The Monster Show

By David J. Skal

Horror has to always justify itself. Romance, erotica, and yes even porn, are “natural” genres of expression and representation, as is comedy. We like to have a good time and a laugh. But what does an appetite for violence, cruelty, and terror say about us? It’s just as universal, but it doesn’t reflect as well upon us as a species. So something else must be going on. Horror has to be explained.

In The Monster Show David J. Skal has undertaken one such explanation, focusing primarily on horror movies of the twentieth century. What appeared on the screen were a series of projections, and not just of light through ribbons of celluloid. Horror was a projection of the audience’s fears and anxieties, which were in turn the product of political, economic, and cultural events.

All of this was apparent from the beginning. “Morbidity is not without its claims to a high place among humanity’s respectable emotional interests,” ran one apologetic trade report on Frankenstein (1931). This was because that film had arrived

If the psychologists can be believed, at a familiar psychological moment. Say the savants, people like the tragic best at those times when their own spirits are depressed, and the economists tell us that even more than their spirits are at a low ebb.

Of course, in 1931 you didn’t have to be an economist to know that the economy was at a low ebb. That much was pretty obvious. The Great Depression was the American Nightmare, and horror movies are nightmares displaced. Such connections have always been made; cultural criticism is nothing new. Also writing during the Depression, Nelson B. Bell noted the link between the popularity of horror movies and the dismal economy:

Many are without employment, many are employed only by virtue of having accepted drastic curtailment of income, many lead their lives in a state of constant dread of the disaster that may overtake them at any minute. This is a state of mind that creates a vast receptivity for misfortunes more poignant than our own.

This correlation between a collective state of mind and attendant social conditions with the kinds of entertainments and diversions it calls forth is the basic template for Skal’s analysis in The Monster Show. In brief, how did what was happening in America (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) influence what audiences flocked to see on the screen?

In many colourful ways. Maimed and disfigured soldiers returning from the First World War became the animate corpses of the Frankenstein mythology. Zombies, in the Depression and again today, come back to life during times of economic hardship, loss of a sense of personal agency, and exaggerated economic inequality (the living haves vs. the undead have nots; the besieged 1% in their gated communities vs. the hordes of mindless consumers: under social Darwinism the only law is to eat or be eaten). The atomic age breeds giant monsters like Godzilla or the ants in Them. Bulb-headed, bug-eyed aliens land during the “right-brained and technologically-obsessed” 1950s, their appearance on film and the new medium of television eerily foreshadowing our own age of screenwatchers (“In the way that early movie monstrosities reflected a horror of physical transformation, these new creatures anticipated not the violent rending of the body but its withering and atrophy. The future was about watching images and processing information; the eyes and brain were the only useful parts of the human form left.”). The Pill and thalidomide are dispensed and we get an entire sub-genre of “birth horror” (Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, It’s Alive, Alien). Sexually transmitted diseases make headlines and promiscuous teenagers are slashed to pieces. Most recently (and after the publication of the revised edition of this book), we go from Guantanamo to Hostel and “torture porn.”

This could all get reductive, but it doesn’t because Skal never suggests that such correspondences tell the whole story. To be sure, at times the analysis doesn’t quite persuade. I’m still not convinced of the relation between the Depression and Dracula, and Hitler as the Wolf Man strikes me as a real stretch. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining, well-informed, opinionated and at times idiosyncratic look at a fascinating subject.

But perhaps the most interesting question Skal’s work raises is the extent to which horror leads or follows the larger culture. Are the purveyors of scary thrills the antennae of the race, the paranoid legislators for mankind? Or do they just respond to contemporary anxieties and trends? In the late 1930s, New York Times critic André Sennwald saw a resurgence of horror films as “related very distinctly to the national state of mind.” It reminded him of the “mad confused days which preceded our entrance into the World War [when] the cinema was satiating the blood-lust of noncombatant Americans with just such vicarious stimulants. Hollywood, always quick to reflect or stimulate a mass appetite, seems to be doing the same thing all over again.”

Reflect or stimulate? This is an important question. Does culture lure us into danger, or is it a healthy kind of catharsis or therapy — in one of Skal’s analogies, acting like a picture of Dorian Gray and taking on and containing society’s fears as a sort of public service.

To some extent it’s a chicken or egg problem. The bent of Skal’s analysis is toward seeing horror as a responsive genre, reflecting larger historical realities. And I think that for the most part this is right. But as Wilde said in one of his Dorian Gray aphorisms, it is also the case that life imitates art. This isn’t to point a finger of blame at horrormeisters as corrupters of youth, but only to say that reality is shaped by the human imagination, its dreams and its nightmares. The summoning of monsters is a complicated business.

Review first published online November 3, 2014.

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