‘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.

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