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The Boston Phoenix Monster love

Our obsession with the great American undead

By Ted Drozdowski

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Monsters are beautiful. Yes, they're into bloodsucking, flesh-rending, and devil-worshiping. But they're beautiful.

That's how I've felt about them ever since the night my father let me stay up late to watch a rickety coach carry the hapless Renfield up rattling Carpathian mountain roads to Castle Dracula. Renfield's introduction to the Count, and mine, was spectacular. Bela Lugosi was so smooth. Impeccably attired like some romantic character from Byron's inner circle, possessed of an elemental connection with nature. ("Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make," he observes with laconic dignity as wolf howls echo.) He also brimmed with the power to command any situation (unless crossed by a cross or silver bullet, but even Superman had kryptonite hang-ups), to place any person -- especially the ladies -- under his spell. So suave -- and scary. Anybody who lodged in a coffin yet arose to walk among the living and still got dates was one badass dude.

Dracula. Frankenstein. The Mummy. The Wolf Man. They were among the biggest heroes of my childhood. Like me, they were misunderstood -- a current of pathos always ran through their stormy constitutions. Unlike me, they took no grief from anyone but the most hard-assed or lucky character. No bully ever punched out the Wolf Man in a schoolyard. The monstrous Fab Four of film and their successors also became a bond between me and my hard-to-know father, who relished staying up on weekends to chortle with me over the moody details of everything from House of Dracula to Godzilla to Terror is a Man (a cheap Dr. Moreau rip-off).

Finally, these beings -- especially Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and the original Mummy -- possessed one power in particular that held me in thrall: the ability to transcend death. Maybe I was just a morbid little kid, but I think the combination of seeing my first dog killed by a train and John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down on national television all within a year got me thinking about mortality well before I would have liked. And these guys (Drac, Frank, Wolf, and Mum) had Death -- the worst and most utterly real villain of all -- flat-out beat. (Hell, if JFK had become a vampire, maybe Marilyn Monroe would still be stalking the earth, too.)

So I became their lifelong fan. To this day I love my monsters. Not the cheap psychopaths in supernatural wolf's clothing, like Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. I mean real monsters -- those who exuded terror with style, instead of in drops of stage blood.

As a child I watched all the horror films that Universal Studios turned out in the '30s and '40s, genre-defining efforts that stand as the finest, most atmospheric works of their kind. I read magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and biographies of Lugosi, Karloff, and the Chaneys. I bought, assembled, and meticulously painted all the models that Aurora minted: Frankenstein treading over a grave, Dracula in a menacing pose, the Creature from the Black Lagoon chained to the bottom of a pool in Marineland. When they reissued them all with glow-in-the-dark parts, I built them again. Movie posters decorated my walls. It's an addiction I've never grown out of. When MCA/Universal Home Video began reissuing all the classic horror titles on video a few years ago, I started snapping them up. I try to watch each movie at least once a year, reveling in the stiff-necked romantic subplots and the deliciously stage-ripe dialogue. Around every Halloween I host a monster-movie marathon. And last year, when my wife Laurie gave me a pair of 18-inch-tall Frankenstein's Monster and Gill-Man figures (licensed from Universal by Hamilton Gifts), I placed them on the molding above our front doorway. They're fierce and, let's face it, pretty damn funny sentinels.

When the US Postal Service started selling stamps bearing the faces of Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein and Mummy, and the Wolf Man this month, these hellish fiends were anointed by our federal government. To me, it was an acknowledgment of their place in America's cultural legacy. After all, they'd been part of our vernacular for decades. The greedy and exploitative are often tagged as vampires or bloodsuckers, and Halloween-costumed Counts all borrow Lugosi's Hungarian accent. The bandaged are often described as looking like the Mummy (not a mummy, a very important distinction); the big and gangly are sometimes not very kindly compared to Frankenstein (remember the line in Sam Cooke's hit "Another Saturday Night"?). And lately the Wolf Man's been showing up in shaving-product ads in high-profile publications like Rolling Stone. (A musical footnote: Peter Green, the founding guitarist of Fleetwood Mac, was dubbed "the Werewolf" by the residents of his small English village when he flipped out in the '80s and refused to cut his hair or fingernails for years.)

There's also something pretty ironic about the post office selling the images of our great American monsters. Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man are undead and unholy, as their legends go. Vampires have Satanic allegiances; they abhor crosses, mock God . . . all the trimmings. Frankenstein is a soulless hulk, stitched together from the dead and unable to tell right from wrong. (In Todd Browning's original film, he accidentally drowns a child who befriends him, hoping that she can float like a flower petal.) The Mummy -- he crossed the gods of ancient Egypt by attempting to raise the dead, desecrating their temples. And the Wolf Man is the animal side of humanity unleashed, uncaring about the consequences of his actions, literally under a curse.

What's next, stamps with Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky? Let's face it, we've lived in an increasingly conservative country for nearly 20 years now. And the religious right has not only the ear of the media but the coattails of Congress and the White House to tug upon. Yet I haven't heard a peep of protest about the post office providing us an opportunity to give the undead a good licking. There was more noise from Jesse Helms and other Christian rightists when poor ol' Elvis Presley got the First Class treatment -- seein' as how he was a drug addic'.

Maybe that's another power that the great monsters have: they can transcend even our most deep-seated hang-ups. And that's another reason to love them -- warts, fangs, and all.

Ted Drozdowski is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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