Over the past year I’ve been slowly working on a chapter for a new edited collection, Gothic Mash-Ups: Hybridity, Appropriation, and Intertextuality in Gothic Storytelling, and I’m pleased to announce that both chapter and book are now finally confirmed! Adapted from the CfP:
Under contract with Lexington Books’ Horror Studies series, Gothic Mash-Ups will theorize and trace the way that producers of gothic fiction – from the 18th century to today – appropriate, combine, and reimagine elements from earlier texts and genres. In particular, it will include essays about individual texts (or groups of texts) that bring together characters and storylines from two or more prior gothic narratives or cross gothic storylines with other kinds of stories. From Walpole’s early generic hodgepodge and Universal Pictures’ monster film crossovers to such contemporary “Frankenfictions” (De Bruin-Molé) as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Penny Dreadful, this collection will examine the fundamental hybridity of the gothic as a genre.
My contribution to the collection will be (tentatively) ‘The Franchise That Just Won’t Die: Universal Studios and the Industrialization of the Cinematic Monster Mash-up (1931-2020)’, and will look at the use of mashup as a branding and trademarking tactic in early Hollywood.
Trademark politics are far from straightforward, particularly in the case of characters based on public domain literary works, like Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Invisible Man. Nevertheless, trademarks play a crucial role in the proliferation and protection of major mash-up franchises, including Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters. Mary Shelley’s Creature is in the public domain, but James Whale’s is not. The contemporary crossover may owe its popularity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Universal’s Monsters film series from the 1930s-50s represents one of the earliest examples of a blockbuster mash-up franchise. Once the copyright for Disney’s Steamboat Willie—and Mickey Mouse—expires in 2024, Universal’s monsters will also represent some of the oldest remaining character trademarks in cinema. In Hollywood’s Golden Age (1917-1960) copyright relied largely on self-policing, but in more recent decades film production companies have used remakes, mash-ups, and remixes both to avoid copyright and to re-establish it. Warner Brothers’ Frankenstein competes with Disney’s, but all must avoid the green skin, flat head, and neck bolts of Universal’s 1931 classic. Far from serving as a transgressive or egalitarian act, in this case mash-up becomes a crucial tool in Western film companies’ ongoing battle for ticket sales.
Though the terms ‘mash-up’ and ‘blockbuster’ did not exist then in the same sense the do today, Universal’s early appropriation of Gothic monsters from various literary traditions, along with its later recombination of these monsters (and their actors) into a series of increasingly parodic adaptations, prefigures today’s reboot and transmedia culture in important ways. Focusing on Universal Studios’ development and cultivation of the ‘Classic Monsters’ brand in the mid-1900s, this chapter examines the Universal Monster’s evolution from successful standalone horror to monster mash-up comedy franchise, to its self-recycling on the small screen and in the theme park. In conclusion, it also touches on Universal’s efforts to imitate Marvel’s transmedia successes with its rebooted ‘Dark Universe’. In its analysis of these texts, the chapter argues that Universal Studios effectively industrialized the monster mash-up, setting precedent and paving the way for later film franchises to capitalise on remix techniques. Universal’s Monsters also prefigure the horror of twenty-first-century remixes and ‘Frankenfictions’, updating not to transform, but to revive and preserve the capitalist status quo.