Just over 100 years ago, as humanity was learning to make death efficient, a tangle of rising nations and fading empires filled the fields of Europe to feed men into a meat grinder called the Great War. In doing so, they created a pure distillation of horror that would come to shape society’s fears and anxieties a century after the war’s end. Wasteland, the newest book from W. Scott Poole set for release Oct. 16, traces the historical circumstances and personal traumas that established the origins of modern horror in his most ambitious work to date.
“I wanted the opportunity to explore horror as a worldview, as well as something that is expressed in films and art, which is sort of a new addition to some of my earlier material,” says Poole. “I also wanted to think of horror less as a genre and take a more wide-ranging approach to, honestly, the terror of the 20th century, which I think began with the Great War.”
While his previous books have shown no lack of ambition — profiling the lives and influence of Vampira and H.P. Lovecraft and chronicling America’s morbid fascinations — Wasteland spans multiple nations, dozens of battles, and traces how warfare influenced artists of all crafts. Moving beyond prejudiced perceptions of high- and low-brow art, as well as the various designations used to pigeonhole artists, Poole reveals the connective tissue holding together the bones of modern monsters.
“Various scholars, particularly those who have different citadels that they need to defend for whatever reason, are not going to be happy, for example, with discussions of Kafka put alongside discussions of early horror cinema and recent horror cinema where I still see some of those reflections,” says Poole. “The truth is people don’t experience the world as genres. People experience the world as their own lived experience. The largeness of the book comes from listening to voices of veterans, writers, artists, filmmakers, people who were responding to the films, and fans across a century rather than just 1914-1918.”
This November marks the hundredth anniversary of the World War I armistice. In that century, time has managed to dull our understanding of both the true scale of the war’s atrocities and the cinematic terrors of its era. The recent failure of Universal Pictures’ attempt to revive its classic movie monsters in their own cinematic Dark Universe is telling. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and Wolfman — although these characters existed in some way before the Great War, their depictions born in the aftermath of World War I left an indelible impression on American culture. These characters, as Poole points out, were fully realized on the silver screen by European and European-influenced directors who had direct experience with the Great War.
Bela Lugosi, known for his iconic role as Dracula in director Tod Browning’s 1931 horror classic, plays a significant part in Wasteland. According to Poole, Lugosi suffered multiple wounds while serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the Great War and was once forced to bury himself under a mound of corpses as Russian troops marched across his trench. Lugosi rarely spoke of such traumatic events, save for the rare occasion when he would describe his war experiences on a horror movie set.
As was the case with the man who would be forever linked to Dracula, World War I exposed a then-unfathomable number of individuals to the horror of the body and the horror of the corpse. In his book, Poole details the birth of the zombie genre filmed at the tail end of the Great War.
As Poole describes it, 1919’s J’accuse features the rising of a dead army, which is most disturbing because the walking dead are played by extras fresh from the front in Verdun, France. Many of the undead performers would return to the front soon after filming only to meet their true ends in the final months of the war.
Even modern perceptions of body horror stretch back to the Great War. Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, with his sunken features and ghoulish appearance, is likely the most universal example of how real world battle wounds found their way onto the screen.
“One of the most remarked upon experiences from both civilians and soldiers alike from 1918 into the 1920s and beyond is the fact that the wounded veteran and the wounded body, often horrifically wounded, were quite literally everywhere,” says Poole. “You have, as they called themselves, the broken faces, the broken mugs is the best English translation, who have these horrific facio-dental injuries, and early attempts at plastic surgery that arguably made it as bad or worse.”
With the human body becoming an incredible source of horror through the devices of modern combat, there were still other, more sinister anxieties brought into focus by the war. Fascism, anti-semitism, and xenophobia found valuable tools in the horror birthed from the Great War. But as Poole writes, nationalistic hatemongers would first have to strip all deeper meaning from the works of art they wished to mimic.
“Fascism desperately needs monsters. Fascism always creates monsters to go forth and destroy. In a way, fascism is not really a specific set of beliefs. It’s a set of feelings about what is threatening and what has to be destroyed,” says Poole. “One of the things I make a point of in the book is the fascist, particularly someone like Joseph Goebbels who was head of Hitler’s propaganda ministry, when they made anti-semitic screeds like the film The Eternal Jew, they made use of clips and clips only from horror films from Germany in the 1920s.”
Poole adds that Nazi propagandists were forced to carefully choose what images they borrowed from these pre-existing works which often attempted to make larger points about the nature of war. Whether in film, paintings, or literature, Poole finds many of the works that spring from the Great War understand the dangers of naming monsters and the dangers of demonizing the enemy. Unfortunately, he finds these same dangers in right-wing populism today.
It’s the poison of believing that the only threats are foreign and criminal. The suggestion that we ourselves aren’t capable of the cruelty that strips a human body of its meaning.
It’s, as Poole says, “horror without reflection.”