Friday, October 7, 2011

The Skull

It seems as though there's always been something paradoxical about artistic representations of death.  Even in more arcane times, the figure of death loomed menacing over insignificant worshipers in awesome church frescoes, while dancing merrily through the streets in his task in woodcuts, judiciously striking down king and wretched peasant alike.  In less enlightened times, the corpses of criminals were routinely put on public display, and plague, war and famine victims might go unburied for extensive lengths of time.  Death was surely too omnipresent to serve as much of a source of titillation to the common man.  For a good Christian, death meant resurrection.  Reverence of the dead was improper, even pagan , though such rituals were widespread.  The skull represented our mortality and our earthly imperfection.  To the sinner, it represented a greater uncertainty: When would death take them, and where to?
A transition occurred in the perception of death in the West during the Industrial Revolution, when the disposal of the dead became increasingly standardized.  Death was nicely concealed within marble vaults, or in coffins beneath no less than six feet of earth, all surrounded by lush, green parks that inspired a morbid sort of serenity.  A rather odd public affinity with this cryptic aesthetic was born from the new sanitary innovations.  For a time, it was fashionable for mother's to pose for pictures with their sunken-eyed dead children, or whole families seated together with their dead patriarch.  Upper-class women would visit mediums, hoping to make some connection with the world beyond.  From gothic poetry, heavy with funereal atmosphere and ruminations on death, emerged Romantic Literature, which routinely challenged conventions on the subjects of death, religion and morality.  An age of growing skepticism about the benefits and validity of religion was in full bloom.  It was time for some long held taboos to recede.

One change seems to have been the depiction of death.  Yellow newspapers of the 19th Century catered to those with a fascination for lurid murder stories.  Spectacles of death, murder and iniquity could be enjoyed at Guignol theaters of France.  Ghost stories and "penny dreadfulls" dominated popular writing.  All permitted those, who had a desire to, to open the casket lid and catch a glimpse of that terrible, secret thing, properly  hidden from public view: The visage of death.  Surviving this encounter, the reader feels exhilarated and, contrary to reason, even more alive.
With modes of entertainment that required less education and imagination to enjoy forever in demand, it was the ideal time for moving pictures to give visual dimension to this evolving death fetish.  Filmmakers like Murnau (Nosferatu), Todd Browning (Dracula) and Paul Leni didn't hesitate to put visions of death and the grotesque on the screen for thrill-loving audiences.  To lend atmosphere, the skull and the skeleton became fundamental props.  A hidden pirate cove, a physicians study and a warlock's ritual chamber couldn't be represented without the occasional skull and bones.  Becoming such a commonplace prop meant that the impact of the sight of a skull lost it's intrigue.  The skull becomes something of an abstract image and, by itself, patently un-scary.  In Bride Of Frankenstein, when Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Praetorius shows such little reverence to the bones in the crypt, the act imbues the familiar props with significance they would otherwise lack to the movie-phile of 1935, as well as helping to define Praetorius as a somewhat sinister character.
In 1925, screen pioneer Lon Chaney made up his face to look like a disfigured, Phantom Of The Opera, whose face had been horrifically scarred by fire.  The effect is that of a skull face with hideously bared teeth, a shriveled nose and callow eyes beneath a bald pate.  Implicitly, the reclusive figure is among the dead: A vengeful phantom haunting the theater where he was once a respected composer.  In hiding his face under a skull mask at the masked ball, he perpetuates the idea that he is a ghost, to be feared and avoided.  Grotesque make-ups like those of Chaney's in The Phantom Of The Opera are said to have been inspired by survivors of terrible war wounds, of which there were a fair quantity in the wake of WWI.  Disfigured, grim-reaper-like maniacs would become a staple of  horror entertainment, notably in such movies as House Of Wax, The Virgin Of Nuremberg, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Nightmare On Elm Street. as well as countless adaptations and variations of Phantom.
Skulls rarely make feature appearances in films, for obvious reasons, but the low-budget shocker The Screaming Skull (1958) is a curious exception.  The movie is prefaced by a publicity "disclaimer", wherein a closed casket is shown, accompanied by a guarantee by the makers of The Screaming Skull to pay for the funeral services of any unfortunate individual who dies of fright while watching their movie.  As the story begins, a meek  newlywed bride, isolated nights in her husband's gothic southern mansion, finds herself stalked by a disembodied skull, ostensibly the ghost of the husband's late wife, who died under unusual circumstances years earlier.  Eventually it's revealed that the husband has been using a plastic skull and hokey theatrics to push his new wife over the edge, in a plot to have her committed and steal her money.  This scheme, which seems fairly improbable and cheap-jack, nonetheless appears to be working up until the feeble-minded gardener finds the dime-store prop and reveals it to the local pastor.  Finding exhibit A missing from it's hiding place, the husband strangles his bride, not apparently noticing that his wife had actually been running from his murdered previous wife, returned from the grave as a genuine skull-faced apparition.  Morphing into a flying ghost-skull, the vengeful spirit runs him down and proceeds to rip his throat out with it's teeth.
In House On Haunted Hill, Vincent Price successfully uses a life-like skeleton marionette in his own plot against a treacherous shrew of a wife.  In the climax, believing that her husband has been thrown into a pit filled with acid, the wife is confronted by a walking skeleton, speaking in the voice of her recently dissolved husband.  Screaming in terror, she backs away from the maddening vision, inevitably toppling into the acid pit herself, no doubt to be reduced to bones (a fitting punishment for someone who was fooled by a puppet gliding along on easily visible strings).  As a publicity stunt, director William Castle provided theater owners with their own fake skeleton-on-a-string  to fly over the heads of the audience at the appropriate moment.
In the most unintentionally amusing moment of Larry Cohen's camp classic Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959), demented criminologist Michael Gogh disposes of his meddling psychiatrist in the same way, careful that the skeleton not stay in it's acid-bath too long and fall apart.  He hangs the intact skeleton up on a hook, evidently meaning to exhibit it in his "Black Museum" of crime curiosities.
The haunting, primal aspect of the skull is exploited in the strange 3D flick The Mask (1961), where a psychiatrist visits the realm of the unconscious mind through the use of a mystical skull-faced Aztec mask.  During these stark, hallucinogenic experiences, he beholds many death images- such as a skull with snakes coming from it's eyes, a fire-breathing figure wearing the skull mask, himself as a rather quizzical zombie, and so on.  In the end, the mask drives the psychiatrist to homicide.
The cursed skull of the Marquis De Sade has a similar effect on anyone who possesses it in The Skull (1965).  In spite of it's deadly reputation, as well as an ominous, Kafka-esque dream he'd suffered shortly after first laying eyes on the skull, collector of diabolical curiosities Peter Cushing feels oddly compelled to own it.  As determined to keep the skull away from him, however (convinced that it's genuinely evil), is his rival Christopher Lee.  Cushing kills his old adversary and steals the skull, which has seemingly taken control of his will.  Prompted to sacrifice his sleeping wife to the skull, Cushing balks, and is punished in the same way as the murderous husband in The Screaming Skull: The skull pounces on him and tears out his throat. Why the skull of the Marquis de Sade should have this effect on anyone is not closely examined.
The horror represented by human bones in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is probably the most potent and immediate in horror movie history.  Besides routinely robbing graves, and making sculptures from the bones, the cannibalistic Sawyer family makes food of stranded motorists.  Victims waiting their turn might spend agonizing moments contemplating the skulls of those who went to the slaughter before them.  One inspiration for Tobe Hooper's highly influential low-budgeter was the exploits of real life serial killer Ed Gein, who's home, when arrested, was found to be decorated by the corpses of his victims, along with other remains dug up from the local graveyard.
In Return Of The Living Dead, the bumbling manager of a medical supply warehouse reveals to his young trainee the fact that all skeletons available for purchase come exclusively from India, and jokingly suggests that this might be evidence of "skeleton farms" there.  Shortly after the release of this popular zombie-movie spoof, the government of India abruptly banned the trade of skeletons.  It can only be surmised that the publicity generated by the revelation of these insidious skeleton farms existing in India- a country where large numbers of skulls still occasionally turn up in places as unlikely as bus stops (this is not a joke) -precipitated an official crackdown.  Sounds like a pretty good idea for a horror movie...


art bliss said...

Excellent read. Very thorough timeline of the cultural acceptance of the skull's representation of death and it's use in the entertainment industry. Must revisit some of the flicks you've listed.

Steve said...

Thanks! I've always been fascinated by the imagery and symbolism in horror movies and how the popular perception of them evolves over time.