The Horrifying Horniness of Common’s Basic Monsters
When you gaze into the dead-eyed corpse stare of Frankenstein‘s Monster, or the bared fangs of The Wolf Man, or the gaping slime-covered maw of the Create from the Black Lagoon‘s Gill-Man, it’s 1000% understandable if horniness isn’t the first thing to pop into your head. In the decades since Lon Chaney Sr. basically duct-taped his face into a rictus for 1925’s Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s stable of monsters—arguably the first shared-universe franchise in film history—have become more icons than characters. You don’t need to have actually seen The Bride of Frankenstein to immediately recognize the iconography; those white-lightning streaks going up a column of black hair. But that also erases a good amount of the context in which these creatures were created and obscures the reasons why these classic black-and-white chillers first shocked audiences to their core. There’s a throughline to these monsters, an alarming bestial desire more often than not focused on helpless women. The Universal Monsters are, grotesquely, horny as hell, a reflection of man at his most monstrous.
It goes without saying that these are movies that debuted in a completely different world, right on the cusp of the Hays Code that tried to fight back against the “immorality” of Hollywood’s biggest pictures. In an environment where audiences asked little of their horror other than genuine thrills and chills, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. saw an opportunity in the rights to Bram Stoker‘s Gothic vampire novel, Dracula, which had only previously been adapted—completely against the Stoker estate’s wishes—in F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu. Director Tod Browning‘s Dracula would differentiate itself from Nosferatu in two obvious ways; it had sound, and it had the enigmatic (and by all accounts extremely fucking weird) Bela Lugosi in the lead as the blood-sucking Count himself. It’s in Lugosi’s inarguably sensual performance that the franchise’s unspeakable horniness would present itself. The vampire myth lends itself to an undercurrent of sexuality—and, at its most terrifying, sexual violence—by nature. The bite of a vampire is the unwilling violation of personal space, it’s infection by penetration. But Lugosi’s performance put extra emphasis on the perverse seduction aspect of a vampire’s curse, ingeniously enhanced by the two pin-pricks of light that cinematographer Karl Freund frequently placed over Lugosi’s piercing eyes.
“The vampire’s attack is not specifically sexual,” wrote Roger Ebert in his revisit of Dracula, “but in drinking the blood of his victims he is engaged in the most intimate of embraces, and no doubt there is an instinctive connection between losing your virginity (and your soul) and becoming one of the undead. Vampirism is like elegant, slow-motion rape, done politely by a creature who charms you into surrender.”
The success of Dracula turned Universal temporarily into a monster machine, and their creations—whether intentional or not—explored various layers of horniness. Frankenstein, on its face, doesn’t immediately fall into this category, nor does its main monster; Boris Karloff’s creature is as tragic as he is terrifying, much of the film’s violence aimed at a world the monster simply can’t comprehend. But the story and character aren’t complete until the superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, which paints the creature with colors both touching and disturbing. For one, the films adds a sense of genderlessness to the creature’s desire; he uses the same word, “friend”, to describe the male hermit (O.P. Heggie) and the female bride (Elsa Lanchester) built for him. But there’s also an extremely modern aggression to it; tragedy or not, there is simply no ignoring the absolute incel energy of forcing a scientist to build a woman and then blowing up the entire building the second she rejects your advances.
Universal’s Monster-verse continued to grow even as the subtly faded. The Mummy, worst of the OG monster mashes, involves an Egyptian high priest (Karloff) rising from the dead after thousands of years and almost immediately sets to work making a woman, Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), into his new undead bride. Claude Rains‘ operatic title character in The Invisible Man is admittedly the least horny of the Universal Monsters, but there’s a perverse subtext to the characters itself. His scares are born from voyeurism, of being watched without permission. The movie asks: What would a man do if no one could see him? (The answer the film provides is “kill literally hundreds upon hundreds of people.”) Eight years later, The Wolf Man boiled that idea down to pure physicality. Jack Pierce‘s makeup work on Lon Chaney Jr. holds up to a startling degree, but there’s also something so disturbing about the way director George Waggner orchestrated the werewolf attacks themselves. It’s sloppy, pure id, pure animalistic want. It’s the antithesis of the vampire’s seductive embrace and the metaphor is clear. As Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) tells his son in the film:
“You ask me if I believe a man can become a wolf. If you mean, can he take on the physical characteristics of an animal? No. It’s fantastic. However, I do believe that most anything can happen to a man in his own mind.”
Universal’s run of iconic monsters hit its final peak—in terms of both creativity and Overall Horniness™—with 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The GIll-Man doesn’t speak, doesn’t empathize, doesn’t rationalize. It simply rises from the pitch-dark waters of the Amazon, scaly arms outstretched, with a single-minded obsession with the beautiful scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). Black Lagoon is a deceptively clever movie; the underwater cinematography from Ted Kent is so mesmerizing, the creature’s mirroring of Kay beneath the water so much like a dance, you almost find yourself rooting for the green guy. That is, until he breaks the surface, howling pig-sounds, smash boats to pieces, and carrying Kay off to a secret cove for unspeakable reasons. (It’s such an effective trick that, 63 years later, Guillermo del Toro won both Best Picture and Best Director for asking “okay but what if the creature was hot and did fuck?”)
Horror marched on, as it does, beyond the Universal Monsters, but their disturbing monstrous horniness echoed into the future. Everything quite literally turned on 1960’s Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock‘s gender-bending classic that gave birth to the slasher. The blood-gates opened soon after—Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas into Halloween into Friday the 13th, etc etc etc—but the world had been turned upside down. The shrieking damsels in distress of the Universal Monster movies had turned into Final Girls who fought back and the monsters were now men and boy were they not horny. They punished horniness in all forms, putting an end to sex with one machete blow after another. But Celibate Valleys give way to Horny Peaks; the 90s introduced excess back into horror. Francis Ford Coppola‘s Dracula inarguably fucked. Halloween suddenly had such a hot young cast it needed to call itself H20. By 1996 Scream had explained the blueprint but that couldn’t stop vampires from gyrating through blood-raves two years later in Blade. The decade ended on a remake of The Mummy so potently bisexual it didn’t “premiere”, it came out to its parents over Thanksgiving break.
In 2017, Universal attempted to reboot its Classic Monsters as The Dark Universe, starting with another remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, an actor who has morphed into the least horny man alive. We will speak no more of this.
Today? It’s a big, horny, refreshingly positive amalgam of what came before and what’s still to come. The spirit of the Universal Monsters is alive and well but it’s how we react to them that’s modern. Horror, both indie and mainstream, is filled with monster movies that reflect the (belated) change in how we talk about sex, survivors, and so much in-between. It Follows as a challenging treatise on consent. Sweetheart as self-empowerment through the sheer act of survival. Leigh Whannell‘s The Invisible Man remake, appropriately enough, as a call to believe victims. At its core, horror will always be concerned with sex, and to chart the evolution of its horniness is to watch the evolution of the genre itself.
A good amount of the Universal Monster Movies are currently streaming on Peacock. For more Collider Monster Content, here is our list of the 25 best classic monster movies.