Monsters in American History

W. Scott Poole is a Professor of History at the College of Charleston and the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (2014) and Monsters in America: Our Historic Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (2011).

The history of culture is a history of stories. We can best understand a culture’s history by an exploration of what kinds of stories it tells and, perhaps more importantly, why it needs those stories.

My own study of monster tales, and horror narratives more generally, has its genesis in my nerdy affection for horror. I’m not alone. It’s difficult not to argue that an increased interdisciplinary academic attention to monstrosity in its many forms emerged from our own culture’s obsession with such tales. Never has horror, from the big screen, to fiction, to some of our most popular TV shows, held American culture so firmly captive.

But a quick survey of American history shows that monstrosity has been central to every period in American history, forming our political rhetoric, shaping ideas about identity, defining our institutions, and provoking wonder and terror at the world. Can we make sense of the professionalization of science in America without understanding that those debates took shape in the eighteenth century’s struggle between theology and science over the meaning of the fossils of the wooly mammoth or the nineteenth-century public’s obsession with the possible existence of sea serpents? The monstrous rhetoric surrounding the sectional crisis, emancipation, and the struggle for African American equality helps us comprehend the real American horror story of race. Slasher films proved both enormously popular with the public and much debated by scholars between the 1970s and the 1990s. Their appeal—and cultural divisions about that appeal—tell us about more than American attitudes toward gore on the big screen; they also reveal much about American ideas about feminism. In fact, internal divisions within second wave feminism over the interpretation of popular culture helped to create third wave feminism’s willingness to engage with and subvert the entertainment industry’s misogynistic structures.

Oddly, monsters have only recently begun to appear in American historiography, though other disciplines, and in fact other historiographical traditions, have given them much deserved attention. I found few places to start within my own field, especially in the study of modern America. So, I went on a monster hunt.

Places to Start

Stephen Asma’s On Monsters (2009) is my personal favorite work of monster scholarship. It is one of those books that leaves you in awe of the author’s ability to write prose of absolute clarity about extremely challenging theoretical issues. The book ranges all over world history but never dizzies the reader, moving rather seamlessly from discussions of the role of evolutionary biology in our fear of monsters, to the author’s own experiences of terror, to Freud’s theory of the uncanny and on to contemporary obsessions with zombies and untrammeled technology.

Digging In

The ability of monsters to illuminate vast regions of human experience can be found in books like Timothy K. Beal’s Religion and Its Monsters (2001). Beal examines some of humanity’s original monster stories in the Ancient Near East and introduces us to some of the basic intellectual problems raised by the emergence of monotheism, problems that monsters (and Yahweh’s relationship to them) helped palliate, if not resolve. You’d expect such cerebral fireworks to come in a rather leaden tome but that’s not at all the case. H.P. Lovecraft, the Hellraiser film series and even the band GWAR receive as thoughtful a treatment as the Enuma Elish and the Book of Job.

David McNally’s Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2011) makes a convincing argument that our monstrous pop culture obsessions are hard wired into global economic systems and the horrors of postindustrial colonialism. Many readers are familiar with the numerous gothic tropes Marx employs in Capital, with vampires, specters, and bloody corpses used to explore the nature of world capitalism and its effects. McNally makes full use of this imagery and ties together our current fascination with big and small screen zombies with a strange collection of contemporary rumor legends from sub-Saharan African and the deadly effects of postcolonial capital. In fact, if you still haven’t figured out what exactly happened with Enron in 2008, McNally will explain to you what he calls “the occult economies of late capital globalization.”

New Moves

Victoria Nelson wrote one of the more innovative recent contributions to the study of horror with her 2012 Gothicka. Nelson takes the reader effortlessly through an interestingly experimental description of the nature of the “Gothic.” She brings her reading of the classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic forward to the present to examine phenomena as diverse as Twilight and contemporary Halloween celebrations. Her argument, that contemporary pop culture has begun the process of actively creating a new post-Christian religion out of our new world of gods and monsters, didn’t ultimately convince me. However, that’s a bit like saying I wasn’t convinced that the creatures in my favorite haunted house attraction were really trying to kill me. I’d still pay the admission price over and over again.

Kyle William Bishop has written the definitive literary, cinematic, and historical study of zombies with American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (2010). Bishop places the modern zombie genre, the magical, Afro-Caribbean zombie, and the more familiar zombie created by George Romero in 1968 in Night of the Living Dead within the category of gothic fictions. Published in 2010, Bishop’s work continues to have powerful resonance since he correctly predicted that “the zombedie” (zombies used both for comedic purposes and social criticism) and more general contagion narratives would grow in popularity and influence with an American public obsessed with zombie fictions.

Voices and Lives

Sheri Holman’s novel Witches on the Road Tonight (2011) tells a set of terrible secrets. Holman’s tale centers on the story of Eddie, a down-at-the heels old-fashioned TV horror host and the people he loves, harms, and ultimately destroys. Perhaps most meaningfully, Holman uses a tale of family horror mixed with just a drop of magical realism to explore the nature of fear and why we sometimes tell stories of monsters for reasons other than terror, catharsis, or entertainment.

Holman’s work illustrates why the story of our culture’s monster tales bears so much weight. We’re looking at stories that are more than pop culture artifacts or embodiments of the quirky excesses of the human psyche. Monsters are coded structures of power, sometimes shape-shifting into energies of subversion and then, when we aren’t looking, turning back again. Cultural horrors are signposts, and sometimes, like the root meaning of the word ‘monster,’ they are warnings and portents: that we should be wary of the darkest part of the forest and the political, social, and economic structures that built the paths that lead us there.