If you’re looking for a classic monster movie to watch this Halloween, and one that will also give you a few non-ironic laughs along the way, you’d do well to put on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But don’t take this recommendation from me: take it from the Grateful Dead’s own Jerry Garcia, who recalls his own formative viewing experience in the clip above from a 1995 broadcast of AMC’s The Movie that Changed My Life. When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came out, in 1948, he was just six years old: too tender an age, it seems, to appreciate the monstrous spectacle to which his mother had taken him. “I mostly hid behind the seats,” he remembers. “It was just pure panic.”
Unaware even of who Abbott and Costello were, the young Garcia could hardly have perceived the outwardly horrific picture’s lighthearted comic intentions. Yet it compelled him nevertheless, and even resonated with him on other emotional levels not having to do with fear.
“My father had died the previous year, in ’47, so that also made it kind of a heavy time in my life, emotionally,” he says, and one that perhaps gave him a certain receptiveness to the notion of “a dead thing brought to life.” Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein features not just the titular doctor’s monster, played by Glenn Strange, but also Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi as Dracula. “This was a juicy cast, and it was the last time these characters had dignity.”
For Garcia, these Hollywood monsters “became figures of tremendous fascination,” which led him to discover cultural movements like German expressionist theater and film. While they cast a spell of primal fear — “I think there was some desire on my part to embrace that, to not let that control me” — Abbott and Costello, for their part, suggested to him the great promise of comedy: “It’s a smart strategy to get by in life. If you’re not powerful, if you’re not huge, if you’re not muscular, if intimidation is too much work for you, it works good at disarming powerful adversaries.” Garcia’s “general fascination with the bizarre” also originated with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which showed him that “there are things in this world that are really weird” — a fact of which we could all stand to remind ourselves each and every Halloween.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.