I am a monster nut. I’ll own that. My first published book dealt with vampires in film and television. I grew up on the Toho crew. I have action figures for nearly every major Universal monster (including the second Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Creature Walks Among Us).
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my four-year-old daughter has taken a liking to the classic monsters. By this I mean the big five: the four Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and the Woflman) and also zombies. Recently, while watching the Hex Girls on Youtube, my wife stumbled upon the Monster High videos. My daughter was hooked. But this got me thinking. The cartoon/merchandise features the big five monsters, all with the familiar quirks akin to each one. But I knew that many of these were off base from the true legends of these creatures.
The five classic monsters (plus a gorgon)
So after hours of research, I present to you the five most egregious errors we make about classic movie monsters.
Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man
I admit, after looking through countless books, I found that most of the traditional legends line up with our common associations. The link of werewolves to the moon dates back to 1214 where Gervaise of Tillbury reported cases in Auvergne of men turning into wolves during the full moon. There is some controversy about the silver bullet. Some believe it was all made up by Universal for the Wolf Man movie. But historians know that in 1767, the Beast of Le Gevaudan was killed with bullets from a melted silver chalice.
The only thing I can say that most likely not part of original folklore is the pentagram on the hand as a mark of the werewolf. This was probably concocted by the Universal folk for the film. A pentagram has traditionally served as a symbol of protection (even from werewolves).
4 The Mummy
Boris Karloff as the Mummy
Mummies are a staple for monster themed parties and kids playing with rolls of toilet paper. But not all mummies are bandaged and scribbled over in hieroglyphics. There are mummies all over the world. Basically any place extremely dry will create a mummy. And for the sake of argument, we’ll define a mummy as something with most of the internal organs still present. Those are the squishy bits that tend to dissolve during decomposition.
The strangest mummies I found were the Incan mud mummies. These date back to 5000 BC, rivaling Egypt as the first to mummify. Basically, the Incans would disassemble the body, organs and all. They used heat to dry the skin. Then the body was reformed using feathers, clay and glass. Everything was covered in a white ash paste. Finally, the skin was refitted on the body.
Then there are the bog mummies. This type of mummification might have been accidental (oops, I fell into a peat bog) or a form of sacrifice (slipping a deceased relative into the bog to bring him or her closer to the gods). Either way, the body became preserved in the frigid stagnant water loaded with tannic acid. Sometimes not everything survived the years in the bog. Take the bodies found in Florida. Here only the brain was preserved (along with the skeleton) from bodies 7000 to 8000 years old.
Finally, we have the Chinese mummies. Western China is basically one ginormous desert. In addition to the sand, heat, and wind you get bonus pits of salt. These were used a cemeteries as well as areas of sacrifice. One young woman was found partially dismembered with her eyes gouged out. There was also a baby boy, apparently buried alive.
The strangest finds have come from the Takla Maken Desert. Over the past thirty years, archeologists have found many mummies, but all of them have been caucasian, not Chinese. And these shriveled folk had a thing for clothes, many being buried with multiple outfits. The most famous mummy is “The Man with Ten Hats.” You guessed it, he was buried with ten hats.
A Voodoo zombie
Real zombies don’t eat people. In fact they don’t do very much at all. Lafcadio Hearn introduced English speakers to the word zombie through his brief article, “The Country of the Comers-Back”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1889. Most were little more than slaves working on sugar plantations in Haiti. They were dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant.
A central precept of Voodoo, a hybrid of African animism and Catholicism, is the possession of a body by the loa. A person was believed to have two souls, the gros-bon-age (the big good angel), and the ti-bon-age (the little good angel). Each soul served a purpose. The gros-bon-age served to give the body life, while the ti-bon-age gave the person their personality. During a Voodoo ceremony, the loa would displace the ti-bon-age, and thus control the person’s body.
It was George Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead, released on October 2, 1968, that forever changed the image of the zombie. Romero never refers to his walking dead by the word zombie. Instead each of his films calls them the living dead. Despite this technicality, modern moviegoers made the connection. When Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, was released in 1978, it was distributed internationally as Zombie (or Zombi).
From the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre
Traditionally, vampires looked nothing like Edward Cullen or Lestat. A more apt description would be a ruddy-faced overweight man with long fingernails, his mouth and left eye open, with a linen shroud as clothing. (Not really going to sweep you off your feet, is he?) The biggest transformation to this myth came with the 1931 film version of Dracula staring Bela Legosi. Here the monster is shown as debonaire and charming. Much of this depiction came from Bela Lugosi’s performance and the original stage play.
Additionally, Bram Stoker’s Dracula could walk in daylight (although he prefers night). It was left to two subsequent movies to introduce death by sunlight. In Son of Dracula (1943), Lon Chaney, Jr. Plays Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backward). He simply fades away when struck with the sun’s rays. In Return of Dracula (released in 1944, only a few months after Chaney’s performance), Lugosi returns as Armand Tesla. In the end, he dissolves in the sunlight.
For more information on vampires, check out my article on vampire apotropaics.
The problem most people make with this monster is his name. Frankenstein is the doctor. The tall green guy with bolts in his neck is simply “The Monster.” In the Mary Shelley novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she called the creation Adam. In one of the play adaptations of the novel, the creature is billed as simply “________, played by Mr T. Cooke.”
This time we can’t completely blame the Universal picture for the confusion over the monster’s name. This happened in Shelley’s time. (It’s what you get for not naming a central character, writer’s take note). Yet once Universal cast Karloff as the “Unnamed Monster”, the audience stuck the monster with the doctor’s name. This is despite the fact that in the opening credits, it’s Karloff who is unnamed, appearing as a question mark.
Opening credits for Frankenstein
I hope all this has cleared up some misconceptions about our favorite monsters. It doesn’t change how these creatures have evolved. It’s natural to think of vampires dissolving in the sun, zombies eating brains, and that hulking monosyllabic fellow as Frankenstein.