It is the summer of 1975. The lights dim, the previews pass, the popcorn bags rustle, and audiences settle down into their chairs, excited to watch a movie. As they sit, there is a pervasive feeling in the theater – an anxious buzz. This movie will touch their most primal fears and, at the same time, be as much fun as a roller coaster. The movie is JAWS. Flash forward to today and once again, audiences settle into their chairs. Lights dim, previews pass and popcorn bags rustle. Excitement fills the movie theater. This time it’s Jurassic World. Forty years ago, a version of this story was told – a monster (or monsters in the case of Jurassic World) runs amok and munches on a good number of people. Yet, here they are today, paying good money to see that story again. But audiences don’t care. They just can’t help themselves. The monster movie keeps drawing them back.
Monster movies have been a part of film history for close to a century. From the mid 1920’s to early 30’s, American movie houses thrilled audiences with films like The Phantom of the Opera, The Lost World, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. As we reflect upon each decade right up until today, the monster movie remains a constant. Whether it’s been a giant gorilla, a gloopy blob, a tiny gremlin, an out-of-this-world alien, a creature from the Black Lagoon or a human fly, audiences have delighted in watching these monsters wreak havoc on their brethren.
So, what is it about monster movies that keeps audiences coming back for more? Jurassic World has just been released and it’s swallowing up the competition at the box office. The monster movie is big business. So what keeps drawing us in?
At the most surface level, the answer is the monster itself. Whether it’s a computer generated dinosaur or a gigantic mechanical shark, audiences want to see what the modern magicians who make movies can come up with. What will their imagination breed next to dazzle and surprise us. The monster is the star and we applaud it for doing what it must. We don’t want the monster to win; heaven forbid. but we do desperately want to see it crunch and munch its way to the film’s conclusion. Then, and only then, can the monster get what’s coming to it.
As we delve a little deeper, we see our more curious nature comes out when watching a monster movie. If you drive past a car accident, most people will slow down and take a closer look at the carnage. People just can’t help themselves. There is something that compels us to watch someone else in distress. Filmmakers know this and they let us watch the death of innocents, and those not so innocent, from safe confines of a movie theater. It’s this safe environment that lets us say hello to a sinister part of ourselves.
Going deeper still to find the answer, we touch on a much darker human trait – fear. More specifically, the fear that we are truly vulnerable in this mad world. Although we might think we are in control of our daily lives, we really aren’t. Sure, we don’t have to fight off a legion of zombies or a gigantic lizard rising from the ocean, but life itself is full of peril. Night after night, the news bombards us with anxiety-inducing stories – murder, environmental disasters, plane crashes, and terrorism. It’s enough to make you never want to leave the house. But we all do. We all brave the great unknown every day. Monster movies remind us of our vulnerability, albeit in a fun way. They let us know we aren’t impervious to bad things happening. In fact, they remind us of our own mortality.
Furthermore, monster movies teach us that only the most virtuous will survive. In most monster movies, only the best of us, the ones who are not only in it for themselves, are the most redeemable and stand a chance not only at surviving, but defeating the monster itself. Remember Alien? Ripley risks her own life to go back and rescue Jones the cat while she could easily become the next victim of that acid-dripping, double-mouthed alien. In this simple act, she shows the audience she’s a person of quality and deserves to live. Now, the lawyer obsessed with money sitting on the toilet in Jurassic Park – he has a much different fate. He deserves to be an appetizer for the T-Rex. As with slasher movies where the female virgin ends up surviving, there is a slice of the morality tale in the monster movie. The more virtuous you are, the better chance you have of surviving to the film’s final act. The monster tests our heroes,it tests their mettle, and happily, a few of them are worthy enough to survive and live another day in a potential sequel.
Monster movies are here to stay. They are an enjoyable ride that let us tap into the darkness that lies deep within.
Of course, there will be blood. And we love monster movies for it.