The second episode of History’s True Monsters is looking for cannibals and killers, which somehow involves zombies and banshees, creatures not traditionally associated with the title monsters. But there was something much scarier during the show than monsters. A promotional spot airing during the episode for upcoming History shows depicted Jim Vieira in some unknown capacity, and announced a new show about the hunt for Atlantis on the island of Santorini. Fortunately, it’s only a one-off special. Oh, and they have a new conspiracy series, Hunting Hitler, looking for Adolf Hitler, who we all know escaped Germany in a submarine to become Father Crespi, the South American priest who collected “ancient” depictions of ancient people riding dinosaurs, most famously published in Erich von Däniken’s admittedly fraudulent Gold of the Gods.
Kin Killing Cannibals
The first segment describes cannibalism as “the ultimate taboo,” which is perhaps true insofar as most cultures disapprove of the practice, though societies as widespread as those of the Indonesian islands and ancient Mexico practiced ritual cannibalism. So perhaps saying it is a Western taboo might be more accurate. Anyway, this segment retells the folktale of Alexander “Sawney” Bean, an early modern Scot supposedly executed for more than 1,000 cannibal murders. He allegedly had an inbred clan of relatives who helped him. The show presents his legend, at first, as though he really existed, but the first record of his actions was published in early eighteenth century chapbooks and then in the Newgate Calendar, two hundred years after the alleged events. I’ll add here that the eighteenth century story may be based on the legend of Andrew Christie (Christie-Cleek), a Scottish cannibal butcher whose story is first told in the fifteenth century. Backtracking some, the mythologists on the show explain that such stories were created by the English to denigrate the rival Scots. The show notes that the story influenced the movie The Hills Have Eyes.
Little Red Riding Hood
Beats me what Little Red Riding Hood has to do with cannibals or killers, and the show doesn’t really want to get to the point either. It talk about the fairy tale as a cautionary tale of traveling alone in the forest, or (less convincingly) as a metaphor for rape. They lavish great attention on medieval attitudes toward punishing women for their own rapes. They give a psychosexual reading to the girl getting into bed with the wolf dressed as Grandma, reading it as a violent deflowering. They leave out much more interesting facts about the earliest versions of Red Riding Hood—which actually involve cannibalism! In some earlier versions, the wolf (or ogre) kills Grandma and leaves out her meat, which Red unwittingly consumes. The show, though, traces the story back no farther than Charles Perrault, which they seem to consider the original, and therefore misses the connection to their own topic.
Killer in the Castle
This segment tells the story of Bluebeard and his wives. The legend is familiar enough that I don’t think it needs repeating. It’s another of Charles Perrault’s 1697 selection of French folktales, and the most notable part of the segment is that Committee Films used what looks like a nineteenth century hallway to depict a medieval castle. The narrator mistakenly attributes the story to the Brothers Grimm (“in 1697”!), and that key error shows exactly how much effort anyone put into this production. After suggesting a true life inspiration, the show goes on to the story of H. H. Holmes, the American serial killer whose nineteenth century Murder Castle is the inspiration for the current Hotel Cortez on American Horror Story: Hotel. The segment contained no actual content, just some psycho-babble about “trust.”
I can see from the title of this segment that the producers aren’t familiar with the preferred spelling of Vodou for the Haitian syncretic religion. “Voodoo” is the name for Louisiana spiritual folk practices. Anyway, the show claims that the first reference to zombies occurred in Brazil in 1810 when a “historian coined the term.” This is wrong. First, the word can be found in 1808 in a French novel as a name for an African devil, and in turn the word was once the name of an African snake god. You see, the snake god Zombi had control of souls, which could be stolen, so therefore, a sorcerer could make a soulless creature which by wordplay became a zombie, after its missing (captured) soul. Anyhow, that the word is much older should be clear from the fact that a Brazilian slave revolt in 1693 elected as king of the slaves a man named Zombi, who took the name of the god. I laid all of this out in 2013 and updated it for my eBook on zombies.
The show rehearses the familiar (if recently challenged) claim that Vodou practitioners use pufferfish poison to make people into zombies. It therefore declares Haitian zombies to be “real.” They are “real” in the sense that people with those cultural beliefs may believe themselves to be zombies, but they are not undead.
After this, the show talks about modern zombie stories as a metaphor for infectious disease, which is perhaps the most reductive and least interesting reading of zombies available. The talking heads are very excited about the fact that the CDC put out a tongue-in-cheek zombie preparedness guide, which attracted much more attention than its more serious ones.
They did not bother to connect Haitian zombies to cannibals or killers, of which they are neither.
What do banshees have to do with cannibals or killers? Beats me. Once again, the longer the show goes on, the less the segments seem to make any kind of sense. It tells us about a likely apocryphal Revolutionary War patriot killed by the British and avenged by a banshee. The narrator helpfully tells us that the word banshee comes from the Celtic words “bean” and “sí,” “which translates to banshee.” Yes, he really said that. It actually means “woman of the barrows.” The talking heads suggest that the story originates with Irish or Scottish immigrants, and the rest of the time is spent babbling about why banshees are scary before conceding that the banshee does not kill or cannibalize anyone.
Slit Mouth Stalker
I wasn’t familiar with the Slit Mouth Stalker before I saw the Japanese urban legend until I saw it on (I think) Constantine last season. It tells of a woman wearing a surgical mask who has been horribly disfigured with a mouth cut into a rictus grin, and who kills people with scissors. It’s apparently a modern update of a medieval Japanese legend. The show adds nothing beyond telling the story and mentioning that The Man Who Laughs and the Joker have the same grin.
Ghost Mountain Cannibals
The final segment discusses an alleged race of albino cannibals near Haycock, Penn., who are once again, as in the first segment, inbred hillbillies with a taste for human flesh. They also bear a resemblance to the inbred cannibals from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear.” The story is, for what it’s worth, an extremely local legend selected primarily because it’s in the book Weird U.S., whose author is a talking head on the show. But rather than connect the story back to the first segment (or even acknowledge that the show is repeating itself), it instead offers two psychological explanations: First, that the story represents psychosexual “domination” by the cannibal, and second, that it represents urban fear of rural people. The segments seemed designed to be excerpted online or remixed later for other shows, so drawing connections has no place in this series of disconnected vignettes.
I can’t fathom why they chose this motley array of random stories, most of which had precious little to do with the topic of the show. Such real life inspirations for horror monsters as Ed Gein went unmentioned, and once the show has all of the depth of random sentences selected from Wikipedia articles. The sloppiness of the show kept showing through insistently, particularly in the recurring errors that demonstrated that the show’s writers and producers failed even to understand the surface level of the stories they investigated. It was an all-around disappointing outing.
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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