Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
Monster at the Soda Shop:
Teenagers and Fifties Horror Films

by Cyndy Hendershot

The Fifties teenager is one of the most recognizable of the images from that decade. From James Dean, tormented in his screaming red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause, to John Travolta, embodying a Seventies' black-leather fantasy of the Fifties teen in Grease, the images tell us what we all know: that the 1950s gave birth to teen culture. The sheer volume of teenagers seemed to demand that they have a culture of their own. Between 1946 and 1960 the number of teenagers in the United States increased from 5.6 million to 11.8 million (Clark 69). Yet, the increase of teenagers in America did not give rise to optimism about the future, but, rather, produced fear in Americans writ large as the increased numbers carried the danger of violence with them. The years 1948-1953 saw the number of juvenile delinquents charged with crime increase by forty-five percent (McGregor 22). The film industry became interested in the dangerous aspects of the teenage criminal, producing such films as The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Yet, another genre, which was equipped to deal with the horror of the new teen culture, also took advantage of the hot topic of the teenager. Fifties horror films, like The Giant Gila Monster (1959), The Blob (1958), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), and Monster on the Campus (1958), use horror metaphors to explore a wide variety of issues related to the emergence of teen culture in Fifties America.

Juvenile delinquency provoked feeling of intense horror in people living in Fifties America. Benjamin Fine found the title of his 1955 book 1,000,000 Delinquents from his prediction that by the end of the decade the United States would be the home to one million teenage criminals. Fine's book, like other studies of delinquency published in the Fifties, seeks to locate the causes of the delinquency problem. While commentators would find a variety of causes for this problem, the most central and disturbing one found it located in authority structures, and especially authority structures within the home. For Fine, the person who should be held accountable for the problem of juvenile delinquency is the father. Fine comments that "First of all, a child needs a 'father figure.' This means that he needs to identify himself with a person stronger and wiser than himself. Boys especially need to identify themselves with their fathers" (60).1

For Fine, as for other thinkers who tried to understand the social problem, the oedipal model that held the father accountable for his son's behavior also held accountable all the fathers of American society. Fine states that "If Billy 'goes wrong,' the finger of blame can be pointed in just one direction: at society--at you and me-for having given him no chance to 'go right'" (105). Fine's argument is congruent with another commentator on delinquency, psychoanalyst Robert Lindner, whose book Rebel Without a Cause, brought the concept of the teen rebel into American consciousness. Lindner believes that the rebellious psychopath derives his behavior from "a profound hatred of the father" (8). Also, like Fine, Lindner accuses not just individual fathers, but the fathers of society, the authority figures: "modern American society errs in failing to provide the kind of substitute for self-expression which in other times and other cultures drained off a considerable portion of behavior opposed to the best interests of most people" (14). If mainstream films like Rebel Without a Cause finger the father as the cause of teenage angst, horror films frequently go further by locating the psychopathic disease not in the teenager at all, but in an external force, or, more frightening, within authority itself.2 For horror films authority frequently does not so much fail, but willfully creates monsters.

Ray Kellogg's The Giant Gila Monster is a low-budget horror film set in Texas. It follows the experiences of Chace Winstead, a teenage boy who leads a very responsible gang of other teenagers. The sheriff has Chace aid him in an investigation of mysterious car accidents that begin with the disappearance of two of Chace's friends. Eventually, through the sheriff's and Chace's efforts, a giant Gila monster, which has mutated due to a thyroid condition, is found to be the culprit behind the disappearances. Chace devises a plan to kill the monster, which is impervious to bullets. He drives his hot rod, which is carrying nitroglycerin, into the creature and kills it.

The Giant Gila Monster works to exonerate teenagers from the label of juvenile delinquent by illustrating that they are the virtuous alternatives to authority figures who are at best clueless and at worst willfully corrupt. While the film seems to start on a note of condemnation of teen culture, as we see Pat and Liz, parking in the woods to neck, killed by the Gila monster, it soon changes tone and allows the teens to emerge as the heroic force in the film. The film sets up Chace as an ideal figure. He works at an automotive repair shop in order to support his widowed mother and his sister, who suffers from polio. The typical scene of the teens at the soda shop is the second sequence we see in the film and here, with Chace as their leader, they are seeking only good, clean fun. Chace brags to the sheriff that he has controlled the other teens, commenting that "Pat's the only one of the gang I couldn't slow down," and reminding the sheriff that Pat is the only one of the group to have gotten a speeding ticket, even though the boys' biggest obsession is souping up their hot rods.

The disappearance of Pat and Liz causes the authorities to suspect the worst of the missing teenagers. Their suspicion highlights a common fear associated with the emergent teen culture of the Fifties--sexual transgression. In Gabriel Almond's 1954 study of juvenile delinquency and its connection to communism, he perceives the desire to join the Communist Party on the part of American teens as linked with a rebellion against authority, and a rebellion that frequently took a sexual form. In a case study of a female teenager, he comments that "Joining the party made it possible for Frances to have sex relations, not because they gave her satisfaction, but because she could show contempt for the ordinary laws of society" (291).3 The authorities in the film suspect sexual transgression at the base of the disappearance, when it is, in fact, a zoological mutation that no one can control that they should be looking for. Pat's father, Mr. Wheeler, approaches the sheriff for help in locating his son and the sheriff immediately suspects that the two young people have eloped, or worse, telling Wheeler that "If they were out together all night, you'd better hope they have [eloped]." The sheriff grills Chace, asking if Pat and Liz were in any kind of trouble, meaning sexual trouble. Chace denies this, but it continues to be the suspicion that motivates the sheriff's investigation. Thus, even though Chace continually helps the sheriff with his investigation, the sheriff remains suspicious of the motivations of teenagers.

The film goes to pains to illustrate that Chace and his gang are much more responsible than the authority figures who surround them. Chace's relationship with the sheriff makes it clear that Chace is in control of the investigation, and, in fact, Chace does finally solve the problem of the Gila monster. Moreover, every authority figure he is opposed to comes off negatively in relation to him. His boss, Mr. Compton, does not know how to handle nitroglycerin, and Chace has to prevent an accident from occurring when Compton transports some to their garage. The DJ, Steamroller Smith, whom Chace admires, drives drunk and wrecks his car, resulting in Chace towing him out of a ditch. Even Chace's mother, whom he supports, criticizes him for spending too much time fixing up his hot rod, even though he is simultaneously providing admirably for her and his sister. Wheeler is the most flagrant example of malicious authority, as he abuses his position as wealthy oilman in order to influence the investigation and try to arrest Chace, because he irrationally blames him for Pat's disappearance. The final scene of the film illustrates Wheeler's recognition that Chace has solved the mystery. Acknowledging that he is a poor example of authority, Wheeler returns his deputy's badge to the sheriff and offers Chace a job. Perhaps the most striking manner in which the film attempts to recuperate teen culture as admirable, and not threatening, is through its portrayal of Rock and Roll. In Fifties America Rock and Roll was perceived as a threat that was related to the problem of juvenile delinquency. J. Ronald Oakely discusses the fear associated with teen reaction to "Rock Around the Clock," a song that appeared in the 1955 film The Blackboard Jungle. Oakley states that "All across the nation, public school principals and teachers held special meetings with town official to try to determine how to handle the young when the movie came to their town, and some cities dealt with the problem by banning the movie" (273). In 1956, a psychiatrist testified that Rock and Roll was "cannibalistic and tribalistic" and encouraged wanton rebellion (Clark 69). The issue of race was paramount in many of these objections, such as one made by segregationist Asa Carter, who concluded that Rock and Roll "appeals to the base in man, it brings out animalism and vulgarity" (qtd. in Clark 69).

The Giant Gila Monster reframes Rock and Roll as a positive force in American culture. In one of the subplots of the film Chace pursues a Rock-and-Roll career. Steamroller Smith helps him in his career and plays for the teenagers one of his recordings at the barn dance that is invaded by the Gila monster. The teens love his Rock-and-Roll song, but love equally a religious song he sings to them while strumming a ukulele. We have seen earlier in the film that Chace sings this song to his sister when she is learning to walk with her new braces. Thus, as the film argues, Rock and Roll is morally regenerative, not degenerative. The monster is outside, waiting to break in on the teenagers; it is not inside teen culture, as many in Fifties America perceived it to be.

The Giant Gila Monster, then, works to remove the taint of the monstrous from teen culture by making one example threat to American society turn out to be a zoological freak of nature, and removing the fear of a phantom threat that has been wrongfully associated with a culture that is admirable. One moral of the movie is that authority figures should learn to stop suspecting monstrous acts among teenagers and should look for the real threats in their society. Moreover, the film suggests that whenever possible authorities should use teenagers as their role models. Another teen-horror film from the same time period also sets up teenagers as more vigilant than the adult authorities.

Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.'s The Blob focuses on Steve Andrews and Jane Martin, two teenagers who witness a meteor falling from the sky. While driving home they pick up an injured elderly man who has opened the meteor and now has a strange substance that was inside the stone stuck to his arm. They take him to Dr. Hallen and go with other teenagers to investigate the site of the implosion. The blob absorbs the old man and then absorbs Dr. Hallen and his nurse. Steve and Jane go to the police, but the authorities refuse to believe in the existence of the blob. Steve and Jane sneak out of their houses and band together with other teenagers to find the blob. They locate it in Steve's father's grocery store and set off air raid sirens, blow their horns, and call the fire department in order to get the attention of people. The police are still skeptical until the blob invades the movie theater. Steve, Jane, Jane's brother, and others get trapped in the diner and the police try to electrocute the blob. This fails, but Steve figures out that CO2 fire extinguishers will freeze it. With the help of the teenagers, the fire department freezes the blob and the air force flies it to the Arctic.

As is the situation of the teens in The Giant Gila Monster, these teens are harassed by authority figures and not believed by them. While the police force is distrustful of the teens, one policeman, Jim, shows outright contempt for them, while Dave, the police chief, shows sympathy. When Steve shows Jim and Dave the doctor's office, Jim accuses Steve and his other teenage friends of having engineered the chaos of the room as a stunt. Dave reserves judgment, but decides to send Jane and Steve home and calls Jane and Steve's parents to fetch them. Jane's father, who is the high school principal, displays his selfishness when he asks Jane, "Don't you realize what this could do to me?" Like Wheeler in The Giant Gila Monster, Jane's father shows concern only for his reputation and no concern for the welfare of Jane or the other teenagers. This is especially ironic since his job at the high school calls for him to oversee and protect young people at the high school. Even though Steve's father is not abrasive, he does not believe Steve's story about a monster. No one does. So, Steve and the other teenagers must band together in order to save the town from the alien threat.

Interestingly, The Blob shows the teenagers saving the day by engaging in what was perceived in Fifties society as the behavior of juvenile delinquents. Both Steve and Jane sneak out of their homes in the middle of the night. They collect up the other teenagers, who are watching a midnight horror film called Daughter of Horror and they proceed, first, to try and warn people. Still, no one believes them. A necking couple, a bartender, and a drunken man at a party all laugh at the teenagers' attempts to save them. When Steve and Jane find the blob in his father's grocery store, they call the police station, but Jim rejects their plea, selfishly indulging in paranoiac fantasy: "I think they've got it in for me," he says, citing his war record as the motivation for the teens' hatred of him. After having their efforts rejected by the police, the teens become full-fledged delinquents. Steve tells them, "We tried to do it the right way. Now, we're going to wake up this town up ourselves." The teens blow their car horns, set off civil- defense sirens, and call the fire department. The crowd won't listen to Steve even then. One man says, "If we're in trouble, where are the police?" Finally, Dave the police chief is convinced and agrees to help Steve and the other teens find the blob.

The true virtue of the teenagers in The Blob lies in their ability to act quickly. Even though Dave is sympathetic to Steve, he wants to leave any further investigation until the next day. Even when the police station starts to get calls reporting strange occurrences in the town, Dave comments, "I guess there's nothing here that won't wait until morning." Even once everyone has been forced to accept the existence of the blob, it is the teenagers who act quickly, taking Principal Martin to the high school to get the needed fire extinguishers to freeze the blob. Ironically, Martin must grab a rock and break the glass of the school door in order to get in, again referencing how the film refigures delinquent behavior as a positive force in the midst of a crisis. Adult authorities fail in both The Giant Gila Monster and The Blob because of their caution and lack of open-mindedness, but the horror itself remains safely distant in a reptilian freak and an alien substance. Other teen-centered horror films from the Fifties, however, locate horror within adult culture itself.

Gene Fowler's I Was a Teenage Werewolf tells the story of a troubled teen, Tony, who cannot control his temper. Although a model student, he is continually in trouble due to constant fights he provokes with other teenagers. A police detective, Donovan, recommends Tony to a psychologist, Dr. Alfred Brandon. Brandon, however, has no desire to help Tony, but, rather begins to use him as a guinea pig, utilizing a substance he has invented called scopolomene, which causes humans to revert to primitive forms. Tony transforms into a werewolf. On separate occasions, he kills two of his classmates, with the result that he becomes a fugitive from justice. He returns to Brandon's lab, confronts Brandon, and kills him, after which a policeman, ordered to do so by Detective Donovan, kills Tony.

Initially in the film, we see Tony as the embodiment of the psychopathic teenage delinquent. In the opening sequence, he fights with a friend, relentlessly attacking him, and finally picking up a shovel to hit him with. The police have to break up the fight. But Tony is more than a troubled teen: he is one whose behavior verges on the criminally psychopathic. Lindner comments on teenage psychopaths that they "invariably show a naive inability to understand or appreciate that other individuals as well have rights: they are also inaccessible and intolerant of the demands and pleas of the community, scornful of communal enterprise and spirit, suspicious of the motives of community-minded people" (8). The film sets up Tony's character as case study of a Lindner psychopath.4 When Tony's girlfriend's parents suggest that he get a job, he scorns their suggestion, pointing to a local bank teller who stole money and disappeared, subsequently gambling it away. He shows a complete lack of concern for other people, telling Detective Brandon, "People bug me!" He routinely subjects his girlfriend, Arlene, and his father to verbal abuse. Yet, the film does not hold Tony completely responsible for his actions. Tony tells Arlene: "I say things. I do things. I don't know why."

When Detective Donovan suggests that Tony visit a psychologist, Brandon, the film adopts the position that juvenile delinquency is a disease. This is typical of Fifties commentaries on the social problems of teenagers and also illustrates how this social issue was one conducive to representation in the horror genre. Joseph Reed has argued that the concept of disease is central to the horror film: "Horror is, in fact, several different diseases: each kind of movie embodies, enacts, comes to confront something like a disease . . .Each subgenre has fantastic trapping and results and an intensely empathetic outline and form, so we are alienated and attracted, somewhat as we are by someone who is ill" (76). If horror plays on the audience's attraction/repulsion for disease, Fifties audiences would have been attuned to the sensational disease of juvenile delinquency. Fine, for example, argues that delinquency, like a physical disease, can be cured: "Just as we are pressing ahead to find the causes and cures for polio, cancer, and multiple sclerosis, so we must press forward to eliminate the causes of juvenile delinquency" (116). In Lindner's pre-war study of delinquency, Rebel Without a Cause, he identified the problem as assuming "More and more the proportions of a plague" (15-16). By the time of a 1954 interview, Lindner saw the youth of America as "literally sick with an aberrant condition of mind formerly confined to a few distressed souls but now epidemic over the earth" (qtd. in Oakley 270). The film makes a mild attempt to trace some of Tony's problems to his home life: his father is weak and his mother is dead. When Tony's father learns of Tony's transformation and of the murders he has committed, he blames himself: "Maybe I should've remarried," he tells a reporter. Still, the primary focus is on the inexplicable disease of juvenile delinquency that afflicts Tony. Yet, the complication of the film, and something that makes it a teen-focused horror film and not a melodrama, is that the cure is worse than the disease.

In the film, Tony's suspicion of authority, which is ostensibly part of the disease he is suffering from, is borne out as a correct one: when he trusts Dr. Brandon, he literally becomes a monster. Thus, while the film explores juvenile delinquency as a social problem, it also affirms teenagers' fear of authority by displaying the horror genre's deep-seated suspicions regarding the medical establishment. Thus, the mad scientist of sf/horror assumes the structural position of the corrupt authority figure that troubled Fifties teens. As a contrast to I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a mainstream melodrama like Rebel Without a Cause shows intense sympathy for the teen characters--Jim, Judy, and Plato-but it does not question adult authority, per se. The teens in this film want to be adults. The worst that the adult world can be accused of in that film is of being weak, as, for example, Jim's father is.5 In I Was a Teenage Werewolf, adult authority is ultimately even more psychotic than the diseased juvenile culture it presumes to treat.6 Dr. Brandon is a mad scientist of the atomic age. As the consulting psychologist at an aircraft plant, he has on his side the authority of science, medicine, and the corporation. Detective Donovan perceives him to be a philanthropist because he treats troubled teens free of charge, but the reality is that he views human life as no different from that of a guinea pig, as he makes clear to his conscience-stricken assistant, Hugo Wagner. Brandon's scientific experiments are based on the premise that human society is moving toward self-destruction. Brandon tells Hugh that "mankind is on the verge of self-destruction." His solution to this problem is to "unleash the savage instincts" and allow mankind to start over again.

Brandon's malaise is typical of those Fifties thinkers who believed that the world was self-destructing. Nuclear war, communism, anti-communism, conformism and other Fifties ills were put forth as signs of the imminent breakdown of society. Juvenile delinquency was yet another of these symptoms. Fine, for example, laments the decline of American society, holding up Okinawan culture as more sane than American culture: "When you compare it with our western world--where every two minutes a man, woman, or child enters a mental hospital for observation or care, where half our hospital beds are occupied by the mentally diseased, where more than half the ills in the doctor's office are psychosomatic--Okinawa makes you wonder" (55). A perception of society on the verge of destruction paradoxically motivates both Tony' psychosis and Brandon's insane medical experiments. Both men have a deep-seated hatred for society. When Detective Donovan tells Tony he has to learn to adjust, he angrily replies, "Adjust to what?" Brandon might give the same reply, since he believes that humans are better off living through their animal instincts and evolving all over again in order to create a less self-destructive society.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf locates the horror of juvenile delinquency in a very specific area of authority: the scientific community. This film associates the horrors of science that shaped the Fifties--The A-bomb, then the H-bomb, both leading to impending nuclear war--with the problem of psychotic teens. Fine is tentative in associating delinquency with fear of nuclear holocaust, commenting "that we are living in times of great tension and rapid change goes without saying. What effect the threat of atomic war may have upon the increasing incidence of delinquency, we do not know" (109). However, later studies have made connections between the angst of Fifties teens and the potential doom of nuclear war that hung over their heads. In his study of nuclear culture, Spencer Weart notes that "a psychological survey of young people in the mid-1960s confirmed that in their thoughts of imminent nuclear bombing, reality was reinforcing adolescent fantasies about inadequate and destructive adults" (340). If authority figures had not only failed to provide teenagers adequate role models, but had, insanely, created a weapon capable of destroying the world, then who could be surprised that teenage culture was in degeneration?

Postwar commentator Lewis Mumford feared that the suspicion pervading American society would result in decadence: "We can posit the familiar forms of these regressive reactions: escape in fantasy would be one: purposeless sexual promiscuity would be another: narcotic indulgence would be a third" (Sanity 30). Mumford perceived postwar America as a world that had lost its sanity: "And the fatal symptom of their [government's and military's] madness is this: they have been carrying through a series of acts which will lead eventually to the destruction of mankind" ("Gentlemen" 5). Mumford's view of a degenerated American state, devoid of reason and living for the moment, is the one posited by Brandon, and the one unconsciously perceived by Tony.

Ultimately, I Was a Teenage Werewolf presents a very harsh view of the problem of authority and juvenile delinquency. As Tony and Brandon destroy each other there seems to be little hope for a solution to the problem presented. All Detective Donavon can do to help Tony at the end of the film is to kill him. Thus, the horror genre comes to a much more hopeless conclusion about the problem of juvenile delinquency than do mainstream films such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Unguarded Moment, or The Wild One. In each of these films, the audience is left with hope for a cure to the delinquency problem. However, the deep-seated suspicion that those in charge are more insane than the diseased youth of Fifties America, which I Was a Teenage Werewolf posits, is presented in another horror film from the same time period.

Jack Arnold's Monster on the Campus focuses on strange happenings at Dunsfield University, occurrences that stem from Dr. Donald Blake's bringing a newly discovered species of fish to the campus for study. Blake's student Jimmy Flanders inadvertently allows his dog, Samson, to drink the fish's blood, and thereupon the dog transforms. Then, Blake accidentally cuts his finger on the fish's mouth and he begins transforming into a caveman, going on to kill a nurse, his bodyguard, a forest ranger, and attempting to kill his fiancée, Madeline Howard. He does these things without knowing what he is doing: does them in periods of blackout. When Blake realizes that he is the killer, he begins experimenting on himself, discovering that the fish's plasma mixed with gamma rays has produced the transformative substance. He makes himself undergo a final transformation, then allows the police to kill him.

Monster on the Campus suggests that the troublesome situation in which Fifties teenagers find themselves does not necessarily improve when they go to college. While, as in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the site of the most severe psychosis is in adult authority, the teens in the movie are suspected of being involved in the grisly murders. The police go on campus, and we are told they are "fingerprinting the football squad." One of the policemen informs a school administrator, Gilbert Howard, that "you'll be glad to know we don't have to arrest any of your students." Although the police know that the murderer is someone with a deformed hand and also someone who possesses incredible strength, they still suspect the teenagers on campus of being guilty of the horrible crimes. Yet, the true criminal is located at the heart of adult authority on campus.

Donald Blake is a mad-scientist figure typical of sf/horror. While not as overtly insane as Brandon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Blake displays the same obsessive fascination with savagery as does Brandon. In the first scene in which we see Blake he is making a plaster cast of his fiancée's face to add to his collection of casts that illustrate the history of the evolution of humans. Blake tells Madeline that "the race is doomed" if it cannot learn to control our instincts. In Blake's lectures to his science class he maintains that man can "evolve or devolve," and tells his students to think this over. Blake, thus, appears to be a prophet of doom typical of a postwar period that was shocked into a fear of reversion based on post atomic-war scenarios. In a 1946 pamphlet entitled The Atomic Age: Suicide . . . Slavery or Social Planning? Aaron Levenstein characterized the possibilities for evolution or devolution: "For the first time in man's long journey out of the dark cave in which he started, the bright sun awaits him. It will not take much now to send him scurrying back to the cave" (29). In a work entitled Must Destruction be Our Destiny? Harrison Brown fears a future characterized by devolution: "we want to live, but we do not want to live in fear, nor do we want to regress to the status of primordial man" (16). When Blake learns that the gamma rays used to preserve the fish have turned its blood into a dangerous potion, he comments that "man's greatest discovery is the way to undo his accomplishments." On the surface, Blake's obsession with devolution is one that has social value.

Yet, the film reveals his concern with devolution to be a selfish one, based on his science-for-science's sake belief that is hidden under his surface pose of concerned citizen. Blake thrilled by Samson's brief transformation into a wolf. He forces Jimmy and his girlfriend, Sylvia Lockwood, to keep quiet about their sighting of a giant dragonfly that has ingested the fish's blood, because he fears that he won't get credit for the scientific discovery concerned. Blake's statement that "Man's only one generation from savagery" takes on less of a cautionary tone as the film progresses and becomes more a celebration of that fact. He seems to revel in the self-experimentation that he engages in, which is ostensibly motivated by concern for the greater good of humans. After killing a forest ranger, he worries only whether the photograph he took of his transformed self has come out. Yet, Blake is not the only authority figure in the film whose motivations are to say the least questionable.

Gilbert Howard represents a callous authority that cares only about profits. He gladly brings the dangerous fish to the campus, because he believes it will bring publicity and money to the university. He is more concerned about money than about the murders occurring on and around the campus. He scarcely reacts to the murders, but becomes furious when Blake makes a call to a Dr. Moreau in Madagascar, fuming that Blake has spent "a month's salary in phone calls."

Only the students emerge as having any clear moral sense about the horrors that are occurring on campus. Jimmy and Sylvia are truly disappointed when Blake begins canceling his classes. Jimmy's dog has become a victim of Blake's use of the student as a delivery boy to bring the fish to his laboratory. Although Jimmy and Sylvia swear to Blake that they will not tell about the dragonfly, they eventually approach Madeleine, which results in her driving to the cabin where Blake is staying and in Blake's savage behavior being stopped. Like the teenagers of The Giant Gila Monster, the kids in Monster on the Campus are fine; it's the adults that have to be watched, as they may transform into monsters at any moment.

Ultimately, The Giant Gila Monster, The Blob, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and Monster on the Campus convey images of a world where authority is deeply flawed and frequently monstrous. Moreover, these films suggest that in order to negotiate the dangerous world they live in teens must either steer clear of authority figures or assume authority themselves. The teens cannot rely on teachers, principals, doctors, scientists, policemen, or parents. Fifties horror films project the postwar irony that the drive toward self-destruction embodied in the creation of nuclear weapons is frequently cloaked in the language of self-preservation. In order to better mankind, Tony must be made into a werewolf or Blake must make himself into a caveman. These films provide a glimpse into the insanity at the heart of many Fifties authority figures, an insanity that, at least as far as teen-focused horror films are concerned, was much more terrifying than juvenile delinquency could ever be.


Thanks to Antony Oldknow for his help.

1 Typically, our dominant perception of the Fifties juvenile delinquent is directed upon the male criminal: representations in Fifties films tend to focus on the problem of the bad boy. However, there was a culture of female juvenile delinquency that garnered some attention in Fifties America. Rachel Devlin argues that female juvenile delinquency was portrayed as "only incipient in nature and largely hidden from view" (85). Wini Breines also explores the issue of female delinquency, discussing white girls' use of "the sensibilities of darkness as a way out of boredom and restlessness" ("Postwar White Girls" 71). This issue is explored at more length in her book-length study Young, White and Miserable: Growing up Female in the Fifties.

2 Many commentators on Fifties culture notice the excoriation of the father in sociological studies and in popular culture. Devlin comments on the Fifties "sense of disappointment in the American father"(97). Gaile McGregor's view is that as far as the Fifties were concerned, "familial breakdown is in the end the father's responsibility--in short, his fault" (12). In his discussion of Rebel Without a Cause, Thomas Leitch cites the "poor example of his father" as Jim's primary problem (44). Conversely, and specific to the film, Nina C. Leibman views Rebel Without a Cause as an illustration of Philip Wylie's concept of momism, arguing that the agenda of the film is "to render Wylie's dastardly mothers in all their configurations" (211). I disagree, viewing the film as one that traces problems of the mother ultimately to the failure of paternal authority. If mom is bad or absent, it's dad's fault, the film tells us.

3 One frequent point made by commentators on Fifties juvenile delinquency is its apolitical motivations. Lindner's title Rebel Without a Cause stems from his belief that the teen criminal is "an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program" (2). David Halberstam, commenting on Fifties rebels, states that "there was little overt political content in their rebellion" (479). While Almond does link delinquency to communism, he argues that American teenagers who joined the party did so out of apolitical motivations: they believed they were "affiliating themselves with something that is esoteric, outlawed, iconoclastic, pitted against society" (231).

4 Joseph Reed argues that Tony represents an "every teenager." He sees Tony's transformation as one that any teenager could identify with: "The Change, those moments when Werewolf passes from human to beast, parallels puberty's confusion and horror" (133-34). I disagree. Tony's behavior is aberrant in the film both before and after the transformation. The film takes pains to distinguish him from the other teens, as his behavior, especially at the party where he beats up his best friend, Vic, indicates.

5 Of Rebel Without a Cause, Leitch argues that "although individual parents may fail in Rebel Without a Cause, adult values are affirmed throughout the film" (44).

6 Mark Jancovich argues that the adult world's perception of Tony is summed up in the principal's statement that the school needs to "really get inside" Tony. As Janconvich argues, "The notion of 'really getting inside' Tony implies intrusion, control, and even brainwashing, an implication which is confirmed by the activities of the psychiatrist, Dr. Brandon" (208-09). I agree: Brandon is really just a sinister, but logical, extension of the other authority figures that appear in the film.

Works Cited

Almond, Gabriel A. The Appeals of Communism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1954.

The Blob. Dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. Paramount, 1958.

Breines, Wini. "Postwar White Girls’ Dark Others." The Other Fifties: Interrogating Midcentury American Icons. Ed. Joel Foreman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. 53-77.

———. Young, White, and Miserable: Growing up Female in the Fifties. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Brown, Harrison. Must Destruction Be Our Destiny? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

Clark, William L. "’The Kids Really Fit’: Rock Text and Rock Practice in Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock." Popular Music and Society 18.4 (1994): 57-76.

Devlin, Rachel. "Female Juvenile Delinquency and the Problem of Sexual Authority in America, 1945-1965." Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth Century Girls’ Cultures. Ed. Sherrie Inness. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 83-105.

Fine, Benjamin. 1,000,000 Delinquents. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1955.

The Giant Gila Monster. Dir. Ray Kellogg. McLendon Radio Pictures, 1959.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Dir. Gene Fowler, Jr. American International, 1957.

Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

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Copyright © 2001 by Cyndy Hendershot
Published March 2001 by Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
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