Sunday, March 8, 2015

THE MORGUE: The pyschological underpinnings of THE MUNSTERS

You don't have to be crazy to enjoy THE MUNSTERS, but it helps.

That was the conclusion of a study completed in 1964 by Dr. George Horsley Smith, then chairman of the department of psychology at Rutgers University. The six-page paper titled "A Psychological Discussion of The Munsters Audience Appeal" was completed for Universal Studios the year the series debuted on CBS, and it appears executives were a little concerned about courting a demographic that was (potentially) mentally unstable.

Smith's study was profiled in a Dec. 2, 1964, edition of The Pittsburgh Press. While the journalist was mostly dismissive of THE MUNSTERS (calling it "BEVERLY HILLBILLIES in monster makeup"), Smith was surprisingly defensive of the series. It's possible his report was just Jukebox Psychobabble (i.e. Universal paid him to deliver a specific finding), but there's something vaguely sweet about his defense of the show's fans.

Then again, there's also something a little insulting about the report. Horror fans have been defending their taste in entertainment since William Shakespeare decided it would be funny to feed Tamora her children at the end of TITUS ANDRONICUS. People who like horror, we've long been told, are a little nutty.

Smith's paper doesn't exactly refute this sentiment. But he concludes that fans of THE MUNSTERS are, at the very least, as well adjusted to society as the television show's protagonists. But he also makes some pretty bizarre errors, such as referring to driving a stake through "Frankenstein's breast." Below are a few highlights from his study:

"The psychological appeal of 'The Munsters' is surefire. The show takes material that otherwise might be frightening and makes it laughable."

"The viewer knows that Herman, Grandpa et al are harmless. He enjoys the security, the ego enchantment and the feeling of power generated by 'being in on the know.' As with any practical joke, there is also a release of aggression involved. We enjoy the discomfort of the frightened characters in the script ... as we enjoy hiding behind a tree and frightening some unsuspecting victim. Clearly, pent up hostility is vented."

"Novelty, of course, is also linked with laughter. The unexpected and the incongruous are frequently comic and because The Munsters consistently innovates and surprises, every episode is laced with laughter ... The deployment of fantastic characters in real-life situations provides endless possibilities for the scriptwriters and at the same time guarantees the novelty so cherished by the viewer; There are only so many ways to write a 'Western,' but how Frankenstein and Dracula adjust to life in suburbia has hardly been tapped."

"In psychological terms, turning the TV dial to The Munsters is a defensive reaction to the insecurities and threats of the real world. The viewer escapes into a fantasy where the traditional symbols of his fears are converted into nice as pie neighbors. It is like falling into the clutches of supposed cannibals - who turn out to be friendly natives. But even as anxieties are assuaged, enough of the humorous symbols of malevolence remain in the show — the subterranean laboratory, the howling winds, the inadvertently fiendish ploys of the characters — to satisfy omnipresent aggressive feelings."

"Frankenstein, Dracula and the Vampire Woman are there, but the viewer is merely watching Herman, or Grandpa, or Mrs. Munster, and after all, they're funny, friendly people who wouldn't hurt a fly."

"Watching 'The Munsters' offers instant  reassurance. Werewolves and bats turn into puppy dogs and whippoorwills."

"Turning the dial to 'The Munsters' is a defensive reaction to the insecurities and threats of the real world. The magnetism of the show can be explained this way: it suburbanizes what used to be macabre. In effect, King Kong becomes the organ grinder's monkey. Demons and fiends become hailfellows. The most arcane (secret, mysterious) topics become the stuff of jest."

"Consider the problem of getting rid of hostility and aggression. The Munsters provides a wonderful solution. The viewer can identify with the specter of his choice and enjoy it while his surrogate scares the breath out of people — much as we all like to do when in a foul mood. There is also a tidy sum of aggression released ... just as the peasants lived for the moment when they could drive a wooden post through Frankenstein's breast, the viewer secretly harbors a hatred for all denizens of darkness, no matter how comic their guise. The more searing the demolition of the Frankenstein image, the more the audience enjoys it."

"Homeliness via Munsters alchemy becomes beauty, and anybody who has ever felt insecure about his (or her) appearance — which means everybody — is delighted."

"Modern psychological theorists believe that man, by nature, is impelled to seek changes in stimuli. In effect, there is a 'sightseeing instinct.' The magic of the word 'new' is triggering audience interest testifies to this, as does man's insistence on reaching the moon. Novelty, or course, is also linked to laughter."

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