Saturday, July 17, 2010

Jungian Sideshow: David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror

“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.

In real life, Frederic March and Jacqueline Kennedy would have nothing in common. But in the imagination of American life, with its intersection of popular culture and politics, a peculiar dynamic gets struck wherein true horror produces the same sting as imagined horror. America may be a place where the Statue of Liberty promises (and often delivers) a lamp that lights the way to freedom, but it also has a soul that D.H. Lawrence once called “hard, isolated, stoic and a killer.” It’s a country built on the twisted perfectionist dreams and fundamentalist pursuits of puritans, so it should come as no surprise that the phenomenon of vampires, ghouls, zombies and serial killers also find their way into the imagination of readers and moviegoers. 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.

Nosferatu (1922).
As a chronicle, The Monster Show does go beyond the American experience. It offers a fascinating international overview, with compelling anecdotes, of how the culture of horror evolved in the 20th Century as a sideshow collecting the hidden terrors of a modern world ravaged by war, Depression and (during Reagan’s time) the scourge of AIDS. Skal begins his saga, though, in Europe after WW I and traces the Dadaist and expressionist outbursts viewed in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), where the world is shaped through the eyes of a madman; and in Nosferatu (1922), where F. W. Murnau strips Dracula of his romantic allure and reveals him to be the harbinger of pestilence. Skal continues with a fascinating tour through Le Theatre du Grand Guignol with their planned attacks on rationalism.

Night of the Living Dead (1968).
But America, according to Skal, began to embrace the horror genre during the thirties when “the bottom fell out of the tubs into which America had poured its hopes and faiths.” Soon with the growing popularity of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man, monster movies “opened up the possibility of psychic lawlessness; a monster for Hollywood, was a gangster of the id and unconscious.” Skal deftly illustrates the various cultural and political forms (and norms) that inspired American horror. For example, the Cold War fifties brought us monsters from space (during the Bomb and Red Scares where “ideological otherness frequently went extraterrestrial”). He looks at how the horrors of birth control spawned Village of the Damned (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968); and why you couldn’t watch Night of the Living Dead (1968) without thinking of the dismembered dead filling our television sets on the nightly news reports from Vietnam.

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.)

Dracula (1931).

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.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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