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The economic instability which fueled the radical political divisions in America during the 1920s more than set the stage for Universal Studios’ rise to Hollywood powerhouse as the home of horror and monsters; it constructed that stage and defined the message that audiences would receive. Between 1920 and the release of Tod Browning’s version of Dracula in 1931 Americans had borne witness to both the most explosive growth of economic good times it had ever seen as well as the disappearance of those good times in the blink of an eye. Almost forgotten in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression already in full swing by the time Bela Lugosi’s urbane vampire hit screens across the country was that the values of America during this period was one marked by increasing fear of a Bolshevik revolution and the demonization of Eastern European foreigners deemed responsible for introducing anti-capitalist ideas into the heads of American either enjoying the good times or battling the bad times too much to notice. The monsters of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s—led both figuratively and literally by the character of Count Dracula—are a metaphorical representation that reflect that fear and suspicion.
David Skal terms this period in American history “The Great Abyss” and describes it as an era in which much of the population was overwhelmed by bitterness and fear coincident with a desire for relief. It was that desire for relief from such oppressive emotional weight which was fueling the search for some kind of scapegoat to take the blame (114). The 1920s had opened with a government crackdown that gave the people exactly what they wanted, even if the relief came at price. American were given the scapegoats they had wanted if the price they had to pay was ignoring that in “targeting people for deportation based on their beliefs, the Palmer Raids had violated the First Amendment” (Finan 4). The Palmer Raids had both responded to and inflamed the fears of foreign influence on American democracy and free enterprise by shipping off immigrants deemed too dangerous to the American way of life. The Raid had been preceded two years earlier by a letter from the Chairman of the government’s Joint Committee on Motion Picture Activities, David Niles, which held the threat of imposed censorship over any studios that failed to meet with his office before beginning production on any film dealing with the subject of labor or socialism (Nasaw, 1993, p. 219).
If the 1931 Universal Studios horror landmark Dracula is any kind of reflection of the period in which the film was made as well as the period in which the novel was written, it is a reflection (no pun intended) of xenophobia at its most corrosive. The scapegoat that was very real in the persons of socialists like Emma Goldman being deported for no good reason is made manifest in the fictional scapegoat of the aristocratic Count from Transylvania with the power to turn men into inhuman zombies willing to do anything at his bidding and turn innocent girls into suddenly sexualized women who exhibit a newfound independence from their men and only have eyes for the guy with the exotic accent. Lugosi’s performance is cultivated and controlled so that even though never says the words, his every nuance screams the quote from Stoker’s novel that fairly sums up the social fear his character is meant to engender: “This man belongs to me! Beware how you meddle with him, or you’ll have to deal with me” (39).
Tod Browning, James Whale, Karl Freund and the writers responsible for the scripts they filmed all collaborated to create a thematic series of films in the early 1930s that actively if not necessarily explicitly sought to continue the demonization of foreign outsiders as something to be feared and suspected. Their stories of vampires, mad scientists, reanimated creatures and mummies all helped to bring back into the movie-going public’s mind the memories of how foreign outsiders were shipped out of America’s borders to preserve democracy and free enterprise. The Wolf Man is generally lumped in together with the first wave of Universal’s horror classics, but was actually released a decade later. Much had changed in the world during the interim, but one thing had not. Americans were still being taught to fear and distrust foreigners, but a decade later as U.S. soldiers were being prepared to ship off to those foreign countries, Hollywood was still using the monster movie as a warning. The only difference between the fear of foreigners destroying the American way of life that led to the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and the horror films of the 1930 was that by the 1940s, the monsters weren’t coming to America all spiffed up in the elegant personage of Count Dracula. Instead, the Americans—like Lawrence Talbot—were heading to foreign lands to confront the monstrous and, if possible, avoid becoming one of them.
Finan, Christopher M. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Boston: Beacon, 2007.
Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. New York: Basic, 1993.
Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Norton, 1993.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. Maud Ellmann. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
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