A Horrific Past

Numerous scholars explore the cultural and political implications of monster and horror films for the times from which they emerge. Through these analyses, we gain insight into seemingly distant pasts that are actually not that far removed from our own experiences now. Few scholars connect such implications across broader expanses of time to reveal how intrinsically monsters and the horrific have been bound up in the history of America. Even fewer scholars do so as adeptly and as entertainingly as W. Scott Poole in his new book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession With the Hideous and the Haunting (Baylor University Press, 2011).

Just to get it out of the way, I’ll state the only “drawback” to Monsters in America. Poole knows that America(ns) didn’t invent monsters out of the blue and occasionally references their broader historical origins. My only complaint is that he doesn’t point to the breadth of that history more frequently. Of course, doing so would have distracted from his American focus. Again, this is my only “complaint” about what is an otherwise phenomenal work. In Monsters in America, Poole has provided readers, be they history or horror buffs, with what should be a foundational text for the study of both.

Without being overly cynical or too depressing, Poole argues that the history of America is one of unthinkable horror. It is hard to disagree considering the treatment of Native Americans, witch hunts, the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, McCarthyism, wars, and the list goes on and on. Poole writes:

The American past reads like something of a horror movie, maybe even a low-budget slasher. American history comes at us dripping with gore, victims lying scattered on the ground, eldritch moonlight revealing creeping horrors you never learned form your eighth grade history textbook. (22)

Poole claims that the oppressor and the oppressed, throughout American history, employ the monster to either justify or cope with the violence that they enact or endure. The most clear cut example is the relationship between master and slave, each viewing the other as a beast (monster) to either be conquered or feared.

Poole also shows, throughout his text, how Americans have used monsters to cope with changing socio-political realities. His approach is nearly exhaustive and includes, to name a few,

  • early settlers fearing cannibalism and sexual violence among Native Americans
  • witch hunts as a source of entertainment and control
  • monsters as theological “enemies” necessary for a country to overcome in order to fulfill its theological destiny
  • the role of the Gothic in coping with changing economic and commercial conditions
  • the importance of Frankenstein at a variety of stages from the Industrial Revolution to physical damages of war to our own biomedical future
  • the use of monsters to define and police respectable behavior (especially sexuality)
  • atomic fears bound up in alien invasions or radioactive monsters
  • body snatchers and the like and the fear of communism
  • the relocation of the monster from the “exterior” to the “interior” (so to speak) and the rise of the slasher/serial killer film
  • the use of slasher films as a means to negotiate the sexual revolution and the growing disillusionment over institutions from family to church to law enforcement
  • the relationship between horror and the rise of the Religious Right and the ironic re-affirmation of family values
  • our obsession with the body (diets, plastic surgery, and the like) and our techno/medical future.

This list just begins to scratch the surface of what Poole offers in Monsters in America. Though I could continue adding to this list, doing so would distract from the brilliant ways in which Poole weaves these events and themes together throughout American history. In doing so, he notes commonalities between both monsters and the ways in which Americans have used them. Not surprising, the similarities are often bound up with race, gender, sexuality, marginalization, religion and a host of other potentially divisive monstrous markers.

Lynching as horror and entertainment.

Torture as horror and entertainment ("Hostel, Part 2")

The strength of Poole’s work is his assertion that works of horror (be they books, films, or television programs) are more than escapist media. Furthermore, their connection to American history…to real, lived events…is more than coincidental or tenuous. Poole writes, “The tendency to view American monsters as primarily psychological archetypes ignores how closely they have reflected actual historical events and actual historical victims” (107). Poole also resists the temptation to follow a strict historical progression, even though he loosely moves from one decade or generation to the next. In contrast, he frequently jumps back and forth between eras of American history revealing that the horrors of slavery, for example, and the ways in which the victims and violators coped with them, are with us yet and, perhaps, always will be. Lest we bemoan the evil “recent” emergence of torture porn (the Hostel and Saw series, for example), Poole reminds us of lynching/execution films that both entertained audiences and informed them of racial hierarchies in the early 1900s. As a result, horror films reveal parts of our past and present that many of us might prefer stay hidden. On the other hand, some horror films subvert or critique the often equally horrific American past. Poole writes, “The slasher became one of the most subversive American film genres. Previous horror films had used the monstrous to picture the marginalized. Increasingly, horror imagined normalcy as the truly monstrous” (155). In his approach to these texts, Poole provides the necessary complex reading that they deserve.

So a few questions emerge, specifically for Christian…or religious…readers. What roles do monsters play…or what places do they have…in our communities of faith? In what ways do we perpetuate their existence? How do we respond to horror (both films and reality)? Remember, as Poole writes, “Monsters cannot be treated and rehabilitated, only destroyed” (151). In what ways do congregations use monsters to deflect attention from their own faults or shortcomings? Or, as Todd Snider says, “If you’re the one pointing the finger, chances are, nobody’s looking at you.” Finally, how do monsters influence our theologies, even as they draw so freely from traditional theology? That both theological education and congregations often avoid horror films and the like for a variety of reasons is, as Poole shows, an unfortunate act of cultural negligence that must be addressed.

In the end, Poole does not define what a “monster” is because it simply cannot be defined. He shows how it/they are multivalent, changing with each generation…and perhaps, now, even faster. However, at the end of the day (or at least the end of his book), it’s difficult not to see that the monster is, more often than not, us.

N.B.: Anyone as vehemently opposed to the Twilight saga as Poole is is alright with me.

For more conversation – and an interview with Scott Poole – check out the Patheos Book Club this month.

About J. Ryan Parker

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