Discussing Horror: Tod Browning, Vampires, and Freaks

This isn’t the end of the Defending Disney series. I’m still writing that. But, since that isn’t the only part of pop-culture that interests me, I wanted to branch out and start another series for another often maligned genre: horror.


If anything, the evils of horror are even more ubiquitous than Disney’s controversies. Feminists point out the fetishized female violence and damsels in distress. Religious people dislike the use of the supernatural, demons, and the occult. Gun rights activists blame horror movies for violent crime. Progressives criticize their portrayal of sexuality, because have-sex-and-die isn’t exactly progressive social policy (although some people approve). And, in general, horror fans are considered weird, awkward, creepy, and generally stereotyped as the kind of people you don’t want around your kids.

I’ve been told before that I don’t seem like a horror fan because I am “too calm” and “too bookish” –and I briefly worked for a horror magazine. This one.

Here, however, I am saying “discuss” instead of “defend”, because I find it more interesting to run these stories through social and theoretical schools of criticism than spend my time talking about all the controversies surrounding every horror film and work of literature. Also, I may not necessarily defend a film or book, but that doesn’t mean that I do not think that we can understand these stories in their social contexts.

So, you don’t have to like it. We’re just going to try and understand it and look at the tropes through different cultural lenses. And, since horror is a pretty broad subject, I’ll be taking varied selections, from Universal classic monsters, to silent scares, slashers, “goreno”, Asian extreme, cult horror, exploitation, arthouse, and cross-genre blends.

And, who best to start off a discussion of horror than the man who gave us one of the most classic horror movies of all time, 1931’s Dracula, by Tod Browning, starring horror legend, Bela Lugosi.


This film really needs no introduction, as Lugosi’s performance has become so legendary that I would bet if you were to mimic Dracula right now, you would mimic Lugosi. He’s the one who have us that awesome slicked-back hair, the way he swishes that opera cape, and his eerie line delivery. Cinema legend has it that the line delivery was due to Lugosi, who was native Hungarian, not being fully fluent in English. In fact, Lugosi was so associated with this role that he was buried in his Dracula costume. And yet, although this movie is so famous that until recently every other vampire movie was a footnote to this version, I find that not a lot of modern audiences have seen it.

Maybe this is because the movie is from the 1930s, and a lot of people seem to feel a disconnect with Old Hollywood acting these days, as well as the old-timey special effects and, well, it’s in black and white. Not to be condescending, but if we’re honest that is a real handicap for some viewers. I think this is a shame, since many people now associate old horror movies with bad horrors, like Robot Monster, and seem conditioned to laugh at the dialogue or special effects without giving the movie a real chance. However, this one actually really, really holds up.


And I’m not just saying that because I watched it for the first time as a child, at night, by the light of the fire, in my grandparents’ house in the woods, surrounded by cats, with wind and coyotes in the distance and… it was epic.

No, really, this movie still works. For one thing, the old film footage has been, as they say, lovingly restored, so the clarity of picture should not be a distraction. However, some of that old, warm feel from the film stock really, in my opinion, helps create the mood for a good horror experience. Part of what I love about horror is how weirdly cozy it is. It is cozy to be scared, to curl up with the popcorn and hot chocolate and everything. Halloween has always been a really nostalgic holiday for me, and the old footage and style really sets the tone for childhood Halloween experiences, at least for me. Something about it just screams candy-apples and community haunted houses.

Who doesn't love celebrating scary things with friends?

Who doesn’t love celebrating scary things with friends?

But, aside from my personal feelings about the movie, the style is actually very affective. We may have seen the creepy castles, the cobwebs and shadows, the black capes, and bats before, but this is one of the earliest examples of the tropes. And, Browning’s direction really pushes the subtle eeriness that made these clichés affective in the first place. The scene when Dracula walks up the stairs has a really great moment when he is suddenly on the other side of thick cobwebs, having passed through them. This really drives home the otherworldly quality of Dracula’s character. There has always been a sort of tragedy to the vampire, cursed with immortality, as an eternal Other and monster, and here Browning highlights how much of an outsider Dracula is, that he does not belong in this world, even on the physical level.


Of course, the use of shadows, the gloomy lighting and angles, only further unsettle the viewer. But, it is actually the scenes of light that can be most unnerving. In one scene, Dracula attacks a sleeping woman. She has a light on. She is in her bed. The scene remains chilling because it strips away our security. If you aren’t safe in your own bed, in the light, then you’re always vulnerable.

You will never be safe again!

You will never be safe again! (Also, subtext: Bad touch! Bad touch!)

But, it is the subject of the Other that really plays as a theme in the films I’m highlighting here. Dracula is an outsider because he is a monster. He’s frightening, a cold-blooded predator. When the ghost ship arrives, the entire crew slain by their vampire passenger, that is genuinely chilling. And yet, there is something enigmatic and interesting about Dracula. He’s sophisticated. He’s a gentleman. And, he is also a tragic character. In one scene, he speaks wistfully of death. Life and death, and what they mean to him, are what separates him. Life is blood, he says. Death is unattainable. Life, then, is the death of others, at the sacrifice of his own rest. Survival is the hunt, and the vampire is the everlasting predator.

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Compare this to Tod Browning’s next film, 1932’s Freaks. After the success of Dracula, Browning wanted to make the greatest horror movie ever made. That next year, he released the story of a sideshow performer who is seduced by a trapeze artist. It starred actual sideshow artists, including Violet and Daisy Hilton, the conjoined twins, and other famous figures in the sideshow world. However, there is a twist. The sideshow characters are not the freaks, and the real monsters are the beautiful trapeze artist and her lover, who only trick the main character so as to con him out of his money.


It may not seem like an incredibly edgy movie. After all, today we are used to seeing the outcast and disfigured characters as the heroes and the handsome characters become villains. That’s basically the plot for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as movies like MaskEdward Scissorhands, and The Elephant Man. However, in 1931, we lived in a different cultural landscape.


Film historians, meet pseudo-science. We’re probably going to see a lot of it. In the mid to late 1800s, a British scientist named Galton proposed a genetic theory. He called it eugenics. While it is basically the creationism of genetics today, back in the day it was all the rage. People had blood-line purity awards. People thought they could predict crime by the way someone’s eyes or head looked. It took a lot of ideas from another pseudo-science, phrenology, which held that examining the bumps in skulls would determine things like intelligence and criminal aptitude. You can see this played to chilling effect in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, when the sinister slave-owner, Candy, saws a skull in pieces to reveal the inside.


Of course, as seen in Django, this prejudice extended to race, and it would eventually inspire the Nazis. But, the idea that it was somehow unnatural to have mixed bloodlines or to be different from the norm is a much earlier and more wide-spread concept than the Nazi agenda. A great scene from Spielberg’s Lincoln really showcases this, with characters citing a very misinformed notion of “natural law”. And, for all intents and purposes, you can basically rest assured that 9 out of 10 times someone references “natural law” they are about to be a raging bigot –and also not understand what Natural Law means.

In the 1930s, it was not only edgy, it was downright counter-cultural to make a film like Freaks. This wasn’t just horror pushing the envelope. This was a socially conscious, progressive piece of cinema that pushed the boundaries of social acceptability, morality, and cinema itself. And Browning didn’t pull any punches. Audiences had seen sympathetic portrayals of disfigured characters in the past, what with Lon Caney playing both Erik from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1923). But, these characters were created with make-up, and were also both based on pre-existing literature. Also, and I don’t know if many people realize this now, but the 1925 Phantom was considered pretty low-brow. It’s really not a very arty silent film, despite what people say about it these days, when comparing it to other, dumber versions. 

The fact was, even though characters like Quasimodo and Erik existed, they were played by a mainstream movie star. In Browning’s film, however, no effects were used. The characters are real, 100%, with, of course, the exception being what happens to the villains at the end. But, I won’t spoil that for you. Furthermore, these are not villains. The sideshow performers are friendly, they have their own culture, they are loyal to one another, and they are portrayed as uniquely talented, not even as tragic. When bad things happen to them, you feel genuinely sorry, and not because they are victims due to their differences. No, you feel sorry because they are good people who are getting exploited.


Consider how even to this day we tend to portray characters as entirely defined by their “otherness”. A great example of this would be Glee. What is the defining attribute of Artie? Well, he’s in a wheelchair. What are his conflicts generally related to? His disability. Likewise, what is Kurt’s definite attribute other than his extreme gay… ness? But, this extends to other media. How often do we see characters whose only defining attribute is that they are black, or female, or blind, or gay, et cetera? These two-dimensional characters become tired clichés, like the Mammy, The Magic Black Man, The Underachieving Minority Student With a Dream, The Strong-Independent-Woman Who Don’t Need No Man, The Love Interest, Walking Boobs, The Inspirational Handicapped One, and The Sassy Gay Friend. Although sd seem to have made a breakthrough in portrayals of little people due to the talents of one Mr. Fantastic, Peter Dinklage, who proved to many viewers that when it comes to superstars, tall, dark, and handsome is really best two out of three.

The Man, the Myth, the Superstar!

The Man, the Myth, the Superstar!

Considering how ridiculously hard it is to get past this stereotyping problem in 2014, it’s amazing that Tod Browning wrote these characters in 1932. Hans and Frieda are a couple broken apart by the conniving femme fatale of a villainess, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they are little people. Likewise, the reportedly very upbeat Johnny Eck, who plays The Half-Boy, is an optimistic, happy-go-lucky kind of person. Aside from an ongoing gag about Violet and Daisy’s disagreements, they are also interesting characters, a little sassy, somewhat diva-ish, but interacting like any other pair of sisters. And the list goes on.

So, how did this progressive piece of media play with 1930s audiences?


Oh, yeah, it was that controversial, with critics expressing shock at the unseemly display of these “others” alongside “normal people” –presumably before sniffing through their moustaches and saying, “Most unorthodox! Most unorthodox! Harumph! Harumph!”

The film ruined Browning’s career. He continued to make movies, but his fame as the great director of Dracula was pretty much nixed. It would be like today’s audiences discovering that David Fincher had made The Human Centipede. Maybe he would still work, but no one would want to give him a budget. Even so, Browning managed to make a few more films, but these were mostly forgotten flicks in the low-budget horror genre. However, his contribution to film history with his two most memorable works has been astounding.

The idea of The Other is a huge theme in horror, and Browning highlighted this as a source of both pathos and terror. In Dracula, Otherness is due to monstrosity, being something outside of society because of one’s own evil nature.shadows In Freaks, Otherness is due to society being the monster, with our heroes placed outside of the world due to how prejudiced everyone else is. These two themes, one of the otherworldly or outsider-by-action villainy, and one of the isolation imposed on Othered characters, are both prominent in the horror genre. Horror does not often teach a straight-forward lesson, but instead it shows audiences what they fear, turning a light on the fears, as it were. In Dracula, audiences confront fears of the unknown, of being vulnerable to evil, and of being consumed by this evil, as victims themselves become vampires.rats

In Freaks, audiences are forced to considered where they stand in society, and whether or not society’s fears are actually what should frighten us.freaks-photo-3 What is more scary? The demonized outsider or the one doing the demonizing? Who is the real monster? What are we so afraid of? (Why aren’t we supposed to end sentences with prepositions?) Both films question whether or not we, the audience, can become villains, either by our treatment of others or by being consumed by an evil. In Freaks the “normative” person is a part of a society that creates monsters. In Dracula, the normal people can become the outsider and monstrous Other through evil forces.

And remember, even if you keep the light on, even if you are under the covers, monsters can still find you.

Pleasant dreams!

Pleasant dreams!


October Issue: Pt. 1 Horror, Morality, and Social Justice

It’s October. The crisp smell of autumn is in the air. The leaves are changing. Pumpkins are ripening. You can buy delicious cider in almost every store. Pumpkin chai tea is on the market. The frosty mornings and misty evenings cast magical spells. The harvest moon is bright. The days just demand snuggling under a warm quilt and reading a good book. It’s pretty much my favorite time of year. So, for the rest of October, I will be taking a break from my analysis of criticism and writing about something very dear to my heart.


Freak-tastic Horror films.


Horror has a bad reputation for being anything but literati-favorable. Like many genre works, it’s shelved as a niche or novelty subject, something the fans can enjoy but not something that influences intellectual discussion. Horror is too dark, too exploitative, and too weird to really fit into the same categories as high-brown films like 8 ½, The Virgin Spring, and Citizen Kane. But, (and completely ignoring the fact that The Virgin Spring was remade as an exploitation horror film) this analysis of horror only touches the surface of what makes the genre what it is. It ignores all that is truly cerebral, groundbreaking, and artistic in the genre. So, from now until Halloween, we will be looking at the deeper, more intelligent meanings behind of some of the greatest horror classics of the movie world*.


One of the biggest complaints about horror is that it encourages immorality. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to see why people often think this. Characters in horror films are often, when not downright unlikable, at least lax in the moral area. Many horror films then end in a bloodbath. The formula many non-fans see is this:


assholes + creepy situation = slaughterhouse


I would be the first to admit that many horror movies, especially the worse ones, can be nothing more than mindless bloodbaths for the morbid and slightly-demented of us to enjoy for the base pleasure of it. However, to classify all horror films as immoral would be a grave injustice to the genre. In fact, most horror films function primarily as morality fables. One could argue that some of our earliest horror stories were moralizing fairytales, with witches, werewolves, and monsters, imparting valuable life-lessons through shock and violence. One of our most cherished cautionary tales, Little Red Ridinghood, is in fact a werewolf story.


Like fairytales, horror stories use archetype and the fear of the unknown to caution audiences about morals. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, director Don Siegel used the concept of alien invasion and the horror of losing one’s identity to parallel the fear of a very different invasion –communism. The 1950s paranoia of losing one’s society to a covert infiltration of Others is much more palatable as a story about intergalactic pod-people than about communists. It abstracts the fear of invasion and corruption into one of subconscious, nightmare terrors of the unknown.


Horror also can illustrate ideas about class conflict and social justice. In one of my favorite horror movies, Night of the Living Dead, Romero uses the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse as a means of making the audience question their own prejudices. How many people, in a time of danger, are casualties not to the danger itself but to the misapplied panic of others? Without spoiling the film, the ending leaves this question with the viewers for long after it is finished. Similarly, John Carpenter’s b-grade horror-thriller They Live! is about autonomy in an increasingly controlled society. The film, in a biting send-up of trickle-down economics, focuses on a homeless worker who discovers that the ruling elites of the world are actually alien creatures. The movie even ends by expressing horror’s unique ability to shake up sleepy minds, by the alien newsmen discussing how horror movies should be banned, presumably for revealing the reality of evil.


The reality of evil is a major part of horror, and one of the few genres that dares to address it. In order to have a monster, one has to ask what makes a monster? What is the nature of evil? Horror points out the dark side of every person, situation, and community –the manipulative forces of media and advertising (They Live!), the monster lurking in the suburban community (Halloween, Scream, Blue Velvet, even Donnie Darko to a certain extent), or the reality of a spiritual world. Horror often tackles the question of whether or not evil is a spiritual force (Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, The Exorcist), the result of human corruption often through suffering or societal problems (Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th, Carrie, Audition), the remains of wrong actions in life as a ghost or presence (Ju-On, The Orphanage), an exterior force outside of human norms and understanding (Alien, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead), or simply a fact of the natural world that exists through unfeeling fate or the brutality of nature (Final Destination, Jaws). How the directors answer the question of evil dictates how the audience can look at the idea of horror as a reality –which it very much is.


Horror is not a construct of the especially morbid or socially perverse. Horror is something that humans have had to exist with since the beginning of life. Whether it is natural disasters, nightmares, wild animals, accidents, the unknown, social injustice, or the simple recognition of one’s own mortality, horror is a very real aspect of human life. In horror movies, the directors offer ways to consider this phenomenon.


In Rosemary’s Baby (one of my favorite films of all time), the director, Roman Polanski, and author, Ira Levin, deal with two levels of evil: social and spiritual. Set in the backdrop of a post-Christian society, in the year the New York Times ran its famous God Is Dead cover, and Pope Paul the VI visited America, the film asks the question of the reality of a spiritual world. Is God dead? And, if so, what would take the place of God? (The film does answer this, explicitly.) The titular Rosemary believes that her neighbors have found their answer in Satanism. Whether or not a spiritual world exists is secondary, in her mind, to whether or not people live as though a spiritual world exists. In this sense, the story affirms Dostoyevsky’s famous quote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” In this case, Rosemary is under the belief that someone will try to kill her baby, and whether or not there is a God or a devil is secondary to this threat. The belief is what matters, although the film’s ending does leave no ambiguities about what is real and unreal.


On another level, Rosemary is threatened by a different horror: social injustice. At the heart of Rosemary’s Baby is a conspiracy story. Rosemary believes there is a plot against her, but she is repeatedly discredited and told to be quiet and trust the menfolk. No matter how great the danger gets, no matter what she discovers, those around her repeatedly brush aside her concerns as the histrionics of a pregnant woman. Her husband and doctor even have say over her very pregnancy, telling her to not inform herself, not to speak to her friends, that they would know more about her body than she would herself. The real horror of Rosemary’s ordeal is that everywhere she turns, someone may be a part of this plot, and that even innocent people will not believe her. While in real life women are not subjected to possible satanic rape and demonic forces, women in domestic abuse situations and the victims or rape have often been discredited and blamed by society. The story uses the horror elements to illustrate the real horror of being trapped in an abusive situation, and not having a way out, as well as asking audiences to question what part they play in social injustice. How complicit are those who, if not a part of the acts, allow the acts to occur?


Rosemary’s Baby is, simply put, a masterpiece in subtlety, as well as very real horror. It has a Hitchcockian sensibility regarding suspense, and boasts a strong cast and this really terrifying, eerie soundtrack. The soundtrack alone gets some people. It’s certainly worth a watch for those who think all horror movies are blood and guts and no artistry. But, They Live!, Night of the Living Dead, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are all culturally relevant commentaries on social issues, and worth viewing in order to really understand the conflicts present in the eras the films are addressing.


Next time, vampires, werewolves, teen slashers…





*Why movies? Because I like horror movies.