America's Past Is a Haunted House

'Monsters in America'

by Catherine Ramsdell

5 December 2011

It’s hard not to enjoy a history book that juxtaposes a quote from Moby-Dick with dialogue from Hellraiser III.
cover art

Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

W. Scott Poole

(Baylor University Press)
US: Oct 2011

History can be fun—and W. Scott Poole’s book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting shows us how. Not that Monsters in America is a book of giggles; on the contrary, Poole includes some pretty disturbing stuff—there is definitely a bit of R-rated content in this book. However, the connections Poole makes and the conclusions he draws are enough to interest not only history buffs, but pop culture and horror film fans, as well.

In fact, Poole’s preface (“With a Warning to the Unsuspecting Reader”) probably sits better with the average horror movie viewer than the academic historian. Opening with a reference to Entertaining Comics and Tales from the Crypt, he tells his audience: “Right now, I am your crypt keeper and your Vampira. I am going to introduce you to monsters. I aim to give you unpleasant dreams.” He further notes that “Some historians will be less than happy with this book. Many of them will note that I spend more time on sea serpents than the Civil War, or that I dash past the American Revolution in my eagerness to talk about the American Enlightenment’s fascination with the home-grown, allegedly carnivorous mastodon.”

Poole doesn’t debate this; in fact, he admits that some subjects do get a “short shrift” in his book, but he defends his choices, saying that current literature leaves readers with two options: Professional historians and their “master narratives”, or “amateur readers of history” who perhaps take the historical in historical fiction a little too seriously.  Poole believes we should have another choice, and Monsters in America provides it. He promises: “And so we are going to pass a long night together. If you and I make it until morning and find our way out of this dark wood, we will not see American history the same way ever again. Seeing America through its monsters offers a new perspective on old questions.”

For all who think Freddy, Jason, and Michael are nothing more than stereotypical horror movie villains, take note: Monsters need to be taken quite seriously. Poole believes in monsters, and after reading his book, others may, as well. He doesn’t “use some horrific examples from fantasy literature and film to illustrate important truths about American history”. Instead, he believes that “The monster reifies very real incidents, true horrors, true monsters. This is why they are always complicated and inherently sophisticated. The monster has its tentacles wrapped around the foundations of American history…”

Consider his thoughts on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:

“It is about America. The Sawyer family represents all that the Puritans feared about the howling wilderness, the alleged savagery of the Native Americans who lived in the dark woods beyond the settlement. And yet, the Sawyers are not the American other, the enemy of the nation. They are deeply American… This is the implicit message when the Sawyer homestead is shown as a kind of frontier cabin full of hunting trophies, both human and animal. Leatherface himself obviously references James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, the hunter who becomes part of the natural landscape.”

Poole examines numerous texts including Pyscho, Halloween, The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Exorcist as well as perhaps some lesser known classics: the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the 1933 film Island of Lost Souls, for example. He connects Rosemary’s Baby to changes in the Catholic church, zombies and vampires to the AIDS epidemic, and King Kong (1933) to the Scopes Monkey Trial.  He suggests that “Frankenstein’s monster might offer us a new way to grasp the horrors of scientific racism” and that “Dracula can teach us something about the early twentieth-century Red Scare.”

He notes that “The story of Candyman is the story of the American monster, born out of the terrors of the past. The film borrowed heavily from nineteenth-century gothic motifs, as well as from American anxieties over race, violence and sexuality. It reflects the ironies and cross-grained tensions of a republic of liberty founded, and then torn apart, over the enslavement of human beings.”  He believes that “The American past is…a haunted house”.

Poole describes lynchings, discusses freak shows, and examines serial killers. He talks about real life horrors, all certainly capable of provoking bad dreams, but perhaps the most disturbing aspects of the book are found in the preface and the epilogue.  History is not a movie—we can’t just turn it off and walk away. Instead, Poole contends “you are implicated in a violent history, a historical landscape where monsters walk. Like it or not, you are part of the story, and it is not a romantic comedy or a melodrama. You are the main character in this terror filled tale.”

The epilogue’s title—“Worse Things Waiting”—pretty much sums it up. In this section, Poole looks at several films, including The Terminator and notes that “posthuman terrors have to be added to our list of possible monsters, along with sea serpents and serial killers…”

While some historians may not love Poole’s approach, his book is well researched, with lots of footnotes and references to notables like Freud, Julia Kristeva, Henry Jenkins, Ralph Ellison, and Frederick Jameson. Literary references include Stephen Crane, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe.  And considering some of the graphic content and extremely disturbing imagery, fun might not be the word everyone would use to describe the book.

However, it’s hard not to enjoy a history book that juxtaposes a quote from Moby-Dick with dialogue from Hellraiser III and that includes references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s hard to dislike an author who admits:

“At about this point, the Crypt Keeper would unloose a demonical laugh, both at the twisted subject matter the audience was about to read and the twisted nature of the audience who wanted to read it. Vampira would give her adolescent audience a bloodcurdling scream to announce that the grisly fun could begin. I cannot pull off that laugh, and in print no one can hear your scream. So, without further ado, let us bring on the night.”

But most of all, it’s impossible not to respect a history book that clearly seems to be designed to make us rethink and question the past and the way we think about American history.

Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting


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