Vampires: Love Bites
We can’t seem to get enough of these sexy blood-drinking heartthrobs. From Bela Lugosi and Buffy to Twilight and True Blood, they’re the undead objects of desire and symbols of immortal beauty. Vampires, a popular eastern European nightmare, first arrived to America with the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which became a popular stage play and the classic 1931 film starring Lugosi. The film tapped into American’s anxieties about immigration, sexual danger and even social class. By the 1980s, vampires played a role in both sexual politics and the plastic surgery revolution (remember, vampires never age).
Zombies: We Can’t Get Enough of Them and They Can’t Get Enough of Us
The flesh-eating zombie now edges out the vampire as American culture’s most popular monster. Unlike almost every other American horror narrative, this is a homegrown terror. George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead took them out of their Caribbean context and made them into something new, an unstoppable force of American apocalyptic mayhem. Into a culture obsessed with the preservation of youth, beauty and blemish-free skin, the zombie comes shambling with rotting flesh and the scent of death. In an America obsessed with its eating habits, zombies are little more than eating machines. In a society we think is secure, the zombies bring apocalypse and the end of the world as we know it. Maybe we love them because they are endless, ravenous bringers of satire, critiquing our values and feeding hungrily on our worst anxieties.
Virginia Dare: Shapeshifter
Somewhere along the way, most Americans learn about “The Lost Colony of Roanoke” and little Virginia Dare, first English babe born in the New World. But few have ever heard of how Virginia Dare became one of America’s first shapeshifters. Legend has it that a Native American shaman, angry that Dare had spurned him, transformed her into a powerful White Deer that could only be killed by a magic arrow. This story borrowed a strand from a Native American myth about “Deer Woman,” a seductive and frightening creature that lived in the darkest reaches of the American wilderness.
Aliens Invade Earth! And Turn Us Into Communists! And Make Us Wear Gray Flannel Suits!
Even as Post-World War II America celebrated it’s economic prosperity, it worried deeply about the threat of communism, the potential of atomic war and radioactive fallout and the dangers of conformity. Films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned of the “pod people” next door while J. Edgar Hoover warned of communists hiding behind, well, everything. Alien invasion and contact narratives became a way for Americans to deal with these anxieties. Not only did invading aliens become the most common monsters in the 1950s, they also appeared in the era’s folktales and even its religious movements. “Flying Saucer” sightings became common and some small religious groups came to see extraterrestrials as the last hope for a doomed planet. And you thought everybody was just down at the drive-in listening to Bobby Vee.
Serial Killers: On the Prowl
These monsters are real. Serial murder, once known as “stranger killings,” became an object of deep cultural fascination in the 1990s, in part because of the popularity of the slasher genre and the box office success of 1994’s Silence of the Lambs. But were there ever as many serial killers as people feared? Did even law enforcement overestimate their numbers? The serial killer panic may actually have had more to do with the culture wars and the culture of celebrity than a real threat to most Americas. In fact, some politicians used the image of the serial killer for their own ends — an image of deviance that helped advance their own moral and religious agendas.
Satan: The Devil You Say?
Boss of all Bosses, Greatest Monster of them all, the Prince of Darkness himself …. the Devil. From the Salem Witch trials to 1980s urban legends about “Satanists,” Old Scratch has been a constant source of terror and moral panic in the United States. So why did it take him so long to become a movie star? Horror films in the 1930s and 40s only lightly alluded to him, perhaps in fear of offending religious sensibilities. Then, in the late 1960s, this fallen angel became box office gold with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, The Exorcist in 1974 and The Omen in 1976 — all films that alluded to the anxieties of this chaotic period of American history, especially in relation to the sexual revolution. They even heavily influenced the growth of the religious right in the 1970s, providing imagery of an America besieged by the forces of darkness.