There’s an old cliché in the filmmaking industry about the “man in the rubber suit”. This is, of course, a reference to the monster in the movie; the anthropoid creature who frightens children so much that they have to sit in front of the television, watching old monster movies with their hands covering their eyes, so that they won’t see the monster pick up the girl who subsequently swoons helplessly… right into the monster’s arms.
Some of the scariest imagery to be found in Horror literature and movies starts with something vaguely shaped like ourselves, though the distorted features of other species can be very effective (see The Monster From the Black Lagoon). For example, a description of The Deep Ones from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouthreads thus:
“I think their predominant colour was a greyish green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed. At the sides of their necks were palpitating gills, and their long paws were webbed. They hopped irregularly, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four. I was somehow glad that they had no more than four limbs.”
Even Cthulhu himself is usually depicted with two arms and two legs.
Early monster movies might have used make-up and rubber suits to turn men into monsters because it was easier than concocting something bug shaped or so unlike anything we’ve seen before that we can’t relate to it, but it is the two-legged monsters who continue to frighten us the most, hence the popularity of slasher films that drive us to lock our doors against the scariest monsters of all; our fellow humans.
I once went to an amusement park where the most frightening attraction in the park wasn’t actually a ride, but a walk through a labyrinth lined with cages. Within the cages were young people, probably working for minimum wage, who wore masks reminiscent of known Horror films. One of the most frightening wore a hockey mask and rattled the bars with a hockey stick, scaring one twelve-year-old boy so much that he had to get out through the fire escape, in tears.
We fear hiking in the woods with Bigfoot more than searching for Nessie at the loch side, falsely confident of Nessie’s restriction to the water while Bigfoot might well appear from behind a bush and tear us apart to eat raw. The stuff of nightmares too often wears a human form.
Therein lies the key to understanding our fascination with the man in the rubber suit, and with Horror in general. Children, even those with good childhoods and loving parents, have very little control of the circumstances of their early lives. Nightmares about monsters forcing them to do things are universal. Classic stories written for children to give their natural fears some catharsis are actually very horrific in their original forms. Most of us have seen whitewashed versions of such popular tales as Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Mermaid at some time in our childhood, but the original tales actually contain elements of cannibalism and disturbing sexual content, or mutilation, long-term suffering and suicide, respectively.1
As children grow older, they become aware that people do bad things to people. If they are lucky enough to escape first hand experience, the daily news is there to inform them of horrific acts of violence aimed at both adults and children somewhere else in the world. Even in the days before mass media, village gossip served almost as well to break the bubble of innocence. Word of mouth has always been an efficient medium. One heinous incident was enough to keep several neighbouring villages entertained for months in the old days.
Children who don’t have the protection of responsible parents too often have good cause to feel helpless against the adults who make decisions ‘for their good’. We’ve developed past the callous use of unprotected children for experiments like ‘The Monster Study’, which was conducted in 1939 by Dr. Wendell Johnson.2 For this experiment in the causes of stuttering, children in an orphanage were separated into two groups; stutterers and non-stutterers. Not all of the stutter group started out as stutterers, but by the end of the experiment, they had become conditioned to stuttering and never recovered normal speech. With some of the atrocities conducted by supposedly responsible adults through history, is it any wonder that we grow up perceiving monsters everywhere?
Once we are old enough to choose our own literature and films, the need to express hidden fears is well developed as a psychological catharsis. Fans of Horror fiction create an alternative to the heart-palpitating nightmares through reading or watching stories of monsters given flesh, though the most often used forms still walk on two legs. Even scary dolls are human-shaped and in many ways can take on the imagined characteristics of a crazed killer in almost comically embellished ways.
We are naturally drawn to the danger, and the monsters, because our original helpless feelings came from interaction with parents or other adults who we depended upon to be responsible for us. The recent explosion in romantic vampire stories has a basis that goes back even further than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to the primal allure of the wolf who stands and speaks in the fairytale and the witch who eats children in her gingerbread house. Fascination and fear walk hand in hand in the imagination and the possibility of danger brings out a feeling of excitement. This sense of intrigue has lured many young girls to dating men who made them feel edgy, from the perfectly nice boy who happened to ride a motorcycle to charismatic cult leaders like Charles Manson. The same need to express mastery of one’s fears has led young men to join gangs or hopeless political causes. Would these young people have gone astray if they had read Horror novels to find expression for their fears?
When we separate fact from fiction, we are actually more frightened of a man running riot with a machete than scared of imaginary, formless alien monsters. Our innermost fears take human form. The scariest monsters, are us.
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