Animated horror is an unwieldy category. Often these horror-comedies, or diet horror films directed at children, are the sorts of films I ignore. “When I have kids someday,” I think. But animation as a genre often gets short shrift just the way horror does (admittedly I’m a culprit), and investigating their similarities and intersections is worthwhile.
The history of animation is intimately tied to the history of cinema. The illusion of motion produced by the rapid projection of still images (24 frames per second on celluloid, about 30 on digital media) is what makes cinema its own art form. In fact, you could argue that all cinema is a form of animation. Animation as we think of it today, however, really came into its own in the late 1920s and took off with the advent of Walt Disney’s films.
Disney received an Academy Award in 1932 for his body of work, by which time he had already made such landmark shorts as Steamboat Willie (1928) and an additional parade of films featuring Mickey Mouse. Interestingly, the 20s and early 30s were also a landmark period in the history of horror films, producing such seminal European works as The Golem (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
In the United States, James Whale completed Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935; In addition, Tod Browning completed Dracula in 1931 and Freaks in 1932. (Thomas Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein, long thought to be lost, is perhaps the earliest American horror film and is fascinating to watch.) Many popular animated horror films these days trade on tropes established in that first “golden age” of horror, like the sewn-together, reanimated body (Corpse Bride ) or the murderous animal prowling the innocent village (Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit ). Indeed, much as the shrieking violin has become a punch line that is understood even by those (misguided souls) who’ve never seen Psycho, much of what makes animated horror effective—whether effectively scary, funny, or endearing—comes from a deep cultural knowledge of early horror films, whether or not the individual viewer has actually seen them.
Perhaps the perfect example of this is the annual Simpsons Halloween episode, which trades on horror pastiche at many levels. While kids can be entertained by the characters’ antics even without understanding the “in jokes,” adults with a deeper knowledge of horror film, whether gained on purpose or through osmosis, can appreciate the humor more profoundly. The works of Tim Burton, most seminally The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), owe their success entirely to this facile blending of horror tropes with easily accessible comedy. Not to say that Burton’s films aren’t at times truly scary—they are—but by turning horror into something broader and deeper than just scares, he managed to forge a whole new subgenre out of the cultural encyclopedia of horror traditions that we all refer to constantly without even realizing it.
Into this hybrid, self-referential world comes Hotel Transylvania, which in its very title gestures all the way back to the first great vampire film, Murnau’s Nosferatu. It features characters including Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, a mummy, and hosts of zombies and bats (and that’s all just in the trailer). It seems fully invested in this trend of using horror tropes in new, unexpected and comedic ways. In the trailer, for instance, Dracula is horrified when a human visitor to the titular hotel struggles to remove a contact lens. “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen!” he shrieks.
The film looks cute, entertaining and even mildly interesting on an intellectual level. Here’s hoping that the generation introduced to Dracula by Hotel Transylvania goes on to appreciate the likes of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee at least a little more than the erstwhile vampires of the Twilight series.
By Lita Robinson