(Barnabas Collins, the vampire from the late 1960s
TV soap opera “Dark Shadows,” looms over Michael
Delahoyde in his Avery Hall office. Photo by Robert
Hubner, WSU photo services)
PULLMAN – The monster was supposed to be dead. The boy saw it die at the end of the Frankenstein movie. Yet here it was, grabbing the hapless farmer at the start of the sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.”
The boy, watching Saturday TV and eating Spaghetti-Os at grandma’s house in the 1960s, was Michael Delahoyde, clinical associate professor of English at WSU. And the murkiness between dead and not-dead that confounded and frightened him has become an inspiration for research and teaching on monsters in literature and popular culture.
Delahoyde is familiar, from the Anglo-Saxon “Beowulf,” with the idea of monsters as “border-steppers” — beings that exist somewhere “in between.”
“Monsters succeed when they defy boundaries,” he said.
He addressed this recently in a presentation about WSU Pullman’s Common Reading selection, “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” Asked to talk about Frankenstein, he was drawn more to the book’s insights on the “weirdness of afterlife and how most people don’t want what’s in between” — whether that condition is medically comatose or ghoulishly undead.
“Another good example of border crossers is werewolves,” Delahoyde said. “They’re not really monsters in old folklore.” Instead, the man becomes a wolf — an animal, a distinctly different being. But the creature portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. in the 1941 film “The Wolf Man” was a border-stepper; part man and part beast at the same time, he became a monster.
“He freaked people out,” Delahoyde said.
A similar segue inspiring his research is the dinosaur as dragon/monster in popular culture.
“The medieval mythology of dragons as Satan or evil is carried into the science of dinosaurs,” he said. “For example, the films say ‘Dinosaurs rule the planet. Eat or be eaten!’ I want to say, ‘Calm down. Some of them just ate leaves.’ “
(Michael Delahoyde talks about mummies at a
recent presentation tied to the WSU Pullman
Common Reading program. Photo illustrated by
Becky Phillips, WSU Today)
Delahoyde started examining popular culture as a graduate student. He involved his students, since that age seems especially plugged into contemporary lifestyle and its trappings.
“Eventually, I wanted to address monsters as the manifestation of the dark side of cultural values,” he said. “I see it as societal fears being displaced and given form in some monster embodying our nightmares. So why are certain monsters popular at certain times in a given culture?”
His study has prompted some theories. For example, vampires were fiercely popular in the 1980s and 1990s — remember Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, the movie “Lost Boys,” and TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer?” Vampires are associated with the spread of disease, he said. The disease AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) — and the panic that accompanied it — first gripped the American public in the early 1980s.
“But these days, zombies are giving vampires a run for their money,” Delahoyde said. In pop culture’s dread of these lumbering undead that can’t be reasoned with, he perceives a fear of mindlessness — perhaps reflected in the low ratings Americans give the leaders who’ve involved us in current wars, economic crises and seemingly endless and expensive political campaigns.
“This work is very much a barometer, a diagnostic tool, of what’s going on in people’s minds,” Delahoyde said.
And his teaching of it is intended to awaken students’ minds.
“They learn critical thinking, the analytical process and cultural savvy,” he said. At semester’s end, he asks his class questions like, “What would be an effective monster and why?” or “What will be the next popular monster?”
Delahoyde is hoping more students will get to ponder such questions next year. He has a request in to his department to teach the monsters class again then.