It's only been in the last few decades that horror has been given its due as something more than a pulp genre used to pinch the gooseflesh. While effective horror does indeed have that component it also does something more as Kevin Courrier addresses in his review of The Monster Show.
“I’ll show you what horror means.”
-- actor Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932).
“Let them see the horror!”
-- Jacqueline Kennedy comments in Dallas after refusing to change her blood-soaked dress after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
During the eighties, as Ronald Reagan (a puritan in Hollywood garb) portrayed America as a promised land that was waking up to a new morning, author David J. Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (1993, revised in 2001) saw quite another picture – a waking nightmare – where beneath American optimism lay “disenfranchisement, exclusion, downward mobility, a struggle-to-the-death world of winners and losers.” Alongside the insipidly cheerful optimism of this Morning in America was a place where “familiar, civic-minded signposts are all reversed: the family is a sick joke, its house more likely to offer siege instead of shelter.” The Monster Show is an earnest attempt to come to terms with that darker world adding horror as a shrewd form of cultural reflection.
|Night of the Living Dead (1968).|
As a historical guide to horror culture, and the participants who made it possible, The Monster Show is certainly thoughtful and entertaining – but it sadly lacks a sharp critical perspective. (The book also, in its international scope, unwisely sidesteps Dario Argento in favour of Anne Rice, barely touches on Britain’s Hammer Horror films, and makes mere passing reference to Roger Corman.) Worse, Skal occasionally approaches his subject with the zeal of an orthodox Jungian burning incense at the altar of the collective unconscious. He’s practically chained to his archetypes, unable to establish the difference between horror that helps us come to terms with our fears, and the horror that reinforces it. (Unfortunately, the book came out before the seemingly endless slate of torture porn horror pictures – movies that, by getting the audience grooving on its own dread, fulfill the horrific feelies of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.)
What The Monster Show does best is provide stories that illuminate some of the figureheads in the canon of the horror culture. Skal tells captivating tales about director Tod Browning, who brought the morbid surrealism of the carnival world into the movie Freaks (1932). He supplies a riveting portrait of the perverse Bela Lugosi, who in Dracula(1931) sucked blood from his victim’s veins, but would put into his own veins the white powder that would eventually send him permanently to his coffin. The Monster Show could have been a better critical examination because David J. Skal latches onto an appealing subject here: horror as the dark mirror of our social and political traditions. But The Monster Show can only cast an eerie shadow upon those areas. As a study, it seldom goes deep enough to raise the gooseflesh.
- originally published on July 17, 2010.