The depiction of death has always been one of the most significant aspects of human culture since the days of cave painting or the ancient Egyptians. It reveals a great deal, in negative, about the way cultures also conceive of life. This is all the more important in regard to postmodern American culture, which seems to be obsessed with death, particularly so in the media of cinema and television, but also in adjoining realms such as video gaming. The 1950’s and 1960’s were the great epoch of the monster film, one of the primary ways that death was proliferated and exposed to American audiences. Looking at the depiction of death in monster movies can unveil many patterns in the way we as a culture have come to visualize a violent end to life.
One of the most important types of death scenes in the monster movies of the fifties and sixties was a particular style that I call “the cringing aarghh.” It was an innovation of the times, since earlier monster movies of the “classic cinema” period, the 1930’s and 1940’s, had tended to show a direct but stylized type of death unique to the victims of monsters like Frankenstein’s creature or Count Dracula. Frankenstein’s monster generally was shown crushing his victims with a single violent expenditure of overwhelming force. Other brutish monsters such as the Mummy and Mr. Hyde often dispensed death in similar fashion. The wolf man would usually bite or claw his victims to death, in carefully choreographed scenes where the contact was quite obvious, but the wounds themselves were always covered by perspective or conveniently placed bits of scenery. Dracula’s victims did not ordinarily die, but transitioned into an undead state as a result of a fairly graphic bite in the neck, aided by partial concealment by his cape and a good deal of stage blood. The main point is that contact between the monster and victim was focal and evident. Usually it was quite personalized as well, for victims were seldom random, and their relationship to the monster was usually made explicit in some preceding scenes through discussion or affiliation, if not direct involvement with the monsters, their creators, or their agents. The visual element of the “cringing aarghh” certainly owes much to the vocabulary of silent films, where victims commonly cringed away from villains. In such scenes, the cry was usually left to the imagination or represented by now-obsolete exclamations. Sound technology allowed the film-makers of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s to perfect the insertion of screams, which could by folioed into the sound track if needed to supplement actors who were weak screamers, or in crowd scenes where the source of the scream was unclear or did not need to be identified.
The coming of the fifties saw a marked change in the way monsters interacted with their victims. For one thing, victimization became much more random. Where Dracula had meticulously pinpointed victims in distant locations and Frankenstein’s monster responded to agendas of revenge or arcane Transylvanian social patterns, fifties victims could be literally anyone or everyone. The gaping void of outer space or the ubiquitous threat of nuclear radiation haunted the cultural landscape. Perhaps the most outstanding example of this randomized victimization is “The Blob.” The Blob attacked anyone whom it came in contact with, regardless of their place in society or their knowledge of what was happening in the film: an old hermit, an auto mechanic under a car, a doctor and nurse treating a patient, patrons at bars, movies, or diners. Yet “The Blob” did not show good examples of the “cringing aarghh” scene for the good reason that its original special effect was an easily represented hunk of jelly applied to an actor’s body. Later, when it got bigger, the actual blob attack was done with another type of representation, the fade to black, or variations of it.
The “cringing aarghh” became really necessary as a result of the increasing diversification of movie monsters within the biological realm, especially the advent of the “giant bug” era that “Ed Wood’s character of Bela Lugosi found so disgusting. An excellent example is “The Beginning of the End,” a 1957 Burt I. Gordon film starring Peter Graves as a scientist who must deal with a plague of giant, atomically-mutated grasshoppers that threatens Chicago. Though the first few attacks can be done with fade to black techniques, the truck-sized grasshoppers eventually need to be shown in contact with victims when they encounter a strangely under-equipped patrol of National Guard. This film used a common superimposing technology that eliminated the need for the construction of models or puppets and allowed the superimposed grasshoppers to seem to touch their victims. However, since it was impossible to film real grasshoppers biting into anything like human flesh, the actual point of contact involved the victim cringing and collapsing with a loud cry of “aarghh” as the monster clumsily began to “consume” him. It should be noted that the cry was an important step in the film, since the previous well-depicted victim, an assistant of Graves, was mute and could only cringe when the monster approached him. The guardsmen were quite random characters who had no developed story line and existed strictly to be random, “everyman” victims. They were individual representatives of the Civilization that was only shown in the rest of the film through radio broadcasts or, ludicrously, through perspective-filmed grasshoppers climbing what appears to be a blown-up postcard of the Wrigley Building. Why the cringing aarghh? It embodied human powerlessness against the (un)natural forces that were assailing people individually (but randomly) and collectively. It was a purely emotional cry that offered no explanation and, conveniently for Bert I. Gordon, required none.
There are many other potential examples of the “cringing aarghh” in giant bug movies, but a look at a 60’s movie of the same sub-genre offers opportunity for comparison. “The Giant Spider Invasion,” a product of schlock director Bill Rebane filmed in the terrifying environs of Baraboo, Wisconsin, shows that a monster movie based on modeling still requires some use of the technique. Rebane used an enormous number of real pet tarantulas, as well as partial and full models up to several meters in size; all these spiders supposedly represented aliens bred from eggs that arrived in meteorites from outer space and rapidly grew into giants by devouring the local dairy herds. Most of Rebane’s victims are curious types of Everyman, since he apparently conjectured that the Baraboo region was mainly inhabited by a disgusting race of modern hillbillies who wore supportive underwear and spent most of their time praying in revivals, fornicating with neighbors, drinking, and arguing with their dysfunctional families. From the fifties to the sixties, random victimization clearly had taken on a whole new identity.
The cringe had also become far more active, developing into a sort of running cringe, as partial monster models chased a hillbilly housewife around her disintegrating home or a full-sized model pursued an aging Barbara Hale and her costar Steve Brodie as they tumbled clumsily down a hillside. By 1975 the “cringing aarghh” was combining with newer methods of special effects, as in the scene where the most detestable of the hillbillies manages to cringe himself underneath the full-scale spider model so that a cut-away shot of him being pierced by some tubular “spider fangs” tries to appear to give more verisimilitude to the attack.
The cringing aarghh was not a uniquely American feature, for it was adopted very early on by Toho Studios and its Japanese competitors for a whole range of Godzilla films and their clones. These films developed an increasingly sophisticated array of models and perspective/model techniques involving men in suits. The original 1956 U. S. release of “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” did include some contact victim scenes where a model lizard chomped on a model human, shown at a suitable distance. However, by far the majority of contact scenes involved human actors cringing as they ran, often from the camera’s-eye monster or more often from cardboard “debris” that rained down from interspersed shots of the monster destroying perspective-shot model buildings. As a man-in-suit Godzilla became more prominent in later movies of the series, the collective cutaway cringe became even more necessary because of the limitations of scale involved. The contrast in types of shots was always so obvious that it soon became a point of comedy for many American audiences and eventually the target for parody on the movie screen. Interestingly, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla” in New York attempts to solve this problem with a modernized CGI approach by using a multitude of baby monsters who are able to contact human victims on a more realistic scale, reminiscent of the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park.”
The example of the Godzilla films shows that the cringing aarghh is a technique that was specific to both the technical and socio-psychological environment of the fifties and sixties. Problems like conventions of decency affected it as much as the evolution of film-making. As early as the Frankenstein movies, some contact scenes such as the one between the monster and a young female child who attempts to play with him were controversial under the standards of cinematic decency, as was the less fatal contact between King Kong and Fay Wray. The cringe offered, in its time, a way around these concerns for the public and the producers and directors. In an age when the public was more and more aware of the randomized dangers of nuclear war and radiation to all members of society on a totally non-specific scale, the cringe allowed film makers to depict victimization in an economical way that did not necessitate elaborate back stories or character development and suited the zeitgeist of lurking, impersonal danger that could only be answered with an unarticulated cry of fear. By the seventies, a number of factors had changed the American public’s attitudes again. On the one hand, the graphic violence of political assassinations, mass killings and war in Vietnam made the cringe increasingly obsolete. At the same time, new movements in the arts, from slasher films to the Hammer horror series, desensitized the public to gore and actually imposed a new verisimilitude of violation and penetration, while also spreading evolving concepts of vulnerability, guilt and punishment. This does not mean that the cringing aarghh will forever disappear. Although post-millennium CGI offers film makers the opportunity to depict virtually anything in the range of monsters and victim contact, movies may also have reached a ceiling of goriness that is demanding new methods of depiction. Films such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” suggest that a modified esthetic of more abstract contact may be emerging among the younger audiences, who are also imagining more complex human-monster relationships as a result of the popularity of series such as “Twilight” and “X-Men.” Discerning film viewers should be aware that the cringing aarghh of yesteryear may reappear in new forms in our own age.