Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Eleven

Hope, Fear, and The Science Fiction Monster

According to Wikipedia, the last Universal monster movie of the 1940s was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, from 1948. That may have been the only Universal monster movie of the 1940s made entirely after the war. After a gap of three years, Bud and Lou returned in the first Universal monster movie of the 1950s, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, from 1951. After a couple of standard horror/thriller/mystery movies (1), Universal finally released its first science fiction monster movie, It Came from Outer Space, in 1953. Abbott and Costello would return for a couple of more movies, paired with the Universal monsters of old. Otherwise, all but two of the Universal monster movies of the 1950s were actually science fiction monster movies. (2)

You might say popular culture lives and dies by imitation. What is popular today is gone tomorrow. In the meantime, there are piles of money to be made by following fads and trends. But there is a difference between a trend or a fad and a cultural development of some significance. For example, science fiction monsters were extremely popular in the 1950s, almost to the exclusion of supernatural monsters. Faddishness and imitation were obviously at work, but I think there was something more to it than that. There is reason to believe that the science-fictional monster was in reality the monster of its time and represented the spirit of its age.

So what was that spirit? I wasn't alive then. I can't say for sure. But as the outcome of World War II became more and more certain, people began having hope again. They began talking about what they would do after the war. In other words, they began looking to the future.

There was reason for hope, too. Though most of the world lay in ruins, the United States was largely untouched (except for hundreds of thousands of missing and maimed men). After a decade and a half of economic privation, Americans were ready to get back to work, to marry and raise families, to live more normal lives. They could be excused for not wanting to look back. (3) The war years also brought on scientific and technological advances, every one of which had applications in civilian life. Not only would postwar life be better in economic terms, it would also be materially better, because of automation, because of improvements in electronics, transportation, energy, and so on. Two wartime developments were of special interest to storytellers and moviemakers. After the war, they helped boost science fiction out of the pulp jungle and into the mainstream. Those two developments were rockets and atomic power.

I have tried to make the point that supernatural horror is the fantasy of the past and of nostalgia (3), while science fiction is the fantasy of the future and of hope (or, on the other hand, dystopia). After World War II, Americans turned from the past and to the future. As a consequence, I think, science fiction took off, for it had become obvious that science fiction wasn't just a bunch of Buck Rogers stuff. It was real. Rockets falling on London and atomic bombs dropping on Japan proved that. Science had provided horrors in a world at war. The hope--and vision--was that after the war, it would provide equal wonders.

If you look at science fiction movies of the postwar period, from the late 1940s and into the 1950s, you're likely to notice a pattern, or maybe three patterns. The development of real-life rockets during that time suggested that we would soon put a man into space, and perhaps not long after that, on the moon or on other planets. What would we find there? Would the moon or other planets be inhabited? And if we could send a man into space, couldn't somebody from another planet come here? The flying saucer craze, which began sixty-seven years ago this summer, only fed that curiosity and those fears.

This summer marks another anniversary: sixty-nine years ago, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and a new age was born. Controlled atomic power promised a world with virtually unlimited energy. Uncontrolled, it was likely to be the end of us. That, too, fed fears.

In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb. By then, a Cold War was on between the West and East, the latter a euphemism for the Soviet Union, its satellites, and--before the year was up--Red China. I have already written about communism as a type of totalitarianism. The threat represented by communism was (and is) not simply military or political. It was (and is) also intellectual and spiritual. In fact it goes to central questions of what it is to be a human being. People in the postwar era would have understood that, and even if they didn't at some conscious level, they could see it at the level of the unconscious. Whatever the case--and despite the decline of the supernatural monster--there were still fears, fears of the unknown outer reaches of space, of atomic energy gone out of control, of the dehumanization, regimentation, and soullessness of totalitarian society. Even after the defeat of fascism, nazism, and militarism, there were still fears, and because there were still fears, there would still be monsters.  

To be continued . . .

(1) The Strange Door (1951) and The Black Castle (1952).
(2) They were Cult of the Cobra (1955) and Curse of the Undead (1959). Again, this is by Wikipedia's list.
(3) I remember many years ago being at a buffet restaurant and hearing an older woman turn down macaroni and cheese. "That's Depression food," she said. It was something from the distant past and she didn't want any part of it.
(4) As are weird fiction, heroic fantasy, high fantasy (like Lord of the Rings), and related genres. Weird Tales dealt in those genres. In the 1940s and '50s, it was virtually alone among an ever-growing number of science fiction magazines in the United States.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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