by Levi Lee
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
First of all, you must forgive me in advance, because I’m going to take a moment to discuss some things vaguely political in nature, as so many people are wont to do these last months. I’m not going to get into specifics. I’m not going to parse through the ins and outs of any of the myriad hot-button issues that are being bandied about lately. No party candidate or viewpoint is going to be endorsed here. I’m merely going to take a moment to acknowledge some things.
Our country is probably more divided than it’s ever been since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are now a mere day away from the completion of what I’m sure will go down as one of the most unabashedly embarrassing Presidential campaign seasons that this country has seen in its’ history. Kids are being gunned down in schools by other kids. Police officers are shooting unarmed citizens. Citizens are shooting police officers. We seem to be living in a waking nightmare, a wonderful country that seems hell bent on stumbling over the edge into a dystopia if ever there was one. If you’re like myself, and you’re looking for some semblance of hope to hang onto, I have one for you.
Everything that’s happening right now, is GREAT for horror.
Horror not only survives in adversity, it thrives. One could even argue that the birth of the modern horror film can be traced back to the Great Depression and the 1931 release of the first of Universal Studios’ famous horror pictures, Dracula. Now, I’m sure that those of you who know a thing or two about a thing or two in this genre will relish the opportunity to throw Universal’s prior films “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera” in my face like so much scalding hot coffee, but I would have to dab my newly scarred face politely with a handkerchief and wholeheartedly disagree with you. You see, “Hunchback” and “Phantom” were pitched to Carl Laemmle by his son Junior and given the go ahead based on their viability as prestige pictures based on classic works of literature, and while in retrospect we view them as two of the earliest cinematic works in the genre they were not, strictly speaking, horror films. They were more along the lines of dark historical dramas. They were a precursor of the modern horror film, the shape of things to come.
Carl Laemmle did not see the appeal of the horror genre in the least. His son Junior, however, was a bit more forward thinking. The elder Laemmle had gifted the studio to his son on his 21st birthday in 1929, and two years later they released Dracula. Dracula was completely different than anything that had come before it. Films that had any kind of horror elements before had grounded their horror in reality, always having some kind of rational explanation for the terror on the screen. The monsters that were in film were all twisted human beings of one sort or the other. Dracula was a real monster, a 500-year-old walking corpse that feasted on the flesh of the living. There was no rational explanation to be had, or as Van Helsing liked to put it, “The strength of the vampire is that we do not believe in him.”
You have to understand what a departure this was from the normative of cinematic storytelling, and it touched off a whole period of film history that is arguably best known for Universal Studios’ contributions to the genre. Nothing like this had ever been seen before in Hollywood, but we needed something to take us away from the real horrors of the world. There was no work, no money, no food. Our economy was collapsing under the weight of the previous decades’ indulgence, and our children were starving. We needed as the collective people of this country, to walk into a theater, be scared out of our minds by something we couldn’t possibly understand, and with that last flicker of the projector, walk back into the street…and be okay. We needed to know that we were going to be okay. Horror helps us cope. Horror lets us touch the darkness and know that we’ll come out the other side in one piece.
So, regardless of the outcome of tomorrow’s bit of madness, I have a feeling that we are in store for a whole new chapter in American Horror storytelling. I desperately want to be a part of it. How about you?