W. Scott Poole | an excerpt adapted from Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror | Counterpoint | October 2018 | 23 minutes (6,219 words)
The murderous folly of the Great War chilled western Europe to the bone, and the new, gruesome entertainment of the horror film became neither escape nor catharsis but rather a repetition of trauma. Telling these stories sometimes had the effect of ripping the scab from the wound so that it never became healthy, or grieving until grief became an end in itself. At times, the stories included social criticism. In all cases, the horror film included a long, angry procession of unquiet corpses.
Not everyone would agree, or at least believe, that horror films carry so much weight. “You are reading too much into the movies” is a fairly common response to such claims. “They’re just entertainment.” This idea of course has its own history and, paradoxically, it begins with a writer who thought that the films made after the Great War did contain coded messages about the era. He saw in them a dangerous message that explained the path from Germany’s defeat in 1918 to its resurgence as a threatening power twenty years later.
Siegfried Kracauer left Germany in 1933, emigrating to Paris the same year that Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. After the beginning of World War II and the invasion of France, he fled for the Spanish border with the renegade essayist Walter Benjamin in the summer of 1940. Unlike Benjamin, however, Kracauer found a way to make it to the United States, where a Rockefeller Fellowship awaited him in the spring of 1941, thanks to his fellow exile the philosopher Max Horkheimer. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art offered Kracauer a position that involved studying the German films made between 1918 and 1933, a task he hoped might yield some clue as to what had become of his homeland.
The book he produced in 1947, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, has had an enormous influence on film criticism. Perhaps more important, it’s had a deep influence on the way the average person thinks about movies, even if they’ve never heard of the admittedly obscure source of their ideas. Of course, the book’s pugilistic title made it clear that scholars and audiences alike could not view film as simple entertainment. Movies carried political import, not simply reflecting the times but also embodying the horror of the times. Overall, the book denigrates film, and filmgoers, in such a way that it lends credence to the ideas that entertainment means industry rather than art and that all film represents an escape from reality. A critic influenced by such views today might say, for example, that the offbeat comedy Mall Cop (2005) is not much different from François Truffaut’s drama The 400 Blows (1959), while the complex television crime drama The Wire and the tacky reality show Celebrity Apprentice exist in a continuum of mindless satisfaction. It’s a dour view of popular culture that many fans paradoxically hold when they demand that films “leave out the politics” or say that they “just want a good show.”
The people of the Great War’s aftermath found themselves in the time of monsters, and the monsters filled their screens.
Like a movie fan who might be a little suspicious of “reading too much” into film, Kracauer spoke of films as a commodity, primarily a means to make money. The movies, he believed, are just entertainment and so they are simply mirror images of the culture that produced them, flexible and flaccid in the messages they convey. He did not think that this made them, as his friend Walter Benjamin believed, possible instruments of revolutionary change. Instead, as artifacts of mass culture, they put dissent to sleep, enervated their audiences, and legitimized the existing order. Had he lived in our era, he would have seen in the phrase “Netflix and chill” the bottomless swamp of this cultural morass.
Films that appeared in Germany between 1918 and 1933 had, Kracauer insisted, “deep psychological dispositions” that led the German people to “surrender to the Nazis.” He seeks to account for Hitler’s success in terms beyond politics, economic collapse, and the general structural weaknesses of the Weimar regime. No, something more terrible had been lurking in the shadows, a set of motifs finding expression in the dream life of film, or really the nightmare life of film. Antonio Gramsci had been right: in the ruins of the Old World, “morbid symptoms” had appeared. The people of the Great War’s aftermath found themselves in the time of monsters, and the monsters filled their screens. This had desensitized them to the real monsters that emerged among them.
Kracauer began his survey with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), frequently if incorrectly called the first horror film. It’s still a good place for Kracauer, and us, to begin since it staged many of the themes that would obsess the genre in the early years. The human body as an empty husk, a figure who combines the mad scientist and the magician, and even the city as a nightmarish wasteland all appear in the film. Caligari garnered more than its share of critical attention in Germany and abroad. In some intellectual circles, the French term Caligarisme came to stand in for the sense of loss, doubt, and existential desperation of the postwar generation.
The larger public responded to Caligari only in a limited degree. The movie’s confusing advertising campaign may have been partially to blame. The slogan used on posters — “You must become Caligari!” — repurposed a line from the film, but no one knew what this could mean. The film did not carry the same shock value as the later Nosferatu, and word seems to have gotten around that the ending had been a bit of a letdown. Director Robert Wiene’s decision to conclude the film as he did offers something of a tale within itself.
The film version of Caligari opens with a framing story absent from the original script. We see the character of Francis sitting on a bench in what seems to be a hospital. An old man sitting beside him, perhaps another patient, has been babbling about “the terrible fate of all life.” Jane, the film’s female lead, walks by as in a trance. “What she and I have experienced is yet more remarkable than the story you have told me,” Francis says to the old man. Francis’s response comes across as a rather confusing non sequitur that might have tipped off a vigilant cinema-goer that something was a bit off. The old man has been talking about the nature of life, not telling Francis a story. Following this prologue, we see a wizened Dr. Caligari attempting to receive a permit for his hypnotist act in an imaginary German town called Holstenwall. The town official refuses and ends up the first murder victim in a film soon filled with corpses.
But even before the killings begin, the set itself erupts into a violent, surrealist nightmare. Buildings hang at impossible angles, and rooms tilt in dizzying fashion. In this dreary dreamscape two young students, Alan and Francis, become the focus of the narrative. They attend the town fair, where it becomes clear that both are in love with Jane. Joined by her, they visit the tent of Dr. Caligari. A peculiar kind of séance takes place in which Caligari takes questions from the audience and poses them to the allegedly sleeping Cesare; he’s waxen in heavy pancake makeup, lost in a shadowy haze between devilish puppet and living corpse. In this state, Cesare supposedly brings messages from the land of the dead at Caligari’s command. Alan asks when he will die, and Cesare replies, “Before dawn.” Police later find the young student stabbed to death, just as the town official had been.
Francis becomes convinced that Caligari ordered the zombie-like Cesare to kill for him. While he searches for proof, Jane becomes the next target of Caligari’s murderous homunculus. Although Cesare pulls a knife to slay her, he instead kidnaps her and, in one of the most famous sequences in the film, leads Francis and Jane’s father on a chase through the night terror of the set.
The police join Francis in investigating Caligari, who escapes into an insane asylum. Wiene chooses to close the cinematic version with the device of having Francis revealed as a patient in the very asylum where he believes he has tracked Caligari. Dr. Caligari is, in fact, the lead physician and director of the asylum, where Francis lives out his delusions, and we learn that the film we have just watched has simply been a trip through Francis’s madness. The screenwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, had a very different vision of Caligari, one that would have made its subtext clearer to audiences, perhaps too obvious in the eyes of the director. The original story had been born one night before 1914 and, during the war, had ripened into a terrifying vision meant to condemn the willingness of the masses, not to “become Caligari,” as the confusing advertising poster said, but to become Cesare. The zombie-like Cesare, and the people of Germany, had been somnambulists under the control of their own Caligaris in epaulets during the previous decade.
Why do people care about these horrible things? Why do they need them?… Perhaps rather than Kracauer’s claim that it offered an escape from history, the horror film allowed (and still allows) audiences to talk about trauma in an oblique way?
On that strange night, Janowitz, a Czech poet living in Hamburg before the beginning of the war, had seen an interesting young woman and followed her to a Hamburg town fair in 1913. Losing her among the festive multicolored tents that spread across the Reeperbahn, still today the center of nightlife and entertainment in the city, Janowitz heard what sounded to his probably inebriated ears like ephemeral, ghostly laughter in the trees. But from the bushes emerged the shadow of a man, suddenly looming up in the darkness and just as quickly fading back into it. In the eyes of the poetic Janowitz, the darkness seemed to reabsorb the phantom. He returned home, never having seen his love interest.
The next morning, the local news reported that someone murdered a young woman named Gertrude at the town fair the previous night. The press described what had happened to her as “a horrible sex crime.” Although he had no foundation outside his own imagination, Janowitz became obsessed with the idea that the beautiful young woman he had hoped to meet had been the victim. His fixation on this notion became so intense that he attended the funeral, where, again with little real evidence, he believed he saw the shadow from the foliage. His nightmares told him this had been the shape that murdered Gertrude.
Janowitz’s murderous shadow in the night later became Cesare, but only after four years of war. Janowitz served as an infantry officer for most of the conflict and emerged a confirmed pacifist. The war then helped him mold his peculiar experience from 1913 into a tale of horror.
Carl Mayer, who shared Janowitz’s antiwar sentiment, collaborated on the project. Mayer himself had worked to convince an army psychiatrist that he was unfit to fight. His brother, however, had died in the infantry. Around the time he began his collaboration with Janowitz, Mayer had fallen in love with the actor Gilda Langer, herself mourning the loss of a fiancé on the western front.
The framing story Wiene added to the film dissolved the tale into a dream and robbed it of its piercing metaphorical power. In the original script, Caligari and the director of the local asylum are indeed the same person, but Caligari actually has been committing crimes through the agency of Cesare, a corpse brought back from the netherworld by its master. When Francis confronts Caligari with these facts, his mask of sanity slips away and the film concludes with the doctor a patient in his own asylum.
Janowitz and Mayer had, Kracauer claimed, sought to communicate their vision of German society’s obsession with authoritarianism with the film, the two confirmed pacifists revealing in Caligari’s control over Cesare the willingness of the German people to follow their leaders, as if hypnotized, into the maelstrom of war. They had been sleepwalkers who went about their deadly business unconscious of the consequences. Authoritarian leaders turned citizens, marching in lockstep, into somnolent killers.
The film critic Kracauer believed that the beginnings of the German film industry had chewed up the screenwriters’ original vision and turned Caligari into a product that reaffirmed the audience’s desire to accept and never question authority. The fearful possibilities of loss of control, the image of the lumbering Cesare moving murderously through the night on Dr. Caligari’s errands, did chill the first viewers of the film. But, Kracauer insisted, the ending reaffirmed the need of the masses for the control of strong leadership. Social authorities might sometimes appear like villains, but in reality the masses are much more likely to suffer a fever dream, a delusion of overweening power, than to truly confront a mad Caligari who could bend them to his will.
In fact, although the writers did not get what they wanted in the film, the message they hoped to send may have been simpler — a message about their own obsession with the idea of the corpse and das grosse Sterben (the great mortality).
The film sets, already bizarre, would have been even more surreal if Janowitz and Mayer had had their way. They had hoped to hire Czech engraver, artist, and author Alfred Kubin to design their wasteland and their living corpses. Kubin’s work matched well the aesthetic that the authors hoped to achieve, given his fascination with mechanical puppets and his ability to reimagine the narrow, dreamlike streets of Prague as a fantastical landscape. Kubin had written a strange, semiautobiographical fantasy novel, The Other Side (1909), of which Lotte Eisner writes:
He describes his wandering through the dark streets [of Prague], possessed by an obscure force which led him to imagine weird houses and landscapes, terrifying or grotesque situations. When he entered a little tea-shop, everything seemed bizarre. The waitresses were like wax dolls moved by some strange mechanism.
Kubin’s obsessions with landscapes of horror and waxen death dolls suited the era’s terror of the corpse and the battlefield, as well as the tendency of both realities to transform waking life into a dream.
In 1920, Weimar Germany looked back on its brief flirtation with revolution one year earlier. Though few in the middle class voiced the sentiment openly, many felt some gratitude for the brutal tactics of the right-wing Freikorps. Perhaps the nation had not become a social democracy and indeed barely held on to the democratic reforms it had managed since 1918. But at least the Germans had kept the Bolsheviks from the door and the authorities ruled with a firm hand. Had they become Caligari? In fact, they had become Cesare.
Kracauer had been certain that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari predicted both the rise of the authoritarian personality and how the forces of fascism would seize hold of this pathology for its own ends. Just as the continent had become a sleepwalking murderer in 1914, it continued to act as a death doll in a world of fantasy and nightmare, answering the call of the authoritative voice. The people of Germany, he thought, had been willing to see themselves and others locked away in a madman’s cabinet or in an asylum as madmen themselves. All for their own safety.
From his vantage point, Kracauer had more than enough reason to voice suspicion about German film. His tendency to see authoritarianism everywhere, while understandable, doesn’t account for the Caligari screenwriters’ own obsessions, centered more on the murderous automaton Cesare than on the question of authoritarianism. Death itself and the reanimated corpse are at the center of their vision of the film and the version seen by audiences. Neither man could leave behind the Great War. Rather than predicting Nazism, they told the story of the great death.
The true terror for this generation remained the terror of the dead, most specifically the terror of lifeless corpses hanging cruciform in barbed wire, lying shattered across hundreds of fields of fire, or filling the rat-infested trenches and floating, bloated and purpling, while the rain fell in torrents.
Kracauer had surprisingly little to say about the popular Nosferatu despite his thoughtful discussion of director F. W. Murnau’s work as a whole. He did write that Murnau had “the unique facility of obliterating the boundaries of the real and the unreal,” a comment that resonates with the film’s relationship to the Great War in which, many soldiers claimed, reality and fantasy blended under the constant strain of shelling and the debilitating anxiety of the trenches. However, for Kracauer, the dread shadow of Count Orlok hovers over the period after 1919 in a different, almost mystical way. He refers to the 1920s as a time when “the German soul” found itself “tossed about in gloomy space like the phantom ship in Nosferatu.”
Kracauer’s political orientation may explain his lack of interest in writing about the first vampire film. By 1930, he had read much of the work of Karl Marx. This led him that year to write a frighteningly prescient book, The Salaried Masses, in which he claimed that Germany’s new white-collar workers would prove especially susceptible to Nazism. History, unfortunately, bears out his thesis. Lower-middle-class white-collar workers joined in an unlikely alliance with the wealthiest industrialists to become the backbone of Germany’s Nazi Party.
Much of the German left saw Nosferatu as precisely the kind of entertainment that desensitized the people to political concerns. Socialist critics of the film complained vociferously about moviegoers taking Nosferatu seriously, even as they couldn’t themselves avoid discussing it at length. The leftist Leipziger Volkszeitung (Leipzig People’s Newspaper), for example, insisted that the film distracted the working class by enshrouding them in a “supernatural fog.” In fact, the paper saw it as part of a larger effort by the ruling class to keep the people “sufficiently stupid for capitalist interests.” Marxist worries about the popularity of such films may appear over-wrought today. We’d do well to remember that these critics wrote in revolutionary times, when hundreds of millions of people had been either utterly terrified or passionately inspired by the 1917 people’s revolution in Russia that, ever so briefly, looked like it might spread across all of Europe after the climactic end of the Great War. In the early 1920s, a turn from revolutionary fervor to fantasy in German entertainment seemed to them to mark the final collapse of their hopes, particularly after the bloody failure of the Communist uprisings that followed the war.
Moreover, the Marxist criticism did not simply focus on a single popular film that had seized the public imagination. The workers, the Leipziger Volkszeitung claimed, faced what amounted to “a supernatural epidemic” in the world of entertainment. The paper argued that the new taste for horror represented a new kind of capitalist propaganda and that the proletariat would do well to stay at home rather than give their money to the film industry “and the phantom Nosferatu can well let himself be devoured by their own rats.”
Notably, even those who castigated the film for its allegedly lurid and escapist nature could not help but see it as intimately tied to the bloodletting the world had recently inflicted on itself. Marxist critics admitted that “this dangerous nonsense about spiritualism and the occult” had been eagerly consumed by “millions of disturbed souls” victimized by the war and its consequences.
Kracauer and his fellow leftists would feel right at home among today’s film critics. The horror genre continues to receive criticism as an adolescent pastime, nihilistic in its premises with limited expectations of its own audience. Even in the golden age of Universal Studios monster movies, critical reviews of horror films tended to use the opportunity to dismiss them with a bit of snark. The Hollywood Reporter in November 1931 couldn’t help but praise the direction of James Whale in Frankenstein. The reviewer also couldn’t bring himself to write with unadulterated praise of a “spook” film. He opined that Universal Studios had either “the greatest shocker of all time — or a dud.”
More recently, Robert Perrucci and Earl Wysong, in their book The New Class Society: Goodbye American Dream? (1999), described horror, along with action films, as one of the perennial “escapist genres.” Carol Clover — who wrote an entire book asking second-wave feminism to think in more complicated fashion about slasher films (Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992) — agreed with famed film critic Robin Wood that horror films are inherently disreputable.
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The allegedly escapist and formulaic quality of horror continues to attract fans in droves — and still elicits attention and exegesis from intellectuals. Hundreds of think pieces on the zombie phenomenon alone are currently in existence. All essentially ask what it means that zombies have become a national obsession over the last several decades and particularly since 9/11. Nosferatu rose suddenly from his crypt in the years after the Great War to the same kind of questioning and criticism. Why do people care about these horrible things? Why do they need them? Even the harshest critics of what Murnau and Grau had wrought felt compelled to talk about the new craze for the supernatural in relation to the Great War, at that time the most catastrophic event in terms of the loss and degradation of human life that anyone could begin to imagine.
Implicit in films like ‘Caligari’ and ‘Waxworks,’ and explicit in ‘J’accuse’ and ‘Nosferatu,’ the loss of the dead combined with the inability to properly and fully mourn and forget them, lurked in the shadows on the screen.
Perhaps rather than Kracauer’s claim that it offered an escape from history, the horror film allowed (and still allows) audiences to talk about trauma in an oblique way? The power of horror that allowed for the expression of the darkest of shell-shocked impulses certainly proved irresistible for the talents of the avant-garde after 1918. The painter turned director Paul Leni produced a horror fantasy film entitled Waxworks in 1924, a prologue to the nightmares he soon helped bring into the world. His vision began in Weimar Germany but ended up, and ended too soon, in Los Angeles.
Leni’s Waxworks continued the themes of Caligari by reintroducing the terror of the reanimated corpse, the husk brought to life to live out a terrible past in the present. He produced the film in the aftermath of the Nazi Party’s failed Beer Hall Putsch. In fact, the film screened in Germany while Hitler, imprisoned for only nine months for his part in the attempted overthrow of the Weimar government, feverishly mapped out the sadistic fantasies he planned to unleash on the world in what became Mein Kampf. The dreamy atmosphere of Waxworks echoed both the morbid half-light of 1914–1918 and seemed to forecast the things that had slithered into history with the rise of fascism.
Henrik Galeen, screenwriter for both Paul Wegener’s first (and now lost) golem film in 1914 and Nosferatu, also wrote the screenplay for Waxworks. The film opens in a carnival, a space for frivolous amusement that had increasingly begun to take on dark undertones. During much of the nineteenth century, the traveling circus placed “freaks” on display in the sideshow, a series of tents that ran along the side of the big top, which housed the three-ring circus. At one time, such entertainments had a certain degree of middle-class respectability conferred by the reputation and popularity of nineteenth-century American showman P. T. Barnum. Barnum saw his work as educational and even scientific. He had, for example, included temperance lectures as part of the program at the famous Barnum’s American Museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City, giving his entertainments the strongest of bourgeois credentials.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the traveling carnival had begun to fall into disrepute. Medical authorities began to question the representation of human oddities as entertainment. This criticism emerged less from physicians’ humanitarian impulses than from the professionalization of their own discipline. A new generation of doctors saw human abnormalities as part of their own bailiwick rather than a source of entertainment.
Increasingly, the respectable classes viewed the sideshow as a working-class entertainment run by dangerous, socially marginal carnival workers (carnies). Films such as Caligari sealed the deal, preparing the way for the fully embodied “dark carnival” of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), the threat-laden atmosphere of the traveling show in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), and Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Today, and it’s difficult to explain without this background, many people still find the sound of carnival music eerie and suggestive of something dreadful.
Leni’s carnival is, like Robert Wiene’s in Caligari, a nightmare dimension in which a young poet in this age of disillusioned poets takes a job from a showman. The poet will work in service of the dark carnival, writing narratives for each of the empty-eyed figures in the showman’s wax museum. In the cavernous tent the waxworks begin to move and act out the dreamlike tales of horror the poet imagines. These dark imaginings revolve around tyrants inflicting torture, and in the final sequence the writer imagines himself and his love interest, the showman’s daughter, chased by a waxen but suddenly living Jack the Ripper. The line between the poet’s imagination and what’s really happening onscreen remains fuzzy, as does the boundary between a shell-shocked generation’s experience of watching the film and their history.
Kracauer viewed Waxworks as yet more evidence of the German tendency toward authoritarianism. He found in the film “the collective German soul” that had long been “wavering between tyranny and chaos.” Citing a number of other examples of tyrannical personalities portrayed on film in the era, he saw the cinematic obsession with these figures as part of the fascist sensibility that placed Mussolini in power in Italy and created similar powerful political movements in much of Europe, most prominently, of course, in the rise of National Socialism in Germany.
Human beings fear that they contain a nullity, that behind their own eyes waits an utter nothingness.
Doubtless these films did express European anxieties about an entire nation’s willingness to follow political and military leaders into the maelstrom of war. Certainly veterans had reason to question why they had, again and again, gone over the top of the trenches into the blasted lunar landscape of no-man’s-land at the sound of a whistle, losing arms, legs, and blood while leaving the corpses of their comrades behind.
But Kracauer presses this interpretation of early horror, and of German film in general, too far. There’s not enough evidence, for example, that the world understood that their somnambulist obedience had helped produce the outrages of the Great War. The true terror for this generation remained the terror of the dead, most specifically the terror of lifeless corpses hanging cruciform in barbed wire, lying shattered across hundreds of fields of fire, or filling the rat-infested trenches and floating, bloated and purpling, while the rain fell in torrents. Implicit in films like Caligari and Waxworks, and explicit in J’accuse and Nosferatu, the loss of the dead combined with the inability to properly and fully mourn and forget them, lurked in the shadows on the screen.
We can see this sensibility in Leni’s choice of uncanny terrors. The waxwork had a long history by the 1920s in the genealogy of death, religion, science, and what we today call body horror. The marionette and the shadow play are images of terror with ancient roots in human religious beliefs. Creating an image of a thing living or dead has, from the earliest ages of human religious consciousness, endowed that image with the properties of the sacred. At the same time, the uncanny power of such images has led to warnings in Judaism, Protestant Christianity, and Islam about the dangers of “graven images,” the worry over idolatry.
These strictures point toward the terror you feel when an image’s empty eyes look back at you or when they seem to do so but cannot. In most monotheistic traditions, nervousness over the making of idols masks the deeper terrors of the empty image, the possibility that it can become inhabited by the horror of the world, demonic shadows filling a space meant for the divine. Perhaps even worse, human beings have feared that they contain a nullity, that behind their own eyes waits an utter nothingness. The idol, the image, the puppet, the automaton, and the homunculus might suddenly become the simulacrum of the corpse.
By the beginning of the Great War, emerging Western secularism, coming in fits and starts since the eighteenth century and always accompanied by feverish fundamentalist reassertions of belief, had taken the terror of the empty image into the realm of entertainment. In The Secret Life of Puppets (2001), Victoria Nelson describes this process perfectly when she notes how the Egyptian mummy of late antiquity transformed in twentieth-century horror films “from a divine body within an organized religious belief system to an organic demon.” Nelson adds that what we are seeing in this process amounts to a full retreat from the concept of the human soul in the Western imagination.
Creating the false body in wax has a history longer than film. Waxworks as a form stretches back before its appearance in traveling fairs and film. The fashioning of the wax image always had its grotesque side, with the Catholic Church’s use of often unintentionally terrifying wax saints holding the alleged relics and remembrances of their own martyrdom: teeth, bones, even hearts. The making of images to work sympathetic magic, hexing people or freeing them from just such a curse, had a long history in the folk traditions of Europe. The making of so-called poppets in England existed long before the notion of the voodoo doll and may have contributed to it when Europeans came in contact with the Africans they enslaved in Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean. Whatever the origin, the magical practice shows a relationship in the human mind between the doll and the dead.
One did not have to believe in magic to make such a connection. Medical students throughout Europe had, for several centuries, used finely crafted wax figures for anatomical study. Modeled frequently as young and female, often designed so that on the outside they seemed like exquisitely beautiful women caught sleeping, the figures sometimes contained as many as seven anatomically correct layers that students could fold back to reveal the mysteries of the body. These began to appear in the Renaissance, but the eighteenth century became the golden age of what some called “anatomical Venuses” but that medical students more commonly called “slashed beauties” or “dissected Graces.” The attention given to the modeling of perfectly formed breasts and hips, as well as delicate lips, eyes, and hair, make it impossible to ignore sexual fetishism as an element in their creation.
A public passion for the wax figure continued to grow in the eighteenth century. Swiss physician Philippe Curtius, whose medical training prepared him for the modeling and sculpting of anatomically accurate figures, became the first entrepreneur of such shows in France. Although he began his exhibition at a fairground, his wax displays proved popular enough with all classes to allow him to open his tony Salon de Cire, which included his Caverne des Grande Voleurs, where he made use of fake blood to portray his scenes of crime and murder.
The depth of meaning that accrued to the figure in wax can be seen in the degree to which politics affected, and almost destroyed, Curtius’s career. His assistant, Marie Grosholtz (1761–1850), better known by her married name and entertainment moniker, Madame Tussaud, modeled the severed heads of the guillotine’s victims during the so-called Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. In Curtius’s waxworks, models of the decapitated heads of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette shared the same display space with executed revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Marat.
Although the portrayal of beheaded political figures at first provoked surprisingly little partisan controversy, Curtius’s wax figure of the Marquis de Lafayette almost lost him his business and his life. Lafayette had briefly been seen as a heroic figure in France until he led counterrevolutionary forces in 1792 and then fled to Austria. Public outcry led Curtius to offer a public apology to the National Convention for continuing to display his wax Lafayette and, in an act that showed the degree to which waxworks had come to incarnate the figures they represented, Curtius saved his own skin by publicly guillotining the waxen traitor outside the Salon.
The scale of death in the Great War fully awakened the primordial terror of the corpse.
Madame Tussaud took over Curtius’s operation after his death. The experiment in entertainment became an international phenomenon after the French Revolution. Tussaud moved her waxworks to England in 1802 and over the next half century transformed it into perhaps London’s most popular entertainment, with many imitators in Victorian England and the United States. The British royal family in wax remained a perennial favorite, but so did the portrayal of crime, assassination, and torture. Customers passed through a candlelit labyrinth featuring blood-drenched crime scenes and the acts of tyrants, poisoners, and murderers as they left the attraction. Punch magazine first used the nomenclature Chamber of Horrors in 1846 for what Tussaud called The Adjourning Room.
Although Tussaud herself died in 1850, the waxworks remained a popular attraction at the beginning of the Great War. In fact, during the first flames of war fever, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum featured special displays of all the dynastic figures involved in the conflagration. Kaiser Wilhelm’s wax image suffered so much abuse from angry crowds that it had to be removed, although it, too, would rejoin the other monarchs later in the war. War maps, shell fragments, and other relics of war joined the display. The museum’s proprietors seemed to realize early that the war would provoke a taste for the macabre, a counterintuitive desire to remember the conflict, even by the returning veterans and soldiers on leave, who often thronged the attraction from 1914 to 1918.
France had its own Chamber of Horrors, which grew in popularity in the aftermath of the nation’s tremendous losses in the Great War. The French public mourned without end, becoming especially expressive at mass burial sites such as Douaumont, a fortification at Verdun turned into an ossuary that contains the bits and pieces of perhaps 100,000 unidentifiable German and French corpses. The French also flocked to the Théâtre du Grand Guignol, which had opened in Paris in 1897 and presented criminal scenes, images of mental illness, and the macabre supernatural. Since the theater was located in a former convent, cherubic angels still peeked out of the shadows at the grotesqueries onstage.
The earliest of what would become known as special effects played an essential role in the Grand Guignol, including staged monstrosities, gallons of fake blood, and highly believable bodily mutilations. The shadow play took a step beyond Tussaud’s. Instead of waxworks, live actors became dead bodies, showing the audience that even if corpses had no souls, they had plenty of blood and entrails.
The Great War actually increased the French public’s fascination with such gory spectacle. In fact, audiences demanded that the Grand Guignol make a more explicit connection with the war. The popularity of J’accuse alone suggests that they had some desire to contend with the death puppet, the eidolon of the Reaper.
Camille Choisy, who owned the Grand Guignol at the end of the war, proved happy to oblige this taste for horror. Even as France suffered millions of casualties, Choisy incorporated fake poison gas attacks and startling explosive charges that mimicked the shelling of the trenches. The use of surgical instruments, influenced by the horror stories of combat triage at the front, became instruments of torture and death in Choisy’s productions. The popularity of the theater and its ghastly fare endured in France into the 1920s — an adaptation of Caligari played there in 1925.
Tussaud’s, meanwhile, began to lose its appeal in the early 1920s. Waxworks in general declined in popularity, as did the sideshow and the circus. Historians of popular entertainment have tended to see the rise of film as the undoing of these other entertainment forms. Although it’s impossible to deny the influence of the new art form, it’s also true that in the case of the waxworks, the scale of death in the Great War fully awakened the primordial terror of the corpse. Both the dead body and the waxwork made it difficult to imagine the possibility of an eternal soul.
Waxworks, and the unsettling questions they raised, seemed to incorporate all the eerie elements of the war’s transformation of the human body into an icon of death and mutilation. They are inanimate bodies, shells with no ghost, blank except for the nightmares that the audience imposes on them. The waxworks guide audiences into the darkest of uncanny valleys, the dead eyes of the figures mirroring nothing. They are puppets that call our personhood into question in exactly the same way the corpse calls into question what we have convinced ourselves of concerning the possibilities of the afterlife.
German horror films dealt with this concept again and again with Caligari’s Cesare being only the most well-known corpse-puppet, standing in for the mounds of the lifeless created by shell and Maxim gun. But the horror of this idea, a horror that destroyed optimistic hopes for a human soul animating the fleshy pulp of the body, became the defining feature of postwar horror films. We see it in Nosferatu’s ability to empty both Ellen and Knock, and Hutter himself, of their allegedly natural desires and fill their empty husks with desire for him. Indeed, the vampire glides through the world nearly incorporeal, fading to ethereal nothingness in the sunlight, as would be expected of one that comes from the land of phantoms. Ellen, in contrast, stays behind as a lifeless puppet, a figure of terror as well as grief.
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W. Scott Poole is a professor of history at the College of Charleston, and he teaches and writes about horror and popular culture. His past books include the award-winning Monsters in America and the biography Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. He is a Bram Stoker award nominee for his critically acclaimed biography of H.P. Lovecraft, In the Mountains of Madness.
Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky