Movie monsters throughout history
Movie monsters have been around almost as long as movies themselves. The first American films and nickelodeons showed monstrous beings in addition to comedic fare. Early stop-action effects allowed bodies to stretch, be blown apart, and then reanimate, often substituting macabre skeletons for humans. In France, Georges Méliès’ 1902 “A Trip to the Moon” features Selenites, moon men, which are regarded as cinema’s first aliens.
Moviegoers have always been fascinated by monsters, casting them as the “other,” a creature marked by abnormality or deformity. While this figure is often terrifying and inhuman, part of any monster’s allure is in the way it exudes humanity. Movie monsters are not always terrifying. Often, they can seem more human than the people who run from them or gaze in horror.
Cinematic monsters often represent society’s deepest fears as a way to provide commentary on harrowing cultural events. The monster is the stuff of nightmares unleashed upon a world in order to harass, destroy, and make sense of pernicious histories. Monsters often crave blood and decimation. They pursue violence and revel in the grotesque. They represent the worst parts of human instincts. Audiences detest monsters at the same time they find them fascinating. Movie monsters are terrible, but there’s something about them that makes it impossible to look away.
Movie monsters represent what film scholar Robin Wood, drawing on Freud, called “the return of the repressed” in his influential essay. In the conventional horror film, the monster figure will arrive as a threat to the status quo. Often, the monster ends up battling another archetype, one scholar Carol J. Clover theorizes as “the final girl,” a female protagonist who either defeats the beast or loses to it. Clover offers that while the final girl seems a feminist hero, she’s also one with whom male viewers strongly identify. Further, scholar Barbara Creed finds “the monstrous-feminine” in horror films where the abject villain represents a fear of women and their power.
Issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality are almost always at play with movie monsters because they stand-in for the tensions and horrors of the cultures that produce them. Movie monsters bring forth trouble and fear. They make us ask, who or what are you? And the answers become complicated fusions of discomfort and terror that are also deeply appealing. Monsters are the creatures we both abhor and adore—and that adoration says something about the monstrosity at the core of being human that we’d all rather forget.
With that in mind, Stacker compiled this list of some of the most iconic monsters in movie history. Read on to see if your favorite made the cut.
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Cesare, 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' (1920)
This silent-era masterpiece produces one of the first zombie-esque monsters in the sleepwalker Cesare. Using a German Expressionist aesthetic, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is thought to represent the national mindset that allowed the rise of Nazism by presenting a community “sleepwalking” and allowing unspeakable horrors to occur. The striking expressionistic sets were an extension of the psyche of the murderous sleepwalker—uncanny, atilt, and primed for mindless violence.
Count Orlok, 'Nosferatu' (1922)
This early vampire became iconic due to his arresting visual presence. Using the haunting style that would emblematize the German Expressionist film movement, the vampire is a creature of shadow and menace. With long nails, severe ears, and a dark visage, Nosferatu represents the irrepressible dread we’d rather keep hidden that instead manifests in a terrorized world.
Satan, 'Häxan' (1922)
This Swiss-Danish film was banned in the U.S. after it was deemed too blasphemous and shocking for American audiences. The director, Benjamin Christensen, played the Devil himself in this strange film about the persecution of witches throughout history that’s filled with surreal imagery intended to shock, offend, and scare audiences.
Dracula, 'Dracula' (1931)
Bela Lugosi stole the show in the early vampire movie based on Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula.” The screen star played the mysterious Count with austere charisma and a formality that influenced later remakes about the mythic bloodsucker. The vampire monster represents aspects of contagion and seduction, as well as the allure of dark deeds like feeding on humans in whatever form it takes.
Frankenstein's monster, 'Frankenstein' (1931)
Frankenstein's monster, created from body parts of the dead and never named, offers the quintessential creature, both tragic and horrifying, yet still oddly relatable. Based on Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, “Frankenstein” explores themes surrounding the monstrous uses of technology, as well as the binary between inner darkness and humanity. The creator becomes as wretched as the thing he’s invented or birthed. Frankenstein's monster proves to be horrific, but also human at its core.
Imhotep, 'The Mummy' (1932)
Boris Karloff brings somber humanity to his rendition of the 3,700-year-old mummy revived by unwitting archeologists. Using expressionistic style to create striking black & white compositions, this Universal Studios version of the classic Egyptian monster influenced future franchises. Karloff’s wrinkled visage and searing eyes, seen in menacing close-up, gave the monster a strange humanity audiences can’t help but root for even as they fear it.
Murder Legendre, 'White Zombie' (1932)
Considered one of the first films in the zombie genre, “White Zombie,” stars Bela Lugosi as Murder, a voodoo master who enslaves black Haitians making them docile workers in his sugar cane mill. When a white woman, Madeleine (Madge Bellamy), arrives on a neighboring plantation, a man enlists Murder to turn her into a zombie so she’ll do as he pleases. The empty-eyed woman behaves in a trance-like state, exposing the blank docility that some wealthy white men seem to want from women and workers. Murder takes the fall for a system of exploitation that enslaves and oppresses minorities by “zombifying” them.
King Kong, 'King Kong' (1933)
The tragic creature King Kong is known for its profound humanity, despite existing as a series of trick shots and stop motion effects. When Kong falls from the Empire State Building, it’s a melancholic, fatal swoon, not a triumphant slaying. Here, the “beast” is misunderstood—captured, enslaved, and killed by the capitalist impulse to monetize horrific spectacle. When King Kong finds the screaming woman (Fay Wray), the creature displays compassion and love.
The Bride, 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935)
“Friend?” asks Frankenstein's monster, as he approaches his newly created Bride. She’s played by the inimitable Elsa Lanchester, who rejects the creature with a scream. The scene dramatizes fears around unrequited love and the rage of women. The film offers a critique of the Eve origin story, recasting the creation of a female mate as perverse and horrific.
Countess Marya Zaleska, 'Dracula’s Daughter' (1936)
Gloria Holden plays the titular vampire with somber intensity in this follow-up to “Dracula.” She’s a notable queer monster who brings a lesbian subtext to the usually cis male role. The countess tries to resist her murderous urges but ultimately succumbs to bloodthirst.