Universal Studios’ backlot used to be a freak show. Its crooked inhabitants stumbled through the facades of European villages and their dank alleyways, transfiguring mere nightmares into an earthbound Hell. Men allergic to the moon met up with those stitched from the dead. The air crackled with a frenzied importance as artists became the mad scientists they had created, erasing the boundaries between fiction and reality.
Two of those madcap artists were Jack Pierce and Milicent Patrick, to whom we have to thank for the enduring appeal of the Classic Monsters. Pierce was the head of Universal’s makeup department from 1928 to 1946, and essentially created the characters of Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man as we know them today. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a design of Patrick’s, whose credit was stolen by fellow Universal makeup artist Bud Westmore.
The Monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was grotesque, but he was no bogeyman. In the novel, he passes as human, with his skin being a translucent yellow, and a mane of black hair flowing down his back. The character contemporary culture recognizes as “Frankenstein” is a separate entity entirely, based off of Boris Karloff and his squared-off features. Pierce, having read a medical textbook and learning about the six ways to cut open a human skull, chose the simplest option of a straight cut across the top of the head, birthing a need for The Monster’s iconic stitches. The now-infamous neck bolts (which ended up permanently scarring Karloff’s neck) were another invention of Pierce’s fancy. Gone almost entirely from memory is the original gothic telling of an articulate, albeit horrifically disfigured, human being; one man and his bold costuming choices reinvented the tale so thoroughly that this shambling, grunting iteration of the Monster had been immortalized forevermore. Shelley’s symbolism had officially been mutilated into the literal.
The methods which Pierce employed to apply makeup were nightmare-inducing in their own right. Lon Chaney Jr., in his preparation for The Wolf Man, had to sit for hours as Pierce glued yak hair onto his face, row by row, using a hot iron to singe the fur. This technique was not unique, having been popularized by theatrical- and silent film- makeup artists, but it was on its way out, something Pierce chose to ignore, which would eventually end his career. He had an aversion to latex as well, choosing to torture his clients by building facial features out of cotton and nose putty instead.
Dark and cryptic, The Creature emerged from the murky depths of his Black Lagoon enraged at the team of scientists invading his home. He was not of another world, but, terrifyingly, our own. The sleek, fish-like costume was a triumphant work of art by resident makeup designer Milicent Patrick, who dreamt, sketched, and finally put together the final Gill-Man character. Actor Ben Chapman would spend three hours being put into a body glove, then waiting as the rubber scales were then applied to the foam latex suit. The head was designed to be eel-like, conjuring up images of sly, slimy monsters crawling along the bottom of the sea. These choices led to the legendary status The Creature now holds, feared by children and adults alike due to his hypnotizing eyes, layers of ruffled gills, and puckered fish-lips.
For a couple brief decades, the sketching and stitching done by a handful of eager creatives at a second-rate film studio would change pop culture for almost a century to come. It is impossible to think of The Monster without green skin and platform boots, or of werewolves that don’t sport pompadours and harsh underbites. The dreams of the few fueled the nightmares of the masses, proving that horror is, and will always be, Universal.