‘Wasteland’, or, How We Went From World War I to White Walkers

In Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, historian W. Scott Poole exhumes our obsession with the living dead.

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror,
W. Scott Poole
Oct 2018

The Great War—now better known as World War I, before World War II forced historians to retcon the name—gave rise to fabled books and their film adaptations such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1938), and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), as well as the Lost Generation of American writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and many more. Yet readers will find very few references to them in Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror. Instead of the usual litany, author W. Scott Poole (a PopMatters contributor) provides an alternative—or, perhaps, in keeping with this book, uncanny—analysis of the artistic and cultural legacy of the War to End All Wars. Paraphrasing Freud, Poole writes that “the return of the dead constitutes the most primal and profound fear of humanity” and, separately, that “no war fought before 1914 had so many corpses”—at least 16 million. Our primeval dread, combined with the enormous death toll, gave rise to both the narratives and imagery associated with what we now think of, and take for granted, as horror.

For a sophisticated work of cultural history, with a wide range of textual analyses ranging from Franz Kafka to the aforementioned Sigmund Freud, André Breton to Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang to H.P. Lovecraft (the subject of one of his previous books), Poole is strikingly literal in his premise. Simply put: “The Great War had placed human beings in proximity to millions of corpses that could not be buried. Worse, many could not be identified, and more than a few did not even look like what we think human bodies should look like.” Horror in film and fiction, then, as others have argued, “mirrors the era’s deepest fears”, and after the literal horror of the Great War, that fear was human corpses and, to a lesser extent, the disfigured bodies of survivors, on a scale never seen or even imagined. It’s remarkable that this thesis is not already conventional wisdom.

If the Great War provides the framework for understanding horror’s development, the idea cuts both ways: horror also provides the clearest framework for understanding the Great War, as much as such a thing is possible. If the war itself proved incomprehensible, then perhaps Frankenstein’s monster, representing director James Whale’s “direct confrontation with death in the Great War”, could provide a fathomable proxy. Since, though, horror fiction, the macabre, and the Gothic of course predate World War I, Poole also needed to demonstrate differences between Victorian-era novels like Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula to the then-emerging medium of film. In retrospect, those novels depict relatively little violence, low body counts, and local stakes (no pun intended), whereas by 1922, in the film Nosferatu, the first film adaptation of Dracula, the title’s vampire, quoting Poole, “brings a flood of death to Wisborg, just as the Great War had brought to all of Europe what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called ‘these days of monstrously accelerated dying.'”

For Poole, then, “our monsters are born out of our moments in time.” Films like Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and writer Hans Janowitz’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were created by veterans of the Great War, and unsurprisingly, seen in this light, now-familiar images like the biplanes that shoot down King Kong (director Merian C. Cooper, another veteran) now seem steeped in a particular kind of early 20th century militarism. Nosteratu‘s production designer, Albin Grau, a World War I veteran, insisted that the film “could only be seen in light of the war. The war itself had been, for his entire generation, what Grau called ‘a cosmic vampire’ that had come ‘drinking the blood of millions.'”

And yet, while Poole’s thesis is persuasive and his prose sharp, perhaps the origin of modern horror is more complicated. In the rapidly accumulating examples and analyses, the study suffers from a familiar cultural history problem: single-mindedness. The Great War is Poole’s Theory of Everything. While Nosferatu‘s Albin Grau provides an excellent money quote, and I don’t doubt his intentions, the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed far more people—50 million worldwide—than World War I, and so the film’s contagion imagery spoke, and still speaks, to other anxieties in addition to the war. Similarly, film itself as an art form and technology, not just horror film, gained popular momentum during this time period. Horror films emerged after WWI in part simply because films emerged. Yes, many of early horror’s creators were veterans. But by then, over four million men were veterans.

The book’s framework indeed helps us to read Nosferatu, and later, zombie and even contemporary iterations of undead hordes like Game of Thrones‘ White Walkers—which Poole refers to again as “the dead in a specific historical context… the dead at war again”—as manifestations of the trauma inflicted on the collective psyche. But seeing films like Frankenstein and King Kong, despite their directors’ veteran status, exclusively through this lens risks reducing these monsters’ rich and storied ambiguity, and the possibility that the context in which the films were created is now one of many possible. Here, “Dr. Frankenstein’s lab seems as much a factory as a lab, just as the war had been a mechanism that made corpses by the millions,” and Kong’s attempted destruction of Manhattan “seems an eerie presage of the ruined cities of the 1940s that the destruction of World War I hinted at.” These interpretations, like almost all of the book’s film and literary criticism, are incisive but brief, confined, and reliant on “seems”. Monsters contain multitudes—if they can be contained at all.

The films, along with many others under consideration, instead lend themselves to a wide array of interpretations. Frankenstein and King Kong can be understood through gender, the control of women’s bodies by men and monstrous male ids, at least as much as through WWI. For that matter, even the popularity of zombies seems rooted in different fears: White Zombie (1932), the first full-length zombie film, one of the only major horror films from the era not discussed in the book, has little WWI subtext: coming near the end of the US occupation of Haiti, the film represents post-colonial and racial anxieties, even as it employs imagery Poole attributes to the war. By 1968, Night of the Living Dead continued to use horror to explore racial tension (whether director George Romero intended to or not) but updated for the Cold War. And even the White Walkers seem more emblematic of global climate change than, nearly 100 years earlier, the Great War—and perhaps, in their on-the-nose name, they too embody undead, unthinking racism.

Poole writes that “We can’t disentwine the historical from the horrific,” yet for a writer who invokes Freud, Poole, discounts ways in which our fears also cannot be disentwined from our desires, and vice versa. And while the book meticulously catalogs our fears, there’s little trace of wish fulfillment, the ways in which horror, perversely or ironically, alleviates anxiety, rather than merely reenacting it. Stephen King famously wrote that we “crave horror movies” because they represent a “peculiar kind of fun.” For fans, they are fun, but it would be hard to understand that from this study. What’s more, the endings of these movies are all the same: the monster is killed—sunlight for Nosferatu, a stake for Dracula, fire for Frankenstein’s monster (a weakness not present in Mary Shelley’s very different novel), silver for werewolves (yes, the book includes werewolves; Poole is nothing if not comprehensive). And then, in the films’ final moments, order is restored by uniting the heteronormative romantic couple: Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth toast to the House of Frankenstein, John Harker and Mina ascend the staircase from Dracula’s crypt into the sunrise, and Ann Darrow is safe in Jack’s arms as Kong plummets. Poole points out that James Whale hated the studio’s “Hollywood ending” of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but what Universal understood in its admittedly tacky, tacked-on dénouements is that films may horrify, but they also trap their terrors within narrative structures and conventional resolutions. At least, until audiences choose to be terrified once again.

Still, the book’s wide-ranging erudition, strong prose, and clear love and fascination with both history and horror—this review barely scratches the surface of all of the topics and texts covered—will appeal to a variety of readers, but only those who can persevere without losing heart. If the wish fulfillment of the horror story can be found in its conclusion, the Great War, worse than any movie monster, defies any such resolution. Throughout, Poole questions whether World War I ended in 1918 at all, despite that we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2018. Two of the book’s five chapters, as well as its Afterword, are devoted to the period leading up to World War II, and then beyond. As Poole reports, “bloodletting on an enormous scale continued into the early 1920s,” while conflicts in Russia, Poland, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and what became known as the Middle East continued to produce hundreds of thousands of casualties.

But it gets worse. Late in the book, Poole develops the idea further: “the Second World War represents a continuation of a ‘Great War’ that opened in August 1914 and… did not [my emphasis] reach resolution in August 1945. In fact, the consequences of the conflict continue to unfold even as a write these words, almost a hundred years after the guns fell silent on the day of the armistice.” The Great War has become its own zombie, mindlessly marching on a hundred years after it was declared dead. That the specter of a war begun a century ago has not ended, and may never end, is the book’s most horrific message of all.

RATING 6 / 10