‘In American history, the monsters are real’

W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting is just exactly that — a history of monsters in America.

We’ve got a lot of them — some came to the New World as immigrants, refugees or colonists, some were dragged here in chains, some were born here or conjured or summoned through hideous rites or assembled in the laboratories of mad scientists. America and its history are filled with monsters.

Poole believes in these monsters and in the stories we have told of them for centuries in America. He believes these monsters and stories of monsters reveal something true and important about who we are as a people, culture and nation. He believes that these monsters are more than “just” metaphors. Metaphors don’t draw real blood or leave a trail of real bodies in their wake.

That sounds like an interesting approach — examining the multitude of monsters in our folklore, films and campfire stories as metaphors to explore American history. Except, as Poole argues, America’s monsters have never been “just” metaphors. Metaphors don’t draw real blood or leave a trail of real bodies in their wake the way America’s monsters have done.

Poole summarizes his main idea in the short article “Darkness on the Edge of Town: American History and Religion as Horror,” and I don’t think I can do a better job here than he does there. Over the longer course of his book, he makes a compelling case that America’s monsters reveal America’s character. We tell ourselves stories to remind ourselves of who we are and of who we want to be, and to remind ourselves of — or distract ourselves from — what we have done.

Poole is an agreeable and enthusiastic tour guide to this horrific history. He’s immersed in the subject with the intimate, affectionate knowledge of a fan as well as of a scholar. And he has an entertaining and insightful knack for pointing out odd connections and the themes that recur in endless variations. His fellow fans I’m sure will be delighted by this collection of horrors, while those who don’t come to this book sharing his love for monster stories may find themselves converted by the end of it.

I came away from Monsters in America with a long list of scary movies I want to see again, to watch with a new perspective and appreciation. Poole has even tempted me to give a chance to some movies I’d previously avoided, such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The brutal violence of Leatherface wasn’t something I ever really wanted to look at, but now I’m intrigued by Poole’s insistence that its story has something to say that’s worth hearing.

And the truth is that even the most horrific fantasies from the most violent horror movies pale in comparison to many of the real monsters of history Poole describes. Consider for example the story he tells of one prolific serial killer from the 1700s — a man whose story makes that of Jack the Ripper seem G-rated. This particular killer was a mad sea captain who abducted his victims and chained them up, still alive, in an almost airless 18-inch high crawlspace below the deck of his ship. There his victims were subjected to every imaginable form of deprivation, degradation and physical torture. Those he killed he killed slowly and painfully, forcing the others to watch as he did so. This serial killer victimized countless men, women and children over many decades.

And he wasn’t acting alone. There were hundreds of such ships with hundreds of such captains, serial killers and sadistic torturers all. And everyone knew what they were doing yet almost no one tried to stop them because it was all perfectly legal.

I’m talking about slaveships and slavers, of course, and this really happened — for centuries this really happened, again and again and again and again. That reality is far more monstrous than the worst things ever portrayed in even the goriest underground horror films.

“God holds us responsible for what we will not look at,” Oswald Chambers wrote. And this is what Poole does very well — he helps us to see those things we refuse to look at. He discusses our monsters as a way of helping us to confront our monstrosities.

Slavery really was, as Frederick Douglass said, America’s “pet monster” and “a huge and many-headed abomination.” The vast and real horror of that abomination still haunts us in many of our monster stories. It lives on in the myths and legends we created to make monsters out of the Other and it lives on in the all-too-real monstrosities we commit in the name of those very same myths and legends.

Poole’s love for the classic Universal monster movies goes back to his childhood, but he takes issue with the contemporary claim that those movies just aren’t that scary anymore. He counters that claim, in part, by arguing that the period of American history from 1870-1941 can be better understood as the Age of Frankenstein. That’s the sort of entertainingly preposterous-seeming claim that one expects to encounter in scholarly books dealing with popular culture, but once Poole lays out his case, it no longer seems at all preposterous. This framework illuminates that period in our history. In that time, as in all times, examining what people feared helps us see what people loved and what they were ashamed of. To understand what people fear is to understand, too, their hopes and their sins.

Poole’s discussion of American life during the Age of Frankenstein helps to explain why, in the context of that history, the climactic finale of James Whale’s film is terrifying. For an American audience in 1931, the sight of an angry lynchmob was anything but quaint escapist entertainment. And just as in Shelley’s book, it raised the question of who the real monster was in that scene.

Our monster stories are never far removed from the compulsion to apply them to other people, an impulse we’ve discussed here quite a bit as the never-ending struggle against imaginary Satanic baby-killers (see here, and particularly here and here). Throughout his book, Poole traces how our fear of and desire for monsters to hunt, to oppose and to kill has had consequences far too real to be easily dismissed as “just metaphors.” From Margaret Jones to Troy Davis, our bloody need for the monstrous other has demanded real blood in return. Margaret Jones died for our sins.

I don’t mean to give this impression that Monsters in America is all heavy-handed and heavy going. Like all good horror stories, it blends delight with disgust. Poole’s tour of horror’s greatest hits is filled with lively wit and playful insights along with the grimmer realities it forces readers to confront.

And Poole has excellent taste. I mean by that, of course, what everyone means when they say anyone else has good taste — I mean that he generally agrees with me. He’s a great admirer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which he discusses at length with great insight into how that story “systematically breaks down the narrative of ordered community of respectability that destroys the monstrous other.” And he can’t abide the Twilight series, which he confesses in an appendix is “the only work discussed that I consider so ideologically and aesthetically repugnant that I see no value in it.”

I had originally composed a rather long list of complaints about Monsters in America — a host of unforgivable omissions and missed stops on Poole’s tour of America’s monsters. Where, for example, is the Jersey Devil? Or Alice Cooper and the nefarious minions of Satan corrupting America’s youth with backward-masking? What of the Satanic soapsellers, or Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, or the millions of Americans regularly slaying monsters with multi-sided dice or in World of Warcraft?

The lack of discussions of those topics was disappointing because they would all seem, in one way or another, to shed more light on Poole’s main thesis. And even more disappointing because, having read Monsters in America, I’m sure that Poole’s discussion of them would be insightful, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Happily, I’ve since learned that Poole already covered most of those topics in a previous book, Satan in America: The Devil We Know. This is excellent news. It means that, for me at least, Monsters in America will have that one key ingredient that every successful horror movie needs: a sequel.

For more:

 

  • Lori

     They portray very well the all consuming experience of the adolescent crush, which can be enjoyable vicariously both in retrospect (as in “Boy I remember that, and thank Heaven I’ll never go through that again, but it was exciting at the time”) and as an experiment (as in “Well, I’ve never felt that way, and I see how it can be exciting, but since I’ve experienced in these books, I don’t have to bother to seek that in real life”)  

    This fits with what I’ve seen of the fandom and is a big part of why I barely made it through the first book and would require cash payment to read even one more page of the series. That’s not My Thing. I’ve loved many books that were focused on stuff that generally does not interest me, but they had a lost less writing FAIL. I can love bad writing or generally uninteresting topic/issue, but not both at the same time. 

  • Madhabmatics

    We hella criticize it when Orcs are made as a stand-in for minorities, or dark elves are “The mark of cain is really what made black people” though.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    you can read into them whatever you bring to them

    I brought a *lot* of experience being the New Kid, and found the first chapters where she’s  dismissive and condescending to every friendly overture to be enough to put me off her. A classic example of  “if every single relationship you’re in sucks, maybe they’re not at fault, because the common denominator is *you*”.

  • hapax

    Could this be a case of noticing criticism directed at oneself more than that directed at others?

    That’s a fair point, to be sure.

    After all, I do work in a public library in a very conservative area.  I sit on about four “Request for Consideration of Materials” (i.e., somebody complained about something in our collection and wants us to get rid of it) committees a year, and there are more that I’m not called for.  Asking us to remove an item from a government institution because you don’t like the message is censorship by any definition, and frankly much more common and (in my opinion) more insidious than laws against video games that have to be conducted in the full glare of publicity and court oversight.

    We’ve had people ask us to remove the TWILIGHT BOOKS, the Dan Brown books, LUBA, R. Crumb’s GENESIS, the LONGARM westerns, TANGO MAKES THREE, VAGABOND, various sexual manuals, the HUNGER GAMES books, THE THIRTEENTH CHILD* — and that’s in just the last couple of years.  No matter where the book is shelved, no matter whether the objection comes from the “left” or the “right”, the complaint almost always includes the point that “young people were vulnerable” to Bad Messages in a way that the complainant wasn’t (although, as Mike Timonin points out, the people complaining very rarely read the material themselves). 

    And since the listservs and blogs I hang around on tend to be focused on library and publishing related issues rather than about gaming, so the censorship discussions tend to cover the same materials and repeat the same arguments.

    We have had no formal challenges to the video games in our library (nor informal ones, afaik) but that may be because they are invariably stolen within a week of being placed on the shelves.

    *no calls for removing the HARRY POTTER books, oddly enough, although several surrounding libraries have;  we had one objection to a Harry Potter display, but that was because the complainant was angry that it referred to a plot detail from the movies rather than the books

  • Anonymous

    It sounds like perhaps the people most likely to complain aren’t necessarily the sort who can easily access the content of a video game.

    I do think there’s a fair distance, though, between saying that a book isn’t an especially good piece of writing and saying it should be banned.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    How do you avoid allowing the requests for censorship to crush your soul?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    To be fair to the point she made, mmy wasn’t saying anything specifically about what Poole did or didn’t say about Twilight, but rather was commenting on a specific attitude of which Fred’s comment in the post about what Poole wrote, she felt, was emblematic.  That Poole does appear to go into greater depth in the book is therefore irrelevant to her point.  Unless I misunderstood her, in which case I apologize for attempting to speak for her.

    On to some other points:

    Izzy: 

    I suspect what they really mean is “oh no, women might think it’s okay to want to find men they sleep with attractive, and I might be expected to put a marginal amount of effort into my appearance”

    That may be part of it, but I suspect that the attitude is rooted more in insecurity, namely, “There’s nothing I can do to compete if that is what women are looking for.” 
    I can certainly understand that – as lazy as I am, and as slovenly as I tend to be when I don’t have to leave the house, I don’t really have any problem with the notion that I have to put at least some effort into my appearance in order to be at least somewhat appealing.  I mean, it just makes sense.
    However, having lost over 40 pounds and gotten into the best shape I’ve ever been in my life, I still feel at least some small twinge of jealously and inadequacy whenever I see and hear women talking about, say, Bradley Cooper, because, honestly, there’s just nothing I can do to even approach looking like that. 
    And no amount of working out is going to make me taller, or give me better teeth, or…well, you get the idea.
    Just a thought.
    (Homophobia also plays a part, I think, but there is an extent to which that ties into insecurity as well.)

    Twig: 

    I’ve had to watch Starfire turned from a free and happy character full of vibrant sexuality and affection into a monotone, blank-eyed Real Doll. 

    No disagreement from me, but I did want to point out that I also object to the notion I’ve seen floated around that she should be presented much more like the version that appeared on the cartoon.  I wouldn’t want to have to regularly see that Starfire, either.  Sure, I get that the character had a certain sweetness and happiness to her which people find appealing, but from what I saw (in my admittedly limited exposure to the show, which consited of watching the first episode and thinking, “Kill it with fire!” and then catching bits and pieces of it here and there after that), they took her naivete and innocence to the level of being almost completely brain dead. 

     

    I’ve had to watch Amanda Waller reduced to the supermodel proportions of every other female character

    Totally with you on that.  I suspect they tried to align her more with the version that (pointlessly) appeared in the Green Lantern movie.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    We have had no formal challenges to the video games in our library (nor informal ones, afaik) but that may be because they are invariably stolen within a week of being placed on the shelves.

    I have no words foul enough to describe people who steal material from a library. (And not just because I can’t find a copy of Uncommon Criminals because some unmentionable wandered off with the copy at my local library) The library in Virginia found that thefts of AV material decreased when the stopped letting people take out an entire season of TV as a single item (I don’t know how many copies of Buffy they had to go through before they learned this lesson, but it certainly made it difficult for my wife and I to catch up on the show…). A number of the branches here keep the CDs and DVDs behind the front counter – you bring the case to the librarian, and only then do you get the material. This, of course, generates lines while some poor librarian (or member of the library staff) searches for the 5 CDs that the guy at the front of the line has requested, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that the CDs will actually be returned to the library – but it does mean that any individual patron can’t steal CDs more than once, or possibly twice.

  • Izzy

    However, having lost over 40 pounds and gotten into the best shape I’ve
    ever been in my life, I still feel at least some small twinge of
    jealously and inadequacy whenever I see and hear women talking about,
    say, Bradley Cooper, because, honestly, there’s just nothing I can do to
    even approach looking like that. 
    And no amount of working out is going to make me taller, or give me better teeth, or…well, you get the idea.
    Just a thought.

    Right, but…that’s just how it is. That’s how it is for women, too. I’m decent-looking, but I’m not ever going to be Catherine Zeta-Jones, and while I could get a couple points closer on the scale, some of that requires a level of effort *I* don’t want to put in.

    This is the way it goes. Most of us don’t get movie stars. Most of us do settle to some extent, and growing up is a process of finding how much settling we’re comfortable with and balancing priorities and so on.

    And here’s where I’m going to be a bitch: grownups realize that and get over it. Which it sounds like you personally have–everyone gets those “aw, I thought I’d grow up to look a lot more like that, and also to be a spaceman” twinges–but for the record, People In General? Passive-aggressing about how you hear Allyson Hannigan is a horrible person or how “anime guys all look so giiiiirly” or whatever is tedious, and reveals a fair amount about you, and none of it is complimentary.

    We all have insecurities. But I, for one, have no time or desire for people who throw ‘em in my face. Save it for therapy: I am too old for this shit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    I wasn’t defending the attitude (or denying that the same thing happens for women), I was just saying that I think there’s something else going on – and to a more significant extent – beyond those sorts of guys just not wanting to have to put forth any effort.

  • Izzy

    Oh, fair.

    Though I think it comes from the same place. “I don’t want to go work out” is not dissimilar in basic form from “I don’t want to suck it up and deal with this fact”. Part of the larger family of “wanky stuff dudes complain about that women have been dealing with forever”. There’s got to be a shorter name for that, but I can’t think of one just now.

  • Lori

     Part of the larger family of “wanky stuff dudes complain about that women have been dealing with forever”. There’s got to be a shorter name for that, but I can’t think of one just now.  

     

    There really should be a name for that, but I’ve never run across one. If you think of one make sure to pass it along. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff are two books written on the premise that there a lot of meanings in need of words, and a lot of words (place names) that just sit on signs without ever having to pull their weight by having meanings.

    Perhaps you could use that idea.  Pick the name of a place and assign it the meaning “wanky stuff dudes complain about that women have been dealing with forever”.

  • Lori

    I like this, but I’m not sure Sheboygan* is going to catch on. 

    *No offense intended to the good people of Wisconsin. I have nothing against Sheboygan, the place. It’s just one of those words that I think is fun to say. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    Years ago I was watching an episode of the “Beetlejuice” cartoon in which there was a bit in which Beetlejuice literally froze from uncertainty (his powers made a block of ice appear around him).  To get free, he had to think of a way to “crack himself up.”
    After thinking for a moment, he stifled a laugh, then shouted, “Sheboygan!” and with cackling laughter broke free from the ice.
    I was watching this with my then-wife, who had been born in Sheboygan, and did not appreciate the humor…

  • Lori

    Ah, that makes me sad. I don’t like to think that my love of saying “Sheboygan” is offensive to Sheboyganites. AFAIK the city isn’t particularly mock-worthy so I assume the writers simply share my enjoyment of the name. It rolls off the tongue in such a fun way. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    People from there might disagree, but somehow it just sounds right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    Meh – I still felt free to laugh at the time, and the fact that she was annoyed made it that much funnier, frankly.
    But yeah, I think the writers of the cartoon were thinking the same thing as you are.

  • Anonymous

    He believes these monsters and stories of monsters reveal something
    true and important about who we are as a people, culture and nation. He
    believes that these monsters are more than “just” metaphors. Metaphors
    don’t draw real blood or leave a trail of real bodies in their wake.

    Which is basically why I think World War Z is the most important book of the last 10 years.  It may tangentially be about zombies, but it’s really about the breakdown of social structures and an enemy who doesn’t care whether they win so long as YOU lose.

  • Grenadine

    As someone who *hearts* Sheboygan, I really don’t have a problem with the name getting co-opted. However, if anyone is going to assign random place names to a perjorative (sp?) concept, get ready for some blowback from the residents.

  • Lori

    If I was seriously looking to co-opt a place name for a negative term I would assume it was best to go with somewhere that no one lives.  

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    somewhere that no one lives.

    Prypiat.

  • Anonymous

    A place no one lives that can appropriately be used for “wanky stuff dudes
    complain about that women have been dealing with forever”:

    “the halls of Congress”

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for that reply. It sounds like they are basically the romance novel equivalent of a Dan Brown novel: page-turners and genre-savvy, and everyone has read or heard of them, so there’s a bit of community building there. With the added advantage for the Twilight series that they can lead to discussions about adolescent issues?

  • Another Chris

    Yet another discussion is taken over by “Twilight”.

    That series isn’t a vampire; it’s the Borg.

  • Lewisjackhill

    boo
     


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