Ask someone about their nightmares, and you may find out more about that person than you ever wanted to know. Historian Scott Poole, author of Monsters in America, believes that a society’s fears can be equally telling. Throughout history, our cultural anxieties have manifested themselves as various kinds of monsters, from sea serpents to serial killers, vampires to ventriloquist dummies. Poole says these characters serve as a kind of map to where the bodies are buried in American history. “I’ve always taken my monsters seriously,” Poole says. “Part of the message of this book is that the reader needs to do the same.”
A tenured professor of American history at the College of Charleston, Poole has been a fan of monsters for as long as he can remember. “I’m kind of a lifelong horror nerd, so in a way this is an outgrowth of spending my childhood watching shock theater and my teenage years watching Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees,” Poole says.
While he considers himself to be a monster scholar, Poole doesn’t have an exact definition for them. “I actually make a point in the book that I’m not going to give a definition,” he says. “And the reason for that is I actually believe that the monster is so closely related to its social context that at different times the monster has meant different things. There’s no one single meaning.” But one thing they do have in common: They unsettle us, whether they’re inherently evil or not.
In the early 18th and 19th centuries, there were frontier monsters: sea serpents, lake serpents, and bear-like creatures that are Big Foot’s direct predecessors. These monsters reflect anxieties about the unknown. In the 19th century’s age of exploration, Americans were obsessed with the existence of sea serpents; then as medical experimentation became more widespread in the early 20th century, Frankenstein’s monster took over the public imagination. As we took on space exploration in the 1950s, our attention turned to alien invasion films and monsters created from radioactivity experiments gone awry.
Modern monsters, particularly serial killers, often hit closer to home. Poole calls this domestic horror. Films like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre explore the horrors around the hearth, the terrors of family life gone wrong — Poole says this is tied to people’s anxieties about how the traditional American family is evolving. “I think they’re more than metaphors and more than reflections of our anxieties,” Poole says of monsters. “They’re hardwired into who we are culturally speaking.”
While monsters make us uncomfortable, sometimes we’re attracted to them, even on an erotic level. “I think in general, when the monster speaks to our anxieties, it often also offers us a weird kind of catharsis for those anxieties, and that sometimes touches on the most intimate parts of who we are — things that have to do with gender and sexuality and other kinds of stuff,” Poole says. Take the vampire, for example. It reflects our nervousness about aging and death along with religious taboos and fears related to blood. The vampire is also a very sexual creature who seduces virginal women — we’re attracted to it and repulsed by it at the same time.
Poole’s personal favorite monster is the Bride of Frankenstein from James Whale’s 1935 film of the same name. “One of the reasons I like monsters is I think they are subversive in certain kinds of ways,” he says. “They tell stories that we’re not comfortable with being told, and I think that’s the case with the Bride of Frankenstein. I think there’s some subtext there in terms of gender and sexuality.” As one of Hollywood’s first openly gay directors, Poole says Whale introduced some bold ideas about sexuality in the film. “Essentially, the Bride is created (by her male creators) to be nothing but a mate,” Poole explains. “It’s not unlike the Adam and Eve story, which I believe is a kind of root patriarchal myth. However, in this version Eve says no. She refuses her creators’ demands and brings the house down.” He also says that some scholars view Whale’s stories of misunderstood monsters as reflective of the plight of sexual minorities.
With Halloween approaching, Poole plans to uphold a tradition of watching his favorite horror films — including The Bride of Frankenstein, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and something campy from the 1950s — late on Halloween night. Even if he has to do it alone. He laughs, “I sometimes have to watch them by myself or with a friend because my wife doesn’t like horror movies.”
Poole will host a Monster Party — including a reading, signing, and art show — at the Charleston County Public Library (68 Calhoun St.) on Wed. Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. Call (843) 805-6930 or visit ccpl.org for more.