Modern monsters seem to have a big image problem. If you’ve seen the new movie “Monsters, Inc.,” you know they’re in trouble because, well — they just aren’t frightening!
But it wasn’t always so. The good ol’ classic monsters knew how to scare people right out of their skins. After all, they’d had years of experience. These creatures — vampires, werewolves, mummies and Frankenstein’s Monster, to name just a few — had been around since long before films were made.
And they’re still alive today in the human imagination; in all our fears and nightmares. So, let’s take a terror tour to check out the supermonsters who still give us goose bumps after all these years.
* The legend: The monster was dreamed up by a 19-year-old English girl named Mary Shelley, after a night spent reading ghost stories aloud at the villa of her friend, the poet Lord Byron. When Byron challenged his guests to write a scary story of their own, Mary wrote about the monster of her dream.
In her tale, a Swiss medical student named Victor Frankenstein created the monster from pieces of corpses and brought it to life by channeling a bolt of lightning through it. The monster craved its creator’s affection, but after being spurned by Frankenstein, it turned violent.
* Seen on screen: Shelley’s story was first filmed in 1910. However, it wasn’t until 1930 that “Frankenstein” really became famous, when the great English actor Boris Karloff played the monster. The film became a classic of an emerging genre — the horror movie.
In the film versions, the name Frankenstein became attached to the monster itself. The story got sensationalized, too. Whereas Shelley’s monster only turned cruel after being rejected, in the movies it was a crazed killer from the start. One exception was a film directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1994. Called “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” it stuck more closely to the original story.
* Scare factor: 9/10. The movie monster is huge and out of control — I wouldn’t like to be around when he’s having a bad day. But Shelley’s original monster scores low on the scare test. He’s probably a gentle giant who’s been hugely misunderstood.
* The legend: According to old Slavic and Hungarian legends, vampires are bloodsucking creatures, often taking the form of bats, who leave their haunts at night to drink human blood. After getting bitten, the victim of a vampire also turns into one. There are also myths about what frightens them — mirrors, crucifixes and running water.
These legends were given new life with a novel called “Dracula,” written by the British author Bram Stoker in 1897. Its hero was an aristocratic vampire called Count Dracula with a pale face and sharp teeth that he enjoyed sinking into the throats of his victims.
* Seen on screen: “Nosferatu the Vampire,” a German black-and-white silent film made in 1922, was the first vampire movie based on the story of Dracula. But it was Tom Browning’s popular 1931 film “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi, that set the pattern for the dozens of vampire films that followed.
The format’s still popular today. The star of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” an American TV series, is a girl who fights to save the world from vampires.
* Scare factor: 6/10. I mean, how can you get scared of a guy who can’t even look at his own reflection? And those sharp teeth? Maybe he just needed a good dentist while growing up.
* The legend: In European folklore, a werewolf was a person who turned into a wolf at night, roaming wild and devouring animals and people, but reverting to human form at dawn. Some werewolves could change shape as they wished, others transformed only on the nights of a full moon.
Similar stories exist all over the world. In countries without wolves, local legends tell of other “werecreatures” — people who shape-shift into jaguars (South America), into eagles or bulls (Mexico) or into foxes (Japan).
In France, the werewolf was called loup-garou. In the 16th-century, there were a number of supposed attacks by loup-garou, and innocent people accused of being werewolves were executed. Of course, werewolves don’t really exist; perhaps they spring from the ancient human fear of predatory animals — or even from a fear of the bestial aspects of our own nature.
* Seen on screen: Cinema’s special effects have long tried to capture the horrifying moment of change from human to werewolf, as hair begins to sprout through skin and fangs emerge, growing long and pointed. One of the first movies to really pull this off convincingly was the 1981 film “An American Werewolf in London.” In this movie, two American tourists get attacked by a werewolf in England; one is bitten and, come the next full moon, he begins to change . . .
* Scare factor: 8/10. I wouldn’t want to be gazing up at the sky with him on a moonlit night.
* The legend: We’re not talking about the one that tells you to eat your spinach or go to bed at 9 p.m. This guy is a bandaged monster risen up from an Egyptian tomb. In ancient Egypt, dead kings and queens were mummified to preserve their bodies after death. The Egyptians believed that the soul of the deceased was free to move in and out of the tomb, but would get lost if the body was destroyed or decayed. Mummification involved removing all the organs from the dead body, replacing the eyes with beads and extracting the brain through the nose. The body was then dried using salt, wrapped in bandages and coated with warm resins.
Perhaps the horror of the mummy, risen from the dead, has a lot to do with our own fear of dying. Or our fear of being mummified.
* Seen on screen: The first successful mummy film was made in 1932 and also starred Karloff, the same actor who had played Frankenstein’s Monster. The film drew heavily on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Ring of Thoth,” written in 1890. (Incidentally, Doyle also wrote about a clever detective called Sherlock . . .)
Since then, there have been more than 40 films about the mummy. The most recent are “The Mummy” (1999) and “The Mummy Returns” (2001), both starring Brendan Fraser. In these films, just like the earlier ones, our handsome hero is being stalked by an angry Egyptian corpse — same old story, but it still works pretty well.
* Fear factor: 4/10. To encounter this walking bandage, you have to first get inside an ancient Egyptian tomb and then be noisy enough to wake the dead. Highly improbable.