Bella Lugosi as Dracula, 1931.
q&a / culture

The History of American Fear

An interview with horror historian David J. Skal.
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The European and the American traditions came together at the beginning of the talkie era, when Universal Pictures produced “Dracula,” which was the very first time that Hollywood had taken a chance on an outright supernatural premise. Dracula was not a criminal; he was a 500 year old demon from hell. The film was a freak success. It came out in 1931, the worst year of the Great Depression, and literally saved Universal from bankruptcy, as did “Frankenstein,” which they brought out very quickly after they realized what a success they had on their hands with “Dracula.” So even though “Dracula” is not a polished or artistically innovative film—in fact, it really creaks—it’s still one of the most influential films Hollywood ever released because it opened up the dormant possibilities of the fantastic and the supernatural.

Vampires, zombies, ghosts—these monsters never go away, but interest in them seems to ebb and flow. Is there a connection between a monster’s popularity and the cultural moment at hand?

Yes. The 1930s, the Depression era, was a time when all of the promises of the Roaring Twenties and the faith in progress and science, and all these things that were going to make our lives better just crashed and burned. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that we saw the rise of the mad scientist, the expert, the egghead, the people who were supposed to fix things for us, but instead had a malign influence. The image of the Frankenstein monster is a proletariat image—asphalt spreader boots and work clothes; he’s like a mute symbol of the whole working class that’s been abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of him.

The atomic monsters of the 1950s—Godzilla was the first and most widely imitated example—are obviously a reaction to the war, and the new anxieties it brought up. There were no real giant radioactive monsters, but there were giant anxieties during the Cold War. So the fallout shelter kind of replaced Dracula’s crypt.

Then the AIDS epidemic happened in the 1980s. People were thinking about blood, and you see the resurgence of vampires in the novels of Anne Rice and movies like “The Lost Boys,” “Near Dark,” and “Fright Night.” The idea of corrupted blood and mysterious illnesses taking away the young—these were part and parcel of old vampire stories. And the vampire has always existed at the boundaries of sexual propriety and sexual transgression—which, of course, was part of the AIDS epidemic as well. So vampires became very important and they really haven’t lost much of their staying power.
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