I finished reading W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America, and after completing the book, I’m not sure my initial impressions (posted here) have changed that much. I still find the book strangely unbalanced and overly enamored of the Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn school of history. It did not surprise me to read that Poole’s views on monsters were shaped by David J. Skal’s Monster Show, a book I criticize in Knowing Fear for its reductive reading of horror monsters as symbols of sexual anxiety. (Skal, for example, thinks Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera character is a “ruined penis” and that 1960s Aurora monster kits symbolize male masturbation.)
First, the good news: Poole’s later chapters are more interesting, more rigorous, and more coherent than the earlier ones. His chapter on the psychosexual undertones of 1970s and ’80s slasher movies is admirable and does a beautiful job explicating a case where the psychosexual reading is almost self-evidently correct (though not without its complications, as I discuss in Knowing Fear). His chapter on vampires and zombies is also quite good, though incomplete in reducing these creatures primarily to their political uses in the culture wars.
But I still have problems with the strange choices Poole made. The subtitle talks about the “hideous and the haunting,” and a chapter is even titled “Haunted Houses.” But there are no ghosts or poltergeists here despite three centuries of belief; instead it is the patriarchy which haunts women’s wombs. This is a minor quibble; he may not see ghosts as monsters.
However, I still do not understand what Poole intended for his book to examine. His discussion of monsters focuses on only two primary areas, campfire stories (urban legends) and movies. There are scattered references to other places where monsters can be found, but whole aspects of the “monster” experience have been marginalized or completely ignored. Literature is reduced to a two Stephen King novels (and not the ones with interesting monsters) and one from Anne Rice. I have shelves of literature about monsters, and none of it makes into the book. Even where such discussions should seem obvious—the books on which Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, etc. were based—credit for the monsters is instead assigned to the filmmakers rather than their creators.
Discussion of The Exorcist focuses on psychosexual readings but completely ignores the fact that in America today there are millions of people who genuinely believe demons are real and possessing people, including themselves, right now. Even discussion of why kids like the Universal monsters is reduced to pop culture tropes about the breakup of families and the threat of nuclear war. What about the Universal monsters’ outsider status? How about giving kids the feeling of power when they are powerless? The biggest omission of all is the most important set of monsters in American history: DINOSAURS! The discovery of dinosaurs made it possible to believe in real, terrible, and immanent monsters in an age of science—and they are where most kids first encounter (and love) terrifying monstrous creatures. There is not a single mention of dinosaurs!
I am also amazed that his discussion of vampires implies that the American vampire craze began with Bela Lugosi and was only fully Americanized when True Blood finally made vampires really sexy. Again, Poole the historian neglects the historical fact that as late as the nineteenth century Americans were digging up corpses and cutting off their heads because they feared vampires were real. This sort of omission makes plain that Poole’s goal was not to thoroughly analyze monsters (I don’t think there is any actual attempt to quantify monster expressions) but to discuss the culture wars and how they appear in movies.
Heaven help me, but I also have to step in to defend Twilight. Poole states that the book series is so “ideologically and aesthetically repugnant” that it lacks all value. Poole’s political bias again shows; his discussion focuses on Twilight as an exemplar of reactionary gender politics and in so doing claims that author Stephenie Meyer purposely rejected everything that made vampires monsters. But that’s just it: Meyer wasn’t writing a monster book or a horror story. Her vampires accidentally return to the pagan gods whose myths and powers were roped into the vampire legend centuries before.
Briefly: Early Christians diabolized the pagan gods, and when Bram Stoker and others recreated the vampire in Victorian times, they drew on the powers of the demons, which had been those of the Greco-Roman gods. This is why Dracula can change form, hypnotize, command animals, etc. It is also why Dracula speaks in the language of the New Testament devil. Twilight returns the vampire to the status of a pagan god, including the glittering, glorious skin; the divine powers; the seduction of mortals; and even the fact that sex with a god results in destruction of the mortal and instant pregnancy (see the many loves of Zeus, for example). Meyer has—and here I assign no agency, only coincidence—divorced the folklore vampire (the ravenous, awful revenant, more zombie than god) from the Satanic-Byronic figure Polidori, Le Fanu, and Stoker had grafted onto the folk legend.
That said, her books are, I will agree, aesthetically repugnant. They are written by someone who cannot write. But they are not, as Poole claims, without value.
Poole’s discussion of Twilight crystallizes the problems I have with Monsters in America. Folklore and urban legends sit uneasily beside movies as a unified cultural experience. Horror is, contra Poole, at its core conservative (with a small “c”) because it represents a violation of the status quo, with the monster rising up to disrupt the current order. (The philosophical foundation of horror was, after all, laid down by Edmund Burke, who also invented conservatism as a political philosophy.) Any attempt to defeat a monster is therefore an attempt to restore the status quo.
Folklore and urban legends reflect this in both form and content, as do most early films. More recent movies retain the form of small-c conservatism (monster challenges status quo), but increasingly filmmakers have used their movies to explicitly impart political or cultural messages. George Romero is one of the most obvious examples, using his zombie films to promote a social agenda. The 2005 Masters of Horror TV episode “Homecoming,” a heavy-handed zombie story about Iraq War dead rising up to vote against George W. Bush, is beloved of Poole, but its political agenda is not inherent in zombies but rather in the director, Joe Dante. I suspect Poole liked the episode mostly for its politics since as art it falls flat.
How politically motivated actors choose to employ monsters tells us nothing about the essence of the monster. Poole is right that movies created by directors with cultural or political points of view can then be analyzed to reveal these cultural or political points of view. But this is a very narrow reading of the role of “monsters in America.” A more complete picture would have looked at how monsters are employed outside of elite media productions and considered how audiences view and relate to monsters, not just how filmmakers impart messages through them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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