Why I Don’t Watch Scary Movies … Much

Why I Don’t Watch Scary Movies … Much

In my younger days, I tortured myself by watching what were then considered scary movies, shivering in pre-adolescent agony as monster after monster threatened to do all that it is that monsters are inclined to do when they roam unchecked. Giant apes, giant dinosaurs, giant insects, mummies, creatures created in laboratories, dueling skeletons, invisible men – I could (barely) handle them all.  Bump the terror up a notch and I’d still hang in, but start to get all witchy on me and all bets were off.

Let’s start with Disney’s  Snow White and  the Seven Dwarfs.  The Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, figures out that the huntsman sent out to kill Snow White has tried to pass off a pig’s heart (vivisection not shown in the cartoon version) as Snow White’s.  It’s in a nice box with ribbons, but the Queen’s no patsy.  Visibly disappointed, the Queen descends into her crone-cave to whip up a few quick potions, obviously at ease in thumbing through the evil potion recipe book. Within a storm of gaseous green wind, she transforms from a preening beauty into a toothless hag.  That’s not entirely true; she has one tooth, warts on her great curved nose and exophthalmic eyes bulging in anticipation  of Snow White’s vivisection .

She was a cartoonish witch to be sure, and as a hag not that terrifying.  It was the act of transforming that unhinged me; you think you know who she is, just another cruddy stepmother, then Puff Pop Pow, she’s a witch.  Wait!

I’m not a practicing clinician, but I think it all goes back to the good Mommy/ Mad Mommy, Good Daddy/ Mad Daddy conundrum.  Which Mommy do I get?  The good Mommy who thinks I’m adorable, picks up my sippy cup thirty times in a row without complaint, or the Mad Mommy who slams the sippy cup on the floor and says, “See!  That’s gravity!  See!”, picks it up and slams it down again.  “Oh, look!  It’s down.  Hope the dog doesn’t eat it.” Which Daddy is in the house?   The good Daddy who has a great day at work and comes home with a toy or treat because I’m just so cute, or the Mad Daddy who walks in the house, slips on the cup, throws it against the wall and says, “When does this drooling bag of phlegm learn how to pick up after himself?”, discovers that the sippy has spurted strained beet juice on the wall, and adds, “I think I can find a guy downtown who buys children, no questions asked.”

Nothing on films, books, or stories scared the bezonkers out of me more than the moment of transformation, when someone I’ve seen one way metamorphose into a terrifying, extremely dangerous, implacable, and entirely evil creature.  Starting with Queen Grimhilde, my aversion to witches became increasingly clear, but I continued to wander unsuspecting into the late night Creature Features, not spooked say, by the menace of the bandaged version of the Mummy, but by the living incarnation of Imhotep, played by a wrinkled Boris Karloff, kind of metamorphosed, alive, yet not, bandaged and unwrapped as his incarnations bounced around.

It’s a more complicated story than absolutely necessary, as were most of the horror films released by Universal Studios in the Golden Age of Universal’s horror films.  The main attraction was generally an actor in make-up, usually Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, or Boris Karloff.    The back stories tended not to matter very much once the monsters arrived.   Lugosi kicked off the Universal Monster Money Machine on 1931 with his portrayal of Count Dracula, ostensibly a Transylvanian aristocrat, a role that established his career as a vaguely menacing odd person with an Hungarian accent; both the accent and the oddity limited the range of parts offered. A few months later, Boris Karloff became the first filmed Frankenstein, a part he would reprise in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein, cultivating the broad modulation of his speech in later roles in film and as the narrator of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Chaney, Jr. was the son of the most celebrated makeup artist and horrifying actor of the silent era, Lon Chaney, known as The Man of a Thousand Faces, two of which were the iconic faces of the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Unlike his father, Lon Chaney, Jr. had an open, unremarkable, reasonably friendly face, almost immediately transformed by makeup artists into the ferocious or disfigured.

And so, in 1941, in The Wolf Man, Chaney played the role of Lawrence Talbot, long-lost heir to Talbot Manor and the Talbot fortune.  Chaney returns to Wales, which apparently looks like Transylvania, after having been … somewhere … for eighteen years, during which time he has become a bulky six-foot tall skirt-chasing, grammatically challenged American.  The senior Talbot, Sir John Talbot, played by Claude Rains (French collaborator in Casablanca addressed in the final moments by Humphrey Bogart, “Louie, I think this is the start of beautiful friendship”), a tiny, tidy Englishman (also not Welsh), apparently given to spying on his Welsh village with a telescope powerful enough to read newsprint on Jupiter.  The telescope comes in handy when Lawrence wishes to check out the shop girl he finds irresistible; the foolish girl thought that life in rural Wales brought relative privacy.  As was often the case in the Universal universe, Welsh/Shmelsh, the town was packed with Americans playing local constables and civic leaders, cockney wags tossing off one-liners, and a Gypsy caravan tugging Bela Lugosi (incredible moustache!) and Maria Ouspenskaya into the fog-engulfed Welsh countryside.

OK, Talbot and his shop girl and another young woman trot through the pea soup shroud of fog to ask the Gypsies to read their fortunes.  Lugosi is willing, but when he looks at the palm of the young woman, he sees a pentagram, the iconic mark of the lycanthrope, pretty much assuring us that he, Lugosi, is a werewolf and will inevitably hunt down and eat the young woman, thus complicating the telling of this fortune.  Instead of saying (in an Hungarian accent) “I see myself dragging you through the woods until I am able to tear you into bite-sized morsels”, Lugosi simply says, “Come back tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, at least three characters have found it necessary to recite a pithy poem to Talbot; we have to guess it’s an old Welsh favorite and probably has something to do with where the plot needs to go.

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”

General fog shrouded violence ensues, during which time, Talbot steps in and is bitten by a wolf, which we are meant to believe is Lugosi, but is more accurately a stuffed wolf puppet.  Talbot kills the puppet with the silver handle of his cane, but the damage has been done; he is now doomed to live out the rest of his days (about a weekend) as a werewolf, which is to say as a man who is transformed into a “wolf” when the moon is full, compelled by his wolfish nature to stalk and kill innocent people in Welsh villages, apparently just for the heck of it, as we never see werewolves actually feed on their prey.  It is Ouspenskaya, Gypsy grieving mother, who breaks the unvarnished news to Talbot.

Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes a werewolf himself.

There you go.  That explains everything.  Well, it doesn’t explain why a werewolf doesn’t look like a wolf, a transformation that would have been much more terrifying.  I understand that computer graphic imagery was not available and latex and fur can do only so much, but even with a chilling score and plenty of fog, Chaney looked like a sheepdog with a hangover, looking out of matted fur with bloodshot eyes.

All of which is to say that the “transformation” was obvious, expected, and not all that alarming.  My daughter reminds me that the werewolf is a victim; he didn’t intend to be powerless over lupine instincts, and, in fact, spends considerable time and energy trying not to hunt and howl.  Even a man whose is pure in heart, etc.  So, I cut the wolfman some slack.

Which is not to say that all shapeshifters get off that easily.

The general term for those who shift from human to animal or from animal to human is therianthropy (lycanthropy being specific to the wolf shift), the earliest depiction of which is to be found in a drawing apparently scribbled in the Cave of the Tres Freres in 13,000 BC.  So, they’ve been around for a while.  Leaving totemism, shamanism, and the Greek gods aside (“Hey, Leda, ever been with a swan?”), and now over-familiar with werewolves and vampires, the shapeshifters who give me the willies now come from other traditions.  Skin-walkers in Navajo  are so adept at their shifting and the Navajo so careful in speaking of them, that we don’t know a lot, except that they are likely witches and not welcome.

Let’s not think much about the notion that speaking of them (or any therianthrope) might bring one into the house.  Invitations are now and forcefully withdrawn!

There are many, many Celtic spirits and sprites capable of shifting, most of which make amusing reading with anthropological distance.  The exception, for me, however is the selkie, not inherently terrifying, but still, there are so many complications to consider.  One falls in love, marries, notices the mate’s frequent absences, hides in a cave (or whatever) and sees one’s true love slip into a sealskin, turn, and swim away.  What’s a guy or gal to do?  ” Loving means setting free”, but some get nasty, hiding the skin (where? ) or salting it, which strikes me as downright evil.  Selkies and merpeople are closely related if not identical, so they all have the ability to drag an unsuspecting suitor to a watery grave, which is one of the things to which I do not want to be dragged.

Armenian folklore ups the ante with the Nhang, a serpent that moves back and forth, drowns its victims, then drinks their blood.  Over the top, if you ask me.  Admittedly, mixed marriages can be tough, as is evidenced in the Chinese tale, Madame White Snake, a complex story in which a bride’s true identity as a large white snake is revealed, the unprepared husband dies to be brought back to life, a son is born, and many, many challenges come to Madame White Snake and her family.

All slightly shivery and not something to think about in the dark hours, alone in a cabin, but the number one flesh the goose moment for me came in watching what most probably consider a relatively inoffensive, highly atmospheric, Burn Witch Burn, an adaptation of Fritz Lieber’s novel, Conjure Wife.

Witches get me, and the trick in Burn Witch Burn, which is set in the comfy environs of a small university, isn’t simply that the seemingly inoffensive faculty wife is an active conjurer, or that there is at least one other witch in campus,  but that a good witch’s body is hijacked by a bad witch, primarily  because the good witch’s husband doesn’t believe in superstition and magic and has trashed his wife’s nifty magical store of protective juju, leaving them to witchy attacks and possession, and possession is essentially a kind of shapeshifting, so I got the double dose with a possessed witch being manipulated by yet another witch.

I don’t seek out horror films anymore; the world is more than scary enough.  I’ll endure and mostly enjoy a well crafted thriller, and Get Out was so well done that I watched it twice, but houses in which the walls drip blood, and reincarnations of demon children and fang-heavy chomp-fests are off the table.

I awake at times in the hour of the wolf, sleepless, agitated, slip to the window, see a full moon covered with tendrils of fog and cannot help but think:

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright”

By the way, wolf’s bane is also known as monk’s hood or aconite and is the source of the poison used to make deadly the swords featured in Hamlet’s last duel.  Stay away, even in full daylight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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