I am about two-thirds of the way through W. Scott Poole’s recent study of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Baylor University Press, 2011), and at first glance it seems like the kind of book I should love. The topic is monsters, and the book aims to explore American history through the lens of the terrifying creatures Americans have imagined in both fiction and the unknown spaces of the real world. But somehow the book just isn’t doing it for me.
(Full disclosure: Poole discusses me and my Cult of Alien Gods in the book in connection with ancient astronauts. He has only good things to say about me. I do not know Poole and have never spoken with him.)
The problem I have with Monsters in America is that the author has adopted a fashionable academic leftism that has utterly distorted his view of the subject. Monsters covers nearly identical ground to my own Knowing Fear, focusing on the relationship of science and pseudoscience to the development of horror fiction, but Poole’s version is a funhouse mirror image of my book. Monsters in America reads like what would happen if Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn got together to write a rebuttal to my Knowing Fear. The problem with my book is that I don’t find America evil enough, apparently.
Poole views American history as the story of wealthy, white, heterosexual male privilege and the devastating effects of this racial-sexual-socioeconomic domination on those who are not wealthy, white, heterosexual, or male. Therefore, he reads monsters of all stripes as existing to “assuage” “guilt” of America’s elite about the suffering they have caused minorities and women. In so doing, Poole turns over large chunks of his book to leftist claims that American history is an unmitigated story of violence, oppression, and barbarism. (Violence is apparently acceptable within racial groups, but not between them since not a word is spoken about conflicts between Native groups, or even much about conflicts between white groups.) From a professional historian, it is especially surprising that Poole can find nothing good to say about America. Any history of monsters must recognize that monsters don’t exist solely to embody white guilt.
I am especially disappointed that his single-minded attempt to rope all monsters—folkloric and fictional—into an attack on what is today called “the 1%” accomplishes the task by cherry-picking monsters to fit his thesis. This is made easier by his refusal to define what he means by “monster,” allowing him to press any convenient creature to service—and to ignore those that do not fit his thesis. Monsters and creatures that exist outside the elite, white, or male context are discounted or ignored. For example, there is no discussion of El Chupacabra, a very famous monster and one that largely serves sociological purposes with Latino communities. Similarly, Native American monsters like the windigo or the thunderbird are also ignored. In fact, the index lists only Native Americans as monsters in the white imagination, nothing about them as Americans who have their own myths and monsters.
Similarly, African Americans are treated only as the racialized other whom white Americans view as sexually voracious monsters. That African Americans also should figure into the “our” in the book’s subtitle apparently escapes Poole, who has limited “our historical obsession” only to that of fellow privileged white Americans. African American folk legends of monsters include stories such as Anansi, the spider-trickster and the terrifying jigue, a sort of monster monkey. There is even an interesting tie-in to Poole’s own thesis, in that African American monster stories tend to feature small monsters who outwit or otherwise gain advantage over the powerful, reflecting the “secret wishes of an oppressed people” in the words of Myths, Legends, and Folktales of America. But you won’t see that in Monsters in America, which resolutely views monsters as instruments of patriarchal white hegemony.
Even the figure of the witch is viewed through the lens of patriarchal sexual oppression, focusing on the way colonial males used allegations of witchcraft as a form of erotic titillation—neglected the well-established research into the ways women and homosexual men used witchcraft as a form of empowerment, adopting the monstrous in order to separate themselves from an oppressive community and obtain a measure of freedom—or the way witchcraft accusations could be used as nonsexual forms of oppressing those who were antisocial. (John Putnam Demos’ Entertaining Satan discusses these aspects.)
Even monster stories predominantly told among the lower middle class and working classes—alien abductions, Bigfoot, lake monsters, the Jersey Devil, etc.—are viewed through elite lenses. What can they tell us about rich white men?
The long and short of it is that Poole’s view of American monsters is extremely limited and focused very narrowly on a specific subset of the monstrous—how middle and upper class white males related to monster stories. Perhaps this will change in the last few chapters of the book, but at this point I doubt it. However, I will reserve final judgment until I have finished the book.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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