The Inevitable Resurgence of Monster Movies

Of course Godzilla vs. Kong is the biggest movie of the year. Of course it’s provided a much-needed shot of adrenaline in a beleaguered theatrical industry on the verge collapse. Of course we should have seen it coming. And no, it’s not just because of timing with the vaccine rollout, or the marketing spend on the movie.

60 normal-ish years, and a full pandemic year ago, Susan Sontag wrote a brilliant essay on Cold War-era fantasy that began with: “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly, opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.”[1] From there she posits that film (and specifically fantasy) serves as the oh-so-important catharsis that keeps us from falling into real-life (IRL) existential dread, which, in hindsight, feels either entirely sage-like, or, well, dated: Do we really need movies when we have Tik Tok and The Last of Us? Absolutely!

Considering our shared history with film, this should come as no surprise: audiences often face intangible dangers in their lives through on-screen heroes who defeat very tangible on-screen evils. Although in the past this has manifested in many iconic characters, genres, and tropes — from the broken-hero noirs of the post-World War 2 years, to the simplified good vs. evil morality post-Vietnam (i.e. Rocky, Star Wars)[2], to the rise of post-9/11 superhero movies that rewrote the tragedies of the past[3] — nothing has brought to life our anxieties in a physical form, quite like the monster movie.[4]

From its ascendance into pop culture in the early Twentieth Century, horror films have always been inextricably linked with real-world tragedy. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a monumental release that, not only found huge popularity in theaters across Europe and the United States, but also defined horror imagery for a century to come, confronted the audience with their own World War 1-fueled anxieties. The jagged city skylines, inspired by the German expressionist movement of the same era, invoke a warped perception of reality that mirrored the deteriorating social conditions in the urban landscapes of Europe.[5] Meanwhile, the subject of the film, a somnambulist who travels the land preying on innocent women, plays off a collective fear of the other, which of course was front-of-mind for war-ravaged European audiences.

Shortly after the release of Caligari came Nosferatu in 1922, which took the classic portrayal of Dracula, and imbued it with the same reality-bending expressionism, along with a post-Spanish Flu fear of pandemic. The blunt portrayal of the residents in the village entering quarantine, afraid of even opening their windows for fear of the virus that lurks out in the open, feels as topical (or, I’m sure, on the nose) now as it did then. The vampire, who is the source of the mass death, became a direct manifestation of these pandemic fears. And while the Spanish Flu devastated audiences around the world, the same audiences embraced the opportunity to see the source of the on-screen disease, swiftly (and easily) destroyed. The film was a massive world-wide success.

A decade later, the United States had plummeted into the Great Depression, and with the crisis came a resurgence of the horror film with the soon-to-be-evergreen titles Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931). Although the two iconic stories deal with a number of issues and fears, the undercurrents that directly addressed the economic disparity of the times and gave despondent audiences a chance to experience catharsis, made the films global phenoms. The cleansing effect of the audience seeing themselves defeating the monsters is not to be understated: After the shock of seeing Frankenstein kill a child, the monster is trapped and burned alive by a mob of villagers; A win for the everyman.

Meanwhile, in the post-World War 2 era, audiences were once again forced to reckon with a new invisible threat: the atomic era that they were thrust into with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Godzilla (1954) ushered in a new era of monsters, ones that indiscriminately destroyed the cities that stood in their wake, just as the atomic bomb had done less than a decade prior. A string of kaiju movies followed including Mothra and Rodan, while American audiences manifested their own fears of this invisible new force called atomic energy with movies like THEM! (1954) about giant radioactive ants or the slightly smaller Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) who, after being exposed to radioactive energy, shrinks to nothingness.

In seeing this destruction on screen and living through it, we are participating in the survival of the hero; The fantasy that, confronted with a similar situation, we can survive, too.

What horror gives audiences is a way to face death, and then defeat death. It’s a manifestation of all the invisible ails and fears of the modern working class — from not being able to afford the basic means of survival, to losing loved ones to a seemingly omniscient force. Now is the time to be manifesting these fears into on-screen monsters that we can survive and that we can defeat.

Although it didn’t set out to be, Godzilla vs. Kong is the culmination of our pandemic-born fears. The two giant monsters fight each other with complete disregard to the tiny humans that surround them, mimicking our own inability to impact or slow down the monstrous force that’s ravaged our world for the last year.

In the movie, on the one hand, we see the absolute destruction of Hong Kong (not really a spoiler, you knew it was coming…) and the presumed death of hundreds of thousands of people (that we don’t see or acknowledge), but simultaneously we have the survival of characters who really don’t have to do much to survive. As active as these characters seem, their actions don’t amount to much — the fight is not theirs, it’s King Kong’s and Godzilla’s.

Meanwhile, as politics and social media algorithms continue to sew divisiveness in the world around us, the simplified morality of Godzilla vs. Kong becomes cathartic in its own way. At least at the outset, we are presented with the force of good, Kong, and a force of evil, Godzilla. Our sympathy is aligned with Kong and while the characters in the movie don’t contribute much, their small victories in helping Kong ultimately save the world. But even beyond a clear rooting interest, the true evil is the articulated destruction on such a massive scale. Stopping this destruction by any means necessary is what unifies the characters, as well as the audience.

And of course audiences came back to see it in movie theaters even though it’s streaming (for free!) on HBO Max (with a subscription!), because it’s hard to think of a more a-political space than a movie theater: In consuming the same material and surviving the same battles, we are collectively experiencing the same victories. Especially when the grandiosity of these victories is displayed in such a large format.

Lastly, although these monsters may be defeated, they always hint to us that they could have survived. They themselves become figures of transcendence and resurrection: something that can’t be killed. Despite all the fears and anxieties that we’ve infused into these creatures, we ultimately leave knowing that we have to live with (and survive) their existence. There’s an optimism to this message — since we’ve watched our on-screen heroes do it, we can do it, too.

Monster movies are a way to create unity. Through collective on-screen trauma, to on-screen survival, we are exorcising the very real fears and anxieties that we live with every day. So, if we can survive King Kong and Godzilla, we can certainly survive whatever’s threatening our real-world existence. And that’s worth the price of admission.

[1] https://americanfuturesiup.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/sontag-the-imagination-of-disaster.pdf

[2] https://www.vox.com/2015/5/19/8577803/avengers-age-of-ultron-review-politics

[3] https://www.tor.com/2017/08/22/the-marvel-cinematic-universe-confronts-terrorism/

[4] https://pharosmagazine.org/2020/04/10/the-power-of-monsters-examining-power-dynamics-in-the-universal-horror-films-of-the-30s/

[5] https://www.ukessays.com/essays/film-studies/critical-analysis-of-cabinet-of-dr-caligari.php

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