Q&A: Monsters in America

This month, we’re hosting a conversation at the Patheos Book Club on the new book Monsters in America, by Scott Poole.  Go here to read an excerpt from the book.  As part of our roundtable conversation on the book, we invited our bloggers to ask whatever questions they wanted of Poole … we’ll share their brief Q&As here at the blog over the next few days.

From Craig Detweiler, filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator, and co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California (read his Monsters in America review here):

Which came first for you – monsters or history?

Poole: That’s really a tough one. In my own life the answer is simple…monsters. I was a horror nerd long before I took any interest in history, dating back to my days of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man from Shock Theatre re-runs. My teenage years brought a deep fascination with the slasher films of the 1980s.

It’s maybe a bit more complex though. In a sense, my study of history has always been about monsters…the things we as a culture have tried to hide, forget or misremember. I want to get America to see the monster  under its bed, or under its history.

Do you think the South is more fertile soil for the monstrous, and if so, why?

I have to really nuance my answer to this.  The South is a bloody landscape and monsters are born out of the bitter roots that grow there. I am very interested in the plantation terror tale, how the planter class of the Old South attempted to create mythologies of horror about creatures who lived in the woods and swamps, in the very places slaves might escape into or mount resistance from. I also try to keep before my reader’s the terrors of southern lynching, a national issue but one that has primarily played itself out in the South.

But this is not a book about the South because Monsters are not a regional phenomenon. Nor is the history of racial terrorism, class exploitation and gender oppression that has been productive of monster narratives. It’s just a moral and ethical dodge to pretend that one region of the country can bear the burdens of our past.

From S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, author and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief (read his post on Monsters in America here):

Can we talk about “national monsters”, in the same way we could talk about a “national film” or “national literature”? If monsters “are meaning machines that embody the historical structures and trajectory of the American nation” (21), I wonder about other nations.

Poole:  I think so. In fact, I would argue that while monsters are universal, every culture has a tradition of the weird that reveals something about its history. But I also think the inflection that a monster takes depends heavily on the national experience they are hardwired into. America’s Frankenstein attained popularity in the midst of experimentation on racial minorities and beliefs about the natural degeneracy of certain ethnic brains. This pseudo-scientific racism obviously influenced how movie-goers imagined the Monster born in a lab with a criminal’s brain.

Today, our fascination with the zombie, the decaying, rotting eating machine, has at least something to do with our culture’s fascination with maintaining the body, diet culture and even consumerism.

These are monsters that have appeal elsewhere…but they become “American” monsters for very specific historical reasons.

Why monsters? Why now? Beal, Asma, and Kearney in recent years have all discussed monsters and religion, in varying ways, and of course cultural critics like Skal and Halberstam have as well.  Hopefully we won’t have a ‘monster studies’ track at our colleges anytime soon, but there seems to be a more recent, critical-theoretical interest.  Why now?

Well, because monsters are awesome. And also because they are one of a number of ways we can explore secret histories not easily accessed in another way. I once had a professor that suggested, in response to my question about the degree that colonial Americans worried about slave rebellion, that it was “impossible to know what worried people when they went to bed at night.” I guess I took his skepticism as a challenge.

And there are a few of us working in this field but I seem to be more or less alone when it comes to historians.  Cultural studies folks, media and film studies, religious studies and even philosophers like my friend Stephen Asma have explored the monster. But not historians. There are a lot of reasons for this…some of them to intra-mural to be of much interest to your readers. But it is true.

I hope this changes, even though it means future monster historians will be writing better books that eclipse mine entirely! Wait, never mind, I don’t really want that to happen. Everybody get back to writing about the revolutionary war or whatever.

And finally, from Ryan Parker, creator and blogger at Pop Theology, and recent PhD in Religion and the Arts at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California (read his Monsters review here.):

I’d appreciate it if you could ask Scott what he thinks about the new The Walking Dead phenomenon or what he thinks about the books and AMC TV series, particularly the humans’ interaction with one another and their often uber-violent reactions to the zombies.

Poole:  I’m not surprised that the Walking Dead has done as well as it has. Robert Kirkman’s comic series is really one of the great comic book narratives of our time. It’s a body of work that actually brought me out of my boredom with the zombie genre as it had developed since the 80s. The TV show hews close to the spirit, if not the details, of that series.

The Walking Dead itself is about those who remain and what they do in the aftermath of this great horror. How do survivors recreate new kinds of communities? I’m wondering more and more if this is one big discussion about where ethics come from, how we behave after all our social contracts have collapsed in the face of rampaging zombie hordes.

Maybe we need a new version of Freud’s thesis…lets call it “Zombie Apocalypse and its Discontents.”

I’d add that Romero always created real horror with the behavior of his human survivors. This again becomes a pretty profound moral reflection on what makes us, and keeps us, ethical. And too many zombie fans have skipped this part of the genre. In fact, I’m constantly irritated and appalled by the fascination with firearms and military hardware among a subset of zombie enthusiasts. In fact, for some people there seems to be a fuzzy line between gun nut and zombie fan. They are not the majority but when you run across it, trust me, it is repulsive and stupid.

Visit the Patheos Book Club on Monsters in America for more resources and conversation!

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