Transnational Chills: A History of Latinxs’ Love of Horror
Orquidea Morales / State University of New York, Old Westbury


Dracula in black and white
Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Universal’s first horror film.

Author’s Note:
This column is the first in a three-part series that examines Latinx horror
film and television. Here, I delve into the relationship between Latinx
communities and the horror genre focusing on language, nationality, and generic
definitions.

My relationship with horror films started at a very young age. I watch them hoping to be terrified, looking for that adrenaline rush. The first moment I remember being scared by a movie was when I was a little girl. I was watching Dr. Giggles (1992) at my aunt’s house in Reynosa, Tamaulipas in northern Mexico and the titular character’s evil cackle has been burned into my memory ever since. My aunt lived right next door to a video rental shop, so we were always watching dubbed American horror films.


Trailer for Dr. Giggles directed by Manny Coto. Stuff of nightmares!

Of course, I am not the only Latina in love with the genre.  On the October 31st, 2015 episode of NPR’s All Things Considered correspondent Vanessa Rancaño talked about Latinos love for horror films.[ ((Rancaño, Diana. 2015. “Why Latinos Heart Horror Films.” NPR All Things Considered. ))] When I first listened to Rancaño’s piece “Why Latinos Heart Horror Films” I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

Latinxs’ love has led to big profits for horror films. A 2012 Nielsen study found that Latinxs make the highest audience share of horror/thriller film releases. This fact has held true. In the 2016 article “Scare up Success with Hispanic Horrorphiles,” Diana Rasbot notes “Hispanics are 42% more likely than non-Hispanics to be horror fans—and it’s only one of many genres enjoyed by Hispanics.”[ ((Rasbot, Diana. 2016. “Scare up Success with Hispanic Horrorphiles.” Univision Communications. https://corporate.univision.com/blog/2016/10/24/scare-up-success-with-hispanic-horrorphiles/))] Such is the power of the Latinx horror fan that the 2018 horror film, The Nun, which starred Mexican actor Demian Bichir broke box office records for the Conjuring universe thanks to Latinx audiences that made up 36% of theater goers.[ ((Hunt, Darnell, and Ana Christina Ramón. 2020. “Hollywood Diversity Report 2020: A Tale of Two Hollywoods.” UCLA College of Sciences.))] Unfortunately, the love is not reciprocated by Hollywood. Representation of Latinxs in front and behind the camera in film continues to be significantly low. Thus, Hollywood profits from Latinx audiences yet doesn’t tell Latinx stories or include Latinx actors and creators. 


Scary woman screaming in the dark
The Curse of La Llorona scared up profits in 2019 thanks to Latinx Horror Fans.

In these three columns, I wrestle with a few
questions: What is Latinx horror? What is the relationship between Latinx horror
and Latin American horror? What role does language play in horror? This is not
an attempt to answer these complex questions, but rather to fuel a conversation
about this long-lasting love affair.

A logical place to start is the 1931 release of Dracula and Drácula. These two films really set the groundwork for questions we still have today.

Multilingual Draculas:

In 1931, the addition of sound was changing filmmaking in Hollywood. Many actors and actresses with accents lost roles or were no longer able to play protagonists. At the same time, Hollywood producers worried that monolingual English films would lose international audiences. Facing this conundrum, Universal Studios took a unique approach to their monster movie, Dracula.


Newspaper clipping
A 1931 article published in the Los Angeles Evening Express announces upcoming Spanish language releases including Drácula.

Dracula and vampire tales are one of Hollywood’s most popular undead monsters. In the U.S. alone there have been roughly 120 films starring this monster since the release of Dracula in 1931.

The plotline is simple: Renfield, an English solicitor travels to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula in order to help him lease an abbey in London. Dracula turns Renfield into a vampire. Renfield’s hunger for blood drives him crazy and he is institutionalized in London while Dracula looks for more victims, now in the city. His two victims are Mina and Lucy. Lucy dies, but Mina slowly starts to turn into a vampire. Van Helsing, after treating Renfield at the asylum, discovers Dracula is a vampire and hunts him down and kills him. Dracula’s death returns Mina to her human state. What is less known is that at the same time in 1931, the film was also being produced in Spanish. The Spanish version has the exact same plot with a few minor differences including the names of the female protagonists. Mina is now Eva and Lucy is Lucia.


Dracula
Carlos Villarías as Drácula.

The English language version of the film that starred Bela Lugosi in the titular role was directed by Tod Browning. At night, the same sets would be used to film a Spanish language version of the film starring Carlos Villarías as Drácula and Lupita Tovar as Eva that was directed by George Melford and Enrique Tovar Ávalos (who was uncredited for his work). Melford did not speak Spanish so Tovar Ávalos served as translator and co-director.

The films have had very different trajectories
particularly when the Spanish version was considered lost. In the 1970s, a
print of it was found in Cuba. Since then, Drácula has been given a new
lease on life. However, what is important to note is that from very early on in
the birth of the horror genre Spanish-speaking audiences were a primary concern
to the Hollywood film industry.

Why are Dracula/Drácula so important for our conversation on Latinx horror? The multilingual vampires show how important Latinx and Latin American audiences have been for Hollywood. However, they also show the strange conflation between the categories of Latinx and Latin American that still happen today. For example, many Latin American audiences criticized the fact that Spanish language Hollywood films during this time had mixed accents. In the case of Drácula, Eva was Mexican while Drácula was Spanish. The lack of awareness or lack of care that these differences highlight show the continuing erasure of Latinx and Latin American differences.

The blurring of these linguistic differences aside, Dracula/Drácula show how important Latinx and Latin American audiences were for Hollywood. Scholars such as Colin Gunckel[ ((Gunckel, Colin. 2015. Mexico on Main Street: Transnational Film Culture in Los Angeles Before World War II. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.))] and Lisa Jarvinen[ ((Jarvinen, Lisa. 2012.  The Rise of Spanish-Language Filmmaking: Out from Hollywood’s Shadow, 1929-1939. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.))] have documented the way Hollywood saw Latin American audiences as one of their biggest consumers and saw Spanish language productions as a necessity to cultivate that audience at home and abroad.

The uneven presentation of Latinidad by Hollywood did provide crucial access for Latinx and Latin Americans interested in filmmaking. Hollywood often borrowed Latin American talent and vice versa, thereby creating a complicated and unequal transnational filmmaking history. At the same time, though, these linguistic differences and the attempt to garner audiences in the U.S. and Latin America exemplify how Latinx horror is inherently a transnational genre. No case exemplifies this better than another vampire tale, the film From Dusk till Dawn (1996) directed by Robert Rodriguez. The movie stars Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium, a vampire at the Titty Twister bar on the Mexican border that entices men with her dancing. The name Santanico is borrowed from the 1975 Mexican nunsploitation movie Satanico Pandemonium-La Sexorcista. That film, directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares and starring Enrique Rocha and Cecilia Pezet, is about young Sor Maria (Pezet), the purest of the nuns living in the convent, who after encountering Beelzebub (Rocha) slowly succumbs to the temptations he sets in front of her. The name shows one small example of how Mexican horror films can and do influence the creation of Latinx horror.

On the left you see young Sor Maria and on the right Santanico.

I would like to conclude by going back to the story of Dracula/Drácula. Two movies I had never seen until a few years ago when in conversation about early Latinx horror with a friend the title came up. Yes, I knew of Dracula, but my mind was blown when I learned of Drácula. Now that it had seen the light of day, Drácula was a darling for scholars and fans alike. The Hollywood history was fascinating for many of us. And it served as a reminder that even though Latinx and Latin American audiences have been a financial asset for Hollywood for decades, our dollar is rarely worth access to producing our own stories.



Image Credits:

  1. Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Universal’s first horror film. Author’s screengrab from Dracula (1931).
  2. The Curse of La Llorona scared up profits in 2019 thanks to Latinx Horror Fans. Author’s screengrab.
  3. A 1931 article published in the Los Angeles Evening Express announces upcoming Spanish language releases including Drácula. Wed, Feb 18, 1931. Page 19.
  4. Carlos Villarías as Drácula. Author’s screengrab from Drácula (1931).
  5. On the left you see young Sor Maria and on the right Santanico. Author’s screengrab from Satanico Pandemonium: La Sexorcista (1975) and From Dusk till Dawn (1996).


References:




Seasonal TV, Hammer Horror’s Cult History, and TCM’s Tele-Binging Convergence Model
Garret Castleberry / Oklahoma City University

Hammer Credits and TCM logo

Hammer Credits and TCM Logo

Each October, cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM) rotates a slew of vintage horror movies based upon available archives under contract. In 2010, TCM showcased former British film production company Hammer studios, complete with their eclectic horror movies of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Hammer horror films carry a unique look and subsequent aesthetic ambiance reflective of the studio’s pension for rich stagecraft planning and lush Victorian costuming despite razor thin budgets. As a benchmark industry innovation, Hammer horror boasts the first color horror films released for moviegoing audiences. In typical TCM fashion, pre-recorded bumpers prime viewers for these B-movie marathons, supplying industry tidbits and other arcane trivia. Since 2010, TCM continues to air Hammer horror films each October, albeit more scattered and with less showmanship. The packaging of related content, particularly the intertextual mise-en-scène representative of Hammer’s industrious studio history, functions as a visual spectacle for cinephiles familiar and foreign to their film canon.

Hammer’s recurring tropes possess textual and intertextual qualities, making these cult classics insightful to watch in conversation with one another. Hammer often redressed the same sets over and over, tweaking lighting design, costuming, and props to re-disguise scenes. The aesthetic effect conjoins visual distinction with resonant repetition. One unintentional impact is that many iconic scenes and settings conjure otherwise unrelated Hammer horror films. In a sense, the visual admixture thus haunts subsequent films in their gothic horror canon. In this essay, I consider the industry methods Hammer and TCM communicate in through their cyclical formulas of re-presentation.

The Cultural History of Hammer Horror

Posters for Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy

Posters for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Mummy (1959)

Prior to their success within the horror genre, Hammer Films functioned as a low-budget British production company relatively unheard of to American audiences. In the 1950s Hammer Studios acquired the rights to Universal Studios’ once-lucrative marquee horror film monsters, including Dracula, Frankenstein, the mummy, and the wolf man. Decades before, Universal Studios broke box office records and Hollywood taboos alike with cinematic introductions to these horror creations. Universal’s collective cinematic translation set supernatural monsters apart from their literary counterparts in large part due to the sheer [social] spectacle cinema provides. One contractual catch with the negotiated release of character rights stipulated newly produced versions bare no visual resemblance to the iconic look Universal once profited from. In short, visuality played a central role in processes of acquisition and translation, requiring an obscure production company inexperienced in horror cinema to reinvent a product long since saturated by conventional audiences.

By the late 1940s, American audiences grew tired of traditional monsters characterized in horror. Such a shift in audience taste can be assessed on a historical and theoretical trajectory. First, in part due to the real-world horrors experienced during and coming out of World War II, audiences rejected such fantastical creations as Dracula and Frankenstein in favor of more “resonant violations” with the onset of the Cold War. [ (( Phillips, Kendall. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2005. 8-10. ))] These resonant violations coincided with ideological shifts in the collective American consciousness, and a general movement toward conservative perspectives in life and in art. Noting generational shifts is important to understanding a second theoretical claim, that the Universal monsters had reached a impasse in their genre lifecycle, to the point where Frankenstein and others were featured in crossovers like vaudevillian comedies alongside Abbott and Costello (think of this as generic precursors to the Hanna-Barbara Scooby Doo’s to come decades later). In effect, the affect was broken, and the medium’s genre cycle required an innovative reboot to remind audiences of the semiotic power these artifacts wield.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Curse of Dracula

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Curse of Dracula (1958)

Starting in the mid-late 1950s through the early 1970s, Hammer Studios rewrote the script on the horror genre, challenging boundaries of moral decency through the subversive (and successful!) use of gothic horror as an ethical compromise between conservative mythologies and progressive textualities. Hammer horror constituted the first mainstream studio effort to translate horror pictures into glorious Technicolor, exciting audiences and censors with the canonization of onscreen gore. The results were monumental, leading Hammer to years of successful franchising and sequelizing in ways that ought ring familiar with contemporary Cineplex audiences. Film series starting with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) became concomitantly associated with the career-defining works of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (no coincidence, George Lucas used both as a meta-fan homage within his Star Wars saga). Like the redressed sets, costumes, and props, Hammer exhausted recombinations of Hammer’s stock actors. Yet as time progresses, so do audience tastes, preferences produced by and reflected within popular culture. Indeed Hollywood film studios continue, often in vain, to exploit the pantheon of public domain characters for mass marketed simulacral commodification. But where does the line draw between film history fandom and industry commoditization?

Cult Ritualism in TCM’s Convergence Model

Despite the epic run of sensation horror films, Hammer met a tragic end by end of the 1970s. A short-lived horror anthology series did not resuscitate the studio. Ultimately Hammer closed its doors just as slasher franchises took hold of teens in the 1980s. Hammer largely remained dormant, a relic in cinema history, until its resurrection by TCM. As previously noted, TCM offered red-carpet treatment (and cult-like devotion) in 2010 with a weekly spotlight complete with the cabler’s iconic brand of paratextual discourse. In subsequent years since, Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, and even comedian Bill Hader hosted some of TCM’s signature vignette bumpers, transforming Hammer horror marathons from cinematic aesthetic to something resembling binge-watching in its televisual form.

Vignettes exude a performative value in their own right that adds an informational aesthetic value to the screen text, particularly former B-movies traditionally relegated to follow-up feature status at drive-ins (another ghostly paratextual communal experience altogether). Uniquely, this informational aesthetic value functions as paratextual discourse through further intertextual referencing. The combined efforts situate a context for viewers familiar and foreign to Hammer. For repeat viewers, the ritualistic repetition of insider information blankets the text in a refurbished reassurance that becomes appointment viewing, marked by TCM’s bookend intros and outros and pseudo-celebrity hosts.

Give-and-Take in TCM and Hammer Horror: The Women in Nightgowns Trope

Women in nightgowns trope

TCM’s self-referentiality as an “archive” legitimates their status (in audiences minds) as a premiere cable channel. At the same time, the programming function promotes access to hard to find (e.g. “sacred”) cultural texts while also practicing exclusivity by withholding particular features until certain seasons or rotational themes circulate again. Such give-and-take tension performs a kind of televisual burlesque show akin to Hammer’s gothic horror tropes; for example, the Victorian tension between sexual repression and expression, visualized onscreen through claustrophobic multi-layered full body suits and dresses juxtaposed against strategic cleavage and recurring nightgown tiptoeing throughout drafty castles. Thus, the product becomes transformative, as the texts reinforce the channel while the channel’s programmers purport a unique access portal for viewers.

Osborne & Mankiewitcz and TCM Presents Psycho

Robert Osborne & Ben Mankiewitcz and TCM Presents Psycho Poster

TCM’s October strategy, along with other campaigns like their routine Summer under the Stars “festival,” suggests a seasonal approach to programming not unlike traditional networks with contemporary scripted shows. This affords TCM the luxury of blurring lines between viewing and screening, including infrequent and thus exclusive habits like advertising TCM Presents theatrical specials, including a two-date rerelease of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in conjunction with Fathom Events in fall 2015. Bringing the public/private, inclusive/exclusive cycle full-circle, Psycho’s theatrical mini-release features vignette bumpers from TCM’s second-most recognizable host, Ben Mankiewicz. This synergistic strategy communicates telling insight into the state of the film and cable television industries and the effect Internet and streaming services have on both. In the Hammer horror tradition, what emerges is an amalgamation of the former two, a multi-modal monstrosity uncanny in its convergence culture communiqué.

Discussion to be continued in Flow 22.03.

Image Credits:

1. Hammer Credits
2. TCM Logo
3. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) Poster
4. The Mummy (1959) Poster
5. Peter Cushing in The Horror of Dracula (1958)
6. Christopher Lee in The Horror of Dracula (1958)
7. Nightgown vampire from The Horror of Dracula (1958)
8. Robert Osborne & Ben Mankiewitcz
9. TCM Presents Psycho Poster
10. Graham Humphries Hammer Horror Compilation

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