The Power of Monsters: Examining Power Dynamics in the Universal Horror Films of the 30s.

By Giles Allen-Bowden

Horror cinema is a genre built on power dynamics. It brings to life anxieties which have psychological and often sociological power over us and brings them into a physical form so our heroes, and therefore we ourselves, may confront them. Horror can be a cathartic genre as through interrogation of power dynamics we may come to no longer fear that which we don’t understand. It can also be speculative and nihilistic as it deprives characters and therefore ourselves of agency, preventing us from ever having control or understanding of the unknown.

Horror first came to the forefront of cinema in the 1930s when Universal studios released its first wave of monster movies. These classics captivated audiences and brought some of the genre’s most iconic monsters to life, most famously Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Given the impact these films had, it is important to look at how they played with the ideas of power in ways which would define the genre for generations to come.

The focus here will be on the first six Horror blockbusters in the Universal collection: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1942), starting with how they made the power dynamics between heroes, villains and victims integral to their brand of cinema.

In order to frighten an audience, it is essential to have engaging characters who are themselves capable of being frightened. A monster can threaten the world but unless we care about someone, anyone in that world, then the audience will not care about what unfolds in the narrative. This is something early horror film directors understood well and we tend to find that power dynamics in the Universal horror films are extremely personal. In the case of Dracula and The Mummy, which structurally are almost identical, our monster is an ancient being who finds a love interest, hypnotizes them and is eventually defeated by the hero. Similarly, the climax of Frankenstein revolves around the film’s monster abducting Frankenstein’s bride and being hunted down as a result. 

In all three of these films, the character who the audience fear for is the abducted woman, the image of their abduction becoming an iconic image of early horror cinema. Power on the surface at least, lies with the supernatural male entity who seeks to possess a woman for his own aims. Given these films are from the 1930s, their sexual politics have aged far less well than their special effects, as it invariably falls to the male hero to find his own power and defeat the monster. That being said, it is interesting to note that while women may fall under the physical power of monsters, they just as often prove to be their undoing.

By having a monster, something which is intangible, pursue something tangible, usually a female character, they open themselves up to a tangible means of defeat. Power in horror was quickly shown to be fluid, with the monster being only powerful so long as it remained unattached. When monsters became captivated, the beauty they sought was often used against them. Dracula and the Mummy are defeated by their single-minded pursuits of love, and Frankenstein’s monster is hunted down only when he chooses a target who is close to his creator.

But while these pursuits may have removed their power in the context of the films, their power in the minds of the audience was only cemented. By having their defeat be in pursuit of others, monsters became more endearing, more understandable. Had they been indiscriminate killers they wouldn’t have taken root in 1930s sensibilities. Because they had flaws and could lose control, they gained more over audiences, propelling many of these creatures to stardom. They were not only iconic to look upon but also to engage with as figures of tragedy and pathos.

In the case of Bride of Frankenstein this taken a step further. While the Bride’s time in the film is brief, as she is only brought to life to be a mate for the monster in the film’s final act, her horror at being alive serves as the catalyst for monster to end their narrative. After two films of torturous battle between man and his creation, the monster destroys them, saving the hero and restoring balance to the world.

The female character here is placed in the narrative to be possessed, but she does more than that when she is introduced. She provides clarity of purpose and through her screams of defiance, characters and audience realise that the horror has to end. In decades to come horror would be crueller in some instances, yet also more empowering in other ways for women, with the final girl left alive at the end of many a slasher film being the one to defeat the villain. Horror’s focus on close relationships, often between monsters and women ensured it captured the audience’s imagination, as well as giving them both instances of terror and much-needed catharsis. 

Early horror cinema didn’t stop at simply abducting characters to inspire fear, it also went a step further, giving monsters the power to bend others to their sadistic will. Dracula demonstrated this first wherein Renfield, an innocent man, is made a servant of the titular vampire. Horror aimed to terrify women by showing them at the mercy of monster’s affections, and it aimed to terrify men with the idea that they could be possessed or controlled and cause greater suffering as an extension of a monster. As with the abductee, the possessed individual was shown to demonstrate the unique power dynamics that were available, and are still used to this day, by the horror genre. Renfield and other servants definitely were effective in showing how we can be rendered powerless by the supernatural, but one of the genre’s monsters took it a step further, by having its entire story be about the power balance between creator and created: Frankenstein.

Creator and creation are never more prescient as a core relationship than in the 1931 iteration and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. While it is not as nuanced as the book, the simple contrast between the intellect of the creator and the uncontrolled physical strength of the creation was enough to inspire fear and awe in 1930s audiences. The first film is all about this struggle, wherein the monster is made, abused and becomes truly monstrous. In the second film however, we find that it is capable of eliciting sympathy until ultimately, we as an audience find ourselves more on its side as it tries to understand empathy before ultimately breaking the cycle at the end of the film.

The end of The Bride of Frankenstein breaks the relationship between creator and creation. Frankenstein is stripped of power by forces which he may have created but could never control, and that idea that we cannot control that which we make has proven truly captivating for audiences, as evidenced by just how many retellings of Frankenstein there have been over the years. In its early days, horror told tales of men overcoming monsters, but as Bride of Frankenstein shows, that wouldn’t be enough and after the first three Universal monsters were defeated, it became time for man himself to become the monster.

In 1933 The Invisible Man became one of the earliest films to demonstrate a more ambitious type of horror movie monster, one who starts as human but is corrupted by newfound power. The film focuses on the scientist Griffin who has managed to turn himself invisible and, driven by an intruding society and his own mania, sets out to conquer the world. This maniacal approach lends the film a more humorous tone, at first. With its monster having less intimate aims the audience isn’t able to take him as seriously. Griffin’s early behaviour is quite eccentric as he runs rampant in a town scaring people and stealing their possessions. But over time his understanding of his own power grows and he becomes terrifying and more effective. He even goes so far as to kill a trainload of people just to inflict terror upon a world he sees at having done him wrong.

At its core The Invisible Man is a film about how invisibility grants power, literal invisibility representing a fear which is more prevalent in modern society: anonymity. After all it’s one thing to be able to see a monster and therefore defeat it, but what about one who can be next to you at any given time? That is power. As Griffin himself puts it:

“An Invisible Man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill.”

Griffin’s aims are to remove himself from the system and ultimately defeat it without it being able to see or prevent him. We see this legacy of the elusive invisible man manifested in the slashers like Michael Myers who stick to the shadows of society as they kill and we see his ambitions in more conceptual figures of horror like Neil Gaiman’s Mr World in American Gods, a figure who represents our fears that everything is known about us. Griffin feels a need to achieve something as a scientist, and unlike Frankenstein, he does not give up on his discovery once it becomes reality. Instead he wields it confidently to recreate the world as he sees fit, proving ambition to be far more terrifying than any separate monster we may create along the way.

One reason why Griffin manages to go forward in his plans where his predecessors failed lies in his personal relationships. Compared to his horror monster predecessors, they are far less significant to him. He does have a former colleague, whom he takes bitter revenge against, and a love interest who he claims he is doing everything for, but she doesn’t factor into the film’s plot on anywhere near the same scale. Ultimately Griffin’s downfall has nothing to do with who he is attached to. Instead it’s his rejection of others which causes his end, as he dies in isolation. The film’s emphasis on the lonely journey Griffin undertakes has inspired much of what horror cinema has become, a genre filled with isolated killers who seek out violence as restitution for their disconnection from others.

The Invisible Man sets a foundation for horror films to come following outcast loners and unhinged people of strange abilities, scientific or supernatural who do not have specific aims on a few people but generally pose a greater threat. Though the film receives less recognition than its predecessors, it still provides a chilling insight into the power dynamics that operate between the unseen and society as a whole. With horror now showing men able to become monsters, the genre’s aims turned towards a more tragic angle, where man and monster intertwine, but not voluntarily.

The Wolf Man flips the idea of a hero confronting a monster on its head by having them be one and the same. The horror of this film not only comes from effective makeup and the physical strength of a werewolf but also the uncontrollable aspects of a man as he is turned into something primal, a theme so powerful it influenced every werewolf movie that followed as they all repeat the same formula. The power of man is subdued by the power of primal animal instinct, something which is terrifying to audiences and ultimately inescapable for most werewolf heroes.

While the first five horror films often looked at the horrors of what we could create or forces we couldn’t hope to understand, The Wolf Man focuses on what we are beneath the guise of civility. Our hero is isolated by the curse being inflicted upon him (ironically by Dracula actor Bela Lugosi) and slowly loses his place in society. He cannot be one with God or his father or his loved ones and eventually is destroyed by isolation thrust upon him by his animalistic side. Similar to Frankenstein’s monster, we pity more than fear the wolf man. We want them both to find their place in this world, but we know they cannot by a design which has been thrust upon them by forces beyond their control. Horror’s power lies in how it not only makes us afraid of monsters, it also gives us empathy with creatures so physically unlike us. The power dynamics that have defined the genre were set in stone with the Universal Classic films, and by doing so, horror rose out of obscurity to claim its grip on audiences which it has yet to release.

Horror is built on the idea of power, and how ultimately, we have far less over our own lives than we would like to think, as an external or sometimes internal force deprives us of our agency and control of the world. That is how they so often scare us, and that is why they endure on screen with a power which we can not only understand but delight in. After all, it is entertaining and quite cathartic to be frightened and devoid of power sometimes, so long as we can take something from the journey.

Filmography: 

Bride of Frankenstein; Whale, James; Universal Pictures; USA; 1935

Dracula; Browning, Todd; Universal Pictures; USA; 1931

Frankenstein; Whale, James; Universal Pictures, USA; 1931

The Invisible Man; Whale, James; Universal Pictures, USA; 1933

The Mummy; Freund, Karl; Universal Pictures, USA; 1932

The Wolf Man; Waggner, George; Universal Pictures; USA; 1942

Art by Radu Carp

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