At age 12 or so, there were three things I wanted to be when I grew up - a rock star like Elvis, a stand-up comedian like Milton Berle or Sid Caesar, or one of those actors who played monsters in the movies, like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Lon Chaney. The first two careers didn’t work out, because I couldn’t carry a tune too well or play any kind of musical instrument, and I wasn’t very funny (at least not when I intended to be).
The horror-movie stardom, on the other hand, actually happened. Well, kinda. Watching reruns on "Shock Theater," a show syndicated to TV stations across the U.S. beginning in 1957, I had fallen madly for Lugosi as Count Dracula (1931), Karloff as Frankenstein’s sadly misunderstood monster (also 1931), and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man (1941). For a decade at least, from its inception in 1958, I subscribed to Forrest J. Ackerman’s "Famous Monsters of Filmland" fanzine (a favorite also of my shock-hero Stephen King), and well into my 50’s I bought, read, and annotated every book on horror flicks I could find.
When Bobby ("Boris") Pickett’s hit song "The Monster Mash" came out in 1962, just in time for my high-school senior year talent show, I saw my chance and rounded up a few friends to play the creepy creatures in my choreographed production, with me lip-synching the lyrics intoned by Pickett in his schlocky Karloff impersonation. His band, The Crypt-Kickers, featured none other than Leon Russell on the keyboard. With its re-releases in the early 1970s, the tune charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 list for nearly 40 weeks altogether: it was a graveyard smash!
My big break in the horror film industry, though, came a half century later, when producer-director Benjamin Roberds signed me on as a zombie extra in his feature-length flick, "A Plague So Pleasant" (available on Amazon). My wife Alice could have been a lovely zombie, but opted instead to play an office worker, so she could spare her sensitive skin the tissue and liquid latex oozing wounds so artfully applied by Tylar Carver (now Frieden), the movie’s make-up artist. After one of our shoots at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a former student, who drove into the garden as I was driving out, spotted me in my frightfully gory glory and shouted in a genuinely terrified voice, "Dr. LaFleur, what happened - are you okay?" When I and my zombie friend Chris Halderson headed straight afterward to a nearby liquor store for a bottle of scotch, still in full make-up, we instantly startled the clerk as he stared wide-eyed at us through the drive-up window.
My interest in goblins, ghosts, and ghouls cropped up occasionally in my teaching at the University of Georgia, as even the ancient Romans and Greeks told countless tales of terrifying demons and beasts. Herodotus and Plato in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. recounted stories of "lycanthropes," from the Greek for "wolf-men." The Roman Petronius, in his first-century A.D. novel "The Satyricon," which was among Fitzgerald’s inspirations for "The Great Gatsby," tells of a soldier who in the light of a full moon stripped off his clothes, urinated around them, and then turned into a wolf; the werewolf ran off into the woods, but his clothes were later found, turned to stone. Petronius’ word for werewolf was versipellis, which meant literally "skin-shifter" (as in conVERSion and PELt=skin/hide).
The re-animated undead walked the earth, seeking to feast upon the living, long before Edward Halperin’s 1932 film "White Zombie" and George Romero’s archetypal "Night of the Living Dead" (1968). There were zombies in ancient folklore in fact as far back as the Mesopotamian "Epic of Gilgamesh," ca. 2100 B.C., where (in Stephanie Dalley’s translation) the goddess Ishtar threatens, "I shall raise up the dead and they will eat the living, I shall make the dead outnumber the living!"
Ghosts also abounded in ancient lore. The second century A.D. Roman senator and polymath Pliny the Younger describes a haunted house whose occupants were terrified night after night and ultimately driven out by the phantom (idolon, source of our word IDOLatry) of an eerily Dickensian "old man consumed with wasting and filth, with a flowing beard and dreadful hair, shaking the shackles he bore on his legs and the chains on his hands." Several other Latin words for "ghost" have given us familiar English derivatives: imago/IMAGe, phantasma, as in the horror video game PHANTASMAgoria, and umbra, which, like English "shade," could refer either to a shadow, such as that an UMBRella casts, or to the "shades of the dead."
Though vampire lore only became widespread beginning in southeastern Europe in the early 18th century, accounts of similar creatures are known from throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The Greeks and Romans called them empousae or lamiae, she-demons pictured with female torsos but serpentine bodies who would steal into the bedrooms of children by night and suck their blood or seduce young men and then devour them. Lamiae meant literally "swallowers" and is perhaps related to lemures, night-creatures also known to us from ancient Greco-Roman folk tales. Both words appear to be non-Indo-European, pre-dating classical Latin and Greek and thus reflecting terrors imagined by some of our earliest, pre-historic ancestors.
More frightening still, in the imagination of the early second century A.D. Roman satirist Juvenal, were some of Rome’s murderous emperors. In the dramatic closing image of his fourth satire, Juvenal depicts the monstrous tyrant Domitian, before the assassination that ended his 15-year reign of terror, as "dripping wet with the bloody gore of the lamiae," vampire-like in his attacks on personal and political enemies. In the satirist’s mind, it seems, a blood-thirsty autocrat was as fearsome a creature as any that men had ever dreamt of in their darkest nightmares - or dream of today, even on Halloween.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.