That put a bit of a damper on my plan to talk about last night’s episode of Showtime’s horror series Penny Dreadful, which was a dreary, boring affair that retold the story of Frankenstein with only a few stabs at reinvention, notably the Creature’s tutelage at the Grand Guignol (of Britannia, of course; the original being in Paris). The only detail I appreciated in the entire episode was one that bothered me last week. I initially wondered why the (presumed) Creature took the name Proteus since it was not the obvious choice from Shakespeare for Frankenstein’s Monster; the reveal of an original monster and his name fixed the problem: The first Creature bore the name Caliban. Why, might you ask, did I want the Creature to carry that name? If you’ve read my anthology A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, you’ll have seen that in March 1818 Sir Walter Scott compared Frankenstein’s Monster to Shakespeare’s wild Caliban from the Tempest in a review of Mary Shelley’s newly-released novel in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Later critics have carried forward this comparison, which is still made today.
At its core horror is a conservative genre, not because of the political beliefs of its practitioners but from the practical form of storytelling. Horror’s monsters threaten the established order; therefore, almost by definition they force us to adopt the conservative position and identify with the established order over agents of change. In most cases, the monster comes up out of the past, avenging the past for the sins of the present. In the case of Frankenstein, the idea of modernity’s disruption of the divine order places the horror in the context of change, so in that sense Penny Dreadful is echoing its source material, though in a blunter way. Shelley emphasized the transgression of overstepping natural or divine law; Penny Dreadful asks us to fear modernity itself. Nevertheless, it contrasts markedly with the show’s other threat, the ancient evil of the Egyptian gods. Now, sure, H. P. Lovecraft tried to thread the same needle with his Tesla-like pseudo-Egyptian god Nyarlathotep in the prose-poem of the same name, but he only had to keep that going for a couple of hundred words, not eight hours. The way the material works best is when the technology is seen as part of the ancient gods’ series of powers, as in ancient-astronaut-inspired stories.
The disjointed tone of Penny Dreadful contrasts for me with two horror series that ended their seasons this week. From Dusk till Dawn: The Series never really went beyond remaking the 1996 movie at ten times the length, but it was smart about building on the ancient horror of an Aztec death cult and expanding the backstory of the serpent-vampires in terms of Aztec religion. But it’s also interesting to see the way the show locates the horror in the eruption of a specifically indigenous and Latino past that threatens the (corrupt) Caucasian status quo, represented by the Gecko brothers, who are white but also morally bankrupt and more than a little insane. They are our heroes, however, and they are threatened by a Latino deputy marshal and a Latino (later found to be Spanish) monster, who in turn are revealed to be manipulated by still older forces of indigenous Aztec-Mayan evil going back to the Mayan Lords of the Underworld. (The show conflates Mayans and Aztecs a bit more than necessary, and tries too hard to fold in the Popol Vuh.) It is almost a Lovecraftian theme that the superficial sophistication and modernity represented by Seth Gecko (D. J. Cotrona, in an uncanny impersonation of George Clooney) is tenuous, uncertain, and could at any moment be overthrown by the suppressed forces of ancient belief. But on this show, the cultures that are in conflict are not depicted as racially distinct but culturally so: Richie Gecko, Carlos the Vampire, and the deputy marshal, for example, all switch allegiances between cultures, and the lines dividing them are fluid. The culture, essentially, exists independently of its members.
Similarly, Supernatural ended its season once again emphasizing the threat that pretty much everything on earth and beyond poses to the hegemony of straight white males. The show asks us to identify with Sam and Dean Winchester, who are the aforementioned straight white males, who defend the homeland from a series of internal threats with an arsenal of weapons, treat women as objects, and have attacks of panic over being mistaken for gay. These threats usually (in later seasons) take the form of white Americans who suddenly become corrupted (via possession) and lose themselves to a foreign, demonic outside force. All of this takes place in a landscape defined by a very literal reading of Judeo-Christian mythology, one that replaces the spirit of faith with a bureaucratic simulacrum of it.
The show premiered in 2005 and began as a Bush-era post-9/11 fantasy about all-American guys who listen to classic rock, drive a classic car on the great American road trip, and engage in justifiable homicide against evildoers to save the innocent. Dean Winchester is coded as conservative: He’s a small-town guy who loves guns, classic cars, rock and roll, and has a black-and-white view of morality. He even, in time, is revealed to be destined to carry out heaven’s plan. His brother is coded as liberal: floppy hair, attending college in a (gasp!) city, and above all sensitive. He’s also explicitly destined to be evil, marked by a demon as a child and later called to be a vessel for Satan.
A recurring theme in later years has been the Winchesters’ growing disappointment at the absence of God from their universe. God once existed but is on an extended vacation, during which time sin and evil flourished as the world fell into the Apocalypse of Revelation, conveniently located in God’s own country, the United States of America. This season, Metatron attempted to usurp God’s throne, and to defeat him Dean had to embrace the violent bloodlust of Cain, the first murderer, and use the very first weapon ever formed to defend America and Heaven from an evil that was pretending to be a Jesus-like Messiah.
The show has been heavily criticized for its poor treatment of women and minorities, all of whom have been sacrificed to preserve the Winchesters. Whenever a female character threatens male power by being too strong or lasting too long on the show, she is of course revealed to be evil, possessed, crazy, a monster, etc. and must be destroyed. This year, Dean slew Abaddon, a female demon who threatened their (male) friend, the king of Hell.
The show also has a tie-in series of crappy novels which are, if anything, even more direct in their assertion of white male hegemony than the TV show. For example, Keith DeCandido’s Bone Key (2008) became increasingly disturbing as its plot was revealed. The monstrous evil turned out to be the collective spirit of a Native American tribe on Key West killed during the Contact period. The spirit decides to sacrifice white people (the book literally talks of “white sacrifices”) to empower it to wipe all white people from the earth, and Dean defeats this threat to white American hegemony by literally subsuming the spirits of other powerful white people into himself, including Harry S Truman and Ernest Hemmingway, to create a superhero who could—and I am not making this up—re-destroy the Native tribe and re-establish white control over Key West, Florida. Although DeCandido offers up a few token spirits who do not fit the mold, including a gay man and a woman, they are given much less prominence than the white men, whose courage and fearlessness power the final battle against Native American evil. This threat is so grave that the Winchesters even team up with a female (!) demon (!!) to put down the forces of the Native Americans.
Although DeCandido meant his novel to reflect on the evil created by the loss of Native American land and sovereignty, it isn’t how it read. Instead, because of the world in which Supernatural operates, its conservative fantasia of rugged individualists who fight evil with shotguns and survivalist gear gave a different coloration, one that most closely resembled Ayn Rand’s views on Native Americans, expressed in 1974 during a question and answer session at West Point:
The [Native Americans] didn't have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using... What was it they were fighting for if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it? Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent. (quoted by Derrick Jensen in Endgame vol. 1)
Supernatural, at its core, is a conservative nightmare: In this world, conservatives are right about everything—heaven is real, prayers can expel demons, liberalism leads to sin, big government is out to get you—but it still doesn’t matter because God isn’t there to enforce their worldview. Without God, they are left only with themselves, and yet the Winchesters do not become Ayn Rand Objectivists; they choose to do good for altruistic rather than selfish reasons. The horror!
Horror tends to steer in a conservative direction (in the traditional, not political sense), one developed in the first horror novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), and born from the aesthetic theories of the conservative politician Edmund Burke (1757). Modern horror writers and producers often try to steer away from the inherent shape of the material, which today takes the form of asking the audience to identify with the monster, thus taking part in the breaking of the status quo, though this leads to tricky moral territory where the audience actively roots for violence and takes its enjoyment not from artificial fear but from bloodlust and sadism.