When I was a child, there were two things in film that definitively scared me. No matter how many times I watched The Wizard of Oz, the scene of Margaret Hamilton (not even as the Wicked Witch!) riding a bike to the most chilling musical cue I knew to date would send my hands over my eyes in a heartbeat. My other filmic fear would have me covering my ears every time a DVD played the THX deep-note; always unnaturally loud, forever unskippable. I didn’t like getting scared.
I’ve started watching monster movies. They’re fascinating, aren’t they? This look into the human psyche—what scares us, what keeps us up at night? I may not want to be scared, but still, I can’t resist. I went back to the classics. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Mummy. Interesting stories, wherein we learn that we shouldn’t mess with things we don’t understand and also that Frankenstein’s creature is an adorable cinnamon bun.
But the next movie on that syllabus, The Invisible Man, is entrancing in wholly unique ways. Even the character design, that first striking image of a hat over steampunk-looking goggles, a face covered in bandages, snow falling off of him. Here’s this character who steps in out of the blue and, as a result of a strong temper and the fact that he’s invisible, he terrorizes a town.
The Invisible Man is unique from so many other monsters because he has no powers. Yes, he’s invisible, but that’s it. He is no more than a man that can slip by people easily. Notable in the film is a certain degree of cleverness that’s enjoyable to watch, as characters figure out how to protect themselves. A room is swept with a net to check if anybody invisible is hiding in it. People’s doors are to remain shut so that this nude man will suffer from exposure in a winter landscape. The Invisible Man does not face off against imbeciles. But these people are up against a very different kind of monster.
It’s not just his powers that set him aside; it’s his appearance too. The fact that there is none. Nearly every other monster movie/creature feature is all about coming up with the scariest design, through prosthetics or CGI. Can this scare you??? You’ll never believe the extent to which our art designers were able to create this fictional being. Monsters, to be scary, generally look the part.
Appearances are important. They give us first impressions and tell us how we’re supposed to feel about who we’re looking at. This is the benchmark of monster movies. Things that are so patently inhuman are automatically evil. Then humans attack the creatures and most of the damage done ends up being retaliatory. People have this problem of dehumanization as a method of connoting evil, and it goes beyond the monster movies. Shakespeare did it, too.
He did it in the opening of Richard III, with the soliloquy of a person out of place. Everybody else is happy about the end of a war, except Richard. He bemoans, “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks/ Nor made to court an amorous looking glass/…so lamely and unfashionable/ That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” This humpbacked man, deformed and terrifying as he appears, cannot fit in with the rest of the world. So he kills his way into the crown. The real Richard may not have been so wretched in appearance, but in drama, inhumanity makes evil easy.
In a similar moment in a Shakespeare adaptation, the big question on everybody’s mind is whether The Lion King’s Scar was called that before or after he was deformed. Either way, this visual symbol of evil spoke for itself. Why else would Blöfeld, Anakin, that colonel from Avatar, and Tony Montana have such similar facial abnormalities? This is not a mere practice of fiction; the very question of Napoleon’s height or of Hitler’s genital condition raises the possibility that they were not quite human. And the moment somebody is no longer human, we cannot become them. Separating ourselves from the evil demonstrates that our own potential inhumanity shocks us.
Some of the sociological and psychological phenomena that garner the most shock, recognition, and feelings of significance are those which show us a human capacity for evil. Milgram, Zimbardo, and Genovese all brought up the possibility that any human could be cruel or uncaring. This terrifies and thereby is remembered.
Scarier than the monster in the movie is the possibility of that being us. Compartmentalization is easier than dealing with a problem head-on, and turning one committing monstrous acts into a monster, a nonhuman, makes compartmentalizing so much more simple. One might suggest that Richard could have been a good uncle if he was more good-looking, Napoleon a less ambitious ruler without his eponymous complex. Dehumanizing serves no other purpose than to neglect human capacity for evil.
We can’t see the Invisible Man, but he is human. He’s not a vampire, a reanimated corpse with super-strength, an ancient spirit with mind control abilities, or a vicious werewolf. He’s some guy who was given free rein to do whatever he wanted. The Invisible Man shows the capacity of a normal human being to commit atrocities, when given the chance to go forth, destroy, and get away with it.
There’s this wonderful shot around two-thirds of the way into the movie that I will never forget. The camera pans over from a car to a seemingly empty shot. Yet because of context, we know. Is there any better way to “Show, don’t tell” than by not even showing? We know who’s there, invisible as he may be. We know that in ourselves, there is the capacity for evil. It’s just so human. And it’s the reason why, no matter how much green makeup Ms. Hamilton wore, the scariest part of Oz is a regular woman, riding a bike to a fearsome tune, sepia-toned and capable of anything.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures