Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

BOOK: Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting
5.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Monsters in America
, W. Scott Poole has given us a guidebook for a journey into nightmare territory. Insightful and brilliant!”

Jonathan Maberry
New York Times
bestselling author
Patient Zero
Dead of Night
W. Scott Poole

© 2011 by Baylor University Press

Waco, Texas 76798-7363

All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing of Baylor University Press.


Cover Design
by Natalya Balnova

Cover Image
© Jim Zuckerman/Corbis


  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Poole, W. Scott, 1971–

Monsters in America : our historical obsession with the hideous and the haunting / W. Scott Poole.

295 p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-60258-314-6 (hardcover : alk. paper)

1. Monsters. 2. Ghosts. 3. Ghouls and ogres. 4. Animals, Mythical. 5. Supernatural. 6. Popular culture--United States--History. I. Title.

GR825.P626 2011




Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper with a minimum of 30% pcw recycled content.




Dedicated to Niamh Margaret Carmichael
Who is already learning that monsters are sometimes just shy creatures.




I don’t see any American dream. I see an American nightmare.
—Malcolm X



It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.
—Elsa Lanchester,
The Bride of Frankenstein

List of Photographs



With a Warning to the Unsuspecting Reader


The Bloody Chords of Memory

1   Monstrous Beginnings

2   Goth Americana

3   Weird Science

4   Alien Invasions

5   Deviant Bodies

6   Haunted Houses

7   Undead Americans


Worse Things Waiting


A Note on Sources




ometime around the age of eight, my parents banned me from watching
Shock Theatre
on Saturday afternoons.
Shock Theatre
brought the black-and-white “famous monsters” of the 1930s and 1940s into the lives of the kids of the 1970s. It also gave me a strange combination of hallucinatory nightmares and intense fascination only matched by my near-religious hysteria over the recent 1977 release of
Star Wars.

Their ban did not last, as evidenced by the endless stream of comic books, TV shows, and movies that soon came into my life. I appreciate my parents’ sometimes-harassed patience and hope this book helps them to understand why these things matter not only to me but also to the culture in which we live. I sincerely thank them for their unflagging pride in me, even when my work and interests go places they do not always understand.

I’ve become a fanboy of Baylor University Press. I would especially like to thank Carey Newman for his unfailing support and indefatigable enthusiasm for the project. Seldom have I had an editor take such a personal interest in a project, including reading and commenting on early drafts. I also very much appreciate the work of Jennifer Hunt, whose helpful, detailed e-mails regarding the book’s production and design answered my concerns and helped prompt new ideas for photographs and images. Thanks to Diane Smith who quickly and helpfully dealt with all my questions and concerns about matters editorial.

Numerous friends and colleagues take an avid interest in my work and have expressed excitement about this project. I would like especially to thank Cara Delay. Cara took time out from her own work on nineteenth-century women’s history to discuss this book with me and read some of the later chapters. Her friendship provides much needed workaday encouragement. Special thanks to Christina Shedlock who created an incredibly detailed and useful index for the book. I look forward to reading her own forthcoming scholarship.

I’ve dedicated
Monsters in America
to my goddaughter, Niamh Margaret Carmichael. She is three years old but has already fallen desperately in love with books. I hope one day she will read and enjoy this one. I am excited to think about how her emerging sense of humor, her developing flair for the dramatic, her love for irony, and her already fiery temperament will respond to my monsters. I should also note that she is lucky to have parents, Noelle and Tim, who are already teaching her that monsters are for story time rather than symbols for religious and political enemies.

This book would not have happened without my partner Beth Phillips. Her interest in my work never fails to encourage me. She willingly read every word of drafts, catching errors and making valuable suggestions. More importantly, without her I simply would not always have the courage to make my strange ideas a reality. She makes both my work and my life a good place to be. I love you Beth.


Come now,

My Child

If we were planning

To harm you, do you think

We’d be lurking here

Beside the path

In the very dark-

Est part of

The forest?

—Kenneth Patchen


ntertaining Comics (usually known simply as “EC”) created some of the most subversive images of the 1950s in titles like
Tales from the Crypt
Vault of Horror
. These macabre tales of mayhem, taking place in the midst of middle-class American life, used the conceit of a host known as the “Crypt Keeper” to introduce the horror and mix in some black humor. Late night showings of horror films on local TV used the same convention. In 1954 the world met Vampira, a campy and seductive woman in black, who introduced each film with a bloodcurdling scream.

Here is a favorite introduction to a tale of terror from the Crypt Keeper that seems germane to this book’s purpose:

Welcome dear fiends! Come in! Come into the Crypt of Terror! I am your host the crypt-keeper … This one is sure to freeze the blood in your veins … Guaranteed to make little shivers run up and down your crawling spine! This little adventure in terror is about to happen to you! You are the main character.

Right now, I am your crypt keeper and your Vampira. I am going to introduce you to monsters. I aim to give you unpleasant dreams.

Since this is a book about monsters, you probably want to hear how I define the monster. Defining one’s terms, I am sure you have been told, is essential to any discussion. Setting out on our nighttime journey with a clear meaning of our terms might help us survive the night. A book about monsters should define its monsters.

But I am not going to do it. At least, I am not going to give you a straightforward definition to underline or highlight. I prefer to take you on a wild ride through the darkness of the American past, galloping hard and fast like Ichabod Crane (and not making any ill-considered stops like poor Marion Crane) in hopes we can reach the bridge in time. Maybe if we do, we will have worked out our definition of the monster.

Scholars like clear analytical mandates, that is, direct assertions of argument followed by supporting evidence. Since I hope at least some scholars of American history and culture will read this book, let me throw them a bone or two. I will even give them a scholarly citation to munch on like zombies with a nice meaty thighbone. I buy fully into Judith Halberstam’s argument that monsters are “meaning machines,” exuviating all manner of cultural productions depending on their context and their historical moment. In American history they have been symbols of deviance, objects of sympathy, and even images of erotic desire. They structured the enslavement of African Americans, constructed notions of crime and deviance, and provided mental fodder for the culture wars of the contemporary period.

You see why I did not want to give you a definition? Monsters have been manufacturing complex meanings for four hundred years of American history. They do not mean one thing but a thousand. Only by looking at a multitude of monsters can we come to understand something about them and, in turn, something about American history. This book proposes to examine American history through its monsters.

So do not expect neat definitions when it comes to a messy subject like monsters. A monster is a beast of excess, and monster stories are tales of excess. Part of what makes the horror film so much fun is that it refuses to follow the narrative plot of a simple melodrama. It does not contain conflict and ignore contradictions in order to produce a happy ending. It blows conventions into a million pieces and makes a fetish out of excess. In this the horror film takes on the nature of its subject and its agent: the monster.

The subject of monsters contains too much meaning. It is the
House That Drips Blood
and the thing with 20,000 eyes. It is bigger than it should be, more insatiable than anything in nature; it desires more and frightens you with its yawning monstrous maw. The very messiness of the monster makes it the perfect entry into understanding the messiness of American history. If history were music it would not have the austere balance of a Bach concerto. It would be the opening assault of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” angry, discordant, and yawping at you in combative tones. History issues threats as much as it inspires reflection.

Some historians will be less than happy with this book. Many of them will note that I spend more time on sea serpents than the Civil War, or that I dash past the American Revolution in my eagerness to talk about the American Enlightenment’s fascination with the homegrown, allegedly carnivorous mastodon. They are right that some events get short shrift and a very different kind of analysis than appears in most historical studies. Obviously a work like this does not aim to deliver the kind of heaping spoonfuls of nuanced historical fact we expect from good textbooks.

As a trained historian, I share these concerns. Even a look at the chapter titles suggests that this author is up to no good. But I also worry that the historian’s profession has become deeply problematic because both a younger and older generation have become profoundly disconnected from their putative audience and, in a strange way, from their own topics. Professional historians sometimes see themselves as students and curators of a master narrative. Amateur readers of history, meanwhile, turn to popularly written books on historical subjects because they offer a damn good yarn and literally nothing else.

Neither of these groups sees themselves as enfolded in history, sometimes as its agents and sometimes as its victims. The average reader keeps reading World War II books as if they tell a clear, uncomplicated story. Grad students learn the ropes and take their comprehensive exams and go on to pass the narrative onto their students (or drop the narrative on them like the metaphorical ton of bricks). None of these groups lets history enrage, implicate, and penetrate them.

BOOK: Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting
5.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Winter Run by Robert Ashcom
Everything Forbidden by Jess Michaels
Twilight Child by Warren Adler
Slut by Sara Wylde
The Last Days by Wye8th
Minion by L. A. Banks
Explosive Memories by Sherri Thomas
If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr
The Lion Triumphant by Philippa Carr