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2 - ‘So why shouldn’t I write of monsters?’: Defining Monstrosity in Universal’s Horror Films

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2020

Richard J. Hand
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
McRoy Jay
Affiliation:
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
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Summary

The transition from silent cinema to sound coincided with one of the most influential series of films to be produced by a major Hollywood studio. Universal Studios’ series of Horror films from the 1930s and 1940s can be traced back to the most significant moment in the history of Gothic literature, a June evening on the shores of Lake Geneva, when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Dr John Polidori amused, shocked and frightened each other with stories of the supernatural. As Christopher Frayling writes:

The modern vampire story was born – in suitably oral circumstances – inside a villa overlooking Lake Geneva rented for the holidays on the night of 17 June 1816, when the weather was unusually wet and the atmosphere unusually tense. The birth coincided with that of Frankenstein, and their paths were destined to cross over the next two hundred years many, many times. (Frayling, 2016: 13)

Mary Shelley, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, recounts a terrible nightmare vision that came to her after listening to Byron and Shelley:

‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us … I busied myself to think of a story – a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart … Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated … perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth. (Shelley, 1968: 9–11)

Type
Chapter
Information
Gothic Film
An Edinburgh Companion
, pp. 21 - 36
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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