Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Monster Show

I've spent a good chunk of the past two summers getting into the mood for Halloween by reading The Monster Show, and it may become a yearly ritual. Subtitling itself "a cultural history of horror", this wonderful book by David J. Skal traces the history of modern horror (the European and American varieties, anyway), uncovering the historical and aesthetic roots of the monstrous in pop culture.

Since Skal also wrote Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, it's no surprise that this volume is a bit Dracula-centric. But given that monster's centrality in the world of Euro-American horror, that's certainly not inappropriate. And his accounts of the convoluted paths Stoker's "Dracula" and Shelley's "Frankenstein" took from page to stage to screen are nothing short of fascinating.

I never knew that a Spanish-language version of the original Bela Lugosi "Dracula" was shot on the night shift using the same sets (with different actors), or a thousand other fascinating anecdotes from the world of horror literature and (mostly) film, until I picked up this book. (Thanks to Vinnie Rattolle's blog for turning me on to it.)

Skal does a great job of placing the classic Universal monster films in the context of their wartime origins: despite the slashing of censors, these films offered perhaps the only socially acceptable forum for the depiction of the trauma, bloodletting, dismemberment, and other real-world horrors that often remained literally unspeakable among those touched by war.

(Caption: "Come on in. I'll treat you right. I used to know your daddy." Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon by Clarence D. Batchelor, used as an illustration in "The Monster Show")

The book explores the tales of personae like director Tod Browning and Maila Nurmi, aka horror TV horror host Vampira. It also ventures in-depth looks at the horror comics of EC and other imprints, radio mystery programs like "Lights Out", and a treasure trove of obscure films. And it draws some insightful parallels between horror culture and societal experience. Skal considers the facial contortions of Lon Chaney, "The Man of a Thousand Faces", as an analog to the subtly coerced appeal of altering one's own appearance. Bodily contortions are, not surprisingly, a recurring theme in "The Monster Show".

What's curious is how many categories of contortion Skal references that are, in fact, voluntary. A lengthy passage details the making of Michael Jackson's landmark "Thriller" video, in which the actor physically transforms into an undead creature. In reality, of course, Jackson was undergoing a parallel surgical transformation offscreen.

Unfortunately, the book gets a bit less insightful the closer we creep toward the present. Comparing Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" to American society's response to the AIDS crisis is right on, but I'm not sure I follow that said crisis was also responsible for "images and metaphors of bloodstream tampering-- in product tampering scares, in the obsession with cholesterol levels, in the backlash against chemical food additives, and even in the blood-purification fantasies of the skinheads and Neo-Nazis." These all strike me as independently valid concerns, HIV or no.

But overall, I highly recommend this journey the shadowy world of horror. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you'll love it.

Mike Hallenbeck home page

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