(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
When I began my month-long horrorfest, the illustrious Eve Tushnet, no stranger to the macabre herself, asked me what I thought of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, by author David J. Skal. Turns out that the book was one of those tomes that I'd bought at some point but had never actually gotten around to reading. Spurred on by Eve's question, I've spent the last few days plowing through the thing on the train. (Thank God for the commute, eh?)
It was... okay.
Actually, parts of it were quite good. Skal assigns himself a suitably monstrous task: to chronicle the development of horror a cultural phenomenon, focusing primarily on the 20th century, and America, and film. In some sections he does a fairly bang-up job. His analysis of 1931 (an almost apocalyptically productive year for the horror film, introducing as it did the definitive film versions of Dracula & Frankenstein, an Academy Award-winning version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and the notorious parade of deformity and excess known as Freaks) is both exhaustive and authoritative. Skal also convincingly summarizes the hidden real-world fears that manifest themselves in horror film's different "cycles": the unresolved trauma of World War I, the looming spectre of World War II, Vietnam, the sexual revolution and its attendant reproductive-science advancements and setbacks, AIDS; in one particularly masterful chapter Skal nails one 1950s horror/sci-fi trope after another, citing dozens of films inspired by the Bomb Scare, the Red Scare, the Juvenile Delinquency Scare, and the stress of the TV-induced Information Age. Skal also makes the occasional choice that's both unorthodox and wise, such as his examination of the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller"--one I've long held to be a criminally undiscussed cornerstone of contemporary horror filmmaking (particularly due to its all but unrivalled impact on popular culture).
Moreover, Skal displays the righteous rage of the horror fan--I know it well--in going after some of the more obnoxious nemeses of the genre, including the old Hays Office Production Code, the Catholic Legion of Decency, feminist watchdog groups, self-appointed culture-guardian film critics, and (most viciously) the MPAA (an organization that deserves to be cast as the "winner" in a film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" if ever there was one) and Dr. Frederic Wertham (whose one-man war on comic books as the source of juvenile delinquency was so successful in spite of his near-total lack of non-fabricated corroborating evidence that the industry is still reeling from its effects some 50 years later). As Eve pointed out in her own review of the book, Skal's no fan of Ronald Reagan's; I found his bias a lot less pervasive or distracting than Eve did, though, possibly because I'm more sympathetic to the anti-Regan point of view (for the record: driving a stake through the heart of International Communism? Good! Using poor people to sharpen the stake? Bad!), possibly because the horror filmmakers of the Vietnam era through the 1980s generally did lean left (at least insofar as their antipathy toward segregation, the war, the crimes of the Nixon administration, and rampant consumerism was concerned) but mainly because Skal offsets this liberalish politics by displaying skepticism, even occasional antipathy, toward a variety of common right-wing targets, including psychiatry, the Pill, women in the workforce, sexual liberation, body piercing, the fashion industry, and so forth.