Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Sixteen

In Which We Reach the Present Day . . .

The 1950s were a decade of monsters, some supernatural, some science-fictional. Although science fiction boomed in that fabulous decade, supernatural monsters didn't exactly fade from view. After all, during the '50s, horror hosts and creature features came to television, monster magazines went into print by the dozens, and Hammer Films of Great Britain began producing its famous line of horror movies. The popularity of supernatural monsters continued in the 1960s with more movies and magazines, plus bubblegum cards, plastic models, Halloween costumes, glow-in-the-dark posters, and so on. Although monsters were no longer allowed in the comic books, kids of the '60s had to wait only until the early '70s before the Comics Code died and monsters lived yet again.


I have an issue of American Heritage magazine from 1969 in which the author talked about the then-current taste for things nostalgic. Not nostalgic as in the American Revolution or the Civil War, two subjects seemingly worn out over the years, but for the popular culture of the 1920s through the 1940s. The word nostalgia refers to a kind of homesickness. I imagine that the editors, writers, and readers of American Heritage were then all of an age to look back upon their youth and the things of their youth with exquisite feelings of loss and remembrance.

At the time, The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century (1969) was in all the bookstores. Although it shortly became "the king of remainders," that oversized hardbound reprinting of a comic strip that began in 1929 was a kind of emblem of 1960s nostalgia. By the time Buck Rogers was published, Ace Books had been reprinting for more than a decade the authors of Golden Age of Science Fiction and before. In the mid '60sBallantine did the same with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, which became wildly popular, especially among youth and the counterculture. Thirty years after their deaths, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were also reprinted. They, too, became very popular and have remained so to this day. Leo Margulies, owner of the Weird Tales property, got in on the act with four reprint editions, beginning with Weird Tales in 1964. Robert A.W. Lowndes made his own homage to "The Unique Magazine" with a series of titles, including Magazine of Horror (1963-1971) and Startling Mystery Stories (1966-1971). And of course Sam Moskowitz published four new issues to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Weird Tales in 1973-1974.


My contention is that supernatural monsters are monsters of the past and of nostalgia. Put another way, nostalgia and the supernatural go hand in hand. That was as true with the first Gothic romance, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, as it was two centuries later with the revived Gothicism of the 1960s. I'm not sure when a nostalgia for the Gothic started. Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1939), and "The Birds" (1952), all by Daphne du Maurier, were in the Gothic mode, as were Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe movies of the same period. In any case, in 1966, Dark Shadows made its debut and a Gothic revival began in earnest.

The star of Dark Shadows was Jonathan Frid as the vampire Barnabas Collins, but in its five-year run, the show also told stories of ghosts, werewolves, witches, and man-made monsters. The writers of Dark Shadows also dipped into Gothic works of the past, including "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft. Barnabas Collins is from the eighteenth century, a time when Gothicism, which began as a kind of nostalgia, was new. Barnabas was of course nostalgic for his own time, and we, the viewers, joined him in his nostalgia, not only by watching the show, but also by wearing clothing and hairstyles inspired by Dark Shadows and the Regency Era (in the broadest sense of that term). I remember watching television and looking at magazines in the early '70s and noticing women's clothing and hair. I could not have known then that I was seeing something of a Gothic revival in women's fashions.

There were other trends in the 1960s and '70s, including witches, devil worship, and demonic possession. Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Sentinel (1977) are among the most well known movies in that trend. There were also plenty of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other assorted undead, demonic, and evil characters. They continue to today and may be as popular now as they have ever been.

Supernatural monsters are so familiar to us that we need not go into long lists of books or movies, or long explanations about their nature and origins, to know them and understand them. The point is that--despite the advent of science, rationalism, and the science-based monster--the supernatural monster persists. Maybe the supernatural monster has subsumed the science-based monster. In any case, I think the monster of the twenty-first century is a combination of the supernatural monster, with which we are so familiar for having known them for so long; the real-life monster, with its origins in the nineteenth century; and the science-fictional monster, which began with Frankenstein's monster (a Gothic creation), but is as current (no pun intended) as the science of today.

Next: A Return to the Monster of the Twenty-First Century

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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