Beginning with Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom of the Opera (or, by some reckonings, his 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and continuing well into the 1950s, Universal Studios dominated the world of horror film. The dozens of movies produced over this span ingrained some of the most iconic images of monster-dom ever produced upon the collective memory of America and, eventually, the world. But at times this unprecedented and subsequently unmatched cultural influence has gone down some weird and surprising paths. The end results have ranged from wrestling video games to Great American Novels.
Nintendo Pro Wrestling (The Creature From the Black Lagoon)
“A Winner is You!” When looking at the influence of Universal monsters on video games, there are plenty of more obvious choices than this wrestlefest from 1987, which is in no sense a horror title. Konami franchises such as Darkstalkers or Castlevania, for instance, relied heavily on manga-fied versions of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster. But Pro Wrestling will forever hold a place in my heart because it turned one of my favorite, most neglected Universal monsters into a bright green luche libre-esque playable character. “The Amazon,” described as “Half-piranha half-man,” is basically the Creature from the Black Lagoon as a heel wrestler, and he ruled the 8-bit ring. Piranha Bite/Outlaw Choke combo FTW!
Young Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
It’s a critical commonplace that Mel Brooks’ loving parody of the Universal mode of horror features brilliant comedic writing and wacky star turns by Gene Wilder and pretty much every other member of the cast. But this 1974 goofball masterpiece deserves equal praise for the meticulous attention to detail that Brooks lavished upon it. The laboratory scenes used the original Frankenstein props designed by Kenneth Strickfaden (who also did set design for the intentionally-unmentioned-in-this-post TV abomination known as The Munsters). The score, opening credits, and scene transitions are spot-on 1930s stuff, and Brooks walked away from Columbia when they refused to produce a black and white film (MGM was more amenable). Brooks took his fun-poking seriously, and, between all of the gags, his film genuinely resonates with the themes of Universal horror — the all-consuming quest for knowledge, the long, dark shadow of familial legacy, the plight of the misunderstood creature.
“Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon (Werewolf of London/The Wolf Man)
The only song by the late, great Warren Zevon to hit the Top 40 is a radio mainstay to this day. Though the title and chorus refer to the 1935 film Werewolf of London, the reference to Lon Chaney, Jr. in the lyrics would seem to indicate that 1941’s iconic Wolf Man is the song’s actual intertext. In 2004, the opening lines “Saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain” were voted #1 in a “best song openings” poll of BBC Radio 2 listeners.
While I think this is overstating the case a bit, there is a kind of brilliance to the way Zevon splices monster-on-the prowl horror with 70s superficiality (“You better stay away from him / He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim / Huh! I’d like to meet his tailor.”) and turns an irreducibly goofy werewolf howl into an anthemic chorus.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man)
Ralph Ellison’s towering masterpiece is arguably the defining 20th century “race novel,” as well as one of the most acclaimed novels in American history. Ellison’s title mashes up literary and pop culture, something we take for granted these days. It also intriguingly drops the definite article “the — perhaps suggesting a transition from an individual curse of invisibility to a collective one: For Claude Rains it takes experiments with “monocane” to be made invisible and driven to the brink of madness—to be turned into a ”spook.“ For Ellison’s unnamed narrator it only takes being a black man in racist America.
This is conveyed most clearly in the novel’s opening, a thing of staggering genius, which is rife with allusions to monstrosity:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
The cultural reach of the Universal pantheon of monsters is as profound and variegated as any pop culture ”franchise” before or since. What film, game, album, book, comic, etc., with Universal monster roots is your favorite?
Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Nebula and Campbell awards, and his short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and podcasts. He has taught creative writing at various universities and offers online mentorship and critique services for writers. His debut fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is forthcoming from DAW Books.