Screen writer Henry Myers (DIPLOMANIACS) on horror movies, in THE SCREEN WRITER (1946):
WEIRD AND WONDERFUL
We all thought, 'way back in 1 942, that the Horror-picture - the "Weirdy" - was through. Who could be interested in a Dracula when the world contained a Hitler?
Well, we were wrong. The Weirdy showed a surprising and unprecedented popularity. We had Double-Horror bills, Triple-Horror bills, All-Horror bills. How did we make such a mistake?
A cynic might say that we are fiends at heart and that the Nazi brute was secretly appealing to the Mr. Hyde who lurks within us. But we are not fiends and have no such slumbering beasts in our bosoms, or we would feel kinship for the Nazi monster instead of banding together to kill it.
Did we then underestimate the Weirdy, failing to perceive some obscure, mystical fascination which it exercises? But there is no such unknown ingredient. Weirdies are written and assembled by people who know their business, who can correctly gauge each scene, through much actual experiment.
Say rather, we underestimated the war. It took a while to feel that we were in it. It was far-off, geographically and emotionally. We were not cynical or callous but as picture-people we regarded it at first only as we habitually regarded everything: in terms of its effectiveness. We got over our detachment quickly and the record shows how magnificently the Industry did its part, but at the beginning we were creatures of professional habit. To us, the public were so many drama-critics, who contemplated Hitler in his castle in Berchtesgaden and Dracula in his castle in Styria and set one against the other, weighing them for their respective, horrid fascination.
Of course the public did not consider all the world a stage, as we did, but differentiated between a horror and a play about a horror. We were so used to that word "play" that we forgot its meaning: "making believe." The public did not take our playing as seriously as we did; they did not confuse it with the real thing. But to us there seemed to be a paradox, of audiences viewing screened horror as an escape from Axis horror.
Besides our philosophic mistake, we were guilty of an artistic mistake. The Weirdies did not convey as much horror as we thought they did. Their subject-matter was terribly out of date. What the stage did in 1900 with the aid of green spotlights, the screen was trying to do in 1942 with the aid of filters. Supposedly preternatural terrors such as were-wolves and vampires, and supposedly pseudo-scientific terrors such as mad scientists and inventors, were already seeming childish to the discriminating, - a preliminary symptom of general unpopularity. Many Weirdy-habitues were not really upset by the procession of ghouls, robots and assorted incubi, as was shown by the occasional laughs they evoked; it was as if spectators mocked the notion of being scared by such conceits, or if they were scared, knew that they ought to know better. True, the laughs were scattered and the audience got some sort of chill, so there were packed houses and plenty of profit; but there was a time when there would have been no laughs at all. That was the time, some 50 years ago, when the Haunted Castle, the Curse and the Last of the Mad, Mad Murgatroyds were horrors appropriate to their era, as they are inappropriate to ours.
This appropriateness of horror can only exist if it is founded on some actual condition in contemporary society. Not a superficial condition either, but one imbedded in the very structure of society. Consider those horror-stories par excellence: Grimm's Fairy-Tales. The witches in them are horrible, the giants are horrible, the wicked step-mothers are horrible, all that feudal residue of Norse Mythology is horrible; but by far the most horrible of all, dwarfing the rest in its really shuddering dread, is metamorphosis - being turned into something which you are not. To lose one's self! This must have been the most terrifying conception of the Middle Ages. Except for the King and the nobles, yourself was all you had. Oh horror insupportable, to be deprived of it! To be removed from your little family circle wherein alone you really lived! To be unrecognized by your parents, by your friends, by your girl! To be a tree, or a frog, or a statue, conscious of the familiar human activity going on all about you but unable to partake it! Here was a fear that was easy to experience - in 1445. But not in 1945. Darwin showed how we really change, and spoiled the fun. To believe today that a man turns into a wolf, you have to be very gullible, or very co-operative, or very excited, or very drunk.
By Queen Victoria's day, the appropriate horrors were considerably altered, and we may say that our 1776 had helped change them, by making kings and nobles seem something of an anachronism. The "Gothic" school of literature - so-called from a mistaken notion that it re-created Gothic times - took as its hero a nobleman, young, handsome, sad, - and decaying. He was the last of his line, or he was under a curse, or his castle was haunted. The past was an important ingredient and was awful and remote. He had some dread secret, entrusted only to the keeping of the nobly great, which he shared with the moon and a ghostly ancestor who met him on a crumbling battlement where, long ago, the blood was spilled that now cried for mediaeval vengeance. It was fine stuff for the snobbish middle-class, who liked to feel at one with that departing grandeur and be sad because it was on the way out. Such tales are occasionally written to-day, but usually as comedies. If they are done seriously, the audience may laugh anyway. The absolute breaking-point is 50 minutes.
But if the Weirdy's plot was dated, how do we account for its undiminished popularity? If the basic horror no longer has contemporary social roots, why didn't this kind of picture disappear?
Well, it did. The cycle which Universal started about 1932, of which "Dracula" was the first, has disappeared. With rare exceptions, you will not see the Gothic school on to-day's screen. There still are pictures which the studios call Horrors or Weirdies, but their content is new, their approach is new, their appeal is new. The ball is not carried any longer by Universal, but by RKO, and we might say that the quarterback is a rather unusual producer named Val Lewton, whose pictures are becoming known as "Lewtons" by a growing circle of devotees. They are extremely successful and also extremely economical, relying on idea and treatment rather than expensive investiture. They rate a brief examination for their excellent technique and fruitful approach.
Strictly speaking, the "Lewtons" are not Weirdies at all, although the Industry continues to call them that. Lewton does not start work by asking: "How can we scare an audience?" because the only answer to that is the old, fading array of Gothic devices, no better than suddenly yelling "Boo!" Instead he selects bizarre subjects and treats each in the way it individually should go, with an eye to modern attitudes and beliefs and, above all, modern human relationships.
The first of the series, "The Cat People," was a transition from the "Boo!" school to the modern. Its theme was our old friend Metamorphosis and it suggested that the heroine might — not did, but might — turn into a panther. The setting was not a castle in Styria, (pun: "Styriatyed") but a cheerful modern New York apartment, with a pleasant nearby park containing a very realistic public menagerie. It was a study in characterizing, not in horrifying, and whatever chills and thrills the audience got were derived from the over-all suggestion that she might turn into a panther if you wanted to believe that she did. There was no shot taken in which the metamorphosis was shown, yet many people insisted they had seen it happen.
The second, "The Curse of the Cat People" had nothing to do with either cats or curses, being so named because the huge success of the first picture made such a title saleable; but there was a tenuous connection through the dead heroine of picture Number One, who appeared, ghost-like, in double exposures in Number Two. This picture was definitely not a horror. It was a phantasy of great charm and delicacy, about a little girl and a friend she had imagined for herself. It was a Weirdy only in the sense that the child's imaginings were of a dead woman, so that the latter was, maybe, maybe, maybe, if you really insisted on taking it so, a ghost. The third picture, "The Ghost Ship" explored the mad egotism of a steamer's captain, with no preternatural overtones but the ancient echoes of the sea.
I think the trick of these, if trick it is, lies in the casual inclusion of items that were once held mystical and malefic, while the real concentration is upon character development and the viewpoint of the modern world. Through not asking "How can I scare an audience?" you scare them indeed; by not evoking their modern resistance to the unreal, you let them scare themselves, each with his own private phobia. This new treatment of old props is exemplified in Lewton's handling of the Negro character. There is no superstitious dread, no grotesque rolling of white eyeballs in black foreheads. The Negroes are treated with dignity, as people of modern knowledge; thus we become conscious of the outmoded nonsense about them and feel that both they and we have outgrown a dark and ignorant past.
If I may make a wild guess about the nature of the post-War Weirdy, I should say it will be about things that really will scare us then because they will reflect society's deepest concerns. What greater fear will there be than the fear of Fascism's return? Think of a furtive, malevolent, underground organization of Nazis, worshipping a dead Hitler with pagan rites. Somewhere in the Black Forest, they plan the day when they may return to earth. They are ghouls who would prey on their fellows, so there is a horrid suggestion of cannibalism as a ritualistic symbol, and their swastika is a talisman of ill portent, whose spell would drag us all back to Mediaeval times. Over all broods the spirit of a dead yesterday that is, of 1945.