Monsters, Masks & Military Mutilation: The Influence of the First World War on Early Horror Cinema

Written by Scarlett Butler

Image:  Unknown. Anna Coleman Ladd fitting soldier with restorative face mask. 1918. Photograph. Rare Historical Photos. Accessed October 30, 2018.

Suzannah Biernhoff has argued that the facial mutilation caused during the Great War was widely written about but “almost never represented visually” with the exception of medical documentation. Here I will contend that the facial disfigurement of veterans had a significant influence on early horror films which thrived in post-war and depression-era Britain and America. The horror genre is a cultural response to society’s deepest fears and traumas, and one way of taking control of the interpretations of physical deformity and thus the horror of modern conflict itself. Generally, the most enduring horror characters are those who the audience sympathises with. Despite offering a potentially sympathetic portrayal of disfigurement, as Karina Longworth has noted, the major message of these films is still that it is better to die naturally than to live on in an unnatural, undead state.

In under two weeks, it will be a hundred years since the First World War drew to a close. From our vantage point, we can see that the peace negotiations were simply a temporary and incomplete solution to the problem of European and global conflict. To overcome the trauma of 8 million casualties and 21 million wounded soldiers, in the context of two major economic depressions, a wide range of responses would be required. Even during the war itself, the streets of Europe and the United States featured many walking and wheelchair-bound reminders of the violence of modern warfare, something many people were deeply uncomfortable with. The veterans themselves expressed discomfort at the attention they received. The Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh published a magazine called Hydra in 1918 which included work by patients. In June 1918, a man described as “an inmate” of that hospital produced a poem called “Stared At” which ends: “on my tomb would be this curse, / “To be stared at.”” This evocation of life itself as a curse is a message that is repeatedly emphasised in early horror films.

The First World War inspired many figurative and abstracted mediations on humanity’s destructive instinct and the nature of modernity. Surrealism, Dada, futurism, cubism and German expressionism all offer different reactions to the massive upheavals and shocking violence of that conflict. German expressionist cinema produced what some consider the first plausible horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in 1920, featuring an archetypal mad scientist or in this case asylum director, as the villain. The first Hollywood horror film premiered five years later in San Francisco and the extravagant set of this film remains preserved on Universal’s lot on Stage 28 to this day. The Phantom of the Opera (1925), like so many great horror movies since, was said to cause people to faint in their seats or walk out. In particular, audiences reacted to the reveal of the Phantom’s skull-like face. The makeup effect in this film is legendary, and was produced by the actor himself, Lon Chaney. The unmasking scene, where Erik’s captured love interests removes his mask was notoriously shocking. When his face is revealed the audience sees that Erik’s bulbous eyes sit in dark pits, his cheeks are sunken, his mouth full of jagged teeth and his nose turned up so that his nostrils resemble that of a skull. What is often noted about Chaney’s phantom is that his appearance resembled that of facially disfigured veterans. The particular shock of mechanised warfare, as represented by the facially disfigured produced what Biernhoff has called a “culture of aversion”. Joanna Bourke notes that facial disfigurement was regarded as “the worst of all” and qualified a veteran for one-hundred per cent of his pension, unlike some other injuries and amputations. This was not because it impaired function, but because it was so damaging to that individual’s masculine identity. The rhetoric of the war wounded as patriotic heroes did emerge following the war, but tended to avoid directly depicting the facially injured. Stories surrounding these men highlight a fear of confronting their appearance. Mirrors were removed and patients refused to allow their families to see them.

In particular, the use of a mask to hide the face is reminiscent of the coping strategies initially adopted to conceal facial wounds. Due to improvements in medical science many soldiers who would have died in previous conflicts survived, but survived with unprecedentedly gruesome injuries. The nature of trench warfare left the head, in particular, exposed to all sorts of potential injuries. With full facial restoration often impossible, sculptors were employed in Britain and the United States to produce masks for individual soldiers. In London the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department was founded by Francis Derwent Wood, who stated in the medical journal The Lancet that his masks had the same “psychological effect” as plastic surgery, noting that “[t]he patient acquires his old self-respect … His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor of sadness to his relatives and friends.” Besides providing these men with some self-respect, these masks were also serving to protect the public from shock. Stories, both true and mythical, of children fleeing from their disfigured fathers epitomise the true horror these men faced in attempting to regain their sense of masculinity and personhood. It is possible here to see how horror films could relate to social anxieties, both those of the injured, their families and the wider public.

     Frankenstein, the highest grossing film of 1931, kickstarted Universal’s legendary early horror films clearly spoke to a wide audience’s particular fears and fascinations. Many early horror films, like Frankenstein, were based on gothic novels of the nineteenth century. One of the key differences between the gothic and the horror genre is horror’s emphasis of disfigurement, dismemberment and the grotesque. Illustrations for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, depict a muscular, bedraggled figure who resembles a medical sketch more than a patchwork quilt.  It was the innovative and brilliant 1931 film Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, which produced our contemporary image of that figure. Karloff’s makeup was designed to show how the head and neck has been stitched together. They purposefully left not a bolt in his neck but remnants of electrodes where the monster was shocked into life. His left cheek is scarred and both are deep, his face is disproportionate and he can barely open his heavy swollen eyes, which serve to remind you of the deepest sleep from which he has been woken. Essentially, he bears more resemblance to the pioneering work of early plastic surgeons restoring the faces of the war wounded, than to the gothic illustrations of a Byronic corpse. What is particularly notable about Frankenstein and its sequels is the sympathetic portrayal of the monster. It is the innocent little girl Maria and the blind hermit who do not so much accept the Monster’s appearance but are actually unaware of it. Such characters are removed from social expectation by innocence, isolation and visual impairment. Whilst shooting the scene between Maria and the Monster Boris Karloff recalled that unlike stories about veteran’s children, in the case “children got it” and the girl was never afraid of his in his makeup. Although the monster did subsequently, and very controversially, throw the young girl into a lake, it is made clear that he does not really understand that this could be dangerous for her. The film’s repeated message is one of society as creating and baiting the monster, not of the monster as a maniacal villain. In comparison to other popular monsters, like Dracula, who hides his murderous impulses under a gentlemanly air and appearance, Frankenstein’s Monster’s unappealing appearance conceals his essential innocence.

Whilst this sympathetic portrayal seems oddly progressive it was tempered by the most significant message of these films. Early horror, both those featuring unquestionably evil characters and sympathetic ones, all emphasise that death is preferable to a half-life, even if that life is eternal. The conclusion of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), one of the best Universal early horror films, displays this clearly. When the monster realises the Bride they have made him hates him, and is as unhappy as he is to be reborn he decides to blow up the laboratory with them still inside, as he does so he cries out “We belong dead!”. The Monster would not rest for long, with Son of Frankenstein being released just four years later. Perhaps this message was comforting for the bereaved, knowing that their deceased loved ones were at peace rather than living on through medical intervention.

None of these films directly confront or acknowledge the influence of the First World War on their thematic content, however I would argue that they represent a sideways confrontation of disfigurement. As early horror films both embody and subvert this ‘culture of aversion’ with various acts of revelation and unmasking without ever showing a real injured veteran, eliciting a mixture of shock and fascination that horror films still play with. In his BBC documentary series about horror films the British actor Mark Gatiss sums up the contradictions inherent in these early films. Gatiss says of the unmasking scene from The Phantom of the Opera, that “it captures the essence of being a horror movie fan. It’s about knowing you shouldn’t look but wanting to see, and then maybe getting more than you bargained for.”


Films Mentioned:

  • Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. Los Angeles, California: Universal, Film.
  • Directed by James Whale. 1931. Los Angeles, California: Universal, Film.
  • The Phantom of the Opera. Directed by Rupert Julian. 1925. Los Angeles, California: Universal, Film.

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