1963 was a big year for Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff as a team. Of particular interest is that all three of them starred in two of my favorite horror comedies: The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven. Both were also written by one of the greatest horror writers of his generation, Richard Matheson. Recently, I’ve been watching The Raven a lot. And doing that tends to cause one to start noticing really minor things.
There is a very funny moment in The Raven. Peter Lorre shows up in the form of a raven and wants Price to turn him back into his normal form. But Price doesn’t do that old fashioned kind of magic. He’s able to do magic with hand gestures not the kind of stuff the three witches did in Macbeth.
The Vegetarian Joke
Lorre asks if Price has various things like dried bat’s blood. Then he says, “How about some chain links from a gallow’s burg? Jellied spiders, rabbit’s blood, dead man’s hair?” And Price responds, “No, we don’t keep those things in this house. We’re vegetarians.” It’s a wonderful 1963 reference. The comedy comes from the fact that the film does not take place in 1963.
We know that Price’s father died roughly 20 years earlier. And later we see his coffin, which reads, “Roderick Craven: 1423 – 1486.” So we know that the film takes place around 1506. Maybe it’s a little later — 1509, but certainly not as late as 1516.
The Etymology of Vegitarian
The whole thing got me thinking because I know that the very idea of vegetarianism is quite new. Being a vegetarian is an indication that your food supply is quite stable. Certainly different species of animal have preferences for different foods. But humans are the only ones who get to pick and choose.
Until quite recently, we were the same as other animals: we were lucky to get food to eat at all. So we didn’t make philosophical decisions like vegetarians do that we won’t each animals. In fact, that’s why even most animals that we think of as carnivores and vegetarians are actually omnivores, unless they simply don’t have the ability to digest vegetables or animals. If you’re hungry enough, you’ll manage to eat anything.
So I went to the dictionary to find out when “vegetarians” made it into our language. After all, the term does not have to only apply to to humans. We know that cows, for example, are vegetarians. I believe all snakes are carnivores — at least the ones where I live.
Vegetarian Is a Young Word
But it turns out that “vegetarian” is quite a recent word. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the word is 1839 — just a little bit more than a century before “vegan.” So The Raven is off by at least 323 years!
I’m not blaming the film. Stupid indeed is the person who trying to learn word etymology from old horror films. That’s especially true when the film at hand is using the word for a joke. The idea of a 16th century sorcerer being a vegetarian is pretty funny.
Two Good Vincent Price and Peter Lorre Films
But since we are on the subject, you really should watch the film. It’s a lot of fun. I always like films where Vincent Price plays a good guy. And this is yet another film where poor old Price is cuckolded by an evil woman.
On the other hand, check out The Comedy of Terrors if you want to see a film where he is just horrible to his wife and Peter Lorre is the sweetest man in the world. And you can get both films together on a single DVD.
There’s something very special about comedy-horror as a genre. The truth is that horror is a very silly genre of film. So it combines well with comedy — as long as you aren’t looking for grammar lessons!