Love and Universal Monsters

Inside the beating heart of every horror fan is a closet romantic, armchair psychologist, or misanthrope with a glimmer of idealism left in their soul. While horror on the Silver Screen stretches back to silent film era, Universal Studios gave rise to “the monster” as a sympathetic — and often tragically romantic — figure. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, there’s no better time to examine love through the lens of Universal Monsters.

Each of the main Universal monsters has love at their core, exploring different facets of the emotion — much like how February 14th has different meanings for everyone. For some, it’s about romantic love. For others, Gal-entine’s and Pal-entine’s Day are for celebrating platonic love. And most importantly, it’s Half-Price Candy Day Eve before candy hearts go for deep discounts at supermarkets around the country.

In recent years, a rallying cry has went up positioning Valentine’s Day as “Second Halloween.” I mean, candy is a common thread. And for the jaded among us, February 14th is rampant with hidden horrors of loneliness or the wrath incurred if you cheap out and get a box of Zachary chocolates (Plecch!!!) instead of that Russell Stovers’ All-Creams good shit.

In the ongoing bid to make Valentine’s Day “Second Halloween,” here are a few of the ways the classic Universal Monsters encourage us to explore the many flavors of love.

Lust & Longing: Dracula

Tod Browning’s Dracula captures a delicate dance between love, lust, and longing — neatly wrapped in the satin cloak of its titular character. Countless actors have played the vampiric alter ego of Vlad the Impaler. However, in 1931, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi left an indelible imprint with his portrayal, transforming Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s coffin-dwelling wraith to a suave, seductive figure equally adept at manipulating the emotions of his victims as he is at turning into a bat.

Dracula keys in on the darker aspects of desire. It’s not love at first bite. It’s lust. Drac knows how to work a room, captivating the imagination of flirty Lucy Weston (“Westenra” in the novel) with the mention of “the broken battlements of my own castle in Transylvania.” This might be the horror genre’s earliest appearance of the “I brake for emotionally unavailable men” trope, particularly when Lucy gushes about her infatuation with the Count to her friend Mina:

LUCY: Laugh all you like. I think he’s fascinating.

MINA: Oh, I suppose he’s all right, but give me someone a little more normal.

LUCY: Like John?

MINA: Yes, dear, like John.

Soon after, Lucy (literally) succumbs to Dracula’s charms before he’s onto the next gal, seducing Mina.

The film positions Dracula as a metaphor for lust and sex addiction. Near the end of the film, Mina laments to her fiance John that she’s been “bitten” by Dracula, thereby “spoiling” her. It implies that their bond of fidelity has been broken, having found herself under Dracula’s spell.

To Dracula, she’s nothing more than another victim. The guy likes variety in his love afterlife. Let’s also acknowledge that Dracula had three wives that just hung around at Carfax Abbey, seemingly A-OK with him nibbling the necks of mortal women. (Take notes, Kody Brown.) Dudes aren’t immune from Dracula’s charms, either. He transforms traveling lawyer Renfield into his devoted thrall, compelling him with promises of immortality.

Unlike Gary Oldman’s far more romantic figure in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bela’s Count is a “love ’em and leave ’em” type. Yet, there’s a brief line where we’re led to believe that there’s more to him than an impeccably dressed, undead fuckboy:

“To die — to be really dead — that must be glorious. There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

This blink-and-you-miss-it line indicates a greater longing on Dracula’s part to be released from his eternal cravings. He wishes it were different, yet embraces his curse in the only way he knows how, making him a more tragic figure than first appearances indicate.

Unrequited Love: Frankenstein

Based on Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein hit cinemas the same year as Dracula in 1931. A much more sympathetic figure, The Monster’s yearning for connection and understanding underscores the all-too-human condition of loneliness and need for companionship.

The reanimated creation of scientist Henry Frankenstein (“Victor” in the novel), “The Monster” finds his efforts to bond with others continually spurned, due to his hulking stature and disfigured face. It doesn’t help that he’s struggling with a learning curve as a recently-revived corpse, but he’s also battling the criminal nature of the brain implanted in his brawny body.

Like any child, Frankenstein’s monster is seeking the approval and attention of his father. However, Henry is a deadbeat dad who went out for the proverbial pack of cigarettes — too busy caring about his impending nuptials and science-y stuff. Left unattended, The Monster gets into trouble while trying to make new friends, accidentally drowning a little girl from the village.

Enraged villagers come after The Monster with torches and pitchforks. Henry dukes it out with his creation on top of a windmill, which is promptly set on fire by the angry mob. Somehow, Henry manages to survive. The Monster is presumed dead and we get a “happy” ending…. Or so it seems.

Romantic Rejection: Bride of Frankenstein

The sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), briefly explores another side of the unrequited love coin: romantic rejection from the point of view of both the rejector and the rejectee. This time around, Frankenstein’s Monster is back and he wants a mate! If The Monster was more childlike in the 1931 film, think of this incarnation as going through puberty. Boris Karloff does yet another bang-up job capturing this facet of The Monster, making him a truly sympathetic character longing for love without coming across as a petulant brat.

In The Bride of Frankenstein, The Monster issues an ultimatum to his creator, demanding he make him a companion. Or else. His anger is righteous, given that Henry gets to scamper off and make whoopie with his new bride while The Monster stumbles around like a barfly at last call, desperate for companionship. So, like a dad hauled back to family court for non-payment of child support, Henry reluctantly sets about making a woman for The Monster.

When Frankenstein’s new creation is finally brought to life, The Monster extends a hand to her, asking “Friend?” It’s sweet and endearing. But, unfortunately, The Monster isn’t even bound for the Friend Zone. Although the title character¬† appears onscreen for less than five minutes and utters a just a hiss and a shriek, The Bride of Frankenstein makes her feelings abundantly clear: “I’m not interested.” She’s as much of a feminist figure as Mary Shelley herself, asserting that she deserves more agency than her creator offers when he demands she be a partner to Frankenstein’s Monster.

Once again, Frankenstein’s god complex drags yet another innocent creature into the tangled web of his own ego. Nice going, asshole.

Enduring Love, Despite Changes: The Mummy (1932)

The 1932 Universal film, The Mummy exemplifies love that transcends time and what happens when the one you love changes, but you remain constant. Such is the case with Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest who just wants someone to grow old with. Really old.

In ancient times, Imhotep was buried alive for attempting to resurrect his recently-deceased love, Princess Ankhesenamun. Fast forward to 1921, and a team of archaeologists unearth Imhotep’s musty mummy and unwittingly bring him back to life. Fast-forward yet again to 1931 and Imhotep had assumed the identity of a crusty-yet-distinguished looking (a really hard vibe to pull off!) Egyptian historian named Ardeth Bey. Imhotep/Bey runs into a young half-Egyptian woman named Helen — the reincarnation of Ankhesenamun — and instantly recognizes her after millennia apart.

Helen finds herself drawn to him, but Imhotep has competition in the form of a handsome (and really fucking pushy) young archaeologist named Frank. Frank won’t take no for an answer, pursuing Helen until he eventually wears her down. She finds herself torn between her inexplicable attraction to “Ardeth Bey” and Frank.

Imhotep reveals their shared past and asks her to spend eternity with him. Initially, Helen is on board until she realizes her current body will need to be destroyed and her soul implanted in the mummified corpse of Princess Ankhesenamun. Sheesh! Thousands of years in a sarcophagus and ol’ Imhotep didn’t ponder the concept of “too soon” in relationships? Baby steps, Bey! Baby steps!

Despite Imhotep’s long-standing love of Ankhesenamun, her reincarnation cannot reconcile the past with her present. She wants to live and experience new love with Frank. Or anyone who doesn’t require her to die and roll the dice on resurrection

The Mummy is a metaphor for relationships where one person stays the same and the other changes. While you may start off on the same page, circumstances change and you may not always feel the same way. The tragedy is when the one who remains in love finds themselves going to desperate lengths to convince the other to stay. Spoiler alert: This did not end well for Imhotep in both the distant past and 1931. Poor sap.

Parental Love: The Wolf Man (1941)

The real love story at the heart of 1941’s The Wolf Man is not the doomed romance between ex-pat-turned-noble-turned-werewolf Larry Talbot and shop girl Gwen Conliffe. C’mon now! Gwen was two-timing her gamekeeper fiance Frank and double-dipping on the side with Larry! (Side note: Why are so many Universal Monsters’ romantic rivals named “Frank”?)

Rather, the true love story in The Wolf Man is between parents and their children: Larry and his father Sir John Talbot, as well as Bela the Gypsy — aka Werewolf Patient Zero — and his mother Maleva. The parental figures in The Wolf-Man demonstrate unconditional love towards their children, even during their worst suffering,

Maleva understands the nature of Bela’s curse and tries to protect him. She also bears the burden of protecting innocents when her son is unable to control his darker urges under the full moon. When Bela is accidentally killed in his lupine form by Larry, Maleva grapples with both sadness and relief. She observes:

“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own. Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now, you will find peace.”

Maleva has no malice towards Larry. Rather, she transfers her protective feelings to him when she discovers Larry is now cursed, having been bitten by her son.

Larry’s relationship with his father is more complex. He returns home after his older brother, the heir to the Talbot family estate, dies in an accident. Father and son mend fences, finding common ground despite years apart. Sir John is reluctant to believe Larry when he insists he’s cursed. He assumes his son’s head was filled with superstitious tales by villagers and Maleva. Yet, he fiercely defends and believes Larry when he’s accused of impropriety that lead to the death-by-werewolf of Gwen Conliffe’s friend Jenny.

Sir John balances duty to the people of his village with devotion to his son. As Larry struggles with his curse, trying to convince his father that this supernatural phenomenon is real, Sir John insists it’s all in his mind. Before Sir John leaves to accompany the hunting party to track down the wolf, the two have a touching exchange, culminating in Larry insisting his father take his silver cane with him for protection.

It isn’t until the final moments of The Wolf-Man that Sir John changes his tune. Despite a tense exchange at the height of a manhunt/wolf hunt, Maleva and Sir John have more in common than first glances would indicate:

MALEVA: Were you hurrying back to the castle?¬† Did you have a moment’s doubt?¬† Were you hurrying to make sure he’s all right?

SIR JOHN: I wanted to be with my son.

Regardless of whether or not he now believed Larry was a werewolf or just wanted to support his son, Sir John demonstrated the unconditional love of a parent and the lengths they would go to save their child from harm.

Obsessive Love: The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

The last of Universal’s great monster movies, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, ended a 13-year dry spell of fresh fiends that captured the imaginations of film goers.

The flick begins with a team of scientists on expedition in the Amazon, where they uncover a fossilized hand with webbed fingers. We never get an explanation about who the hand belongs to. However, given that The Gill-Man still has both hands, we can assume it’s not his. (Unless he’s able to regenerate. Hmm?) The theory I’m going with is that it belonged to The Creature’s long-dead mate. Given the hand’s fossilized state, it’s probably been awhile since ol’ Gill has gotten any fish taco, accounting for his raging case of the hornies.

When The Creature abducts Kay, the lone woman on the expedition, the rest of the team goes after him with a vengeance. Much like RKO’s King Kong (1933), Creature borrows a page from “Beauty and the Beast.” Unlike the classic Kong and the modern The Shape of Water more than 60 years later, we don’t get much insight into The Gill-Man’s feelings — or if he has any. Rather, he’s boiled down to just a (literally) cold-blooded, voyeuristic man-fish whipped into a frenzy after lust at first sight. We never know what attracts him to Kay, beyond her superlative breaststroke and aquatic acrobatics in the Black Lagoon.

At first blush, The Creature isn’t quite as sympathetic as older Universal Monsters. Likely because he’s portrayed as more reptilian creature than man or mammal. Upon further examination, you realize that the scientists are actually infringing on his turf. But like his predecessors, The Gill-Man is a stand-in for the misunderstood other who just wants love. Or nookie. In either case, The Creature From the Black Lagoon leaves us with more questions than answers, but stands as a cautionary tale about letting obsession and desire get the better of you.

Love Makes Monsters of Us All Sometimes

There’s something we can learn from each of the Universal Monsters — chief of which is that love or lust can bring out the monster in all of us. That’s the beauty of horror: it encourages us to examine our darker side and realize that we’re only one amplified emotion away from transforming into a less supernatural strain of Dracula or The Creature.

Whether you’re game for movie night with your Valentine or flying solo, each of these movies has a runtime of little over an hour (between 71 and 79 minutes), telling a complete, nuanced story packed with emotion — and proving that length doesn’t matter.

Photo: Author’s own from her collection of horror DVDs

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