The Monster Show (David Skal 1994)

David J. Skal, 1994. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. London: Plexus. (432 pages)

David Skal’s The Monster Show is an extensive research of the cultural aspects which involve the rise and development of the horror movies. The author gives detailed accounts of the lives of famous personalities related to horror film, such as Tod Browning, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, focusing on their personalities, biography and anecdotic aspects of their trajectory. At the same time Skal tries to connect these individual traits to the ongoing zeitgeist and History of the period. As well as writing about personalities, the author also concentrates his research on aspects related to the production of the most films, although in an unsystematic way.

One of the most interesting sides to The Monster Show comes from the fact that Skal chooses a slightly different focus to those adopted by most books on the subject. He chooses to centre his introduction and main argument on the life, death and interests of the photographer Diane Airbus and how the film Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) made a deep impression on her. His introduction and following chapters have a novel-like feel to it and the reader who expects to find a theoretical discussion will be disappointed. Nevertheless, the reader who persevere though all the production figures/facts and the anecdotic data about the directors and actors will find some interesting insights. For example, in a very structural way Skal divides the iconic monsters in four types: 1) The human vampire, such as Dracula; 2) The composite or walking-dead, such as Frankenstein and zombies; 3) The doppelganger or split personalities, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and werewolves; 4) and the Freak, from a nightmare sideshow. In the author’s words the “armless, legless, twisted or truncated, now shrunken, now immense – it changes every time we look, a violation of our deepest sense of human shape and its natural boundaries”(p.19).

It takes a while to understand what is the point Skal is trying to make but, all of a sudden he manages to explain himself. The Monster Show aims to deal with the horrors of war, in other words, the lingering shadow of war reflected and transformed in the shared anxiety rituals we call monster movies. The author says: “Wars tend not to resolve themselves, culturally, until years after the combat stops. The same is true of economic depressions, fatal epidemics, political witch-hunts — the traumas can linger for decades.” (p.386). Skal is trying to show how the war had a tremendous influence on the expressionist, dadaist, and emerging surrealist artists during the 1920s. He claims that films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) was derivative of that trauma, “the surrealist preoccupation with deformed and disfigured bodies to the sudden presence, following the war, of a sizeable population of the crippled and mutilated. Modern welfare had introduced new and previously unimaginable approaches to destroying or brutally reordering the human body.” (p.48). The Universal horror movies would have picked up this war anxiety from the avant-garde cinema and translated it into popular art. “Horror has always had a certain affinity for modern art movements and has often quoted their mannerisms, possibly because, at root level, they are inspired by similar cultural anxieties.” (p.55)

Furthermore, Skal claims that war, in general, is a persistent symbolic expression in horror entertainment, a tendency that never really ended, and was only replaced by the symbol-distillations of World War II. The American nineties are still haunted by the Vietnamese seventies and these traumas are never really resolved, “not in the world not in our minds” (p.386). My italics, I found this comment very curious, as the use of the pronoun seems to make it sort of a personal statement, i.e., the author showing through the narrator.

All in all, The Monster Show is an interesting book which uncovers links between horror entertainment and the great social crises of our time. It depicts horror movie’s function as a pop-cultural counterpart to surrealism, expressionism, and other twentieth-century artistic movements. Ultimately focusing on film, maybe the predominant art form of the modern world, Skal examines the many ways in which this medium has played out the traumas of two world wars, the Depression, the fears of invasion engendered by the Cold War, the preoccupation with demon children (stemming from thalidomide, birth control, abortion, etc), body-transforming special effects (development of plastic surgery industry), renewed fascination with vampires (rise of the AIDS epidemic) among others American obsessions with the macabre. It is a very ambitious book, I could easily add more elements to his list: the resurgence of Frankenstein movies in the 90s related to cloning, or Hitchcock’s The Birds(1963) as a metaphor for kamikazes, another backlash from the War. The book does not concentrate enough on the analysis of films and without close image analysis is very easy to come up with “readings”. I enjoyed this book although I believe that, as a product of mass culture, most horror films are not a utopian form, nor they are necessarily engaged, worried about politics, war or aiming at any politically transformative experience in any grand sense of the term.


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