The Ten Fears
edited: Monday, August 05, 2002
By Brian P. Easton
Posted: Monday, August 05, 2002
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The author demonstrates how each of the classic creatures of the the silver screen represent ten distinct fears shared by all humanity.
For almost a century, classic monsters of the silver screen have set the standard of terror. They were the nightmares of our grandparents, fiendish childhood heroes for the baby boomers, and icons of antique horror for generation Xers.
A significant part of their legacy stems from their ability to frighten us; if they never really did hardly seems to matter. To the point: were our monstrous friends more than figures of cinema, we would be terrified of them, and rightly so.
By their very nature, monsters induce fear, but not all of them frighten us equally or for the same reasons. Each bring their own brand of horror to the table, and exploit it with a terrible, personal flair.
To my way of thinking, there are ten primary classic monsters: the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride, Count Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Every member of this exclusive cabal has achieved legendary status, and their ability to inspire fear is infamous.
But what is it precisely that generates the terror for which they are known? In my humble opinion, these can be broken down into ten, distinct fears.
1. and 2. The Frankenstein Monsters. The Frankenstein Monster and his mate were nothing if not a tale of misguided ambition, in which lies the heart of their terror. For all the obvious reasons to fear monsters stitched from random cadavers, it may seem odd to include the fear of responsibility among them.
We humans are a zealous lot, and have been since Eden; ready to forfeit paradise to know good from evil. Popular wisdom insists that an increase in knowledge scatters ignorance and the fear which accompanies it. Yet even at the apex of discovery, there's a certain trepidation for what lies beyond the vanishing point. A breach in ignorance opens floodgates impossible to close and leaves the discoverer with full responsibility, leaving good and evil not so clearly defined.
Frankenstein trades mundane science and orthodox medicine for a grisly world of churchyards and gallows. The obsession of creation is his fever, and the crowning glory of his labors is not a man, but a monster. His masterpiece becomes a tragic miscarriage that cannot be undone. The creature and its mate become Frankenstein's ruin, and the Doctor has only himself to blame. So, when we consider the Undying Monster and its Bride, we entertain more than patchwork amalgams. We confront the price of mortal ambition, and realize that "to whom much is given, much is required," which should scare us back to Eden.
3. Count Dracula. Volumes have been written on the vampire's effect on the human psyche. Their timeless legends have left an indelible heritage of superstition throughout the world, which have seduced a modern sub-culture to emulate them as gothic anti-heroes, of whom Dracula is still Prince.
One of the most enduring night fiends, Dracula frightens us most for the same reason the Devil does; he wants our soul. It is an ancient fear, and factors heavily into the origins of religion. Man serves his gods to save, or at least protect, his immortal soul from a plethora of evil spirits; an order to which the vampire belongs. So noted, the importance of religious artifacts in the battle against the undead becomes significant.
The soul survives an eternity after the mortal coil has been shed, and Dracula's bite not only drains the blood, but imprisons the soul in a living corpse with the torments of hell still to come. In such a state, the gates of heaven become unattainable regardless of how wholesome a person may have been. For the bite, like the sting of death itself, is no respecter of virtue.
4. The Wolfman. The werewolf legend may be the oldest of all enduring monster lore, and he frightens us on many levels; from our primeval fear of the predator, to a natural aversion to change, and ultimately, of ourselves. Our prehistoric ancestors no doubt feared the strength and relentless nature of the wolf, and later identified him with witchcraft and the plague.
While such notions have all but vanished, modern man still fears the unknown and the change which follows. The werewolf personifies the epitome of change, physically and spiritually. The soul is the seat of the beast. and where his nature takes control. But we don't fear for our soul the same way we dread the vampire's kiss. There's no external demon waiting around the corner to snatch your soul; he's already there, and he is you.
The essence of the werewolf transcends mere primal instinct, but is rather steeped in the same cesspool responsible for serial rapists and mass murderers. The werewolf commits atrocities the rest of us only think about in fits of anger. The Wolf Man, specifically, conjures a fear of uninvited destiny as well. Lawrence Talbot is a decent man smitten with a horrible, undeserved curse. Who hasn't trembled at the prospect of an undeserved fate? "The meek shall inherit the earth," and "crime doesn't pay" are maxims at the crux of society's accepted morality. But imagine good guys go to hell, and monsters live forever...and taste the nightmare of Lawrence Talbot.
5. The Mummy. Many comparisons and contrasts exist between the two classic mummies, Im-ho-tep and Kharis. While they functioned from different schools of fear, both personified the dread of eternal loss, loneliness and divine retribution. Consider the pain of the widow(er) or orphan, fresh and raw from the loss. To imagine the scope of that loss invites the fear that soon the bell will toll for thee. To fear loss and its attendant loneliness is a mortal condition for which immortality is no remedy.
It's a reason to fear being in love at all. The Mummy evokes such a fear in us. But, Im-ho-tep and Kharis become the monsters they are not because their love was immense, but because it was forbidden. They defied the gods for its' sake, and were damned for their sacrilege.
We should see our reflection in those ancient Egyptians' defiance, daily crossing the line the gods have drawn. Like the judgment of Isis, man fears the wrath of his gods because there's no defense against it, and because they can punish both body and soul.
6. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to understand why the Gill Man frightens us: the fear of being dragged into the deep where we are utterly vulnerable. Man hardly enjoys the same autonomy in the water as he does on land; in fact, unless there's a submarine in the equation we're virtually helpless.
Consider our aquatic mobility is roughly half of what it is on land and we become an easy catch for sea-faring predators. Likewise, most of our inventions that serve as equalizers, don't function in the water and so fail to offer an effective resistance. Factor in the special training and specific equipment required to even breath for short periods in such an environment, and the conclusion is obvious: we meet the criteria for prey.
Added to this, the Creature has the distinction of being the only classic monster completely unassociated with the human race, which confers upon him a predatory mystique shared by aliens and large carnivores. In such a light he becomes the ideal hunter, and we the perfect game. What's not to be afraid of?
7. The Invisible Man -- The unknown is fertile ground for terror, and is the progenitor of many forms of fear. Among them, the fear of the dark must be the oldest. The eldritch darkness conceals or distorts everything it touches. Ghoulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties wait behind its shroud, while shadows from benign objects become monstrous apparitions. Perhaps no classic monster represents these principles better than the Invisible Man, for he sustains the dark regardless of how bright it may be.
Confronted by an anonymous adversary we might as well be blind men. The unseen is horrible because it gives our imaginations the artistic license to conjure horrors even more ghastly. But when the unseen is a legitimate terror in and of itself, like the Invisible Man, the fear factor becomes exponential.
8. Mr. Hyde. Many of mankind's deepest fears have their origins in our primordial past. Ironically, the past itself is responsible for the fear at work in the lab of Dr. Henry Jekyll. In many ways the good doctor and his malevolent alter-ego remind us of the Wolf Man, but Mr. Hyde inspires a wholly different kind of fear. Hyde is a throwback. He is where we came from, and never wish to return. He seems evil because he is completely unsocialized, bestial, and possesses all the grace of a chainsaw. Edward Hyde reminds us that just beneath the veneer of civilization, lies the human beast.
Much of what mankind has come to regard as evil are actually fundamental drives to our most prehistoric nature; as embodied in the person of Hyde. We shun the primitive as a lowlier stage in our development as a species. Dr. Jekyll is a cultured member of the aristocracy, but is reduced to the shuffling, snarling Hyde, to whom trampling children and murder pose no moral dilemma. Hyde longs to be free, and Jekyll struggles to restrain him. The horror begins when 100,000 years of our evolution are drown in a single tube of serum.
9. and 10. Erik and Quasimodo. I have paired the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame because of their obvious similarities. Both are hideous to the point of pity. Each of them play on our fear of the repugnant. Both are French and haunt large Parisian landmarks.
There ends the similarity. Erik plunges us into the maelstrom of madness and a world of illusion; where things grotesque may seem lovely. He exploits the very ordinary fear of surprise with a most dramatic flair. Who can forget the unmasking scene?
Quasimodo is more pathetic than fearsome. But beneath his pathos Quasimodo is marginally frightening for the same reason derelicts are. Those who have nothing, and nothing to lose, are the most dangerous people in the world. The bully can only go so far before his target might as well fight back; and we all know what they say about paybacks.
* * *
The reader may readily recognize many of the fears which are shared between the monsters. They overlap and weave themselves into a mosaic of terror. The fear of responsibility that serves the world of Frankenstein also factors into the tale of Jack Griffin and Henry Jekyll. The fear of losing our soul is as legitimate in the sarcophagus of the Mummy as it is in Castle Dracula. There are, of course, dozens of other fears the monsters may represent.
I invite you to make your own comparisons. But for me, the impact of the monsters are much more than their inhuman appearance, preternatural abilities or fiendish schemes. One may become accustomed to a gruesome visage, callous to the idea of occult powers, and jaded to the plots of madmen. But the terrors that lie beneath the overt are those to which humanity has yet to become immune.
God help us should we ever become so presumptuous.