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Creature Feature: David Skal’s The Monster Show

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(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.

But the real problem with Skal is not his sociopolitical analysis–it’s his horror-historical one. Skal subtitled his book A Cultural History of Horror; unfortunately he uses the amorphousness of that second word to justify an arbitrary placement of emphasis on certain aspects of horror art while unreasonably ignoring others, all in an ill-conceived and quixotic quest to Say Something About Life, accuracy be damned. Skal’s previous efforts in the horror-crit field include books on the long road Dracula took on its path from book to movie and a biography of Tod Browning, Dracula’s (and Freaks’s) director; it’s unsurprising and disappointing, then, that a full third of The Monster Show is devoted to detailing these pet subjects in the guise of using Tod Browning’s life as a metaphor, that of America-as-freak-show. Skal inflates the importance of these films and filmmakers (particularly that of the influential but still obscure Freaks) at the direct expense of other important facets of early film horror (Frankenstein is by no means uncovered, but it’s goofy to give it no more space than Freaks; James Whale, director of Frankenstein and its Bride, is given scant mention compared to the far less technically competent, and not really even all that more interesting, Tod Browning). Skal also puts a bizarrely strong emphasis on the gruesome work of photographer Diane Arbus: Well and good, but I can think of several equally or more viable candidates for giving the low art of horror the gloss of high-art legitimacy–Dali, Magritte, Bacon (Skal does at least try with him), Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Reed, Bowie, Fellini, Scorsese, Lynch…the selection of Arbus seems due almost completely to the fact that she’s known to have seen Freaks in a movie theater.

Skal also misreads the third horror archetype (in addition to Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula; he also cites Freaks, but c’mon, already) as Jekyll & Hyde; J&H were the obvious inspiration for the Hollywood werewolf concept, but the Stevenson story was merely the John the Baptist for the Jesus Christ of Lon Cheney Jr’s Wolf Man (linked inextricably with the Bela Lugosi Dracula and the Boris Karloff Frankenstein by generation after generation of American kids, who really never have a definitive Jekyll/Hyde image in mind). In a misguided attempt to pinpoint the moment at which Dracula and Frankenstein (the monster) became linked in the public consciousness, he spends a chapter detailing the misadventures of one Horace Liveright, an American bohemian and would-be multimedia impresario who finagled the screen rights to Dracula and attempted to do the same with Frankenstein. But Liveright failed in the latter attempt; why Skal focuses on him instead of any number of the members of the British theatrical troupe that formed the backbone of the story (producing and performing, as they did, simultaneous stage adaptations of the two horror classics) is a complete mystery. Additionally, Skal gives short shrift to the zombie and serial-killer/mass-murderer archetypes, too, discussing them (when he does so at all) as subsets of the Vampire/Dracula image, whereas in horror films and literature of today they’re clearly their own entities, drawing on their own sets of themes and fears.

It’s not until Skal reaches the 1960s, though, that the book really loses the plot. He abandons his almost strictly chronlogical approach for one that bounces erratically back and forth between the 60s, 70s, and 80s, nominally in an attempt to point out more of the underlying tropes which he had previously pinpointed quite well. This time, however, all he really manages is a cogent summary of the birth-trauma cycle that began with Rosemary’s Baby, included much of David Cronenberg’s work, and reached its apotheosis with Alien and Eraserhead. Even there he’s sloppy, not even bothering to mention The Omen and perfunctorily shoehorning the complex issues of The Exorcist into a two-or-three-graf subsection. The slasher cycle is hardly mentioned, excised in favor of exploring the real-life subculture that’s as fixated on Dracula as Skal seems to be and launching into a condescending analysis of the work of Stephen King and Bret Easton Ellis. The seismic, seminal King Kong, Psycho, and The Exorcist are inarguably three of the most important horror films of the 20th Century, yet a gossipy chronicle of the life and times of Maila Nurmi, better known as the schlocky-sexy 1950s TV personality Vampira, takes up twice the space in the book of those three films combined. As if that weren’t unforgivable enough, films like Night of the Living Dead, the Hammer horror pictures, Kubrick’s The Shining, and (the vastly overrated but still important) A Nightmare on Elm Street (as well as its sequels) are barely mentioned, while an almost comically wide range of key films from Metropolis to M to the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Peeping Tom to The Birds to the Italian gialli directors to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Jaws to Halloween to the Friday the 13th series to Aliens aren’t even discussed at all! And this is to say nothing of movies that, while not horror per se, helped pave the way for the increased viscerality and intensity of modern horror: You’ll find bupkis about Tittitcut Follies, Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, etc.; Un Chien Andalou and Fellini Satyricon get one-line throwaway mentions. Even contemporary horror’s real-life analogues–the modern-day media superstars known as serial killers–go undiscussed; Gacy and Dahmer are mentioned in passing, Manson, Whitman, Speck, Ramirez, Fish, and the Stranglers Hillside and Boston not at all. The JFK assassination is also glossed over, nearly unforgivable given that the Zapruder film could well be seen as the most popular splatter flick of all time. As for the horror-genre influence on the work of the 1970s young bucks like Lucas and Scorsese, fugghedaboudit; the closest you’ll come is a recounting of Coppola’s over-ambitious Dracula remake and an anecdote from Steven Spielberg about how he used to love reading Famous Monsters of Filmland.

(Actually, Skal’s socio-politics do get problematic, even bizarre. For the most part it’s limited to the excessive but harmless Freudian phallocentrism that Eve detected–for the love of David, man, the poses of the Aurora model-kit monsters did not secretly evoke masturbation–but occasionally, as in his out-of-left-field assault on gender-change operations as Frankensteinian affronts to womanhood or his paranoid rant about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus not really being the cause of AIDS (is he taking med school classes with Thabo Mbeki?), the author veers into bona fide crackpot territory. It’s as distracting as it is disturbing.)

Am I glad I read the book? Oh, sure. I can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, and as I said there’s plenty of little diamonds in that great big rough. But the gaping holes in Skal’s canon are too wide to be ignored even by the most charitable horror fan. I said before that Skal gave himself too much leeway with the second word of his subtitle; I think that ultimately what killed this beast was the first word. This truly was a cultural history of horror–David J. Skal’s. The cultural history of horror has yet to be written.

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