Written by James Ferguson
Published on Thursday, 01 September 2011 18:20
Historian W. Scott Poole channels the terrors that lurk in the dark places of American history in his new book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. From sea serpents to zombies, from witch trials to alien invasions, and from Dracula to Norman Bates, Poole uncovers the real horrors that lie beneath our national fascination with monsters.
"The American past reads like something of a horror movie, maybe even a low-budget slasher," says Poole, a history professor at College of Charleston. "It comes at us dripping with gore, victims lying scattered on the ground, eldritch moonlight revealing creeping horrors you never learned from your eighth-grade history textbook."
Monsters reflect anxieties about political identities, religion, economic forces, race and gender dynamics, and societal changes. Through the ages, scary folk tales, witch hunts, legends of strange beasts, ghost stories, horror and sci-fi literature and movies, satanic panics, and urban legends reveal disturbing truths about American history.
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Poole provides plentiful examples of the monstrous, the alien, and the horrifying in U.S. history:
- Witch Trials: No aspect of Puritan experience lives more strongly in American memory than their fear of witches. The witch hunts in the towns of New England served as popular entertainment as well as evidence of religious conflict and persecution.
- Frontier monsters: Sea serpents swam in American waters and strange beasts populated the wilderness. Belief in such creatures drew upon European folklore and the tendency for frontier dwellers to produce legends out of the shadowy forests and lakes that surrounded them.
- Slavery: Terrifying creatures emerged out of the reality of the slave trade, and slave ships represented true houses of horror.
- The Civil War: The shocking carnage was documented by photographer Matthew Brady in images that represent the birth of gore as an American entertainment. The bloodied corpse has been a significant part of popular culture ever since.
- Serial killers: Victorian America developed an interest in a new monster: the mass murderer, such as the nation's first serial killer, H.H. Holmes. This fascination continued through the 20th century, as the horrors perpetuated by killers such as Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer became known.
- Cold War monsters: The atomic age bred a fascination with the monstrous mutant. American moviegoers saw the destruction of major cities from 50-foot women, giant insects, and other creatures created by radiation or nuclear testing. Paranoia about "Reds under the beds" was an underlying theme of movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
- Alien visitations: Invaders from other planets were a new space age fear. Yet some stories held out a messianic hope that the aliens were coming to save America from itself. Friendly monsters in flying ships offered an escape from history.
- Slasher films: From Psycho to Halloween, slashers wielded their knives in the middle of a national conversation about mental health, crime, gender, family life, and sex.
- Zombies: The shambling hordes of zombies depicted in Night of the Living Dead and other films by George Romero are a unique American creation, offering a vision of an uncontainable horror. This new monster suited a culture in apocalyptic mode, playing to the widespread expectation that the clock had run out on the whole human race.
- Vampires: The more glamorous undead have experienced a surge in popularity over the last decade, as heroes, villains and love interests in TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries. The wildly popular Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer is an attempt to reconstruct the vampire legend as a tale of the struggle for family values, with Meyer creating a fantasy creature entirely different from the vampire.
What horrors lie in store for America? Poole identifies the 21st century fear of the "posthuman": the terror of becoming victims of monstrous machines. "The posthuman terrors have to be added to our list of possible monsters, along with sea serpents and serial killers," Poole says. "Every historical period decides what its monsters will be and creates the monsters it needs."
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