series popularized the serial monster-drama, featuring a different "big bad" each episode ranging from vampires to lusty zombies to reformed evil boyfriends while dealing with larger issues of transformation, addiction and death and proving that a woman could lead the charge. Ultimately, Buffy represented the world's struggle between good and evil, and used monsters to symbolize those conflicts.
That very concept serves as the base of this Monster Renaissance: Just like Frankenstein was an allegory for science and industry gone wrong, the monster films and books of this decade are playing out realities too massive to tackle in their full form.
Decades ago, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both made attempts to explain the popularity of horror in popular culture. Jung suggested that horror gained popularity because it touched on significant archetypes or primordial images from the collective unconscious. To Freud, horror was a manifestation of the "uncanny," reoccurring thoughts and feelings that have been repressed by the ego, but seem familiar to the individual.
Common scholastic theory suggests that monsters allow us to explore fear in a tangible way—and to conquer it. Strangling global warming or severing the financial crisis' spinal cord is not possible. But fear is more accessible when it's limping up the street with a lust for brains or destroying skyscrapers with the swipe of a towering claw. Monsters can serve as a cathartic alternative to our disembodied fears.
Starting with literature, spreading into film, graphic novels and video games, the horror genre is now a fixture in entertainment. In fact, 36 of the top 50 grossing films on IMDB's All-Time USA Box office deal with some sort of supernatural monster from Harry Potter vs. the snake-faced Voldemort to Lord of the Ring's menagerie of orcs, goblins and towering flaming eyeballs.
Most notably, in the last five years, zombies have lumbered into the forefront of this new investment in monster-lit. "Because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios of zombie cinema," writes Kyle Bishop in Raising the Dead: Unearthing the Nonliterary Origins of Zombie Cinema, "such images of death and destruction have all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded by more traditional horror films."
Robert Kirkman's popular graphic novel, "The Walking Dead," has gone from an little-known independent title to outselling industry dominators from DC and Marvel (take that Batman!), and, of course, a popular TV show. Last week's season four premiere drew 16.1 million viewers, beating out all of its Sunday night broadcast drama competition combined ("Once Upon a Time," "Revenge," "Betrayal," "The Good Wife" and "The Mentalist")!
Kirkman confirmed in an interview with Rolling Stone that that the horror genre, especially his bread and butter—the zombie—is being treated with a measure of seriousness because of its popularity, citing that WWZ, this summer's big-budget fast-zombie spectacle staring Brad Pitt (drool), is the first zombie film that has been released as a traditional summer blockbuster. WWZ already has grossed more than $500 million world wide, becoming Pitt's highest grossing film ever, beating out runner up Ocean's 13 by nearly $200 million.
Opposite the popularity of human-hybrid monsters (i.e., vampires, zombies, werewolves) are films like Pacific Rim, a Kaiju monster movie that expresses clear fear of environmental destruction with massive Godzilla-like lizards emerging from the Pacific Ocean. Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy), Pacific Rim was a typical hero flyboy fights monsters storyline. But, cloaked as a monster movie, the film exposed millions of fans to the concerns and realities of global warming, as the monsters attacked coastal cities and measly humans tried to shore up against the creatures. The film was considered one of the biggest flops of the summer, but still earned $37 million during its opening weekend. That's $13 million more than An Inconvenient Truth—a straight look at the same environmental issues—grossed in the theatrical lifetime of the film.
"Some of the most brilliant filmmakers in the world right now are making horror genre films," attests Jared Rassic, an avid local film blogger and former movie reviewer for the Source. "Guillermo del Toro has built a career on visually stunning superhero movies (Hellboy 2), Giant Kaiju (Pacific Rim), terrifying monsters (Pan's Labyrinth) and spine tingling ghost stories (The Devil's Backbone). We've also got Ridley Scott revisiting the world he created with Alien in Prometheus."
But to sell big, bigger than Pacific Rim, Rassic suggests that the key elements of horror need shot of steroids.
"Old school monster action doesn't sell much when it comes to horror anymore," said Rassic. "Vampire movies need to have a modern spin like Let the Right One In. Zombies need to run instead of shamble like in WWZ or 28 Days Later."
The advancement and development of the archetypal monster is giving entertainment's brightest minds a new canvas to paint. A new generation of horror creators, artists addicted to the harbingers of chaos, are emerging. Some are even twisting history with best-selling books like "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," and "Pride Prejudice and Zombies."
Authors like Benjamin Percy, whose most recent novel Red Moon was about werewolves in rural Oregon also are twisting the genre to their own devices. Using werewolves as a proxy for disenfranchised populations, "Red Moon" uses the monsters to approach civil rights and politics—as well as the hook of sweaty, gnashing fight scenes.
"Percy recasts virtually every social-justice struggle over the last half-century in lycanthropic terms, from desegregation to the desire of peace-loving American Muslims to go about their business without being treated like pariahs," said New York Times book reviewer Justin Cronin. "On the surface, it's a clever conceit, but allegory doesn't let you pick your meanings à la carte."
April Tucholke is another Oregon-based author who is lending legitimacy to monsters. Although her novel, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, is labeled young-adult fiction—a genre reserved for cheesy love-stories—Tucholke puts her characters in seriously adult situations and presents grownup dilemmas and graphic bloodshed to boot, using monsters to explore the nature of good and evil.
"I grew up on du Maurier, the Brontës, Stephen King, and Poe—I was always drawn to dark stories," said Tucholke. "Whether the monster is a clown named Pennywise or a father who goes stark raving mad in an evil hotel...they're necessary. They are the reason the story exists. Monsters bring characters together and allow those characters (and readers, by extension) to learn what they're made of."
As long as humans are inherently afraid of things they don't understand, monster entertainment will likely continue to attempt to explain those fears. Monster allegories are valuable tools for explaining how audiences really feel and offering some semblance of satisfaction when we see the "good guys" triumph over something so much less complicated than their real world problems. The last decade has proven, time and again, that all it takes is a stake through the heart or a zombie decapitation to empty wallets and temporary quell fears. So slay on, Buffy.