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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, April 4, 2014


In Part 1, I said, "the common purpose of both the "masterminds" and the "spectres" is to create narrative tension, which is generally resolved at each story's climax when the villain/ghost is unmasked."

Despite that similarity, there's a pertinent disconnect between the two figures. Unmasking removes the mastermind's power, while it removes the spectre's appearance of power.


Most masked criminal masterminds don't share the agility of the villainous Bat (seen sans mask above), but they do have power, usually mainifested through the agency of gangs of henchmen or super-weapons. 

The character of Fantomas from 1911 was one of the first of this breed to circulate in early 20th-century pop culture, and the type, as noted in the previous essay, was particularly popular in serial films.  Most of the figures from silent serials are unknown save to buffs, though one, the Clutching Hand, was translated to a 1936 chapterplay. Many sound serials are replete with dozens of colorful masterminds-- the Crimson Ghost, Captain Mephisto, Doctor Satan, the Spider-- many of whom are more interesting than the films' nominal heroes.

In contrast, the spectre who pretends to be a ghost, a vampire, a mummy or whatever usually has no real power but that of illusion.  In Part 1 I also opined that "I tend to doubt that the specific trope of plotters pretending to be ghosts sustains much popularity in the prose or the cinema of these days, with the exception of SCOOBY DOO cartoons."  And whatever one thinks of said cartoons, the original 25 episodes of SCOOBY DOO WHERE ARE YOU-- unlike many later incarnations, that brought in real ghosts, zombies, et al-- always kept faith with the same basic idea.

The Mystery Inc. teens investigate rumors of a monster.

The monster appears, scares them with its ferocious looks and tries to chase them away, usually twice in each episode.

The teens set some trap for the monster, which succeeds in spite of much slapstick hilarity, and the monster generally turns out to be a man or woman in a monster-suit.

Rarely if ever do the crusading teens-- who are heroic in their intentions, if not their dynamicity-- turn and try to overpower the monster by force of numbers.  Often when the malefactors are revealed, they look about as powerful as Grandma Moses. But the cartoon's entire raison d'etre was to offer mild thrills seasoned with slapstick comedy, so the show emphasized not "the fight" but "the chase," "the trap," and "the crime-solving summation."

One may dismiss the "specious spectres" as a worn-out contrivance, but to judge from their popularity in bygone days, they served a psychological purpose that contrasts with the pleasures of the more overt horror films of the sound era. In these comedy-Gothics, monsters were all puffed-up illusions, and no doubt the mature audiences that watched THE CAT AND THE CANARY or THE SMILING GHOST enjoyed that comforting thought as much as did any and all kids who enjoyed Scooby Doo.
But as I noted in THE PHENOMENALITY OF PSYCHOS, even illusion does have a power of sorts, which I'll discuss in Part 3.

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