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. (more…)