Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe Explained!

From Dracula and the Wolf Man to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. We worked out a timeline for the first shared cinematic universe.

(painting by Alex Ross)

When Universal Studios took a chance in the early ‘30s, found out just how popular horror films could be, and immediately began setting up franchise after franchise, let’s just say they didn’t think it through quite as carefully as DC or Marvel do today when it came to universe design. In the end, while the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon came to inhabit their own personal, unmolested corners, it was almost inevitable Universal’s three Kings of Horror, the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, would collide headlong at some point.

But even with that inevitability in mind, filling logical gaps and answering all questions were secondary concerns at best. Still, there had to be some reasoning there someplace, right? No matter how much disbelief had to be suspended in the process.

Given the novels Frankenstein and Dracula were published in 1818 and 1897, respectively, and the films were based on plays only loosely related to the novels, that’s of little actual help in determining a timeline of what happens when. With so few actual timeframes offered up by the films themselves (given they mostly take place in vague, mythical places at vague, mythical times), we’ve tried to glean a rough timeline based on dialogue references, clothing, transportation, and available technology, as well as the timing of the films themselves.

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Keep in mind that the dates cited do not always, and in fact rarely, correspond with the dates the films were actually released, but rather when the events of the films take place. There is admittedly some guesswork involved, a little imagination, and a little hole-filling of our own, but what are you gonna do?

1870: An eccentric Transylvanian nobleman cuts a real estate deal and purchases a large estate in the heart of London in need of a little TLC. (Dracula)

1871: The ship carrying the nobleman’s furniture arrives in England. The entire crew is dead.

 Count Dracula, as he’s known, arrives in London. Coincidentally the town is overrun with rats, and several deaths occur resulting from a mysterious blood disease. Academic and physician Dr. Van Helsing becomes convinced this newcomer is responsible, and in fact is a vampire. Van Helsing drives a wooden stake through Dracula’s heart as he sleeps, killing him. Obviously. (Dracula)

read more: The 13 Essential Dracula Performances

Van Helsing is charged with murder, and a local psychologist is brought in to defend him. Meanwhile, an apparent relative of the deceased, Counntess Marya Zaleska, arrives in London and claims the body (and the coffin). Even after Dracula’s death, more people are afflicted with the mysterious blood disease, which does not help Van Helsing’s case. In a questionable move, the psychologist calls in Van Helsing to examine a young woman recently afflicted with the blood disorder, and Van Helsing concludes it must be a case of vampirism. (Dracula’s Daughter)

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1872:  The Countess returns home to Transylvania, where a jilted lover shoots her through the heart with an arrow. Van Helsing and officers from Scotland Yard, who had been tailing the Countess after Van Helsing claims this latest newcomer is also a vampire, arrive on the scene and shoot the jilted lover. For some reason, Van Helsing is vindicated and released.

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1872-1944: After arriving in Transylvania with what may be her father’s remains but before her untimely death, the Countess sells the coffin and its contents to a traveling sideshow. Over the next 70 years or so, the coffin is sold and resold, passing from carnival to carnival where it always proves to be a popular attraction, even though most snickering audience members insist it’s a cheap gaffe. (Dracula’s Daughter)

1880: Henry Frankenstein, a young doctor from a small north German village near Bavaria, becomes obsessed with the possibility of reanimating dead tissue by employing the techniques of electro-biology. To prove his theory, he sets up a laboratory in a tower near his home. With the help of his hunchbacked assistant Fritz, he steals several freshly buried corpses and, choosing only those parts he deems superior, stitches them together. Unfortunately, the illiterate Fritz brings him the wrong brain.

Still, his theories are proven correct when the newly-created creature comes to life, escapes and, if only through primitive ignorance, wreaks some havoc. Unhappy with this turn of events, the locals, misled by the hapless Frankenstein, pursue the creature into an old windmill, setting it ablaze. (Frankenstein)

1880: Dr. Frankenstein barely survives both the inferno and a spat with the monster and is returned home. The monster, though presumed dead, escapes unnoticed into the local woods with only a few serious burns. Over time he helps a few people, hurts a few people, and even learns to speak a few rudimentary words thanks to a kindly blind hermit.

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Henry, meanwhile, marries his long-time fiancé Elizabeth and sort of vows he’ll never again make a hulking rampaging monster. (The Bride of Frankenstein)

1881: Although professionally disgraced and still hated by the local townsfolk for that whole “rampaging monster” business (which has wreaked some havoc of its own with the tourist trade), Dr. Henry Frankenstein is happily married (and soon will have three children). Henry is visited by a former mentor, the flamboyant and quite possibly mad Dr. Pretorius, who insists together they continue Henry’s old reanimation experiments.

The doctor further suggests they make a female creature this time. The reanimated female creature does not care for the original monster. He’s hating this whole “living” rigamarole as it is and this latest rejection doesn’t help, so he blows everyone up. (The Bride of Frankenstein)

read more: 13 Forgotten Frankenstein Films

1885-1925: The local authorities grab Fritz (or maybe Pretorius’ assistant Karl, it’s unclear), charge him with felony graverobbing, and send him to the gallows. The hanging is less than successful, though, leaving the hunchback with a broken neck that never heals quite right. He changes his name to Ygor and returns to the ruins of the old lab to hide.

He discovers the body of the monster near a river in the woods, where the force of the explosion had apparently blown him. The monster is alive but unresponsive, so Fritz, er, Karl…Ygor drags him back with him and hides him in the Frankenstein family tomb.

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1925: Some 40 years after his fathers untimely demise, Henry Frankenstein’s son Wolf, a doctor himself, returns to his ancestral home only to find the locals aren’t exactly the forgive and forget type. On top of all the personal horror they recall, tourism never did pick up again. Wolf sets about making amends. While exploring the family estate, however, he discovers Ygor hiding out in the ruins of the old windmill. He also finds the monster in an apparent coma down in the family vault.

After vowing up and down he’d never do any such thing, that old Frankenstein blood takes over and Wolf revives the monster. Ygor then orders the monster (who no longer speaks and only listens to Ygor) to go out there and kill the people on the jury who sent him to the gallows. Not pleased with this, Wolf shoots Ygor. Not pleased with that, the monster gets upset. Much activity ensues, culminating in Wolf kicking the monster into a pool of boiling sulfur. The locals hail Wolf as not so bad after all, and he goes away. (Son of Frankenstein)

1926: Ygor recovers from his gunshot wound, which turned out to be not so fatal after all. Meanwhile, the debate begins in the village over what exactly should be done with Frankenstein’s nearly vacant castle.

1927: After much long debate, the local government finally agrees, against Ygor’s strong protests, to tear the castle down, which they begin almost immediately. Fleeing into the catacombs beneath the structure as the demolition begins, Ygor discovers the blasting has knocked the weakened monster clean out of the sulfur pit. He cleans him up quickly, and the two escape unnoticed into the countryside as Ygor decides what to do next. They wouldn’t be going back to that bastard Wolf Frankenstein, that’s for damn sure! (The Ghost of Frankenstein)

1930: A radical medical researcher named Dr. Niemann, a devout student of the original work of Dr. Frankenstein, is sentenced to life in prison for conducting some rather strange and unusual experiments. (House of Frankenstein)

1933: It took some time and some doing, considering the size of the monster and Ygor’s own physical condition, but the twisted little graverobber finally deposits Henry Frankenstein’s creation on the doorstep of his other son, Ludwig Frankenstein. An innovative brain researcher, Ludwig believes the answer might be to replace the monster’s abnormal brain with the brain of an enlightened genius.

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Some expected academic bickering ensues over whose brain, exactly, should be transplanted into the monster. In the end, after another tragic mix-up, the creature is given Ygor’s brain. The monster’s disposition does not improve. Even though he can now speak, all he does is complain, especially when a blood incompatability issue leaves him blind. He is again trapped in a burning building and presumably dies. (The Ghost of Frankenstein)

1934: Larry Talbot returns from America to the family estate in Wales to attend his brother’s funeral. While attempting to defend a local girl who is being menaced by a wolf, Larry is bitten. He soon discovers that whenever there’s a full moon, he turns into a wolf himself. And whenever he turns into a wolf, bad things happen. For a long time nobody believes him, but then his father does when he beats Larry to death with Larry’s own silver wolf’s head walking stick.

No charges are filed. (The Wolf Man)

read more: 13 Must-See Werewolf Movies

1936: A burly man who may be Dracula, or a son of Dracula’s, or a distant member of the Dracula family, or merely a delusional psychotic who nevertheless resembles Lon Chaney Jr. and goes by the name “Dr. Alucard” meets a wealthy American heiress while she’s visiting Bucharest. She has a deep interest in the occult, so he follows her back to her sprawling family estate in Louisiana. There, Alucard becomes embroiled in some Southern Gothic shenanigans.

His new wife’s ex-beau sets fire to his coffin and Alucard dies when the sun comes up. (Considering Dracula’s actual coffin is presently touring Europe, it’s a fair conclusion that Alucard was in fact a son or some other relative, and not the original Dracula himself). (Son of Dracula)

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1938: Two hapless graverobbers make the mistake of prying open the tomb of Larry Talbot on the night of a full moon. The remarkably well-preserved Talbot returns to life, becomes a werewolf, and later awakens in a hospital where he has a difficult time convincing his doctor that yes, he was actually killed and buried several years earlier.

Realizing with horror that he was still alive even after his father had done everything he was supposed to do to release Larry from the curse, Larry flees the hospital and finds Maleva, the old gypsy woman who told him that he was a werewolf in the first place. She explains that the only man who can help him is Dr. Frankenstein, who had uncovered the secrets of life and death. Together they begin the long trip from vaguely European countrysides to a vaguely German-Swiss town during a trip made all the longer when it’s in a horse and carriage.

Talbot’s physician, concerned about his escaped and possibly insane patient, and seeing a groundbreaking case study coming out of all this, begins searching for him. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man)

Later 1938: Dr. Niemann, imprisoned all these years with a half-witted but worshipful hunchback named Daniel, begins dreaming of escape and revenge. (House of Frankenstein)

1939: Talbot and the gypsy woman finally arrive at the German-Swiss border, only to discover Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein had died several years before Larry even showed up, back at the family estate back in ‘33. The good news, though, was that his daughter, the Baroness Elsa von Frankenstein, was still around and still trying to sell the collapsed Frankenstein castle in Vasaria (the Appalachia of Switzerland).

This business meeting is all the more remarkable with a war going on in the background (indeed the S.S. are seen roughing Maleva up from time to time during negotiations). The desperate Talbot presses her for information, but when she’s less than helpful he heads up to the castle himself where he finds the monster. It’s unclear how the monster got back to the castle or how it ended up encased in a block of ice after being trapped in that burning building, but there you go.

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read more: How the Wolf Man Created the First Cinematic Universe

However it happened, the creature also lost Ygor’s brain and regained its sight in the process. It also grew sideburns and developed an uncanny resemblance to Bela Lugosi.

Talbot’s doctor finally catches up with him and goes all googly-eyed at Frankenstein’s equipment. He believes a brain transplant might be just the thing to help Larry. Then he changes his mind and supersizes Lugosi-stein. Before he can finish, however, Larry turns into a werewolf again and begins duking it out with the recently-thawed monster. But just then a nearby dam explodes and millions of gallons of water flood the castle basement, washing both monsters away to presumably drown someplace. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man)

1945:  After years of talking, Dr. Niemann finally goes through with it and escapes from prison with Daniel. They hijack a one-man sideshow wagon, kill the owner/impresario, and steal his identity. As it happens, at this point in history, this travelling show of horrors is in possession of Dracula’s original coffin, complete with skeleton and stake. Niemann removes the stake, revives Dracula, and makes the old vampire his personal slave, promising that as long as Dracula does his bidding, his coffin will be kept safe. Niemann sets about tracking down all his enemies, dispatching them with Dracula’s help.

But one night while Niemann is being chased by the police, and the coffin tumbles off the wagon, and is lost. Dracula dies (again) soon thereafter. The real goal, apart from all the vengefulness, is to visit Ludwig Frankenstein’s old castle (despite the shape it’s in), so Niemann can get his hands on the good doctor’s notes. He promises his assistant that with those, he’ll be able to put Daniel’s brain into a strong healthy body the women will swoon for. (House of Frankenstein)

1946:  Some kids come across Dracula’s coffin and sell it to a Dr. Edelman for a few bucks. Edelman keeps the coffin in his basement. Being as he is a doctor who specializes in offering real-world scientific cures for otherworldly ailments, it seemed the sort of knick-knack he just liked having around. (House of Dracula)

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Later 1946: Upon finding and exploring Frankenstein’s castle, Niemann discovers the bodies of both the Wolf Man and the monster, this time both of them frozen in ice, winter having hit the village hard, and soon after the dam broke. After being thawed out, poor Larry Talbot sets to moping again, realizing that yes, he’s still alive. Niemann meanwhile giddily considers what fiendish experiment he should do first, having forgotten all about his promise to poor Daniel.

Well, again, there’s some chaos.

Talbot becomes a werewolf and is shot with a silver bullet. Daniel strangles Niemann for betraying him. The monster throws Daniel out a window. The townsfolk, still pissed after all these years and not much liking the idea of any tomfoolery going on at the old Frankenstein castle they’d already torn down once, grab their torches and pitchforks.  The monster grabs Niemann and humps him off into a nearby swamp, where they drown in quicksand. (House of Frankenstein)

1947: A few short months later, Dracula (using an assumed name) shows up at Dr. Edelman’s to seek a cure for his vampirism. It’s unclear how he was revived this time around, but that’s immaterial. What matters is he knows Edelman has his coffin down there in the storeroom. Edelman sets him on a program of blood transfusions and an all-purpose serum of Edelman’s own invention.

Larry Talbot shows up, looking for a cure for his lycanthropy. It’s also unclear how he survived that silver bullet. The one thing that is clear is that all those supposed cures Maleva was telling him about were all horseshit, cheap fairy tales to sell to the tourists.

Edelman believes Larry’s problem is pressure on the brain. When surgery to cure this fails, Larry (who should really know better by now) jumps off a cliff. As his treatment is underway, Dracula continues with his old tricks. Upset by this, Edelman drags his coffin into the sun and sets it on fire. So much for Dracula, again.

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Talbot wakes up in a cave at the bottom of the cliff to discover the monster still clutching Niemann’s skeleton. How they got there from the quicksand is anyone’s guess. Frankenstein is revived, but barely. Talbot is finally cured, and Edelman is revealed as a monstrous killer. Talbot then joins with a band of angry townsfolk to trap the monster in yet one more burning building. (House of Dracula)

Later 1947: Talbot turns into a werewolf again, and curses Edelman bitterly. Him and his stupid cure. Then, suspecting they may be around as well and up to no good, begins tracking down Dracula and the monster on his own all over Europe. (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)

1948: Although it is again unclear how they were saved from apparent doom, one year later, the bodies of Dracula and the monster (disguised as wax dummies) are shipped to Florida where they are to appear in a local house of horrors. Before freight handlers Wilbur Gray and Chick Young can make the delivery, Dracula awakens and spirits the weakened monster away in hopes of revitalizing him with a new brain. Larry Talbot arrives from England to stop Dracula’s fiendish plan.

read more – Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: The Continuity Question

Dracula kidnaps Wilbur in hopes of using his brain and brings him to a nearby castle on a small island. Chick and Talbot set out to rescue him. Talbot again becomes a werewolf and battles Dracula, who attempts to escape by turning into a bat, but not before a wolfish Talbot grabs him and they tumble into the sea. The monster pursues Chick and Wilbur toward a waiting boat.

When the pier is set ablaze, the monster walks into the flames and the pier collapses. Chick and Wilbur are then joined by the Invisible Man, who is likely annoyed at having been left out of all of Universal’s Super Monster Team Ups. (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)

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Although these final monstrous demises seem among the least definitive of them all, and though Universal’s classic horror era would continue through the mid-’50s with the Creature from the Black Lagoon franchise, there would be no more crossovers, and no more Dracula, Wolf Man, or Frankenstein’s monster, who really had apparently all drowned in 1948.