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Against the Universe

In 1991, Universal Pictures opened its vault and an army of memorable movie monsters came shambling out. To mark the Halloween season, Universal Studios in Florida launched “Fright Nights,” a series of ticketed parties that saw Count Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde, and other branded ghouls mixing and mingling with guests, like a real-life iteration of the infamous monster mash chronicled in the novelty single of one Bobby “Boris” Pickett.

But Universal’s Fight Nights were about more than spook-tacular fun for the whole family. They were a concerted effort, as a marketing executive told The Orlando Sentinel at the time, “to capitalize on our sixty-year history we’ve had with movie monsters.” The Fright Nights proved so successful that Universal repackaged a number of its classic horror titles for the VHS market under the Universal Classic Monsters brand. According to a 1992 interview with Louis Feola, then head of Universal’s home video operations, the series was an effort to make these disparate creatures and stories “look like a line”: that is, to establish a sense of cohesion and continuity. It was an early attempt by Universal to retroactively establish its own fictional universe.

The concept of the fictional “universe” was first outlined in a 1970 issue of CAPA-alpha, a fanzine dedicated to comics. An article credited to Don Markstein outlines the parameters of these fictional domains, in which characters and plot lines are connected by dint of crossing over with one another. The key here is that a character must be proprietary. For example, Markstein writes, it’s crucial that the DC comics version of Jerry Lewis “is clearly not the Jerry Lewis of TV and media of that ilk. The ‘real’ Jerry Lewis does not have a nephew named Renfrew or a housekeeper who is a witch.” For Markstein, “constructing a web of crossovers” in this way was a kind of game, one that deepened and enriched the possibilities of his favorite comics. And while certain authors (L. Frank Baum, J.R.R .Tolkien) had created their own detailed fantastical cosmos, the idea of a common, coherent world inhabited by multifarious characters from different properties seemed, in 1970, novel.

The original run of Universal monsters didn’t work this way. Not really. Frankenstein’s monster may have met the Wolf Man in 1943, or have been run afoul of by Bud Abbot and Lou Costello circa 1948. And sure, many of these creatures could profitably cohabitate in Castle Frankenstein, as depicted in 1944’s House of Frankenstein. But there was never a genuine sense that the characters had any meaningful existence beyond the screen. One never wondered, for example, what Gill-man, of the Creature From The Black Lagoon pictures, got up to when he wasn’t splashing around in muck, terrifying bathing beauties sunning themselves in the vicinity of his aqueous homestead. These creatures and their terrors were conjured by the films in which they appeared, and bound by them. Nobody was asking where the Invisible Man went when the credits rolled.

Now, nobody has to ask. The establishment of a fictional universe has become a standard and highly profitable narrative conceit. Leading the pack is Marvel Studios, who have successfully exported the interlinked logic of comics that Don Markstein disentangled fifty years ago to screens big and small. The collected titles of Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe” total some $23 billion, making it one of the most profitable franchises in movie-making history. Its boardroom committee of content creators make sure to account for every inch of their expanding, densely entwined cinematic (and, recently, televisual) universe. When the mighty Thor fails to report for duty in Avengers: Endgame (2019), it is explained that he’s on a bender on some Scandinavian isle, boozing with other CGI projections who the savvy viewer is, I guess, expected to recognize from another of Marvel’s adjacent properties. 

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