This week, when Godzilla emerges from the sea and tramples his way into movie theaters around the world, flattening major cities and shrugging off all manner of artillery fire, he’s going to be dragging behind him more than a massive dinosaur-style tail. He’s going to be backed up by generations, if not centuries, of monster-related storytelling from folklore, fiction, and cinema that reflects humankind’s worst fears and the monsters that dwell inside us all.
Movie monsters have been around almost as long as movies themselves. While the silent classic Nosferatu, released in 1922, was the first movie based on the Bram Stoker gothic novel Dracula, the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi is the version that probably comes to the public’s mind when they think of everyone’s favorite Transylvanian count. Lugosi had already become a sensation playing Dracula on the stage (it’s said that women in the audience occasionally fainted at his portrayal), and his screen depiction of the Count not only saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy, but also established the “monster movie” as its own genre of film. Like the Stoker novel, the cinematic Dracula had a smoldering sense of repressed sexuality as a main theme. Dracula’s hypnotic powers and lethal bite seduced his female victims, who, once bitten, were no longer among the only two types of women acceptable in Victorian society: innocent virgins or properly married wives. No longer “pure,” Dracula’s victims were now themselves monsters, free to express their inner natures, but also to be hunted down and destroyed.
Universal, the studio that would become known for monster movies, followed up Dracula with an adaptation of another great 19th century horror novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this timeless story, scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a living creature using pieces from the bodies of the dead—only to see his creation wreak havoc on his home, kill everyone he loves, and terrorize his community. In the 1931 film’s prologue, the audience is warned that they will be told a story of “a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.” The theme of challenging nature, as well as that of the dangers of advanced knowledge, permeates the countless versions of Frankenstein that have lumbered across movie screens for generations.
Ten years after Frankenstein came the first shaggy appearance of Universal’s The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. In this horror classic, Chaney played Larry Talbot, the American visitor to Wales who is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. In keeping with the “traditional gypsy curse,” Talbot “becomes a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Tales of people transforming into wolves under a full moon and craving human flesh stretch as far back as Greek mythology and medieval romances; later, gothic romances featuring werewolves appeared in the 19th century. Many of these stories served as allegories for the fear of disease. The wolf man’s particular affliction is a disease, or “curse,” so horrible that suffering it is a fate worse than death—and death itself is the only cure. In fact, the term “silver bullet” or “magic bullet”—the only thing that can kill the cinematic werewolf—is a term often used in medical circles to describe the elusive cure for a disease that will be effective without dangerous side effects.
After decades of American movie monsters terrorizing audiences, Japan’s first movie monster appeared in 1954—and when he did, he did it in a big way. The massive, atomic-breathed star of the original Gojira, (also known by its English pronunciation, Godzilla), produced by Toho Films, was nothing less than a thinly veiled allegory of nuclear weapons and holocaust. “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb,” said producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. “Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Throughout the Cold War era, when the world stood at the brink of nuclear annihilation, Godzilla reigned as a constant pop culture icon. Even today, the producers of the latest Godzilla film promise that it’s a story centered on “humanity’s scientific arrogance.”
Following the exploits of blood-sucking vampires, reanimated corpses, howling man-beasts, massive atomic dinosaurs, and all the other monsters produced by storytellers and moviemakers throughout the ages may make for a fun night at the theater. But if their stories teach us one thing, it’s this: the true monsters may not be on the screen. They may be in the audience.