Category Archives: Scary Scholarship

From the archive: Targets

targetsposter

For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

karloff-targets

The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

targets-1968-villain

The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Final Girls Week: The slasher film is dead; long live the slasher film!

We kick off Meta-Horror Month with Final Girls week, or technically films and novels which  deliberately reference Carol Clover’s concept of the Final Girl.

Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is considered a landmark work in film criticism and is largely responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of the horror genre as more than an expression of misogyny. Naturally, horror writers and directors love her for it. S&Man (2006), a faux documentary on faux snuff films, features extensive interviews with Clover regarding the popularity of the subgenre. Another film, the horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), repeatedly refers to her theories. Slam poet Daphne Gottlieb converted Clover’s theory into poetry in her Final Girl collection. 

And yet, there has been a virtual explosion of films and novels in the last two years that use the phrase “final girl” or a close variant in the title. With Clover’s book being 25 years old, why did this take so long?

Perhaps more writers and filmmakers are familiar with Clover’s work now than when it was fresh and timely. Let’s face it, post 9-11 horror, and torture films in particular, blew most of the tropes discussed by Clover out of the water. 

Another reason for this resurgence is that the classic 1980’s-style slasher film is dead. The story has been mined from every angle, until is has absolutely nothing new to offer. Sure, people in my age bracket have a certain nostalgia for the slasher film. But these films just aren’t scary anymore. While many people saw Wes Craven’s Scream series as a revitalization of the genre, I saw it as a sign that the genre was in serious trouble. As smart as that series was, it chose to parody and mock the slasher film rather than add something new to it. We are now at a point in time in which Clover’s theories are more interesting than the films themselves. So why play with the remains of a dead genre in an act of cinematic necrophilia when one can make a film about the genre’s analysis instead?

Come back soon for a review of the new Riley Sager novel, Final GIrls. In the meantime, read my review of Clover’s book here.

August is Meta Month!

 

This month, Todd and I celebrate our birthdays. It is also the birth month of one of our horror heroes, H.P. Lovecraft! 

What better way to celebrate our birth month than to make it all about ourselves, and by extension, celebrate meta horror films and novels, and a bit of Lovecraftian horror too!

“Meta” is a term that is thrown around a lot, but many people don’t know the proper definition. Dictionary.com helpfully offers the following definitions:

“meta-

1.

a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings“after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive inEnglish on the Greek model:

metacarpus; metagenesis.
 

2.

a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level:

metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.
 

3.

a prefix added to the name of something that consciously referencesor comments upon its own subject or features:

a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.”
 
 
Urban Dictionary offers other helpful examples as how “meta” pertains to the arts. For instance, a footnote that contains its own explanatory footnote, or a film about filmmakers making a movie which itself is about the film industry, or anything with so many layers of abstraction as to become mid-bending.
 

Image from tvtropes.org

 
It’s a common misconception that meta-horror originated in the 1990s, but I’m here to set the record straight, my little cephalopods. The 1990s may have popularized the narrative style in our lifetime, but it has existed for centuries, popping up cyclically when a genre is seemingly in its death throes.
 

From Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

 
This is a big problem with horror, which tends to use the same tropes and core narratives over and over. When a genre recycles its own ideas so relentlessly, and overtly pays homage to the films and stories that came before, much of it is arguably meta. 
 
 
So for my purposes, I’m going to limit my discussion of meta-horror to those works which self-consciously reference academic works about the horror genre, and those works which are determined to rupture reality itself. We are talking about works that make real people into fictional characters, postmodern arguments that fiction is as real as reality, and narratives that cause readers to be lost in a hall of mirrors.
 

John Trent reads between the lines in In the Mouth of Madness

Men, Women, and Chainsaws: essential reading for every horror fan

Today, I’m reviewing the scholarly book that every horror fan and has to read. Carol. J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is hands down the most important work of horror film criticism, and one of the most important works of film criticism, period. Prior to this book, horror was either ignored by “serious” critics and scholars, or condemned as hopelessly misogynistic. Men, Women, and Chainsaws did a lot to legitimize the genre and argue for feminist subtexts in the horror films of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. Clover also argued against the notion that the predominantly male audiences of the time identified with the (usually) male killer, stating that audience members identified across gender lines and with the surviving female character.

Clover is  perhaps the only academic author to influence horror filmmakers in a signifiant way, and even appeared in the pseudo-documentary S&Man (Sandman). If you are wondering why there are films and novels with titles like The Final Girls (2015, dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson), Final Girl (2015, dir. Tyler Shields), Final Girls: A Novel (2017, author Riley Sager), The Last Final Girl (2012, author Stephen Graham), Final Girls (2017, author Mira Grant), and Last Girl Standing (2016, dir. Benjamin R. Moody), it’s because of Carol Clover. In the chapter, “Her Body, Himself,” Clover coined the term “Final Girl” to describe the lone female survivor of slasher films. Usually the Final Girl is virginal, tomboyish, and more resourceful than her peers.

While the Final Girl concept is the most referenced and recognized aspect of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the rest of the book is important as well. In “Opening Up,” Clover explores gender role subversion in supernatural horror films, as well as racial politics along the lines of “Black Magic” vs. “White Science” (think of The Serpent and the Rainbow as a prime example of this). The chapter “Getting Even” explores rape-revenge films, particularly I Spit on Your Grave, one of the most unfairly reviled and condemned films of its type. The final chapter, “The Eye of Horror,” discusses the role of voyeurism in the enjoyment of horror and the issue of viewer identification with killers and victims.

Men, Women, and Chainsaws is now 25 years old. While many aspects of the book are still relevant today, the horror genre has gone in new directions, sometimes creating new subgenres that are now likewise being unfairly dismissed and condemned. Clover’s book is a vital reminder that there needs to be ongoing engagement with and analysis of the horror genre as it evolves.

Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS”

 

Although it’s enjoyed popularity due to frequent references on True Detective: Season 1, Thomas Ligotti’s first and only non-fiction work, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, is not bound for approval by the masses. Ligotti is all too aware of this fact. As he states in the introduction, “As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: ‘If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal.’ ” While a promising series, even True Detective could not maintain Ligotti’s worldview. In the first season finale, die-hard pessimist Rustin Cohle has a benevolent vision of the afterlife and is converted to a more socially acceptable worldview. Ligotti would never pen such an ending, in his fiction or otherwise.

Early in the book, Ligotti rhetorically asks if life is worth living, to which he answers his own question with a resounding NO. Drawing from diverse sources including philosophy, psychology, neurobiology, and selected religious texts, Ligotti makes a compelling argument to support this claim that human existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (his emphasis). Although Ligotti does explore varieties of theistic determinism (see also my previous post on Calvinism), and doesn’t seem to entirely dismiss the possibility of a  malevolent Higher Power manipulating us like human puppets, his own view is atheistic. According to Ligotti, we are “Nature’s blunders,” programed by our genetics and evolution to have no free will, yet evolve to develop consciousness, which serves no good purpose. It merely provides us with the illusion of having a self, and constantly reminds us of our own inevitable demise. The “Conspiracy” of the title is committed by the human race against the human race. That is, we lie to ourselves and others that life is worth living, and by reproducing, we doom future generations to needless suffering.

In case you wonder how this book fits in with Apocalypse Month, I include it because he offers suggestions to proactively correct Nature’s blunder of giving us consciousness: “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?” Ligotti provides suggestions. The mildest solution would be to strive for ego-death, as advocated by Buddhism. Alternately, we could willingly opt to gradually reduce the population into extinction by instituting a one child per couple policy, or all all of us could decide to stop reproducing altogether. The most extreme solution would be for us to leave the planet, and before exterminating ourselves, blow up Earth from outer space to prevent Nature from ever making such as mistake ever again.

Ligotti’s views are bound to be censured or dismissed outright. Paradoxically, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is sometimes comforting. I doubt that was the intended effect. I’ll explain. My favorite section of the book is the chapter “Cult of the Grinning Martyrs,” which is really about the cult of positive thinking. Ligotti is in part influenced by Schopenhauer, whom he quotes, “I cannot here withhold the statement that optimism, where it is not merely the thoughtless talk of those who harbor nothing but words under their shallow foreheads, seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked, way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the most unspeakable sufferings of mankind.” Our culture is relentlessly “bright-sided“to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term. Our society doesn’t merely favor optimism, but actively suppresses and marginalizes those who recognize the negative side of human existence. Between positive psychology and the Law of Attraction, we take it up one end or down the other. We are forced to actively lie to ourselves about things that cause us pain, either pretending these things don’t exist, actively lying to ourselves and everyone around us about these realities, or, well, looking for the “bright side.” Only a vision as dark and uncompromising as Ligotti’s could serve as a counterbalance to this trend, but it’s strange that such a malignant work could be so gorgeously written.

Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (book review)

Steve Finbow’s book Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia  is one that I wish I had known of while drafting my own chapter for Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, however, it went under my radar during my initial lit review and subsequent revisions.

Finbow has a unique approach of moving seamlessly from real-life case studies to fictional narratives and back again, weaving them together with a variety of theoretical discourse. Because there is nothing to mark the transition between real and fictional examples (aside from consulting the end-notes), I foresee mishaps for rushed researchers. For example, a hapless undergraduateswriting a research paper and could easily misattribute a quote by fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman of American Psycho to Ted Bundy.

My favorite section of the book, and what would have been relevant to my chapter in Understanding Necrophilia, is Finbow’s discussiom of hyperrealism and simulacra in the context of the pornography use of necrophiliac serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen. Dahmer and Nilsen had remarkably similar behaviors in terms of pornography consumption, in their tendency to create homemade pornographic images their victims, and in their pattern of dismembering victims and using parts as masturbatory aids. Finbow observes:

…the object aethetized or eroticized is fundamentally dead, it has no being apart from its image, the image of and over which one masturbates, replacing the object with its copy…the body becoming rejectamenta, the person no longer, just something to be used and then to be disposed of. For Dahmer/Nilsen, living human beings were simulacra, they were copies of copies  of copies of objects of desire to be mut(il)ated into yet more copies until the subjects (torn, tattered, erased, decomposed) had to be disposed of, annihilated, or turned into things (p.133, Kindle edition).

As the passage above indicates, Grave Desire may not be reader-friendly for those unaccustomed to this type of academic writing, but I do recommend it for those interested in cultural theories of necrophilia.

Review: Understanding Necrophilia

For this edition of Scary Scholarly Saturday, we are going to look at the anthology Understanding Necrophilia: A Global Multidisciplinary Approach, edited by Drs. Lee Mellor, Anil Aggrawal, and Eric Hickey. I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased in my review, because I authored the chapter “Objects of Desire: Necroeroticism in Mainstream Pornography.” I won’t go into detail about my own chapter (you can read the supplemental material here), other than to say that I did my best to ensure that I was the villain this anthology deserved. I’m so pleased and honored that my first print publication is in a collection alongside chapters by those listed above, as well as other personal heroes including Katherine Ramsland, Michael Stone, Louis B. Schlesinger, and my BFF Cody Charette.

In my (biased) opinion, there are no bad chapters in this book. Furthermore, this book is truly the first of its type, due to its multidisciplinary approach to the subject of necrophilia, which tends to be under-studied and under-reported. Many of us presented new research findings, or furthered existing discourse on the subject. I can’t discuss all of the chapters in depth, but will cover a few highlights.

Chapters are grouped by discipline and subject matter, including historical and legal issues, cultural aspects (including depictions in literature and popular culture), etiological models, forensic investigations and treatment, and case studies.

*In “A Wider Shade of Pale” and “Mincing Words,” Lee Mellor examines paraphilias associated with necrophilia. The most important being that he finally lays to rest (pun intended) the idiotic term “necrosadism,” which  has been used to describe acts of piqcuerism and mutilation committed against corpses, and replaces it with a far superior term, “necromutilophilia.”

*In “Laws Pertaining to Necrophilia in the United States,” Dr. Cody Charette conducted a thorough examination of individual state laws un the U.S., debunking some often-misreported laws in the process. It is true that some states have no laws on the books against necrophilia. What I found interesting was the fact that a handful of states have laws containing gendered language that would theoretically allow female necrophiliacs to operate without fear of prosecution.

*Necrosurrealist artist David Gough was commissioned to create a new portrait for this anthology. The resulting piece, Putrefying Venus, is quite stunning.

*Jens Foell and Christopher Patrick discuss brain imaging data of paraphiliacs in “A Neuroscientific Perspective on Morbid Paraphilias.” Unfortunately, there are no brain imaging studies of necrophiliacs specifically, but the authors present a thoughtful discussion of how the existing research applies.

*Anil Aggrawal revisits his proposed typologies of necrophilia, previously outlined in his book Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects, another book worth reading. I expect his typology to become essential in discussions of necrophilia.

Lastly, I want to point out that Understanding Necrophilia isn’t just a collection of academics and professionals dissecting necrophilia from the outside. This anthology also features an essay by a self-proclaimed necrophile. As a side note though, in my personal observation, successful academics and professionals don’t necessarily stand at a distance from any perversion, if you get my meaning. More than a few of us understand perversions from the inside looking out. But the gesture of including such an essay is unique and further sets this book apart from typical academic anthologies. Understanding Necrophilia further departs from the typical academic publication in that it embraces the fringes of pop culture by its inclusion of a chapter co-authored by Robert Rhine, the creator of Girls and Corpses Magazine.

 

Boris Karloff Month Finale: Targets

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For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

karloff-targets

The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

targets-titlecard-388x220

The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

targets-1968-villain

The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Happy Birthday to Boris Karloff, a beautiful soul

handsome-karloff

Today is Boris Karloff’s birthday, so it seems fitting to dedicate this post to his life, and to extend happy birthday wishes to his daughter Sara Jane Karloff who shares his November 23rd birthday.

I confess that I knew very little about Boris Karloff as a person before beginning this blog, but exploring his life has been a beautiful, inspiring journey. The first biography that I read was Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff by Cynthia Lindsay, who was a friend of Karloff’s for many years. Lindsay’s book is entirely worth reading, as she provides some wonderful insights into Karloff as a kind and devoted friend. But her book raises as many questions as it answers. Despite having been his friend for decades, there were many things that Cynthia did not know about Karloff’s life due to the fact he was a vey private person. Despite her best efforts at research, there were many details she simply could not uncover. Some of these details I found mysterious and unnerving. For example, he never discussed his childhood and revealed his five marriages after many years of friendship. I wonder if , in this era in which people share minute details of their lives on social media, people would regard Karloff’s secrecy about his private life with suspicion. Perhaps such discretion regarding personal matters is a lost virtue.

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The next book on the list was Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life  Scott Allen Nollen. The author was able to consult with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, resulting in a more detailed account of Karloff’s life. My only complaint about this book is that the print is surprisingly small and there is no ebook edition. But if one can overlook the irksome font, this is a delightful book that gives great insight into Karloff’s character.

boris-and-sara

Boris with his daughter, Sara Jane, who shares his birthday.

Lastly, there’s Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster by Stephen Jacobs. This is, perhaps, THE authoritative text on Karloff’s life. I admit that I have not finished reading it yet, as it is over 500 pages long. What I’ve read is absolutely engrossing, as Jacobs was able to obtain previously unpublished material, including family letters. (However, what I’ve read so far does not shed much light on his five marriages.) I highly recommend this book, but am sad to report that it appears to be out of print and it is difficult to obtain affordable copies. Currently, the best and least expensive way to obtain a copy is directly thought Karloff.com, the official site maintained by Sara Karloff and other relatives.

boris-as-a-child

Boris as a child

Obviously, there is no way to summarize these three biographies, so I’ll just share a series of interesting and inspiring facts about Boris Karloff’s life and personality.

Karloff’s birth name was William Henry Pratt. He claimed his stage name “Karloff” was derived from Russian ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. However, all of the biographies I’ve read state that he was of Anglo-Indian heritage, and didn’t find evidence to support his claims of Russian ancestry.

Boris came from a long line of English diplomats. He was considered the black sheep of the family due to his lack of interest in  adopting their profession.

He attempted to join the British military during World War I, but was rejected due to a heart murmur. He was also bow-legged and had a severe stutter and lisp.

Karloff started his acting career in the theater, and then performed in roughly 80 films before getting his “big break” as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Before this role made him famous, he earned most of his income through hard labor, including ditch-digging.

Karloff was liberal in his political views. Biographer Cynthia Lindsay describes him as a “civil rights fighter.” Interestingly, despite being an advocate for all people, he never revealed his own East Indian heritage due to the racism of his time. When asked how he got his deep tan, he would give responses such as “Too much sun. Out of work, you know!”

He was one of the charter members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG was founded because actors were forced to work in truly hazardous conditions at that time, and often for little pay. Karloff served as the director of SAG for multiple terms.

Karloff’s charitable work included dressing as Santa Claus and visiting a local hospital at Christmastime. In their excitement to see him, the children knocked over and trampled the large Christmas tree that decorated the children’s wing. Other charitable activities included renovating old churches and creating a fund to help young athletes.

Boris had a great love of animals, and cared for several dogs, chickens, turkeys, a cow, and a pet pig at his farmhouse. He also tended a vegetable farm and flower garden on his property. In the A&E documentary The Gentle Monster, one film historian went so far as to describe Karloff as the “St. Francis of Assisi of horror actors.” His other hobbies included playing soccer and cricket.

boris-with-elsie-the-cow

Boris with Elsie the cow.

The sources I’ve read unanimously describe Karloff as an extraordinarily kind and gentle person, though the press seemed to have trouble reconciling his kind personality with his villainous film roles. Boris himself claimed negative social effects from being typecast: “I’m a quiet citizen, I have my home, my dogs and my orchids. I vote and pat little children on the head. What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

However, those who knew him reported a different perception. His wife Dorothy states that these roles were beneficial: “Before Boris began playing sinister parts…he was a much more irritable person than he ever has been since. Whether or not these roles give him the opportunity of purging himself of any latent streaks of malevolence he might ordinarily possess, I cannot say. But I do know that…he is a much sweeter person at home than before. He really is a lamb.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

In a 1941 radio show, Boris referred to himself as “Cuddles Karloff,” which wasn’t inaccurate according to his friends. Cynthia Lindsay recalls, “I never thought of him as a ‘movie star,’ only as a woolly friend. And there is a tactile memory of him that is woolly, the good soft tweeds and the silvery gray hair that had always been shaved for some monstrous role and for which, as it grew furring in, he charged fifty cents a feel. In advance. (Beards were a dollar. They were rarer.)”

Former President Ronald Regan shared his memories of Karloff in a letter to Cynthia Lindsay as “one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever met, and at all times a perfect gentleman… He had great, good common sense plus a sense of fairness typical of his great integrity.”

 

Happy Halloween from My Horrific Life

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Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

We want to wish all of our friends and readers a safe and happy Halloween. Our favorite holiday may be drawing to a close, but we will keep it alive all year with coverage of all things dark and horrific.

November is a big month for us, as Dr. Todd Fleischer and I will be recording our first podcast, topic to be announced soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out the latest episode of Todd’s psychology-oriented podcast, KitchenShrinks, in which he and Dr. Jerry Bockoven interview my dear friend and one of my favorite professors, Dr. Carole Levin.

On the blog, I will be introducing two new monthly features: Disturbed Divination Day and Scary Scholarly Saturday. In celebration of Boris Karloff’s birthday on November 23, I’ll honor his memory with posts about lesser-knows aspects of his life and work. And, maybe, because this election season is horrific, I’ll cover a few books and films that are appropriate for the occasion.