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With Halloween on the horizon, we’re turning our attention to Universal’s slate of now-classic monsters. These films — black-and-white monster movies from the '30s through '50s featuring Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and other horror icons — made Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi household names and offered decades' worth of nightmare fuel for generations.
Our most beloved monsters endure from generation to generation and century to century because, whether we want to admit it or not, there is some part of us that believes, when the lights are off and the world is quiet, that they just might exist. Well ... not exactly. While there might not be a real-life Wolf Man or Gill-man, there are certainly aspects of these monsters that aren't as far-fetched as you might think. Here's a rundown of the possible truth behind Universal Classic Monsters, starting with the most fantastic and working our way to the more plausible.
THE WOLF MAN
The werewolf myth has been with us for maybe as long as we’ve been telling stories, which might cause one to believe maybe there's something to it. Sadly, there’s no evidence of one creature transforming into an entirely different one, as a result of lunar cycles or anything else. That’s not to say that nature is without drastic change.
SYFY WIRE has written about how butterfly metamorphosis might be the best real-world example of these sorts of transformation. Likewise, salmon undergo drastic body changes when they return from the ocean to freshwater in order to spawn. Additionally, some animals undergo incredible changes, not with the phases of the moon, but with the seasons. Deer grow and shed increasingly complex antlers each year, which seems mundane but isn't. When you really think about the notion of growing bones out of your face at a rate of 3/4 of an inch a day, you’ll realize how bizarre it is. And certain birds and mammals change their coloring so much you might not believe they were the same animal if you didn’t know any better. Still, not quite the same thing as a lunar lupine transformation.
Owing to the ancient and evolving nature of the vampire mythos, there is no single set of characteristics that can be applied to them. (Garlic? Mirrors? Being invited in? Take your pick.) There are, however, two characteristics that are essentially ubiquitous among all modern incarnations. Vampires drink blood and vampires are immortal.
Blood-feeding animals, also known as sanguivores, certainly do exist in nature. The vampire bat, so closely associated with the vampires of legend, lives entirely off of purloined blood meals. It’s important to note, though, that they aren’t particularly long-lived. Vampire bats have a relatively short lifespan even when compared to other bat species, about nine years. Other famous bloodsuckers like leeches live between two and eight years, and mosquitos live only a week. While it’s possible to live a life consuming only blood, it has no obvious correlation to everlasting life.
Mummies are real. Right? We all know that. And they are, perhaps, frightening enough to be monsters of a kind. There's little mystery to how something so ancient, yet so well preserved, could serve as inspiration for horror.
That’s about where the similarities with silver-screen mummies end. There is obviously no evidence that mummies ever have, or even could, return to life. Even our best science would be unable to reverse that level of decay, let alone the missing organs and destroyed brain matter. Moreover, while it’s clear that any ancient curse would be little more than superstition, there’s not even any reliable evidence that the ancient Egyptians actually even attempted to place any sort of curse on their tombs. They are, like the monstrous movie mummies, inventions of our imaginations.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Black Lagoon’s Gill-man is explained as being a living member of a species dating back to the Devonian period, some 358-416 million years ago — a living fossil held over from when animals made the shift from water to land. The primary notion, one of a creature similar to a land species (in this case humans) living in the water, isn’t all that far-fetched. The trouble is the timeline.
It’s true that the Devonian saw the first significant spread of land-based life on earth, but the likelihood of a creature from that time at all resembling humans is next to nil. A more likely explanation, if such an aquatic humanoid were to exist, would be that an early hominid species returned to the ocean, similar to the way cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) descended from semi-aquatic land mammals, known as pakicetus. The idea of a Gill-man, therefore, isn't an impossibility, but he wouldn't be as ancient as the Creature From the Black Lagoon's monster, and if a real-life Gill-man did exist in the fossil record, we'd probably know by now.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
Less a monster of ancient myth and more an examination of humanity’s own monstrous capabilities, the titular invisible man, Dr. Jack Griffin, finds himself invisible after experiments with the fictional chemical monocane.
While there is no known way to physically alter an object (or a person) such that it doesn’t react with visible light, there is research underway that has seen some success using technology to hide an object in otherwise plain sight. By bending light around an object or by using a series of cameras and screens (as was seen in the 2020 adaptation of The Invisible Man), we could render an object or a person effectively invisible, even if not literally so.
Unlike other entries in this list, Frankenstein’s unnamed creature is born not of magic, but of science. While not specifically mentioned in Mary Shelley’s novel, the popular image of the creature is one of an approximate human form, cobbled together from the stolen body parts of various dead people.
Modern science has proven the possibility of replacing body parts from donors, either dead or alive. And recent research on pigs has shown an ability to reactivate brain activity in the recently deceased. The only real difference between Frankenstein’s monster and countless people who have received a donated organ, a blood transfusion, or a shock from an AED is that of degree. After every successful kidney transplant, surgeons should maniacally scream “It’s alive” just for theatricality. It’s Halloween season, after all.