Book Review: The Monster Show

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By David J. Skal
Publisher: Faber and Faber

All stories are woven out of well-known and easily identifiable archetypes, according to the story theorists out there. They tell us, in fact, that there are really only perhaps seven plots and maybe 30 or so characters and every tale told is just a variation upon these building blocks.

Genre stories (horror, fantasy, SF, crime, etc.) aren’t any more reliant on these archetypes than literary fiction or historical fiction or autobiography, but their use of archetype is usually a little easier to identify. After all, a lot of the laziest or most high-concept (by placing these labels so close together I do not mean to imply that they are necessarily related) genre work lets the audience do the work, rather than the story or the plot: show us a vampire and a huge file of cultural knowledge, including the “rules” of vampirism, legends, other depictions of the archetype and so on, immediately snaps into place. With the knowledge of these archetypes that the viewer brings to the work, the creators need to do less.

Horror is chock-full of easy to spot archetypes: the aforementioned vampire, the mad scientist and his creation, the werewolf, the serial killer, the ghost, the demon, etc. etc.

David J. Skal’s comprehensive history of horror in America, The Monster Show, finds four of these archetypes to be the founding ideas of American horror: the sexual, transformative vampire, the science-gone-made Frankenstein’s monster, the duality of Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde (sometimes replaced by the unbridled instincts of the werewolf), and the disquieting reflection of humanity embodied by the sideshow freak.

Skal traces the evolution of the these archetypes in America through films, books, plays, comics, and fiction across over 100 years, starting with the long shadows cast by German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and ending with modern classics like The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense. In between, Skal detours across the country and the world, providing informative accounts of Paris’ Grand Guignol theater, stage adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, schlocky 1950s directors like William Castle, and the rise of horror fandom.

Skal’s recounting of the creation of Universal’s Depression-era monster films is extensive and engrossing (it’s not accidental that Little Terrors is going to feature a lot more work by Tod Browning and other 1930s and 1940s directors in the next few months), and the book is worthwhile for this section alone.

However, Skal adds to this already interesting account with an interesting history of horror in the 1950s. Despite being a decade which produced more hybrid science fiction/horror films than films that could be categorized as outright horror, Skal shows that there were interesting horror developments outside of film in that decade. Along with the towering influence of EC Comics likes Tales from the Crypt, Skal demonstrates that the 1950s provided a period or retrenchment and reanalysis for the genre, with the release of major studio film archives to television and the rise of local television horror hosts like Vampira. The broadcast of these films on the then-still-new medium of television had a profound impact, Skal argues, on the next 20 or 30 years of horror, with the kids who watched these movies on TV and going on to make major horror films in the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to simply providing dates and releases to chronicle the genre in this country, Skal provides fascinating insight into the subtextual aspects of many crucial works in the American horror canon.

To Skal, horror is a safety valve, a release for anxieties that may be too stressful, upsetting, or, yes, horrible to express any other way. As such, the book makes strong connections between horror and real-world events: the World Wars, anxiety about reproduction among baby boomers, the Cold War, thalidomide, AIDS.

This social-expression mode of horror analysis both instructive and useful, and Skal excels at it, though his attempts to draw causal lines between horror and war, and horror and Freudian matters, is a bit too insistent at times.

As is to be expected in any such broad-ranging history of a genre (the book is subtitled “A Cultural History of Horror”), areas will be neglected. Skal pays little attention to horror of the 1960s ( an era for the genre which is murky to me; more illumination would have been extremely welcome), not enough attention to horror comics of the 1950s (a subject which has merited its own books) and horror comics generally, slasher films of the 1980s, and televised horror (the book mentions the seminal series The Twilight Zone on only two pages). Latter-day genre giants like Craven, Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Lynch get only brief mentions.

Though Skal pays appropriate service to post-1970 developments in horror (the rise of Stephen King, horror as a lifestyle, not just genre, make-up effects, etc.), it’s really in the pre-1950 era that book shines.

if you’re not interested in horror pre-1950, you probably won’t like this book, as the single biggest chunk of the book is devoted to horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, the era dominated by Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies starring legends like Lugosi and Karloff. But, if you’re like me, reading this section of the book alone will send you to the video store to revisit classics that you last watched in your early teens.

The Monster Show is a complete, readable history of horror in America that, despite its shortcomings in some areas, merits inclusion in the non-fiction portion of any horror fan’s bookshelf.

(This review refers to the revised edition of the text published in 2001.)

Buy The Monster Show at Powell’s

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