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EEK!

Is this the promised end?” asks the good Earl of Kent, devastated, in the last scene of King Lear as Lear enters, carrying in his arms the body of the murdered Cordelia; to which Edgar adds, “Or image of that horror?” Images of horror are Twitchell’s theme in Dreadful Pleasures. He doesn’t pause over this episode, although Lear isn’t entirely absent from his pages. Images of actual horrors, of which there has been a sufficiency in modern life, are only glancingly alluded to: the victims of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, the swollen bellies of starving Ethiopian children we see on the evening news as we settle down to dinner. Nor is Twitchell concerned with the transformations wrought by art upon horrifying realities—Elephant Man is mentioned only as an instance of the genuine horrors which do not interest him here. Artificial images of horror—especially those conveyed by Gothic fictions and mass-culture films—are Twitchell’s concerns.

He notes that we are now undergoing a revival of horror in popular culture. Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette was at the top of the charts. Stephen King’s novels predictably become best sellers and film vehicles. The Bronx—not previously unknown to horror—in 1977 had an exhibition at its Museum of the Arts of “Images of Terror and Fantasy,” the descriptive catalog of which was published and widely distributed in paperback. Children are indoctrinated with “Count Chocula” and “Frankenberry” breakfast cereals. Shortly before midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, youthful audiences queue up, in costume and makeup, for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These fans have their own newsletter, The Transylvanian, and an official poster book. I only recently learned from a back issue of People magazine that we were about to have a new Bride of Frankenstein, this one directed by Franc Roddam, and offering a feminist revision of the tale; Baron Frankenstein now declares, “I might make the New Woman—independent, free, as bold as a man.” Why not? (This film, released as The Bride, came and rapidly went the past summer.) So Twitchell is onto a truly remarkable phenomenon which calls for exploration.

A specialist in Romanticism, he wrote two recent monographs, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature (1981) and Romantic Horizons: Aspects of the Sublime in English Poetry and Painting, 1770–1850 (1983).1 In The Living Dead he has an intriguing epilogue on D.H. Lawrence and the modern vampire, considering in detail Lawrence’s characterization of the Brangwen women as Lamias, or female vampires, in The Rainbow and Women in Love. But the book is concerned mainly with the previous century. For readers too anemic to face up to the 868 double-column pages of the team-written Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood (1847) Twitchell gives a compendious summary in an appendix. Varney remained the king of vampires until Bram Stoker came along with Dracula as the century drew to a close. Stoker read up on Varney and other vampire lore in the British Museum, where so many other literary adventures have had their inception. In Dracula, Stoker’s Jonathan Harker also searches through books and maps on Transylvania at the British Museum before setting out on his fateful journey through the wild Carpathian mountains. Twitchell deals with Stoker in detail in The Living Dead, and—one thing leading to another—returns to Dracula in Dreadful Pleasures.

Twitchell is nothing if not informative. He notes how, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula originated in the aftermath of nightmare. It seems that Stoker had eaten too much dressed crab at London’s Beefsteak Room. In the nightmare a monster king crab rose up from Stoker’s plate and threateningly approached him with open pincers. Stoker introduced a historical basis for Dracula after he learned, at the Museum, about Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian prince who impaled his numerous victims, thus earning the nickname “tepes,” or “the impaler.” Twitchell is not inclined to overvalue the artistic merits of Dracula. He grants that the prose is feeble, just how feeble one can see at once by looking at a passage of Stoker’s dialogue. Here is Quincey Morris, a nice young American from Texas, being courtly to Lucy Westenra: “Miss Lucy, I know I ain’t good enough to regulate the fixin’s of your little shoes, but I guess if you wait till you find a man that is you will go join them seven young women with the lamps when you quit. Won’t you just hitch up alongside of me and let us go down the long road together, driving in double harness?”

Yet the first sixty or so pages, which consist of Jonathan Harker’s journal of his visit to Count Dracula to inform the count of his new London estate, produce some powerful effects. We catch our first glimpse of Dracula’s shining white teeth protruding over his lips—both lips—and his remarkably ruddy complexion. We share Jonathan’s revulsion and fear as, from the top of a stone stair, he watches the count slowly emerging from a window of his castle and crawling lizardlike down the wall, “with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.” What manner of man is this, Jonathan wonders, or what manner of creature in the semblance of a man? One brilliant moonlit night, as Jonathan lies on his couch preparing for sleep, three young women appear: two of them with aquiline noses and large, piercing eyes; the third fair, with pale sapphire eyes and masses of golden hair. All three had gleaming white teeth against the ruby color of their voluptuous lips. (This episode was unforgettably dramatized in Tod Browning’s 1931 film which, along with James Whole’s Frankenstein of the same year—with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff—established Universal Studios as Hollywood’s preeminent maker of horror films in the early days of the talkies. Twitchell includes a still of the vampire women moving toward Jonathan in his profusely—and aptly—illustrated book.) In the ruined castle’s subterranean chapel, heavy with the odor of death, sit fifty great boxes perched on a pile of newly dug earth, with the count—asleep or dead—lying in one, his eyes open and his lips as red as ever. Feeble prose? Not in this section, at any rate.

There are other problems, mostly caused by the almost complete absence of probability or causality. Twitchell asks: “Who is this King of the Vampires? Where is he from? How did he get so rich? Why haven’t we heard of him before? Most important, why is he coming to England and why is he choosing these women, our women?” Although the text of Dracula is full of explanations, the important questions remain mysteriously unanswered. Never mind. This tale of the suavely exotic bloodsucker come from the East to prey upon British ladyfolk in the ostensible privacy of their own bedrooms is part of a deliciously bad dream.

Dracula differs from other Gothic romances in that in it we can see the modern horror story being created. Its influence, Twitchell proposes, can still be seen everywhere in a great many books and films. The tale that Stoker told has been ceaselessly retold, varied, and relocated in other genres. “I couldn’t care less about the current generation of vampires,” Twitchell wrote in the preface to The Living Dead: “Personally I find them rude, boring, and hopelessly adolescent.” Apparently he now thinks otherwise; even their puerility he now finds beguiling rather than hopeless. Twitchell, who admits that he had a deprived childhood—no creature features, no pulps—has been busy catching up. Like Macbeth, although more congenially, he has been supping full with horrors.

Early in Dreadful Pleasures Twitchell attempts a distinction between “terror” and “horror,” which tend to be conflated in the popular understanding. “Terror is external and short-lived,” he suggests; “horror is more internal and long-lasting.” Like a recurring nightmare, it doesn’t come to a conclusion; it is associated with the uncanny, the fantastic. Unlike the sadistic psychopaths and atomic mutants of terror films, the monsters of our horror myths elude explanation. They belong to the modern culture of the irrational of which Freud, himself fascinated by the attraction of horror, is high priest. In his closing pages Twitchell returns to definitions: terror aims for shock, the quest of horror is for forbidden knowledge. He is right when he complains that modern writers on horror have resisted attempting to define the term they so readily invoke, and he brings back to his task the historical awareness that attempts were made as far back as the eighteenth century to distinguish between horror and terror.

So far so good, but in practice the genres are not always so comfortably discrete. The last film Twitchell chooses to discuss (at some length) is not a traditional horror film at all, but a thriller, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which he thinks “may point us in the direction in which current horror motifs are running.” The Shining he passes over in a parenthesis with other films as one of our “most successful recent terrorshockers,” but the film is more than that. There are occult goings-on at the vast, desolate, yet somehow claustrophobic Overlook Hotel. A mirror reflects selectively, blood comes billowing out from an empty elevator, the final image of the adult Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in an old photograph eerily suggests not closure but eternal recurrence. The Shining may be superficially based on a pedestrian Stephen King novel, but subtler talents—those of Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson—wrote the screenplay.

Twitchell tells us what he is not interested in:

I am not interested in any of the “important” films, such as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dreyer’s Vampir, Browning’s Dracula, or Vadim’s Blood and Roses because, instead of advancing the myth, they promulgate one particularly self-conscious version. Art renditions tend to make the saga socially relevant, allegorical, or atmospheric, rather than just letting it play itself out. Artists like Murnau, Dreyer, Vadim, and even Browning, usually try to turn the myth away from the one thing it most assuredly is in popular culture—namely, a fairy tale. Artists are cultural architects—they don’t want to just restack the blocks of myth, they want to rearrange them, create something of their own, something interesting.

Here we part company. I go to the movies myself not so much out of curiosity about the sociological or psychological meanings of mass culture, as from a passionate interest in film art. It is precisely the artists who want to create something interesting of their own that interest me. Instead Twitchell devotes his pages (among others) to the blood-red and big-breasted offerings of Hammer studios. For a study of modern horror as an art form we will have to await another book—but its author will have learned much from Twitchell.

The anatomist of horrors must be selective or else he will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Twitchell concentrates on three monsters: Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the werewolf (considered along with that other notable transformation monster, Jekyll/Hyde). In addition to prose fiction and films he has to reckon with the theatrical productions that differed from both; for example, Thomas Sullivan’s popular stage play of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde disentangled Stevenson’s plot and made the sexual undertones explicit by introducing the winsome “Champagne” Ivy Pierson, whom Hyde brutalizes and eventually murders; women are almost entirely absent from the novella. Miriam Hopkins played this part in the deservedly celebrated 1932 Rouben Mamoulian film, which introduced new techniques into horror films: subjective camera, voice-over dialogue, the magical transformation of the doctor into the monster.

These and other of Mamoulian’s devices Twitchell mentions while insisting again that he is not interested in the director’s art. What fascinates him is the Freudian aspect of the film, in which the word “psychoanalysis” actually occurs. His approach to the subject is psychological—not surprising in a writer who has written for American Imago and The Psychoanalytic Review. Freud looms large in Dreadful Pleasures, the Freud of the “primal horde” and “family romance,” of the “universal horror of incest”; the Freud of Totem and Taboo, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and “The Uncanny.” Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976) is another valued resource. In his introduction Twitchell writes:

I hope to show that horror sequences are really formulaic rituals coded with precise social information needed by the adolescent audience. Like fairy tales that prepare the child for the anxieties of separation, modern horror myths prepare the teenager for the anxieties of reproduction. They are fantastic, ludicrous, crude, and important distortions of real life situations, not in the service of repression (though they certainly have that temporary effect), but of instruction. These fever dreams do more than make us shiver; they are fables of sexual identity. Horror myths establish social patterns not of escape, but entry. Night visitors prepare us for daylight.

This sums up well the main direction of Twitchell’s argument;2 perhaps less well his diverse and not always nocturnal side effects: Dreadful Pleasures includes not only the bats of the vampire’s Transylvania and London, but also the pink flamingos of John Waters’s Baltimore.

Twitchell devotes an entire long chapter to “The Psychological Attraction of Horror,” and although I cannot share his psychoanalytic assumptions, some of the films and stories, at least, manifestly justify a Freudian approach. Take, for instance, Forbidden Planet (1956), Fred McCleod Wilcox’s relatively neglected film spinoff—not the only one—from The Tempest.3 Shakespeare’s Caliban, the “savage and deformed slave” of the 1623 Folio dramatis personae, surely qualifies as a monster, as he is frequently described in the play. On the planet Altair, a marooned colonizer, Dr. Morbius, the Prospero figure played by Walter Pidgeon, dwells with his daughter Alta (Miranda) and serviceable robot Robbie, the film’s equivalent of Ariel, and antecedent of R2D2 of Star Wars. The monster of the film emerges from the doctor’s unconscious. “The monster is from the id,” the lieutenant of an American search party gasps, dying. “The id—what’s that?” his commander asks, and Dr. Morbius helpfully explains: the id is an “obsolete term once used to describe the elementary structure of the unconscious.” With Forbidden Planet Freud does not take us far astray.

Given the scale of his enterprise, Twitchell doesn’t miss much that may be reckoned germane to his purposes, although he can be disappointingly perfunctory. So he mentions R.B. Peake’s Presumption: Or, the Fate of Frankenstein of 1823, the earliest dramatization of the Mary Shelley novel, with the creature in blue greasepaint and playbills advertising “The striking moral exhibited in this story,…the fatal consequence of that presumption which attempts to penetrate, beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature”; but Twitchell does not go beyond citing that melodrama’s popularity as part of a double feature with Planche’s The Vampyre. 4 He knows that Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, in which the zombies make their mesmerizing walk through the high sugar cane to the voodoo ceremony in a clearing, is Charlotte Brontë’s semigothic Jane Eyre transplanted to the Caribbean. In Pink Flamingos, which features cannibalism, incest, rape, and sodomy, the leading character, Miss Divine, a 325-pound transvestite, watches a dog defecating and proceeds to put the turd in her mouth and close her lips. That no doubt qualifies as shock and horror; how it “prepares us for the daylight” would be interesting to explain.

Unsurprisingly, Twitchell also deals with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, produced on a shoestring, which has been described as the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh. It had the dubious compliment of being remade as hard-core porn with the naked living and dead having a grand climactic orgy. Twitchell includes—rightly, I think—Albert Lewin’s soporific The Picture of Dorian Gray for MGM; he mentions the leap into color at the end of this black-and-white film to show the picture itself, but says nothing about Ivan Albright’s remarkable painting. The stunning impact of the portrait, in a movie made forty years ago, remains vivid.

In a passage near the end of his book, Twitchell exhibits in his modern bestiary what (as he not too solemnly remarks) Detroit might bill as the “downsizing” of the monster product: the pint-sized vehicle for traditionally horrific acts, mother’s little darlings as perpetrators of evil. Here he touches upon Mervyn Le Roy’s The Bad Seed, a pedestrian Fifties film of an equally pedestrian Maxwell Anderson play, but not on Lillian Hellman’s earlier and still powerful The Children’s Hour (1934), with the fearsome brat Mary Tilford. Hellman herself wrote the film script. Called These Three, it starred Miriam Hopkins, and was released in 1936. (The Children’s Hour was filmed again, under its original title, by William Wyler a quarter of a century later.)

In his discussion of the Wolf Man, Twitchell includes the lycanthrope—the madman who suffers from the delusion that he is actually a wolf. I thought he had perhaps overlooked John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, which introduces such matters:

One met the duke ‘bout midnight in a lane
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howled fearfully;
Said he was a wolf, only the difference
Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,
His on the inside.

But no, Twitchell quotes this passage, which appears in a great clump of discursive notes at the back of the book, where it is a real struggle to resist the temptation to ignore them altogether (mere citations are included in the text). Such notes, which an author does well to avoid as much as possible, belong at the foot of the page. Twitchell, in any case, does not appear to know the tragedy very well. He talks of a “nefarious noble,” which Duke Ferdinand certainly is, but Twitchell also says, “We never meet the maniac on stage.” We do—Ferdinand is the Duchess’s brother, and a principal character in the play. The incestuous underpinnings of his malevolence toward his own sister have understandably occasioned critical comment in this century; Twitchell’s oversight is all the more regrettable in view of his interest in incest motifs.

Still, the range of Dreadful Pleasures is astonishing, and testifies to Twitchell’s concern, already evident from his previous book, for visual arts other than film. He begins with the monster forms in the prehistoric caves of southern France and northern Spain, discusses the salons noirs, and remarks also on Edvard Munch’s unsettling The Scream and the equally unsettling distorted bodies of Francis Bacon’s Triptych at the Hirshhorn Museum. He gives eleven illustrated pages to Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, which still has the power to shock as it charts the decline and fall of the aptly surnamed Tom Nero as he moves from an urban slum to The First Stage of Cruelty and finally to the anatomist’s dissection table in The Reward of Cruelty. Twitchell sees Hogarth as giving form in these engravings to what eventually would become the staples of modern horror, images of human perversity and transformation. He argues his case strongly, noting that in a manuscript gloss at the British Library, Hogarth alludes to his “in Terrorem” technique which can affect “even the most strong hearts.”

Twitchell is capable of writing eloquently, but his prose could, in general, be more fastidious. He declares at one point that “dreck abounds”; elsewhere “schlock” is said to be plentiful. There are rather a lot of frissons and damsels. Twitchell uses “repulsed” where a nicer stylist might prefer “disgusted” or the like. He lets by such a redundancy as “throughout the entire,” uses “dissembling” where I suspect he wants “disassembling,” and “chauvinistic” in the modern colloquial sense of “male chauvinist.” One finds “cannot help but” and occasional misspellings: “wonderous,” “miniscule.” But such lapses are themselves infrequent; in Dreadful Pleasures Twitchell has given us an offbeat and ambitious piece of work. It’s not perfect, but, as the Joe E. Brown character says at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.” The book makes most other treatments of horror themes—such items as Calvin Thomas Beck’s Heroes of the Horrors and Scream Queens: Heroines of the Horrors seem trivial.

  1. 1

    The Living Dead (Duke University Press, 1981); Romantic Horizons (University of Missouri Press, 1983).

  2. 2

    So well that the publisher reproduces it in part on the dust jacket, along with (among others) a memorable still of Max Schreck as Count Orlock in Murnau’s Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror, despite the fact that this extraordinary film itself is not discussed in Dreadful Pleasures.

  3. 3

    Jack Jorgens fails to mention Forbidden Planet in his fairly comprehensive Shakespeare on Film (1971).

  4. 4

    See the useful article on Peake’s Presumption by Steven Earl Forry in Theatre Notebook (1985), pp. 99–103, which appeared too late for Twitchell to consult.

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