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The Scary Origins of 7 Classic Movie Monsters

Undead. Hungry for blood. Centuries-old. Ready to conquer and kill. Hollywood movie monsters have been keeping audiences awake at night and fearful to turn a dark corner for more than seven decades. First popularized on the big screen in the 1930s during the silent-to-sound transition, these iconic black-and-white creations — and the whispered warnings, cries of pain, and terror-filled screams they elicit — continue to frighten moviegoers and inspire modern updates in film, TV, and beyond. From a blood-thirsty vampire and an oversized ape to a creature lurking from the deep here are the origins of seven haunting old-school movie monsters.

Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula standing over a sleeping Helen Chandler in Dracula.
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Universal Pictures hesitated before making a Dracula movie. When first presented with the idea in the 1920s, the studio worried about negative audience reactions to a supernatural tale centering around a bloodthirsty vampire. But then a successful play based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula (1897) arrived in theaters, and Universal became desperate for a hit. Dracula was greenlit with the intention of placing silent screen superstar Lon Chaney Sr., known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces," in the title role. However, Chaney died in 1930. Bela Lugosi, who'd won over audiences in U.S. theatrical productions of Dracula, was subsequently hired to portray the vampire onscreen. His good looks, Hungarian accent, and ability to carry off a tux and cape (attire that had initially been seen on the stage) helped make the movie a hit.

Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein chained to his cell and Dwight Frye standing over him with a torch.
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Dracula's success prompted Universal to search for another monster movie for Lugosi, now a star. The studio opted for Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley's 1818 book, with Lugosi slated to play Frankenstein's monster, a dead criminal’s body reanimated by science. Lugosi wasn't thrilled about a role that called for his face to be hidden under layers of makeup, but he needn't have been concerned. When James Whale was brought on to direct, he didn't want Lugosi in the part, and instead selected Boris Karloff. The monster's makeup was applied by Jack Pierce, who used his skills to create a flat dome on Karloff's head to reflect the skull surgery the monster would have endured. Other touches, such as neck bolts and shortening the sleeves of Karloff's coat to suggest long arms, resulted in an unforgettable archetype. Paired with Karloff's acting abilities, which communicated the monster's existential pain, this film won over critics and succeeded at the box office.

The Mummy (1932)

Boris Karloff as the Mummy in a coffin.
Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

Universal soon wanted to feature Karloff in another monster movie: The Mummy. Rather than based on a book or play, this movie was partially inspired by the Egypt-mania that overtook the world following the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922. The screenplay was penned by a former reporter, John L. Balderston, who'd written about the tomb. The film also spoke to fears of a so-called Curse of Tutankhamun, which had supposedly claimed the lives of several people with ties to the tomb's opening. In the story, an Egyptian priest (Karloff) who was buried alive for trying to resuscitate his dead lover is himself restored to life when someone reads a magical scroll. Karloff appeared onscreen in bandages and in makeup that gave him an ancient, withered face (again thanks to Pierce's skills). The movie, another hit for Karloff and Universal, installed mummies forever in the pantheon of movie monsters.

King Kong (1933)

King Kong atop a Manhattan skyscraper with airplanes flying around.
Credit: John Kobal Foundation via Getty Images

Universal featured many cinematic monsters, but wasn't the only studio to cash in on the phenomenon. In 1933, RKO Pictures wowed moviegoers with a rampaging giant ape known as King Kong. King Kong's beginnings can be traced to Merian Coldwell Cooper filming exotic locations across the globe in the 1920s. His voyages sparked an idea for a movie that would feature a real gorilla in New York City — but then the Great Depression nixed any notion of getting the funds to shoot abroad or transport a gorilla. Cooper found a job at RKO, where he saw Willis O'Brien using stop-motion animation on another film. Cooper and RKO head David O. Selznick believed that this technique could work for a movie about an enormous ape on the loose in New York City. The result, which Cooper co-directed, was the perennially popular King Kong.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Actor Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wold Man grabbing actress, Evelyn Ankers as she faints.
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Universal's Werewolf of London (1935) wasn't a big hit, but the studio eventually decided to try another werewolf film. In The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, who returns from America to his family's Welsh estate. He's bitten by a wolf soon after his arrival, which leads to his transformation into the Wolf Man. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak drew on legends of men transforming into destructive wolves, as well as lore that a werewolf emerges during a full moon and can only be killed by silver. The movie's original title was Destiny, to evoke how outside forces can overshadow personal will. Audiences flocked to the film and empathized with the Wolf Man, cursed with an affliction he cannot control.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon rising from the water.
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Creature From the Black Lagoon was the last in Universal's old-school era of monster success. The initial idea for the film came from writer and producer William Alland, who in the 1940s heard a tale about a fish-man living in the Amazon and wrote a story treatment in 1952. But it was the look of the monstrous creature that made the film stand out. This was largely conceived by Milicent Patrick, an artist employed by Universal's special effects shop (though her male boss claimed credit at the time). For her creature designs, Patrick studied prehistoric life from the Devonian period, a time 400 million years in the past, when some species were leaving the oceans to live on land. Though it had the option to shoot in color, Universal stuck to black and white for this movie; this cost-saving choice links this monster to earlier ones.

Gojira (1954) / Godzilla (1956)

 Gojira, aka Godzilla destroying a bridge.
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Hollywood wasn't the only place to birth movie monsters. In 1954, Japan's Toho Studios released Gojira, about an ancient reptile who was brutally awakened by a nuclear test. Director Honda Ishiro wanted to make the movie in part due to the devastation wreaked by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Further inspiration came early in 1954, when crew members of a Japanese fishing vessel got radiation sickness due to a nuclear test. Gojira, his name a combination of the Japanese words for whale ("kujira") and gorilla ("gorira"), was embraced by Japanese audiences. The film was re-edited for its U.S. release. Scenes were added in which Raymond Burr played an American reporter following the story of this monster, but this version erased any message about the dangers of nuclear weapons and testing. Gojira was given a new name as well, becoming Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

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