These secret societies host natural, human, and supernatural threats to North American protagonists whose unexpected (usually shipwrecked) arrival, in turn, provokes a crisis of island authority.
Preceded in 1929 by the Jules Gabriel Verne adaptation ‘The Mysterious Island’, the cycle played out in a flurry from the simultaneous production of ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, ‘King Kong’, and ‘White Zombie’ and then ‘The Island of Lost Souls’, all in 1932.
Returning in wartime with ‘Horror Island’ (1941), ‘King of the Zombies’ (1941), ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ (1943), and ‘Isle of the Dead’ and ‘Fog Island’ (both 1945).
This cycle coincides with the final years of the relatively brief time when the United States of America was a direct colonial power and just before its achievement of nuclear power and superpower.
Hollywood horror in the 1930s can be seen as a development of what Lea Jacobs has called “the decline of sentiment” in North American cinema of the previous decade, occurring amid a toughening of North American life and increasing inter-imperial rivalry. In this context, the island setting is as ideologically charged as that of the haunted house or the journey into the African interior.
Through discussion of ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932) and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ (1943), this article will develop the notion that horror “has been underwritten by racial coding, the generic history that includes the colonial-influenced gothic novel, and from a film tradition haunted by the legacy of American slavery and later neo-imperialism.”
The island voyage is different from the journey to an African “heart of darkness,” as the previously central place of colonisation has now become a marginal or accidental endeavour. The cycle gains further historical significance because it modifies what is termed the “Manichean allegory” of European colonial tradition. Although the native in the island cycle is usually still evil or possesses magical and essentialized characteristics, the cycle also rejects Europe’s civilising mission.
European and native are both antagonists of American individualism, and colonialism is itself a source of horror, with the cycle at turns naturalising and uneasy over the place of Americans in such lands.
While ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ is notable for its typicality within the island cycle — dealing in binaries of race and species, offering male-centred action and adventure, and drawing on fears of sex, gender, and miscegenation.
‘I Walked with a Zombie’ is remarkable as a departure from it by suggesting an acceptance of difference and even of resistance to gendered and racialised systems of hierarchy.
This article will add to the postcolonial analysis that classical film undertook “the search for treasure islands by lending a scientific aura to those quests,” but note that it does so within a genre that makes no appeal to audience credulity, for the gothic swaths its fears in the fantastic, set in worlds that could clearly never have existed.
Although island narratives may generally function to engender enthusiasm for imperial conquest, the ones considered here seek to engender horror, and as B movies, their “badness” allows a certain degree of disrespectability, ultimately rejecting the positions of mastery that the history of colonial representations traditionally offers.
Indeed, ‘Lost Souls’ quickly became a notorious pre–Motion Picture Production Code “affront to the religious no less than the moral order.”
The loss of moral certainty attending the film points to fears in North American society not of a lack of knowledge but instead of intellectualism itself, described by Richard Hofstadter in the following way: “Within only two generations the village Protestant individualist culture still so widely observable before the First World War was repeatedly shocked by the change. It had to confront modernism in religion, literature, and art, relativity in morals, racial equality as a principle of ethics and public law, and the endless sexual titillation of our mass communications. In rapid succession, it was forced to confront Darwinism (vide the Scopes trial), Freudianism, Marxism, and Keynesianism, and to submit in matters of politics, taste and conscience to the leadership of a new kind of educated and cosmopolitan American.”
The picturesque settings of classical horror provide then a glimpse into how neither systems of knowledge nor scientific auras are entirely free of mystical properties or disturbance and can, as part of the very systems of control that belong to the imperial imagination, create abject terror.
As a ritual theatre of violence with its sacrificial victims, the Hollywood B movie provides an unusually intense experience through which otherwise abstract categories such as the moral or social order, race, or superiority are given symbolic form.
This next article will demonstrate how island fantasies make visible the haunting legacies of colonisation, slavery, and repression in characters who embody ideas of hierarchy, progress, natural difference, and social inequality — and of their overturning.