A decade after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb spawned a global fascination with ancient Egypt and rumors of a curse, Boris Karloff appeared on screen covered in makeup that took eight hours to apply in The Mummy. The 1932 film became a horror classic, and a testament to the ways science impacts pop culture.
“It’s interesting to me how easily scientific discoveries get sensationalized,” says Sarah Crawford, senior manager of exhibition design and development for Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. On October 10, Natural History of Horror opens at the museum for a run that will last through April 19. The exhibition is small—it’s contained to one room—but packed with information that connects four Universal Monsters with the science and history at the root of their stories.
“Why is it that anytime there’s a new scientific discovery, like the opening of King Tut’s tomb, we immediately turn it into something scary?” Crawford asks. “I don’t know if I have an answer to that question, but that’s something that we’re trying to raise in the exhibition throughout. Why are people scared of science? Why does it terrify people?”
There’s a practical reason for the exhibition too. NHMLA is in possession of an impressive collection of Universal artifacts that were donated by the studio back in the 1930s. Their early Hollywood collection goes out on loan often, but, Crawford notes, it’s been a while since pieces like these have been on view at their home museum. Moreover, some of the objects, like a bat made from fabric and fur for Dracula, are at an age where they will need to be retired from exhibition soon. This event gives Angelenos a chance to see these treasures in a way that connects them to other research happening at the museum.
“They were allegories and metaphors and cautionary tales. They were based on man’s fear of science or man’s fear of death,” says Holly Goline, the executive who oversees Universal Monsters for the studio, which collaborated with NHMLA on the exhibition. “There was always some sort of science in these films. So, having science and the monsters being married together was such a no-brainer for us.”
In the case of The Mummy, the inspiration was clear. The same can be said for Frankenstein; Mary Shelley’s novel drew from galvanism, which scientist Luigi Galvani researched in the late 1700s. Other origin stories bring together multiple sources. Take Dracula as an example. “There are so many sources of the vampire legend,” says Crawford. Outbreaks of diseases are part of that. The exhibition notes that some believe the vampire myth is related to rabies due to a similarity of symptoms. The Creature from the Black Lagoon also appears to have multiple sources. One is the discovery of the coelacanth, a fish that was thought to be extinct. Another is a legend of a creature in the Amazon, half-fish and half-human, said to snatch young women.
The stories behind the monsters are told through objects from the films, augmented with photos, newspaper clippings, and relevant pieces from other collections within the museum. There are also a few interactive surprises in the exhibition. “We hope that they’ll give people a fresh look at the movies,” says Crawford. “These films are gorgeous and they made the genre.” And science helped shape that.
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