Kage Baker was a classicist in her monster preferences, as she was in so many areas of her life.
Mind you, we grew up just before the modern monsters began proliferating on the movie screen – no Freddie, no Jason, not even the elegant skeletal horror of the Aliens. Zombies were rarely represented and were usually tragic and obvious victims of evil slavemasters. Even the Teenaged Werewolf was a little declasse. (And anyway, he was far too similar to our babysitters’ boyfriends to be really scary. He was just gross. Eeewww.)
Ghosts, on the rare occasions they were not humourously pursuing Bob Hope or Abbot and Costello, didn’t scare us. Still don’t. (Should Kage wish to haunt, I would be delighted.) But they just couldn’t be taken very seriously back in the 50’s.
No, for us, it was Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman; it was the myriad classical witches and goblins of the darker Disney films; it was robots and giant brains from space. And there were the good old homophageous denizons of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, where every bad little boy or girl ended up on the menu. Wholesome, old-fashioned stuff!
Blood was scarce and often just implied. Body parts were seldom displayed, unless they were playing a leading role – a crawling eye or hand, the stitched-together chassis of the creature under the surgeon’s drape. There was romance galore, but sex was not evil and wouldn’t get you killed – that had to wait for the Evil Teenager films, where nothing guaranteed you were for the chop like making out in the back seat of a car. A vampire might display nobility, an animated corpse tenderness; the werewolf dressed like a racetrack tout, but he displayed a moving Everyman’s despair.
Despite the ghoulies lurking everywhere, the world portrayed was more elegant and more innocent than it would soon become. That’s where Kage chose the images of her monsters.
The man-sized and man-shaped did not frighten her too much – although, as she explained practically, you knew Godzilla could not be in the closet and Dracula might very well be. (Not too much of a problem, though – sister Anne thought Lugosi was altogether dishy, in fact. Kage, who had a fondness for skinny Englishmen, preferred Karloff.) None of us were too very worried about werewolves, since their image then was still focused on Larry Talbot – and we all thought Lon Chaney Jr. was, frankly, a bit of a jerk.
Nothing that fits in your closet can be that bad, Kage reasoned. There’s a size limitation, at the very least. You can get away from something that at least has an arm’s reach, even if it’s reaching for you.
What scared Kage were uncontrollable monsters. Chaotic monsters. Big monsters with unsee-able edges or motives. Things like The Blob, and giant robots like Gort. Or the aliens in the sandpit in Invaders from Mars, who spend most of the movie as an inchoate light in the dark fields and transform the grownups into dead-eyed strangers. Later on, many scholarly articles would be written explaining the political metaphors behind all these films; but what Kage took away from them in her extreme childhood was that Huge Uncontrollable Things lived in the darkness and could come get you.
What scared her most of all … was King Kong. She’d run screaming from the room as a child when that drum beat began, and the natives came to get Fay Wray. Even as a grownup she would shiver and gulp at her rum, snickering at her own panic but frightened nonetheless. It was the drums, you see. Kong was scary, sure – but it was the drums and the implacable natives that were the very imbodiment of the relentless Thing in the darkness.
As it turned out, she may have been prescient in that fear, as she was in so much else. Not that a giant gorilla would come for her, or a mob of extras with African spears and Polynesian canoes – horrifying as bad research can be. But that was the sort of the thing that killed her: a shapeless monster from another dimension, a giant inescapable thing. Not the figure in the closet, whom you can kick in the balls and run from, but the drumbeat in the night, bringing in God-knows-what on the tide.
Tomorrow: mummies and zombies. Second string or neglected?