A New Exhibition at the Natural History Museum Explores the Science Behind Classic Monsters

Natural History of Horrors includes real historic artifacts mixed with props from classic Universal Horror films, focused on Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Much of the horror genre is rooted in the fear of the unknown. Monsters, ghouls and spooky stories play on humanity’s limited knowledge of the natural world and anxiety of what hidden forces might be beyond our understanding. A new exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles dives into that connection to the natural world, using four classic horror franchises and monsters as its jumping off point.

Natural History of Horror opened at the Exposition Park museum on Oct. 10, just in time for the start of the Halloween season. Set up in the corner exhibit hall, the show mixes text and images about the scientific and literary history of its subjects along with artifacts from classic Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s-1950s, plus some interactive elements.

The show runs through April 19. Entry is free for museum members and is included in the $14 general admission ticket.

An exhibit on monsters and horror movies is not exactly what people think of when they think of the Natural History Museum, according to Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, the museum’s president and director, but it fits into the broader mission of the space.

“We also study history and the history of Los Angeles,” Bettison-Varga said at a media preview the morning of the opening. “We are uniquely able to share the stories about the history, culture and science behind the monsters and of course how these horror films were inspired by the natural and physical world.”

Natural History of Horror focuses on four monsters and their franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Creature from The Black Lagoon. The exhibit features displays that mix film props with the scientific discoveries that inspired them. It features a total 17 objects from the museum’s collection and Universal Pictures’ archives, including wrappings used on Boris Karloff in the original version of The Mummy. There is also a silicone copy of the full-body suit and mask used to create the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The actress and legendary makeup artist and special effects creator Milicent Patrick designed both the suit and the mask.

Those are displayed alongside items like a fossilized coelacanth, a pre-historic fish that had fins resembling limbs, and bat and a wolf skull from the museum’s collections.

Many of the pieces on display came as a result of the Natural History Museum being one of the first spaces to collect items from Hollywood studios, according to Beth Werling, the museum’s collections manager. The museum started collecting the items in 1933, with a majority of the pieces collected from Universal in 1935, including props from its early sound horror films.

The last of Universal’s main monsters, the Wolfman as famously brought to life by Lon Chaney Jr., is absent from the show. Werling said that was mainly an issue of space, and since the Wolfman is the monster from Universal’s big five that has the most tenuous link to scientific movements, it was cut.

Much of the exhibition focuses on the cultural and scientific context behind the works. For instance, when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the late 1890s, it came at a time when fears of disease — mainly xenophobic fears of Eastern European immigrants — were high. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written not long after scientist Luigi Galvani made waves by proposing that electricity could reanimate dead tissue. The Karloff-led 1932 film The Mummy came just a decade after the tomb of King Tutankhamen was uncovered. Its discovery sparked a world-wide fascination with Egyptian history and culture.

The exhibition space is designed to mimic the aesthetic of a classic horror film, according to Sarah Crawford, senior manager of exhibition design and development with the museum. There is dim lighting, in bold colors, creating silhouettes on the room’s gray walls. A screen hangs in the middle, with clips from the four films projected on it on both sides.

There are also a number of interactive elements. In the Frankenstein section, visitors can practice their Galvanism by pulling a lever and shooting electricity through a frog leg, causing it to twitch. Or they flip another switch and set off sounds of thunder and lightning effects, mimicking the famous scene from Frankenstein. At the space dedicated to the 1931 Dracula film starring Bela Lugosi, people can play with different devices to create the noise effects used in early “talkie” pictures.

The Mummy’s attempts to hypnotize visitors behind scrolls, or Frankenstein’s Monster’s arrival at the strike of lightning help round out the interactive elements.

“We wanted to have a lot of surprises for people,” Crawford said. “It feels like a haunted house, and there a number of Easter eggs for people to discover as they go through.”

The museum is also hosting tie-in programming throughout Natural History of Horror’s run. The four events (the first was on Friday, Oct. 11) includes a screening of one of the Universal horror films along with panel discussions on the science behind them, plus other activities. The next one is a Valentine’s Day evening based on Creature from The Black Lagoon.

Natural History of Horrors runs through April 19 at the

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, 900 Exposition Blvd.

or nhm.org.

nslayton@timespublications.com.