4 Story Lessons from Universal’s Dark Universe of Monsters

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

The announcement of Universal’s Dark Universe earlier this year brought a wide range of reactions from the storytelling world. For those unaware, the plan is for a new series of movies around the classic monster characters owned by the studio to be released in much the same fashion as Marvel and DC have brought their cinematic universes to screen. Regardless of the success of this round of films, the fact that certain monsters have had extremely long careers on the big screen is undeniable.

So, what is it about these characters that audiences can’t get enough of? Are there elements found in the archetypes these characters rise from that give them their popularity? Here’s a brief look at four of the most classic monsters in cinema and what we can draw from them in our own stories.

THE MUMMY

What we can’t see sometimes affects us more than what we can

The first release from Universal’s Dark Universe didn’t fare as well as the studio hoped last weekend. It seems a certain woman of wonder and her lasso of truth proved too powerful for even the most iconic characters to grapple with. However, mummies have long been a staple of storytelling, especially in the film world. Mummies have faced our greatest fear – death – and somehow managed to come back. They cling to life in a way that we universally relate to. The cloth wrapping that surrounds their bodies hides who they truly are, yet the shape of their form can still be seen.

The metaphors that mummies embody for us are many. Perhaps most significantly, mummies represent those things we fear but can’t quite see in their true form – things that are covered and hidden. As Hitchcock stated, sometimes what we can’t see is far scarier than what we can.

DRACULA

Desires and Cravings make characters realistic and relatable

Perhaps the best known of all monsters, Dracula has been presented as scary, relatable, and even sexy on the big screen. Like most inhabitants of the Dark Universe, Dracula got his start in the pages of a novel. While images and characteristics of Dracula have changed with the times, the singular quality that always remains is his craving for blood. All the Dark Count does is in pursuit of that he most wants. He is driven by his desire.

Cravings are universal. Some things we crave because we need them, such as food, water, and shelter. Other things we simply want. And some of us want these things more than others. Good stories are often born out of characters that want something badly, and are willing to go to great lengths to get it. The more ravenous we make our character for what they desire, the more invested the audience becomes in seeing that character get what they are searching for.

FRANKENSTEIN

We empathize with tension between the interior and exterior

Mary Shelly’s monstrous creation has likely been psychologically analyzed more than any fictional creature. Though technically the doctor is named Frankenstein and not the monster, the culture at large has come to refer to him by his creator’s name. Formed from spare parts, the monster is a collage of various elements from others, which is itself a wonderful metaphor for how some of the most beloved characters are created. The most relatable aspect of the monster, however, is that he is misunderstood. He is not the evil creature that everyone assumes on seeing him. His ghastly appearance causes people to run in fear from him before ever asking a second question. Only a young blind girl gives him a chance, unable to see his haunting exterior.

Frankenstein’s monster is a living example of the struggle between the interior life and the exterior life. Despite the many cultural warnings about judging a book by its cover, everyone has known the pain of seeing that warning ignored. Characters should be living with a certain amount of inescapable tension. This monster teaches us how to do that.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

The Power of Feeling Seen

You’ve probably been asked before if you could select between the ability to fly and invisibility, what you would choose. It’s been suggested that your answer says something about your own wounds and inner psychology. While many fantasize about the voyeuristic opportunities that being invisible might offer, not being seen in cinematic stories has made one a monster.

Loneliness and despair are often associated with The Invisible Man. Finding ways to express these feelings in characters, either metaphorically or explicitly, opens up a universal connection with the audience. Many monsters are based on our own deepest fears of what may be true of ourselves. The Invisible Man is just such a monster. From him, we learn that it’s not enough to simply see others — it is essential in life that we feel seen as well.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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