Stupid Question ™
April 24, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Why do Frankenstein’s monster, zombies and mummies all walk with their arms stretched out in front of them?
A: The obvious answer would be that it makes the monsters look menacing, as if reaching out for new victims.
But the monsters are typically shown shambling around like that even when there’s no one to threaten.
In the original movies that established these monsters, they never walked around like that, though they occasionally reached out for people. (Sara Karloff, daughter and estate manager of the late “Frankenstein” star Boris, told me she had no idea where the image came from.) The outstretched arms are a caricature created by cartoons and commercial illustrators.
There’s a striking similarity to the way sleepwalkers are caricatured in cartoons and commercials—arms held rigidly out, hands hanging limp—which is also of mysterious origin. Real-life sleepwalkers hold their arms normally.
I talked to sleep disorder experts Dr. Jean Matheson of Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Dr. Neil Kavey of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center’s Sleep Disorders Center in New York.
Both suggested that the sleepwalker caricature may come from the misunderstanding that sleepwalkers can’t see and have to feel their way around.
Kavey noted some conventionalized posture was inevitable, because it’s otherwise not clear in fiction that the walker is asleep (a fact that can be hard to notice in reality, too).
The posture might also have a factual basis in a still-popular hypnotism act in which the subject is ordered to hold an arm straight out while some strong guy attempts (and always fails) to pull it down.
In any case, the monster/sleepwalker similarity is not only in posture but in theme. The classic film depictions of Frankenstein’s monster and zombies were directly inspired by the groundbreaking German film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919), which involved a murderous, hypnotized sleepwalker.
Death and sleep are often connected in literature and psychology. And, like “Caligari’s” sleepwalker, all the classic movie monsters you name are also quasi-mindless creatures under the direction of a more-conscious keeper. (Vampires, which move at normal speed and are fully conscious, are never depicted with permanently outstretched arms.)
“White Zombie” (1932), the very first zombie movie, is about an evil voodoo zombie-maker who is also a hypnotist; the script for “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943) describes zombie movement as like “walking in a deep sleep.”
I don’t think the outstretched-arm caricature was invented deliberately.
The rigidity of the arms and their constantly outstretched pose was probably borrowed, unconsciously, from conventional depictions of sleepwalkers, who are thematically very similar to shambling undead movie monsters.