Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
If critics are right about the times in which we live spawning the monsters who inhabit our waking nightmares, the horror stories which appear both in print and on film, then, considering the economic downturn in which we (and the rest of the world) find ourselves, which is of a near-Depression magnitude and promises to get even worse (the CEO of Wal-Mart predicts runaway inflation in June, 2011), we can look to the 1930s for an idea as to what form the monsters of the near future may assume.
The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted about ten years. The current one began about 2008 and has lasted, to date, about two years. Although politicians promise us that things will get better, largely because of the measures that the administrations of George W. Bush, in its final hours, and Barack Obama have taken, economists and other pundits are not so sure. Many experts advise us to fasten our seatbelts and hold on tightly, for we’re in for a long and extremely bumpy ride.
Many of the movie monsters of the 1930s are those which, today, we call “classic”: Dracula, Frankenstein’s “creature,” the mummy, freaks, King Kong,
Many of these movies were filmed in exotic lands (Transylvania, Egypt, Skull Island) that took moviegoers away, for an hour and a half or so, from their real-life, real-world troubles and immersed them in faraway fantasy worlds in which the struggle was not with the woeful economy but with celluloid menaces that, in the end, were almost always routed or destroyed.
The monsters, however, were also symbolic, almost subliminal, manifestations of the existential crises that audiences faced.
Dracula sucked blood, as the Depression drained one’s economic lifeblood.
Frankenstein, a mad scientist, was a stand-in of sorts, perhaps, for the economists, or financial wizards, who manipulated the nation, trying to revive the dying people as Frankenstein tried to bring to life an assortment of dead body parts. The economist had had about as much success, in the public’s eyes, as the fictional scientist, creating, instead of a revived and healthy financial people, a deformed and hideous parody of a prosperous citizenry.
The Tutankhamen Exhibition toured the world during the years of the Great Depression. According to the lore of the mummy, the Egyptologists who desecrated the tomb and stole the remains of the adolescent pharaoh brought down upon themselves an ancient curse. Brought back to life by the accidental recitation of a spell, the mummy seeks the reincarnation of his true love, but is, instead, reduced to ashes, the way that filmgoers’ hopes for a reunion with their once-economically secure lives were reduced to ashes by the failed economy.
Compared to the pre-Depression days of the Roaring Twenties, when life was (or, in retrospect, at least, seemed to have been) easy, with money in plentiful supply and booze flowing through speakeasies, the grim, poverty-ridden environment of the Depression seemed unreal or surreal, and men and women saw themselves as “freaks,” deformed in body and soul, in heart and mind, by the severely depressed economy. Chaos seemed to reign, within and without, as if they were human oddities who lived lives as bleak and shadowy and pathetic as those of the unfortunate “freaks” exhibited by carnival sideshows.
King Kong embodied a long-lost--indeed, a prehistoric--past never known to human beings other than the natives of Skull Island, where the great ape lived among dinosaurs in a land that time had forgotten. Spawned as much, perhaps, by Darwinian evolutionary theory as by hard times, the beast, nevertheless, was hunted down by filmmaker Carl Denham during the Depression, a point made more clear, perhaps in the 2005 remake directed by Peter Jackson. The hard times in which the characters live motivate them to take risks that, in better days, they might have passed on. Denham hopes the documentary he plans to film concerning the mysterious Skull Island will avert bankruptcy (as the 1933 film did for RKO Radio Pictures), and his ingénue Ann Darrow accompanies him on his quest because, an out-of-work aspiring actress, she has been forced to seek her sustenance among street vendors, stealing apples from their carts. Unfortunately, Denham’s scheme fails, as so many business ventures during the decade of the Great Depression failed, and his, Darrow’s, and his other associates’ financial welfare is left in doubt at the film’s end, as King Kong, shot full of holes by the nation’s fledgling Air Force, lies dead in the streets of new York City, having fallen from his precarious perch atop the Empire State Building, a symbol of the towering success of capitalism and democracy.
Other movie monsters of the 1930s include Mr. Hyde, of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), the ghoul, the invisible man, the werewolf, the daughters of both Dracula and the devil, and the bride of Frankenstein’s creature.
The specific faces and forms of the horrors beings spawned by the contemporary economic depression are unlikely to be identical to those spawned by the Great Depression of the 1930s, but, if the Great Depression’s celluloid creatures exemplify the types of monsters we may expect to meet--parasitic bloodsuckers, cadaverous creatures, the walking dead, grotesquely deformed “freaks,” and primordial beasts--we are in for a rough time of it, to be sure!