The black-and-white photograph of Frankenstein’s monster tied to a stake while angry villagers are gathered round bearing sticks aligned perfectly with my feelings of impending doom. I wondered what it felt like to be equally hated and feared. I was in the back room of Byron’s, my father’s clothing shop on Moody Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, where I sat mesmerized by an issue of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. I could hear the chatter of customers up front, my father’s comforting voice as he tried to make a sale. These sounds were in stark contrast to this image inside the magazine, reproduced on cheap newsprint. From the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, the still showed the maddened faces of the mob and the monster’s despondent eyes. Growing up Jewish, I didn’t understand the blatant nod to another famous story of a man bound to a piece of wood while people below him spat and cried out, but I could still discern there was something legendary at work here. The monster bound to the stake was like a scared child, the crowd of villagers just more inscrutable adults, behaving in irrational and violent ways.
My grandfather opened the store in 1949, calling my father back from college to be his partner. By the midsixties, my father was running it on his own. In 1972, when I was five years old, my father began taking me to the store on Saturdays or days off from kindergarten. After a bit of running around the showroom floor, moving my hands along the suit jackets and hiding behind the racks, I would be exiled to the back, where I’d spend a few minutes playing with the tailor chalk and wrapping a tape measure around my arm and head like phylacteries. Eventually my father would drop off a stack of the magazines he’d picked up from Liggett’s pharmacy and soda fountain across the street.
At that time, magazines seemed like an adult diversion. My father read Esquire and my mother flipped lazily through issues of Vogue. My older siblings had piles of Rolling Stone, and MAD, and sometimes a copy of Teen Beat would find its way into our house. Getting Famous Monsters of Filmland from the drugstore rack felt like a rite of passage, a veil lifted, if only a little, on a world beyond my LEGOs, G.I. Joes, and Hot Wheels. Produced with muddy photo reproductions and misaligned margins, FMF looked like many of the low-budget films it celebrated, more like a comic book than the professional-looking periodicals it sat next to on the racks. Like my brother’s secret stash of Playboys, FMF was a catalog of forbidden, tantalizing wonders: gill-men silently stalking their bikini-clad prey under the murky ocean; a vampire’s teeth and lips stained with the blood from a pale female throat; an unwary woman pursued through the foggy moors by a werewolf.
Newspapers, the local six o’clock news, and my parents’ chatter also told tales of wickedness. I knew that evil existed. Even as a child, one could not escape the images and tales of serial killers, Nixon and political corruption, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and of course the Vietnam War, its moral confusions bewildering the entire country. I heard my parents and others use the term monster all the time, though it was usually referring to real-life murderous cults and trigger-happy National Guardsmen. Charles Manson, the shootings at Kent State, and other baffling acts of bloodshed swirled around the media culture of the early 1970s. The words Watergate and Vietnam were ubiquitous, their meaning largely lost on many under the age of ten. All that could be gleaned was that the headlines made the adults nervous and on guard.
It was impossible, really, to make sense of this swirl of gestalt distress, all of it underwritten by what was the last gasp of 1960s culture trying to keep things in positive Day-Glo colors. As late as 1973, even Pepsi continued to churn out commercials with swirling psychedelic images reminiscent of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie and the art of Peter Max. The tension of that Aquarian Age sensibility, stretched to breaking as America went kicking and screaming into the 1970s, could not be soothed despite all the kid-centric media—The Electric Company, H.R. Pufnstuf, The Archie Comedy Hour—still deeply rooted in a 1960s dream of resplendent consciousness.
While children’s television offered some small joy to go with my bowls of Cocoa Puffs, they couldn’t quite stave off the ever-present low hum of dread. The monsters showcased in FMF offered a dark, yet playful, sandbox to reshape and investigate the unease. These movie fiends were often defined by their sinful intentions, but they were presented both in their gothic origins and the campiness that often accompanied some of the lower budget films. Filled with puns (“You axed for it!”), FMF offered the recipes behind monster movies: costumes, literary sources, profiles of actors and directors, all packaged in a kind of wild-eyed awestruck joy. The covers of FMF were usually a full-color headshot of the titular creature of a monster movie, and inside were film stills of gruesome graverobbers, haunted decrepit castles, and dangerous science experiments gone horribly wrong. Best of all were the monsters themselves: stitched-together brutes, werewolves, bandage-wrapped undead kings, vampires, giant ants, and invisible villains. The magazine also reveled in how the simplest techniques of filmmaking—acting, lighting, and costumes—were expertly arranged to present these stories of preternatural terrors—such as Lon Chaney Sr.’s masterful makeup work in films like Phantom of the Opera.
Screen Gems had already begun distributing their “Shock!” film packages to local affiliate television stations when magazine publisher James Warren prophesied there was something brewing—a special alchemy of monster movies and adolescent viewers. Famous Monsters of Filmland was his brainchild. Warren’s first magazine venture had been the short-lived After Hours, an adult magazine that lasted only four issues. But during this time, Warren met professional science-fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman was involved in the first sci-fi conventions and acted as a literary agent for writers including Ray Bradbury and L. Ron Hubbard. Along the way, Ackerman had amassed an enormous collection of movie stills and memorabilia—material that Warren saw as fodder for a monster magazine. Famous Monsters of Filmland #1 was released in February of 1958 and sold out almost immediately. It would be the beginning of a humble publishing empire that would go on to include the influential comic magazines Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella.
By the time I was seven and eight years old, the classic monster-movie creatures were being supplanted by darker fiends: the devil, crazed killers, and other sadistic ghouls. The year 1973 saw the release of The Exorcist, Psychomania (an undead motorcycle gang), and The Wicker Man. And then in 1974, the monster in our midst was Leatherface, the skin-mask-wearing killer in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These fiends more closely resembled the monsters in the news, the kinds of things that appeared on the edges of my imagination. These were real terrors that I could not mythologize, but I felt their dangerous appeal.
My brother, for example, was not unkind, but he lived in a movie of his own, a Technicolor world of inexplicable pleasures, scary music, and girls. He was monstrous in his own way, seven years older, secretly smoking out the window, and putting on cologne before he went out at night with friends. My eldest sister’s boyfriend was a hulking figure of menace and lust. He would wait for her outside on his revving motorcycle while she argued with my parents, and the sounds of their raised voices followed her as she closed the door. I could hear the engine pick up speed and drive away into the distance. She was taken by a monster, but he was nothing like the gloomy, beleaguered fiends in the pages of the magazine. The movie monsters were more sharply defined, black-and-white myths about hubris, desire, loneliness, and death. Like any formidable archetype, they were understandable in ways that even to a six-year-old were so unlike the incomprehensible lives of the teenagers I shared my house with.
I was given FMF long before I had ever even seen a monster movie, and while the magazine was a catalogue of bizarre creatures, deranged brutes, and giant mutations, it was Frankenstein’s monster that I was always drawn to, flipping through each issue first to see if any article featured the melancholy brute. There were many versions of the monster highlighted by the magazine; with images of Lon Chaney Jr. (The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942), Glenn Strange (House of Frankenstein, 1944), and Christopher Lee (Hammer Horror’s The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957), to name but a small sample of the dozens of actors who have played the character. Yet, it was the face of Boris Karloff from his iconic performances in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) that had me poring over the pages, hoping to see those downcast eyes that reflected anger and grief.
By some psychic carrier wave that seems to provide children with a knowledge of cultural tropes, I knew that the grotesque human automaton that Dr. Frankenstein created was an assemblage of body parts and organs, revived by electricity and weird science. I also knew that the story ended in disaster. Instead of a new wonder of medicine and possible immortality, the construction was an unnatural oddity: mute except for the occasional grunt or moan, preternaturally strong, and most importantly, despondent. The monster did not relish its power to crush a man’s skull or wreak havoc on a village. This was all merely the consequence of being seen as a fiend and an unholy glorification of one person’s wild ego.
Long before the 1931 Universal film, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster had come to be known simply as Frankenstein, but since the film it has become almost impossible to separate that name from the creature, as if by some genealogical alchemy the creation has forever taken on the name of its creator. It was this name, with its mysterious European roots, that was able to hold this tension of the monstrous and the melancholy. The critic and historian David Skal points out it was Karloff himself who wanted the heavy eyelids, adding “pathos and incomprehension.” Every grainy still in Famous Monsters of Filmland—most of these of Boris Karloff—managed to capture this tragic quality.
After the success of Dracula (1931), the executives at Universal Studios tapped James Whale, hot off a spate of successful war films, to direct an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Bela Lugosi passed on the part when he learned he would have no dialogue save for a few grunts and growls. Whale met the character actor Boris Karloff in the studio cafeteria and soon offered him the role. Everyone, including Karloff himself, was skeptical that he was the right fit, but his uncanny ability to inhabit the role was apparent early in the filming. Working from an adaptation of a 1927 play by Peggy Webling, several screenwriters worked to take Shelley’s story and compact it into a tight economic narrative. While markedly different from Shelley’s novel, the script made sure that the key elements remained.
Henry Frankenstein, played with mad intensity by Colin Clive, is piecing together the parts of dead bodies in his secret attempt to bring to life a corpse. His hunched-back assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) is tasked with collecting a brain from the medical college, but accidentally drops the jar containing a “normal” brain and in a panic, grabs another, less healthy specimen. He brings it back to Henry who is none the wiser. Henry starts up his electrical machinery and raises the body to the roof, where it is struck by massive bolts of lightning. The gurney is lowered and Henry and Fritz watch in anxious hope; suddenly the hand of the creature twitches, and Henry calls out in a kind of religious delirium, “It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive!… Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
The rageful creature is kept in a cell, where Fritz takes delight in tormenting him. The creature kills him and escapes into the forest where he comes upon a young girl throwing flowers into a pond. His attempt to connect with her goes terribly awry, and soon her father is carrying her drowned body through the village. The hunt for the monster now includes the entire village. Henry is captured by his unholy child, dragged up to a windmill, and thrown off the side. The villagers set fire to the structure, and the monster is crushed under the burning falling beams.
In time, the 1931 Frankenstein film with Karloff as the monster made its way to a local UHF station and I was finally able to experience the fulfillment of what up to then had only been my own internal narrative composed of movie stills, TV movies, cartoons, and toys. I remember how otherworldly the film seemed, not only because it was “old,” but because the angular photography, the deep shadows, and crooked set designs were unlike anything I had seen sitting in the family den. It took me years to understand that the monster had killed the little girl by the pond, that he mistook her beauty for the flowers she was casting into the water. But I knew something terrible had happened to her and that the square-headed creature was to blame. Nevertheless, I loved him. I never felt afraid while I watched the movie but was secretly rooting that the monster would run away and get to safety. I didn’t want to see anyone hurt, even his persecutors, but I was willing to forgive. Even at that young age, I could feel the creature’s isolation, his frantic attempt to make sense of the behavior of those around him, his knowledge that there were grave truths being kept from him.
Karloff’s version of the creature in film—showcased dozens of times in magazine and monster movie books—became the iconic representation of the monster for me and others of my generation. His gloomy visage would prove malleable, and the idea that Frankenstein’s monster was gentle—only driven to murder by fear and desperation—would account for him becoming an almost bumbling figure in media intended to be consumed by children. Already in reruns by the time I first saw him, the childlike and good-natured Herman Munster played by Fred Gwynneon The Munsters (1964–1966) was the first show to present the Frankenstein monster as an amiable dope. Around the same time, ABC offered the Saturday morning cartoon Milton the Monster, a kindly creation whose maker Professor Montgomery Weirdo had made a typical mad scientist mistake and been too generous with his “tincture of tenderness.” By the time I fell in love with Frankenstein, the monster’s pale square head was ubiquitous. There was the polite and goofy Frankie, from the Groovy Goolies Saturday morning cartoon that aired between 1970 and 1971, who says “Golly” and “Thank you,” and Frank N. Stein, from the 1976 live-action kids’ show Monster Squad, played as a big effeminate baby by the actor Mike Lane.
Every visit to my father’s store meant spending part of the day browsing in Mr. Big Toyland across the street, where I could choose (within reason) one of the wonders on the tightly stocked shelves. Mr. Big’s had a reputation for carrying more than the standard children’s fare. The Aurora monster series would normally be found in specialist hobby shops, but Mr. Big’s catered to the model builder as much as the G.I. Joe and Barbie consumer. It was here that my parents bought me my first model, Aurora’s “Flying Reptile,” a snap-together pteranodon with an eighteen-inch wingspan. It was the monster models, however, that had me pestering my father. One afternoon as I glided up and down the aisles, I stopped in front of the model section. Looking out from the cover of the box was the fearsome, yet melancholy face of an obsessed genius’s gruesome handiwork.
In 1962 Aurora released their Frankenstein monster kit, the first of what would be their incredibly popular line of models for each of the great Universal monsters. Getting the model on the shelves of toy stores was not easy. For over a year, the executives at Aurora were skeptical about the success of a monster model and feared a backlash from parents and the media that such a toy would only amplify the potential for juvenile delinquency. Nevertheless, Famous Monsters of Filmland had already demonstrated the popularity of the films with young audiences, and other toy companies had already begun putting out monster-themed toys. The kit sold so well in stores that distributors wanted other monsters. By the end of 1962, toy-store and hobby-shop shelves saw Wolfman and Dracula. Each model included a base with lovely details, such as a rocky outcropping for the Wolfman, and a dead tree from which hung bats for Dracula. The next year brought the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and the Phantom of the Opera.
To get in front of any possible public pitchforks and torches regarding their new line, Aurora added a boxed notice to their sales brochures, claiming to have commissioned a study that showed playing with monster models would decrease delinquent behavior. “Certain fantasies are harmful only if improperly focussed [sic],” the text reads. But by playing with monster models, these fantasies “are ‘released’ in the manner of steam escaping through the safety valve on a radiator”; such play, the company argued, was likely to prevent kids from acting out their sadistic desires in the real world. Playing into what was already a deeply cynical view of childhood, particularly boyhood, Aurora stoked the fears of parents—acknowledging these supposed horrible tendencies—but offered a way to channel them.
The validity of these adult fears is likely more innocuous if no less perceptive. Monster toys offered ways to play with the horrors of the world through the characters of black-and-white movies that presented dread in almost mythological terms. Fairy tales satisfy the child’s desire for the fantastic and the uncanny through narrative, transforming the real into allegory. A little more than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The disquiet of American adults could not have been more heightened. By mid-decade, psychedelics, rock and roll, and sexual-spiritual liberation would offer some promise of a hopeful future, but many were still skeptical if not more fearful of change and chaos. It was not their own violent tendencies that made kids lose themselves in monster movies and models, but the mad grown-up world all around them. There were multiple other outlets, of course, but the hold these gothic creatures had on the adolescent heart and mind was made clear by the generous profits reaped by Aurora from their monster models. By the time the seventies rolled around the worry about these toys had lessened. There were worse things to worry about for the sake of the children.
It was unusual for me to beg my parents for a toy, but the Frankenstein model gripped me in its cold resurrected hand. And while I don’t remember the day it was given to me, I do recall being in the backroom of my father’s store when I emptied the box of plastic pieces, molded in the shapes of arms, torso, legs, feet, and head. Something was different, then. A gloom had settled over the store. My father’s voice had taken on the quality of a persistent whisper, quiet words spoken to customers and to others on the phone.
Soon thereafter I was given the news that my grandfather had died after a long illness. My awareness of my parents’ worries and anguish, of having to juggle the practical with the abstract, details of funeral and cemeteries along with the effects of death and loss, was seen as if through a telescope. I could hear their muffled crying done furtively behind closed doors. Strangers came to the house with food and flowers. His loss was a crater for my father, an only child, who now had the responsibility of managing the shop on his own. I didn’t then know how he died, or exactly when, only that somewhere there was a corpse, an unliving body not yet in the grave.
The model was unpainted, all the pieces the same pale tones. It snapped together without glue and could be posed. Someone else in my family, likely a sister, eventually painted the model for me, and it stood proudly on my bedroom shelf, a knowable quantity. He had a story, a tragic one. I could hold his body in my hands, understand both his mad creation and his poignant destruction. The gloom and seriousness of Frankenstein was a resting place for my unease, formed in the crucible of the perplexing lives (and unfathomable deaths) of all the adults in my house whose lives were secretive, at least insofar as they kept me at a remove from it all.
A year after my grandfather’s death, in 1974, a fire tore through the corner of Moody Street where Byron’s was located. The blaze started in a dry cleaner’s shop, ignited by an electrical short. The store was destroyed, my father’s livelihood gone in a flash. I had only ever seen fires on television shows like Emergency! on NBC, but I imagined it more like the fire that consumed Frankenstein’s monster as he climbed to the top of the burning windmill that the villagers had set aflame. Here was a man’s labor and identity burned alive. I never saw that block in Waltham again, but in my imagination the whole of Moody Street lay in waste and ashes.
After the fire, my mom and dad were suffering in some new quiet way I was not privy to. I didn’t understand money, or what this kind of loss would mean to my father’s identity. Only much later would I learn that he had left college to help his father with the store, putting aside his own abstract dreams of medicine and scholarship to go into business selling tailored suits. Too young (or so they thought) to understand the circumstances in all their detail, I was left to absorb my parents’ worry and fretfulness by osmosis.
I was not too young, though, to see Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, released in December of the same year the store was lost. Filled with ribald humor, I wasn’t sure my parents would let me see it. But on a Sunday, they took me and me alone, a special and singular moment, since I was the youngest of four. Maybe it was their way of acknowledging how important monsters were to me, Frankenstein’s in particular. Or maybe it was because they understood I had been on the outside of their tragedies and their worries, left to make my own way through the household’s dark fog. Seeing this movie together, just the three of us without my siblings, was an offering and a kindness.
From FMF puns and Saturday morning cartoons, I knew that Frankenstein could be funny, but I didn’t know my parents would ever think so. I certainly heard them laugh, often from their bedroom, my mother’s smoker’s cackle bursting out from behind the door. Like their marriage, their laughter was a passionate and sometimes private thing. When Igor, played to full throttle by Marty Feldman, asked “Hump, what hump?” in response to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein’s query about his condition, my mother erupted in sparkling laughter. My own secret growing unease was, for a moment, lightened.
Even at seven I could see that Brooks wasn’t making fun of those original films. Rather, he was pulling at the strings of horror to untangle the comedy that resides within the monstrous. When Frederick Frankenstein and Igor are digging up bodies in the gothic, misty graveyard, they are carefully reconstructing the same desperation Colin Clive and Dwight Frye rendered in the 1931 version of Frankenstein. Whale’s version is a grotesque masque of dirt and madness, mirrored in Brooks’s own until the moment when Igor announces “Could be worse; could be raining,” only to have the sky open up and drench the two graverobbers. I got the joke, knew the reference intimately. I had seen the original films a few times already, glued to the repeating showings on Saturday afternoon of Creature Feature. The 1931 film was a potent mix of wonder and comfort. Brooks’s parody was a link to how my parents found some comfort during their own troubled times. Everything that was scary, both real and imagined, was also capable of being made absurd, and then somehow less dismal. Laughing to tears with my parents that Sunday afternoon dulled all the edges of our collective gloom. In its place were the monsters, the mad scientist, the hunched assistant, and the confused and lumbering, sutured creature.