Otto Dix (1891–1969) . Storm troopers advancing under a gas attack from the portfolio War 1924.

World War I’s impact on modern art and philosophy are well documented. The Victorian Age took human progress for granted. The Enlightenment idea that rationality would continuously improve and perfect civilization ruled. That view of the world died, along with 16 million people. The universe seemed broken, and death reigned.

Otto Dix (1891–1969) . Storm troopers advancing under a gas attack from the portfolio War 1924.
Otto Dix (1891–1969) . Storm troopers advancing under a gas attack from the portfolio War 1924.

This feeling found expression in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, Otto Dix’s art, in Dada and Surrealism – and in political movements that often turned destructive.

It also found expression in the emerging art of film, as 2018 book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, by W. Scott Poole explores.

Poole’s treatment of three films in particular stand out:

The first is Abel Gance’s J’accuse. Shooting began in August 1918, and the film is most memorable for its scene in which the war dead rise to march on French civilians who have forgotten their sacrifice. Although these characters are not zombies in the sense we think of them now, their manner and visual presentation have been adapted by horror filmmakers working in the zombie genre. Poole points out that the cemetery in George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead is decorated with war ribbons.

The dead are treated differently in horror made during and after the war than in horror before the war. Edgar Allen Poe wrote of corrupted souls and demonic forces. The zombies who dominate contemporary horror have no souls.

Victorian Era spirituality sentimentalized the dead, with highly ornate mourning rituals. These disappeared virtually overnight when the war broke out – and entire culture changing the way it saw death. Now, people were surrounded by bodies and parts of bodies that were clearly not alive. The mutilated soldiers and civilians seemed to make a mockery of the idea that humans were anything other than animated sacks of flesh.

The Army of the Dead in Game of ThronesThe soulless nature of these zombies was used by Romero to create an allegory of capitalism. I read the wights in HBO’s Game of Thrones as sharing a theme with Gance’s soldiers — the dead return to haunt those who live at their expense.

The scene in J’Accuse is rendered even more horrifying when you learn that Gance used real soldiers on leave to play these parts. 80% of them were killed within a few weeks.

Nosferatu, the 1922 German Expressionist classic, has its roots deep in the Great War. Producer Albin Grau, the driving force behind the film, was an occultist who served in the German Army during the war. It was there a Serbian farmer told him the story of how his father was a vampire, inspiring Grau to create a vampire story of his own.

Director F. W. Muranu experienced horrific trauma during the war. He was drafted and after surviving the Battle of Verdun, Murnau served in the new German Air Force where he was shot down several times and became a prisoner of war. His lover, the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, was killed in vicious melee combat on the Eastern Front.

Nosferatu was largely based on Braum Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, but it departs from the source material in several ways. Poole emphasizes the way Nosferatu links the vampire with a plague destroying Europe – seeing both as an analog for the war.

Grau encouraged this interpretation, telling critics and audiences the film had to be seen in the light of the war. Grau called the war “a cosmic vampire” that had come “drinking the blood of millions.”

Poole also examines the horrifying scene in which the body of Count Orlok is found in its coffin:

“The vision of a corpse existing at some unthinkable intersection of life and death proved compellingly terrifying for this generation… What had the war revealed about the human body and the ancient concept of the soul? People had witnessed too much death and mutilation. Loved ones had not died peacefully in their bed after some encouragingly precious final words. Rather, they had been torn apart, their bodies never found, or they walked about in the trancelike state of shell shock, often scarred, burned, sickened or blind. Nosferatu evoked this terror for a country that had seen more than its share of corpses.”

Count Orlok in his coffin
Count Orlok in his coffin

Nosferatu had, and continues to have, enormous influence over horror art even outside the world of film. Poole writes that groups of surrealist artists would host Rocky Horror-like screenings of Nosferatu, in which they’d shout of the words of the intertitles on screen.

There was a sense that traditional means of expression and thought cannot cope with the mass death of the war. Poole’s book spends time with surrealism and Dada, with Sigmund Freud, Otto Dix, Franz Kafka, H. P. Lovecraft and T. S. Eliot.

Out of this milieu of frightening death and confusion came some of the most enduring and recognizable characters of the 20th Century — the Universal Monsters.

I think Poole overstates his case a bit in this chapter. He writes that James Whale’s Frankenstein monster is a “mound of corpses” that represent the dead from the war. I don’t see any evidence that Frankenstein or the rest of the Universal cycle was inspired directly by the Great War. But it certainly is true they were inspired by films inspired by the great war. In the same way, the look of the White Walkers in Game of Thrones wasn’t inspired directly by Great War soldiers, but rather come from a tradition of zombie portrayal and conception that has roots in the Gance’s J’accuse.

And Frankenstein certainly took its look directly from the German Expressionist horror that arose in the wake of the war. Whale screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari repeatedly while making Frankenstein, and the design of Castle Frankenstein and the doctor’s laboratory were heavily influenced by Nosferatu.

Poole’s Wasteland has plenty to offer beyond these three films. I found his treatment of Salvador Dalí ‘s vicious racism and support of fascism enlightening. He also relates how Bela Lugosi served in the Austria-Hungary elite ski corps during the war and once buried himself under a large pile of corpses to hide from Russian troops. He was later discharged for war neurosis — fascinating background for the man who would embody the idea of the undead.

The book offers innumerable intriguing ideas and backgrounds like these. It’s a fascinating take on the war and some of the overlooked ways its legacy sticks with us today.

Adam Call Roberts

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  1. Andrew August 27, 2019

    The absence of complex characters who are in most ways indistinguishable from ourselves is what separates the cream from the crop when it comes to horror movies. True horror is found in what you recognize but cannot control. You know to be afraid, to run, but the ego won't allow it.