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Monster of the Month: Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame

So, we know that the Universal Monsters were the first major group of movie monsters; it's an unassailable fact. Their profound influence on the culture cannot be denied, and we are certainly not going to try. Many of the films rank among the greatest in cinematic history, a point few would argue against. Still, there is one question that haunts and hounds fright fans to this very day: who was the first Universal Monster?

On paper, the answer is pretty straightforward: Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The success of the 1923's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" begat the 1925 "Phantom of the Opera," which begat "Dracula," which begat "Frankenstein," and so on. However, unlike those tales of terror, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was never intended to be a horror story or even a thriller, and Quasimodo was certainly never meant to be an icon of fright fiction. The original Victor Hugo novel was first published in 1831 under the title, "Notre-Dame de Paris." Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" was written to promote awareness of the Notre Dame, which was neglected and falling apart at the time. Quasimodo was a relatively minor character in the book, but he was the character who captured the imagination of the public. In 1833, Frederic Shoberl's English translation of "Notre-Dame de Paris" was published as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

But is Quasimodo truly a monster? Sure, he is physically deformed, but calling such a person a "monster" is cruel to the modern ear. Though he is something of a brute at the beginning of the story, all it takes is a single act of kindness to unearth the beauty within the beast. Quasimodo is not a villainous figure like the Phantom of the Opera nor is he of the supernatural. And while he is grotesque in appearance, his is ultimately a gentle heart. 

Much like his fellow Universal Monsters, Quasimodo is now synonymous with macabre fiction. Halloween masks are made in his likeness, toys designed for young horror fans bear his unusual countenance, and he often appears in monster-themed animation like "Mad Monster Party?" and "Hotel Transylvania."  Creature lovers have completely embraced Quasimodo, but why is he considered a monster?

Perhaps it is because he was portrayed onscreen by Lon Chaney, the first Hollywood film actor to be associated with the morbid. Chaney, the "Man of a Thousand Faces," was notorious for the strange makeups that he created with his own two hands. A physically gruesome character like Chaney's Quasimodo was relatively new in cinema at the time. Or maybe it's because Famous Monsters of Filmland, a seminal horror-based publication, would often feature photos of Quasimodo and other Chaney creations. Out of context, Quasimodo may appear scary to some.  Maybe it was the idea that such a peculiar figure dwelled within the walls of a magnificently Gothic structure, inhabiting an area looked after by gargoyles.  

Whatever the answer may be, is it fair to call Quasimodo a monster? Perhaps not, but to many of us, the Universal Monsters have become less figures of terror and more icons of individuality. The Universal Monster is usually ostracized for not adhering to societal norms, generally due to attributes that are beyond their control; their monstrous behavior is often the product of provocation from society. Not all of them are completely innocent, but they are more relatable than the people around them. Universal Monsters are flawed, imperfect misfits; that's why so many are drawn to them. Fictional mobs demonize them; movie audiences venerate them. We love their flaws and imperfections. To us, they are beautiful. Anyone who has ever felt weird or different can relate to the Universal Monsters. They are unique, they are majestic, they are human. In that sense, I think Quasimodo truly is the first Universal Monster. 


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o792vRfkKu0&t=37s

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