Monsters in Culture: Folklore and Horror Movies

Matthew Beaumont

Matthew Beaumont

Horror films offer the pleasure of the intended affects among which we can identify a sense of suspense, a sense of mystery, and a sense of horror.

Those factors cause many responses from the audience. The audience could feel anxious, afraid, excited, curious, and those feelings make horror emerges as one of favourite film genres.

Every year, Hollywood produces some horror films as a response to the enthusiasm of the audience. In the late decade, approximately, there are more than sixty horror films produced by Hollywood.

A way to differentiate the horror films from the other film genre is the presence of monsters of either supernatural or sci-fi origin.

The monsters in horror films are different from those in fairy tales. They are regarded as strange and disturbances of the natural order. Meanwhile, the monsters in fairy tales are part of everyday life, for example Frankenstein, Dracula, vampires, werewolves are considered as monsters in the horror films, and witch, giant as monsters or antagonists in the fairy tales. Moreover, Noël Carroll argues that “monsters in horror films emerge as an extraordinary creature in ordinary world, whereas monsters in fairy tales are ordinary creatures which live in extraordinary world”.

Mikel J. Koven briefly stated that horror films based primarily or largely on folklore or urban legends. Indeed, popular cinema reflects and transmits popular traditions.

The examples of the phenomena are the emergences of Dracula or Vampire and Werewolves in the Hollywood horror films. They appear as the result of believed folklore or urban legends, and they widely spread through all over the world.

Folklore, according to Vladimir Propp, is the product of special form of verbal art which is similar to literature. This reason gives an explanation about the connection between folklore and literature. Nevertheless, Propp explains that folklore is different under capitalistic and socialistic society in which folklore is considered as the art of lower strata of all people from the capitalistic society, but in the classless society or socialism folklore becomes a national property since there is neither upper nor lower classes.

Therefore, a story which becomes famous as folklore can be the representative of a certain level of class or nation depending on the kind of the society.

Vampire, in most of stories, depicts entities as spirits or ghost that sometimes resided in the corpses of the deceased. The mythology of vampire is ancient, but heterogeneous in different cultures. For instance, Mesopotamians feared mysterious creature called Akhkaru, an evil spirit who roams in the night and searches for the newborn babies and pregnant women’s blood. This creature is considered having similarities to the concept of vampirism.

In India, a monster that is similar to the mythology of the vampire is Rakshasas. It is a type of demon or goblin believed in Hindu mythology.

Rakshasas have an ability to change their shape or performance as animals, monsters, or as beautiful female demon. They are more powerful during the dark, especially in the period of the new moon, but they disappear during the day light.

The various stories of vampires are endless. There was blood-drinking creature, lamia, with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a winger serpent in ancient Greek mythology, a head with trailing entrails known as the Penanggalan in Malaysia and Indonesia or Manananggal in Philippine, and the Jigarkhwar which is a vampiric entity with an appetite for human blood and liver consumed by paralyzing its victim with a mesmeric stare in Sind (Pakistan).

These mythical creatures have similarities to the concept of vampires that drink blood, emerge in the night or dark, and they are considered as a threat for society. However, their appearances are different from the image of Dracula portrayed in the Dracula directed by Todd Browning, the movie which is the most significant example of the vampire genre in the Hollywood cinema.

At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the image of vampires in European folklore started to be replaced by the image of vampires presented in fiction.

The portrayal of a vampire in fiction was firstly published by John Polidori in 1819 book entitled ‘The Vampyre’. Vampires were portrayed there as aristocratic, sophisticated creatures that awake from the dead to suck the blood, especially the blood of young women.

Bram Stoker emphasized this portrayal through his novel, ‘Dracula’, published in 1897 and it became the milestone to set the standard for representation of vampires today in plays, novels, and movies.

Moreover, the stories of werewolves had existed more than thousands of years in Europe. The general idea is the transformation of the human being into a wolf. Literary, the term werewolf or man-wolf was firstly noted in the eleventh-century in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of King Cnut (1017-1037). However, the possibility of the oldest myth could be found in the mythology of ancient Greece.

It was mentioned that Lycaon (the basic of the term lycanthropy) angered Zeus and was transformed into a wolf.

Lycanthropy derives from the Greek word “Lykos” which means wolf and Anthropos, which means man. Lycanthropy is a mental disorder in which a patient believes that he is a wolf or some other nonhuman animal.

There is a superstition that lycanthropy is a supernatural condition in which men presume the physical form of werewolves or other animals.

This delusion arises among people who believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Moreover, in Greek mythology, the term lycanthropy has a close relationship to the story of Lycaon.

In short, Lycaon was a king of Arkadia. He was famous as an impious and cruel king who tried to trick Zeus into eating human flesh. However, he failed and was turned by God into a wolf.

The beliefs of werewolves were strong also in the Baltic regions (Livonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), France (the beast of Gevaudan that was the wolf terror), Germany, Spain, and Switzerland.

The relationship between contemporary horror movies and folklore tales is the emergence of the fantastic monsters in the movies influenced by the monsters which emerge in the folklore, such as vampires and werewolves. However, this phenomenon can be diverse in some cultures that have special fantastic monsters in their own folklore.

For instance, in Indonesia, mysterious folklore monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and other blood-drinking monsters are not popular. Consequently, in Indonesian contemporary horror movies, the mysterious monsters or ghost are completely different from European or American ones. Mainly, they present Pocong and Kuntilanak that appear because of unsolved past problems, and they want to revenge.

Pocong is a ghost that appears mostly in Java and Sumatra folklore narratives. The story of Pocong is influenced by Moslem tradition since Pocong is the way the Moslem people is buried when they die. Logically, it has the basic similarity with the appearance of Dracula.

Both of these monsters’ appearances are influenced by the way they are buried after death. While Kuntilanak is a woman ghost or female vampire that comes out since she has unsolved past problems, she decides to commit suicide following her rape and impregnation, or she dies while she is still pregnant, but she cannot deliver her baby.

The term Kuntilanak or “hallowed bitch” means a woman who dies since she cannot deliver her baby. Her victims are young men and babies (she is used to sucking their blood), and she dresses in a flowing white gown; also, she lures them to their death and drains their blood.

Based on these phenomena, the author would like to argue that the monsters or the ghosts that emerge in the movies are influenced by the culture where the movies are produced; so, horror creatures are fully related to the folklore tales in a given culture.

Going back to the movies, in contemporary American horror movies, the stories of vampires became more popular since the earlier history of Hollywood.

It is worth mentioning that the Warner Brothers was one of the big movie companies in the early Hollywood in 1920s which had a strong influence on the history of horror movies due to bringing the horror stories from Eastern Europe.

There was a great probability that the horror stories from Eastern Europe were brought to the New World as a result the huge migration of Eastern Europeans to America in the 1880s-1920s.

However, the rise of the bloodsucker’s stories, such as vampires and werewolves, in the New World was noted in 1692; there was an attack from the unseen creature which wanted to bite Reverend Lawson, minister of Salem Village, Massachusetts.

In twelfth-century, the English Historian, William of Newburgh, recorded the concept of the living dead creatures which fed the blood of the living to live. However, the various stories of bloodsucker creatures rise mostly in Eastern Europe.

The Slavic and Romanian have tremendous vampire legends. Dracula, the most famous Romanian vampire, was originally derived from a real person, Vlad III Tepes, who ruled Wallachia cruelly on three separate occasions between 1448 and 1476.

This figure inspired Bram Stoker to create a fascinating horror novel, and it had a significant impact until today where the stories of vampires have more alternative stories than other horror stories.

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