Best Year In Science Fiction: 1931

Illustration for article titled Best Year In Science Fiction: 1931

We're winding up our survey of the best year in scifi with a Great Depression year that transformed the genre forever with original monster classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, plus a horror novel from Nobel laureate William Faulkner.

Universal's monster movies are now so classic that it's hard to imagine what it would have been like to see them for the first time. Audiences were electrified with a triple whammy in 1931: the Boris Karloff Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi's brilliant performance in Dracula, and Fredric March as the morally-conflicted doctor in a scary-sexy interpretation Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These movies were arresting because they made monstrosity a human-sized affair, and invited audiences to sympathize with preternatural creatures whose desires were frighteningly - and tragically - human.

Because the Motion Picture Production Code (which created the ratings system) wasn't enforced until 1934, movies made in 1931 were far more violent and sexually explicit than movies made after the rating system was enforced. This relative freedom allowed filmmakers to make the Frankenstein monster's death violently horrific, and to depict Hyde beating and sexually abusing a showgirl he picks up at a club.

Echoing these human-sized monsters in a more realistic mode was Fritz Lang's unforgettable movie about a child-murderer called M. Starring Peter Lorre as the disturbed protagonist, this movie from the director of Metropolis is about how ordinary humans can become monsters.

Illustration for article titled Best Year In Science Fiction: 1931

Nobel laureate William Faulkner explored similar themes in his only bestselling novel, Sanctuary, about a society girl who is raped and kidnapped by an almost supernaturally monstrous gangster who turns her into a prostitute and delights in her complete degradation. (Sanctuary later became a pre-Code flick called The Story of Temple Drake.)

HP Lovecraft was scribbling furiously in 1931, helping to solidify his reputation as the master of pulp scifi/horror. This year saw the publication of "The Whisperer In Darkness," the story of a man who discovers his friend has been in contact with aliens who have done something presciently cyberpunk to him. This same year Lovecraft also wrote "At The Mountains Of Madness," his brilliant tale of pre-human aliens civilizations who once ruled the Earth.

Meanwhile, Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device used to accelerate particles to study nuclear physics. The Large Hadron Collider would not have been possible without Lawrence's contribution to the field. And Edgar Rice Burroughs published A Fighting Man Of Mars, while Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World (which would be published the following year in 1932).


1931 was a watershed year for horror, and for invention. Brilliant thinkers like Faulker and Huxley turned to the horror and scifi genres to express what they thought the modern world was coming to. And movie-goers learned that monsters are not always Other. Sometimes they come from inside ourselves.

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Annalee Newitz

I should add that there were movie versions of Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Dracula made before 1931, but these movies became the "classic" face of the monsters.