A review of W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Baylor University Press, 2011).

By S. Brent Plate

My first monster was a repeating nightmare of a headless man named “Johan” who lived in our hallway closet on Mayfield Street, San Bernardino, CA. I was about eight years old and, as far as I can remember, Johan was nicely dressed in a suit and tie. But he had no head. In its stead, there was a single flame that shot up from his collar like a Bunsen burner.

He scared me. He was spooky. Creepy. Other. (Who doesn’t have a head?!). But then I got used to him and I began to feel sorry for him, all shut in that closet and all and seemingly without many friends. In my remembered dreams I began to take him out of the closet and play with him, head or no. We played board games together. I think I even let Johan win.

We’ve all got our own “first monsters,” primal visions of the hideous and haunting. Scott Poole knows this, and that is the initial attraction of his recent book, Monsters in America. He challenges readers to confront their monsters, to call them up from the crypt of remembrance. They may be nightmares, or movies, or television shows, or ghost stories told around a campfire on a Girl Scout trip. Poole also challenges readers to review other people’s monsters, ones that might unsettle us a little. After all, we can get used to our own and need a little shaking up.

Decades after my middle-of-the-night experiences with Johan, and thousands of miles from that hallway closet, I now read stories to my children about monsters. Our favorite is I Need My Monster, which tells of a boy named Ethan whose own personal monster, “Gabe,” goes on a fishing vacation and this turns Ethan’s sleep time upside down. Replacement monsters come and go: some don’t have long enough tails or scratchy enough claws, while one is a girl monster and, well, that just won’t work. Only Gabe can be scary enough to keep Ethan in bed, and thus simultaneously scared and protected. Monsters set boundaries around our most personal spaces (beds), at our most vulnerable times (asleep). Monsters de-fine and de-scribe us.

Yet Poole is clear, and I think rightly so, to resist an over-individualistic look at monsters through psychoanalytic lenses, a view that fails “to explore both the societal and historical aspects of horror” (15). Monsters are socially and historically embedded. Their meanings, even when excessive, connect up with larger currents. By confronting monsters we confront something of our own history and identity, but ultimately also a history of this broader, ongoing project of the “United States of America.” And this, Poole knows, is part of why they are so important. Our personal monsters begin to look a lot like the collective monsters envisioned on our national page and screen over the past centuries. As such, we can examine history through our monsters, “They are meaning machines that embody the historical structures and trajectory of the American nation” (21).

I stole the title of this review from the slimy-tailed end of Tim Beal’s excellent book Religion and its Monsters, a broad ranging work moving from monsters in the Ancient Near East (Behemoth, Tiamat, Leviathan) to modernity (Hobbe’s Leviathan, Frankenstein’s Monster, Orlock, Godzilla). Poole’s book shares much with Beal’s. Both seem to agree that monster watching is not all that interesting if we limit ourselves to a formalist reading, some interpretation sucking meaning out of textual bodies and left for dead. Rather, monsters de-monstrate, they show us something, and become prophetic voices and images for culture and history.

One of Poole’s smart methodological approaches is to refrain from a too-simplistic focus on “monsters as metaphors.” Instead, they are “real,” reifying “very real incidents, true horrors, true monsters” (xvi). Even though he makes this clear at the beginning, it still took me a couple chapters to realize that he’s not merely examining a series of cultural products such as the appearance of monsters in literature and film. The fault is my own, not his. I have become so used to seeing monsters as products of the culture industry that I don’t quickly recognize when they are real.

Instead, monsters from cultural productions (e.g., Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, Wolfman) are analyzed and interwoven with readings of historical texts and events: Columbus and the New World, the Civil War, race relations, Barnum’s circus and people with disabilities, et al. Freddy Krueger the long-clawed killer of Nightmare on Elm Street fictional film fame meets David Berkowitz, the real “Son of Sam” serial killer.

Here’s one paragraph that serves as a good example of Poole’s connections between the fiction-produced monsters and real history.

The Vietnam War did not create the zombie genre or make way for the vampire. However, like the Civil War, Vietnam produced a very graphic iconography of death and bodily dissolution that has remained a permanent part of American culture. Horror images for the next forty years, in a very literal sense, owed their blood and gore to the conflict. Unlike the Second World War, in which images of veterans seldom included evidence of wounds, the corpses and the physically traumatized human body became a focus of America’s memory of Vietnam. The zombie and the vampire (joined by the serial killer) feasted off these images, and Americans turned to these monsters that resonated with the national horror. (199)

This gives a good sense of what Poole is up to throughout the book. Fictional monsters like zombies and vampires connect with news media imagery from the Vietnam War. Analogy is at work here, but it’s not in the service of keeping the monster at a distance, safely framed on screen. Rather, Poole opens the doors of our historical closets and shows where the monsters live.

Monsters in America will be placed alongside other religious studies angles on monsters from the past decade, including Beal’s, Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, and Richard Kearney’s Strangers, Gods, and Monsters. In cultural studies, David Skal’s The Monster Show and Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows, provide secular views of monsters, though they can’t avoid the religious dimensions that are inevitable in monster studies. The confluence of so many recent works is fascinating and perhaps we must enquire about what it is that these mounds of monstrous books are demonstrating to us in the here and now. Perhaps there is a scholarly closet that is beginning to ooze.

This review has been cross-posted by Patheos.  Click here for more on Monsters in America.

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World; and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. With Jolyon Mitchell he co-edited The Religion and Film Reader. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

This review has been cross-posted at Patheos.  Click here for more on Monsters in America.