Monstrous Outsiders: Inequality and Prejudice in “The Munsters”

The American television landscape of the 1960s was one that had become increasingly white and WASPish. Though early shows showed some diversity, such as The Goldbergs, (NBC & CBS, 1949-1956) which featured the home life of a Jewish family and touched on topics such as experiences with assimilation while maintaining links to their roots, networks were focusing programming to appeal to WASP viewers, resulting in shows that reflected “white, middle-class and conservative” (Tredy)¹ America; this shift occurred during the expansion of television access across the country, leading networks to create content that would appeal to such an audience. Despite this trend, programming was dotted with shows that subverted expectations, such as the eccentric Dark Shadows (ABC, 1966–1971). One of these shows was The Munsters (CBS, 1964–1966), a series infused with subtext and commentary on both civil rights and diversity in America during the 1960s. We see this clearly very early on, in the third episode of the first season: A Walk on the Mild Side.

Aftermath of riots that erupted in Detroit following a police operation (taken July 25, 1967)

Culturally the 1960s was a decade of severe contrast. Despite its reputation as the decade of love it was also a decade of profound change and clashes between conservativeness and liberalism. America was brimming with tensions between the white majority and both the immigrant and African American minority. Diversity in television at this time was low, as “disparate sectional assumptions about what counted as acceptable racial representation on television produced conflicts” (Torres)², slowly the development of visibility.

Premiering a week apart, The Addams Family and The Munsters featured similar premises, being satires of what the “dull WASPcoms were presenting elsewhere as the ideal American family” (Tredy). Despite their similarities, they were more marked by their differences. Aside from being a more visually gothic work, replete with cobwebs and heavy shadows, The Munsters was a more subversive creation, stemming from the placement of the titular family within the working class, whereas the Addamses were eccentric and independently wealthy. The Munsters stand in for the ideal American family, calling attention to the strangeness of its structure with the use of horror iconography.

Bela Lugosi and Carroll Borland in “Mark of the Vampire,” highlighting Luna’s influence on Lily Munster’s aesthetic

Many of the jokes only work due to the audience’s built in familiarity with the characters The Munsters is based on. In the first episode, Munster Masquerade, Lily responds to an invitation with: “A party? Sounds wonderful. You know we don’t get out at night as much as we used to” (1:22–1:28)³. These lines are among the first she delivers yet they manage to amuse because we as an audience are already aware of who she and Herman — with her hair and dress modelled after Luna in Mark of the Vampire (directed by Tod Browning who had directed Lon Chaney in the 1927 silent original, the now lost London after Midnight) and Herman modelled on Frankenstein’s monster from Universal’s classic line of horror films.

This first episode sets the tone for the series, with the Munsters being outsiders due to their physical appearance. This is comparable to the treatment of immigrants in America, who’s appearance differed from the norm. Herman being an immigrant (he is originally from Germany) solidifies this; as a working-class immigrant he embodies the attempts of such people as they tried to assimilate within their new society but faced challenges from their own appearance and culture clashes with said society.

David J. Skal writes that American audiences were ready for more subversive entertainment due to the increasingly volatile political and social atmosphere at the time: “Following Cuba and the Kennedy assassination, the internalised image of a distinctly dysfunctional family/society […] began slouching its way toward national expression” (Skal)⁴. Television is seen as “an authoritative force in American public life” (Torres) and this potential was recognised from early on.

Monetary concerns keep Herman awake

A Walk on the Mild Side opens with Herman going over bills, concerned about the family’s financial state. As breadwinner he can’t sleep with his concerns:

“Just look at this, $103 for electricity! […] And that’s not all: there’s taxes, food, braces for Eddie’s fangs. I tell ya, I just can’t sleep!” (00:37–1:08)⁵

Lily suggests a night-time walk might clear his head and he agrees, triggering a string of complaints of a mysterious person walking around menacingly — a foreigner in the community, different from the local population. As he walks about saying hello to people he passes, he is seen a threat because he does not fit the local aesthetic. As he walks past a residential area, the residents are scared of the “monster” wandering their normal American neighbourhood.

The family read about a “monster” sighted in the park, unaware that Herman is the monster in question

Compare this to segregation: it would have been unusual to see a person of colour walking through a largely white populated area and the police would have been called. This mentality continues in the modern day, with African Americans being nonsensically discriminated against by white people. There are several examples of these incidents, such as one from 2018 when a man “arrived at the entrance to the building where he lives […] only to find himself blocked by a white neighbor who demanded proof he lived there” (Gomez)⁶. That these instances garner mass attention shows how they have thankfully become outliers, but at the time A Walk on the Mild Side premiered this attitude of suspicion was prevalent. Despite television at this time lacking diversity, Torres writes that “it always has had […] a liberal depiction of African American representation,” as coded as it may be.

On his second night-time walk Herman is almost arrested by policemen, forcing him to race home and, in an amusing inversion of a horror-comedy trope, barricade the front door with any furniture he can (15:43–16:02). The inability of the police to apprehend the “monster” matches the failure of the real-life police in suppressing the rising level of activity within the Civil Rights movement since the mid-1950s. This rising conflict was very familiar to television viewers as clashes were filmed and its leaders were very visible. In order for it to achieve success, it needed to be presented in a visual manner, to shock viewers out of complacency.

Typical illustration of the American nuclear family, a concept which “The Munsters” both critiques and partakes in

Though rattled, Herman leaves to search for Marilyn, mirroring how minorities in America at this time felt unsafe but did not allow themselves to be shackled in by this, choosing instead to face discrimination head on. Lily offers to go but Herman refuses, taking on the role of the strong patriarchal figure, which raises an interesting question about the tension between the show’s conservative family dynamics and its underlying progressiveness. In an episode tinged with the concerns of societal inequality and racism, we find the reinforcement of the nuclear family dynamic. This is the crux of the 1960s as a period — it was a liminal time, stepping away from the past and towards the future but never seeming to break away from the former and fully embrace the latter.

The main story of the episode ends with the actual monster, a purse snatcher, being arrested and Herman inadvertently helping in his capture; Marilyn reads in the newspaper the next morning: “[The police chief] was heroically assisted by an unknown citizen who has modestly refused to come forward and reveal his identity” (27:20–27:26). He also overcomes his insomnia — when Grandpa knocks him out.

Though this episode treats the storyline with the same lightness that sitcoms reveled in the use of monster movie inspired characters hides deeper comments on the state of America during the 1960s. Herman provided the minorities of the country a voice for their fears and concerns and forced Caucasian audiences to connect the monstrous outsiders of The Munsters with those who were treated the same way in their society, as well as the ugliness of such a mentality.

Sources

[1] Tredy, Dennis. “Light Shadows: Loose Adaptations of Gothic Literature in American TV Series of the 1960s and early 1970s.” TV/Series [Online], 12|2017. Online since 20th September 2017, http://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/2200

[2] Torres, Sasha. “ ‘In a Crisis We Must Have a Sense of Drama’: Civil Rights and Televisual Information.” Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights, Princeton University Press, PRINCETON; OXFORD, 2003, pp. 13–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv36zqw3.6

[3] “Munster Masquerade.” The Munster: The Closed Casket Collection. Written by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher. Directed by Norman Abbott. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2007.

[4] Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Plexus, London, 1993.

[5] “A Walk on the Mild Side.” The Munster: The Closed Casket Collection. Written by Norm Liebmann and Ed Haas. Directed by Lawrence Dobkin. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2007.

[6] Gomez, Melissa. “White Woman Who Blocked Black Neighbor From Building Is Fired,” New York Times, 15 October 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/us/hilary-brooke-apartment-patty-st-louis.html

Writer — Folklorist — Film buff — UCD Graduate

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