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February 3, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – Scary Mont-ners!   

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

The youngest of my three grandchildren that I get to see nearly every day is young enough that he only speaks a few words. Of course, his pronouncing of syllables is a little off, so my dear Suzie and I struggle to figure out what he is saying. We have ‘hold me,’ ‘I cold’ and ‘feed me’ down pat, but none so well as his favorite pretend mont-ners (monsters). They were apparently introduced to him through television cartoons and/or his older sister, or brother. Like all toddlers, he loves to chase and be chased, all the while shouting ‘Mont-ner.’

It was back in the days of my growing up and attending movies at the Garden Theater, when I was caught up in the same fads that Hollywood produced and promoted across America. Playing on our imagination, we envisioned invaders from outer space, the undead of various kinds erupting from tombs and graves, or a slimy pit of despair. We were haunted by the curses of other generations. Foolish men stirred up trouble while trying to make money with freakish side-shows. As a youth, I personally witnessed a number of side-shows when the carnival came to town. What was commonly called ‘freaks’ back then, were big money to the promoters.

 It is questionable as to which had greater influence on society, but many quickened our heart-beats and made us shrink down low in our seats. No doubt we gobbled boxes of popcorn and spilled our drinks when we first saw the shocking image of a monster. Two types come to mind. The first, and perhaps the more famous of all was the Frankenstein Monster. This fellow was made up of body parts taken by creepy men sent out to help Dr. Frankenstein, a scientist, find the key to creating life. In the movie we are led to become sympathetic to this scary creature. Oh, I thought, if people only understood and gave him a chance, but alas, he was doomed to return to a fiery end. I wept for him and the sorry, if understandable, condition of mankind.    

Then there was Dracula. This blood-sucking ‘undead’ vampire preyed on a beautiful, innocent, aristocratic starlet, who if her blood veins were violated, would be destined to become a vampire herself and a slave for evil. Her father and her apparent boyfriend would fight trying to protect her when she slumbered in her chambers. Count Dracula had a trick up his sleeve. He could manifest himself into a bat and fly through the open window to the very bedside of the sweet maiden. It would take sunrise and a stake driven through his heart to neutralize this monster. We were glad when it finally happened. We felt immediate relief that the vampire was finally dead.

When Howard Carter discovered King Tuts tomb back in 1922, fashion immediately adopted Egyptian motifs and replicated artful discoveries in dress, decorations, and jewelry. Carter’s benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, who financed the dig, became ill and died just after the opening of the tomb. Others of the team quickly began to wither and die off making the public wonder if a curse was falling on those audacious enough to disturb the tomb. This seemed to be bring certain death to all involved.

When the movie was made, we watched the mummy rise from his coffin in all his wrapping, some trailing behind him as he shuffled after the tomb invaders. With one moldy hand to the throat these grave-robbers met their dreadful fate. Maybe grave diggers deserve a curse. After all, we treat sunken ships as a memorial in honor of the men who were entombed. Why wouldn’t we treat all graves the same?   

Another monster movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was merely a badly deformed human, who was agile enough to climb the parapets and up and over the gargoyles that were high upon the famous Parisian cathedral.  The hunchback’s deformity was too much for man to handle. The crowds recoiled from his appearance, finally unfairly leading to another tragic death. We convinced ourselves that we would do better if given the chance. Then again, maybe it was the nature of man to reject those who were different and it was simply survival of the fittest. I suspect that kind of thinking lowers our relative worth to that of an animal. Like a farmer, mankind culled the unsuitable hunchback from our midst. There lies the cost of non-tolerance for those who are different.      

 During that same era, we watched many others including Werewolves, Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and the Blob. There were creatures from ‘Outer space,’ and those who turned into flies, or perhaps became invisible. Imaginations soared with fake science and the public ate it up. Even today we look up when Roswell, NM is mentioned, or we hear something new about Area 51. We look for the Lock Ness monster, wonder about Sasquatch, and Bigfoot, and in our dreams, we think about a close encounter with UFO’s.   

I remember as a kid when I empathized with the giant gorilla, King Kong, who was captured during an African safari, and brought by ship to New York to be promoted in a side-show. Man’s greed and lack of respect for the captured animal was part of the tale, but the overriding fact was that the great King Kong had fallen in love with a beautiful girl played by Fay Wray. (a last-name prominent in my family) The audience was tossed between screaming and crying. Emotions flowed first out of fear, then with sympathy. The oversized ape broke loose from its chains and terrorized the City, finally climbing the Empire State Building only to be shot down by WWI era fighter planes. Our hearts hurt for the unnecessary death that should have been allowed to live within its own habitat. This proved once again the lack of understanding and character of mankind. Sadly, we went home wondering why crowds of people could not identify and find a peaceful solution. The complexities of mankind somehow allow us to shout for blood and then just as quickly turn back to empathize with the under-trodden.      

The scariest movie that I remember came out late in that era. It was taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s, ‘The Pit & the Pendulum.’ I had mistrust of the character played by Vincent Price, (an actor, art expert, and winner of the $64,000 Question program). He seemed hospitable, but insane, as he hid secrets that would come to haunt us all. A visiting brother-in-law had stopped in to find out why his sister had died in the care of his host. To protect the secret, the hero brother was taken to the dungeon and strapped to a machine having a swinging blade (pendulum) that worked closer to the prone gentleman. It would soon slice the brother-in-law two, if only little by little.

 While this dungeon experience was stressful to the audience, nothing prepared us for the shock when they suddenly flashed a picture of the dead sister’s newly opened coffin. That picture, which is burned into my memory, gave theater goers a terrible fright. There we saw the sure answer to whether the sister had been buried alive. There in front of us, the bloody claws of the corpse with its broken fingernails proved the point. It was clear that she had tried to dig through the coffin’s shredded fabric and lid, to attempt an escape. In bloody horror, her corpse lay there exposed to this young mind. I remember it had its mouth open, as if still crying out for the rescue that would never come. I was in shock, as were those around me in that dark theater. I could barely breathe as I pondered how it must have felt to be buried alive. Wait a minute… I don’t want to think about that.     

This was a time when America clambered for scary pictures. There can be little doubt that they must have been just as much fun for the producers to create. I remember that years later I was a lighting technician on a stage play, Dracula. That was fun. The special effects people back in the day were not restricted except to avoid such things that may have led to outright panic. Today’s film-makers have digital resources that can imitate whatever might be imagined. They can now take things to the point of absolute believability. The space wars, zombies, and high-speed chases appear real and come with surround sound that can pull us into the action, sometimes in 3-D. The market of darkness somehow still exists and tempts us through movies, theme parks, television, and real-looking costumes.

As for me, I’m glad we didn’t have that level of technology back in those pioneering days. Recent reruns of movies that I saw when I was growing up make me shake my head. They appear silly and highly naïve to me. They are poorly acted, and way more comical, than scary. My children and grandchildren laugh at those old movies and lose interest in favor of nearly anything else. Already in their life, they have seen much worse and have a much higher tolerance of violence. With this new level of sophistication, they are much harder to scare than the pubic was back in those early days. With the resources available to film-makers today, I’m sure a remake of some of these would be improved, but I suspect the moral embedded in the original story might be lost. They can draw the screams, but would they also draw the tears?

 Those movies taught us lessons that we have applied throughout our lives. We have hardened our outlook and doubt that there are any real ‘mont-ners.’ We do have atomic wars, terrorism, and endemic illnesses, along with an insensitivity to other people’s suffering. These are the things that threaten us today. Because I have read the last chapter of the Book, I have reason to fear the worst is yet to come. It won’t come from Hollywood and will result in gnashing of teeth and crying buckets of tears. Regardless, I have faith that we can be on the winning side when the final curtain is drawn. Pass the popcorn, please.

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Comments  

0 #1 Bernard 2018-02-03 22:37
Scary (no pun intended) article Mike. I had to chuckle a bit when reading it. Brought back lots of memories form my younger days. You mentioned Vincent Price, I agree he was very good at the scary stuff as was Lon Chaney who was a master at it too., so keep them coming & "thanks for the memories", my good friend.
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