Monsters at the Movies: A Sociological Survey through the Decades

In the same way that Godzilla was about the anxiety of the nuclear age, and the atomic bomb and Hiroshima, the monster in Cloverfield is a metaphor for our times and being able to find a way to approach those feelings without diminishing or exploiting them.–Matt Reeves, Director, Cloverfield

Dracula. Godzilla. Freddy Krueger. Foreboding, violent monsters (in human, animal or alien form) that wreak havoc on an innocent public, have been drawing audiences to theaters since the silent era, offering catharsis from personal anxiety and serving as metaphors for the general fears plaguing the culture during a particular era.

German Influence

Some of the earliest movie monsters hail from the German expressionist film movement that began during World War I and continued through the 1920s. The central fiends in such films as Paul Wegener's The Golem, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and F.W. Murnaus Nosferatu were controversial depictions of the malaise in war-devastated Germany.

Those films were a direct influence on iconic American movie monsters of the 1920s and 1930s, including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and The Invisible Man exotic foreign demons during an era of pronounced xenophobia and isolationism in the U.S. Not coincidentally, the films villains often preyed upon scantily clad females at a time when the countrys inbred Puritanism was being challenged by the Roaring 20s, a period of change for women, who not only won the right to vote, but also to bob their hair, raise their hemlines and dance the Charleston.

Cold War Paranoia

In the 1940s and 1950s, the monsters became even more menacing, expressing the paranoia and sense of impending doom that characterized the Cold War period. Despite Franklin Roosevelts soothing Depression-era promise, there seemed to be something more to fear than fear itself. Movies like The Thing and The War of the Worlds were populated by mutant beings or evil extraterrestrials bent on destroying the American way of life. The alien invaders in The Day the Earth Stood Still could be seen to represent the threat of ideological takeover by communist Russia, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a thinly-veiled critique of Joseph McCarthys communist under every bed hysteria. Ironically, the countrys greatest weapons were of little use against creatures like Godzilla, a horrifying by-product of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the giant ants in Them! raised serious questions about the safety of using nuclear power.

The gloomy foreboding of the 1950s monster movies was mitigated by the publics faith in the power of the central government to pull together to tackle these threats. They had, after all, proved victorious in World War II, which was followed by one of the biggest economic booms in our history. Concurrently, as in the 1920s, the countrys conservative, puritanical streak resurfaced in Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho and The Birds, which spotlighted two very different kinds of monsters, who exacted revenge on women who too freely expressed their desire for independence.

No Regard for Public Safety

But by the 1960s and 1970s, that safety net was frayed and the publics blind belief in their leaders ability to save them in a time of crisis came under serious scrutiny. In these films, if disaster struck, it was every man for himself. The monsters in Jaws and Alien were all the more frightening because they prospered through greed with little regard for public safety. What was good for General Motors

As the Vietnam War shook the countrys faith in their government, it also influenced writers, philosophers and theologians to question the metaphysical implications of these events. A significant trend in horror movies dealt indirectly with the war (George A. Romeros landmark 1968 zombie thriller Night of the Living Dead which also included references to the civil rights movement), while Tobe Hoopers 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre played on fears about the dissolution of the traditional American family. In these movies, we saw the enemy and it was us.

The idea of God turning away from society surfaced during movies of the era, introducing the scariest monster of them all Satan. Roman Polanski's Rosemarys Baby, William Friedkins The Exorcist and Richard Donners The Omen made this villain of all villains more tangible (and horrifying) by having him inhabit the body of a child.

If the devil himself could appear in the most unlikely of places, then clearly no one was safe–not even suburbanites. By the 1980s, the exodus away from the dangers of city life (drugs, racial tension, sexual license) to the controlled family-friendly environment of planned communities proved to be no panacea for the happy family in Poltergeist, who had unwittingly upset the natural order (again due to greedy, unscrupulous land developers) by moving into a house built on a sacred Native American burial ground. Again, revenge was taken out on the most vulnerable among us the children.

The sexually maladjusted Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho evolved into an army of crazed and tormented monsters like Jason in the Friday the 13th series, Michael Meyers in Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Streets Freddie Krueger. The message to the teens who populated (and watched) these movies couldnt have been clearer: You have sex, you die. Things went from bad to worse in films like The Hunger and David Cronenbergs remake of The Fly, which evoked the AIDS epidemic and the explosion of other sexually transmitted diseases.

1990s and New Millennium

With the end of the Cold War, the monsters of the 1990s turned out to be the seemingly normal next-door neighbor who turned out to be a pedophile, a crazed fan or a cannibalistic mass murderer: Dr. Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs,; Annie Wilkes in Misery; and John Doe in Se7en.

But, just as the new millennium began, incomprehensible real-life horror overshadowed anything that was being shown in theaters. Not only was the countrys always-fragile sense of vulnerability truly challenged for the first time since Pearl Harbor, but it seemed like a prelude to the end of days. Everywhere one turned there was another potential devastation Ebola, SARS, bird flu, anthrax and global warming. And movies responded with films like 28 Days Later, a contemporary remake of Body Snatchers called The Invasion and, most recently, I Am Legend. Xenophobia resurfaced in a more diabolical manner in films like Hostel, Saw and Touristas torture fests that eerily coincided with a heated debate over the use of torture in wartime. And in another remake, Poseidon, the monster was a tsunami-like wave, not unlike the one that had overwhelmed Southeast Asia only months before.

In Spielbergs frightening remake of War of the Worlds aliens, without provocation, lay waste to the earth and we are unable to stop them. Its the earths atmosphere replete with bacteria and viruses that finally destroys them. Mother Nature came to our rescue, but there wasnt much to be happy about, since she also gave us the cold shoulder in The Day After Tomorrow. Most of North America is covered with a blanket of ice and, as in War of the Worlds, it has happened without so much as a warning (or maybe we werent listening), making the U.S. largely uninhabitable.

The nature of new, previously unforeseen threats to our way of life, has led to a new breed of monster movie that reflects not only the uncertainty of our era, but our sense of powerlessness in the face of such daunting obstacles.