Monsters on Show


David Skal. The Monster Show: A Cultural History, Plexus Books, 1994.


The world of horror overlaps the world of ufology and Fort in many varied ways. Like many strange phenomena, horror films, novels and plays can reflect wider social crises. Usually these expressions of popular concern are distorted and crystallised versions of real fears. In the 1950s, for example, all manner of monsters were unleashed on cinema screens as a result of tinkering with atomic power. On a deeper and less literal level horror movies can express concerns about death, evil, science versus nature/God, the role of the family, etc.

Skal's view is that the horror genre reflects the darker side of American culture. He begins with the freak shows that toured the US. However tacky or gruesome, they always attracted curious spectators. Such shows attracted the attention of fashion photographer Diane Arbus who realised that the fashion and freak industries are both devoted to the power of surface image. The difference is that the former is meant to make you feel better about yourself and the world, the latter obviously shows the reverse and makes you at least relieved that you are "normal".

The horror is that freaks destabilise our view of the world and show what can happen to any of us. Skal notes that after World War I there were thousands of veterans who returned with horrifying wounds. Lon Chaney capitalised upon this fascination through his portrayal of the hunchback of Notre Dame, and many other roles which involved some form of disablement or disfigurement.

Dracula and Frankenstein's monster came to prominence in the US through stage productions that originated in Britain during the 1920s. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu had important influences on the filmed depiction of horror movies, in terms of setting, storyline and make-up. Caligari upset many in the US because it was regarded as supporting the German film industry, so there was obviously a need for indigenous horror films.

Tod Browning's US production of Dracula made the horror movie a popular US box-office success that reflected the wild release of unthinking fun, prosperity and sexuality in the Jazz Age. The penalties for these excesses were paid by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. In its gloomy wake, 1931 became the year for productions of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Frankenstein monster can easily be seen as a metaphor for the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be seen as the constant fight between good and evil, id and super ego. As Skal puts it the venues of castle, crypt and laboratory were now established as the settings for the horror film.

Skal's historical and social story of the horror genre steps from one important character to another. In this manner he gives us some very enlightening anecdotes about them and how they changed or mutated the genre. This isn't an academic or stuffy book, but his views on different films and their context does make for entertaining and enlightening reading.

The anecdotes and career details of horror movie producers are well chosen and very quotable. For example, I was intrigued by Skal's revelation that Adolf Hitler was a keen movie fan whose favourite films were King Kong and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Apparently, Hitler enjoyed whistling "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Such innocent detail just makes his real crimes all that much more horrifying, and certainly in a league beyond anything imagined by most horror films. Interestingly, a sub-genre of Wolf Man and werewolf movies flourished during World War II. It is suggested that these movie wolf creatures unconsciously reflected the war itself, in that the Wolf Man seeks to control his irrational, violent outbursts in an attempt to obtain a longed-for but always elusive peace.

The final chapters deal with the censorship issues that surrounded the horror comics of the 1950s, and there is an examination of the literature of Stephen King, Bret Easton Ellis and Anne Rice. Body mutilation, fears surrounding reproduction, the Cold War, Vietnam, and AIDS are also fully discussed in relation to the predominant motifs of horror fiction.

Skal's book is especially useful for its discussion of how the main horror motifs came to the screen, and he gives a good account of horror entertainment in the USA since World War II. To horror buffs I doubt that he provides much new data, but this is an excellent overview of the subject that relates to the wider social context beyond the screen, stage or page. For an accessible and readable entry into the world of horror this is the book to get. - Nigel Watson, from Magonia Supplement 21, November 1999.


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