Monsters in America

Americans have always created monsters for their own consumption as a way to deal with changes in American society. Scott Poole’s book “Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting” recounts the history of American horror culture. Poole shows how the monsters represented in American fiction reveal the psychology of the American mind as it responds to historical events and big social changes. Essentially any being outside of the American norm could become a monster.

Colonial Era

New World colonists have been creating monsters ever since Columbus discovered the wonderful world of cannibalism. Europeans then believed that all Native Americans must be cannibals. Cotton Mather saw the natives as children of the devil who were created to challenge the Puritan colonists in the New World. The witch was “the devil in the shape of a woman.” Poole sees the image of the witch in the 17th and 18th centuries as a depiction of woman commanding economic and sexual power in society. Other early monsters included the mysterious sea monster and the wholly mammoth.

Slavery

Distrust in slavery went both directions. First of all, the slaves wondered what the slave-owners did with the slaves that left the plantation. They must be eating them, of course. And then the slave-owners obsessed over the potential for slave rebellion. Poole writes, “The story of an inhuman creature that turns on its master provided slaveholders with a ready metaphor for the possibility of a slave rebellion.” They also had to dehumanize their black slaves to justify their enslavement; many American slave-owners did not have a history of slave-ownership back in Europe and so were not naturally comfortable with the institution. But owning monsters was more palatable.

Human Agency Horror

In “Human Agency Horror,” we see common people committing horrendous crimes, especially in the household. These horror comics, written in the 1940s and 1950s, dealt with domestic horrors such as the murder of spouses. These comics often had a socially and politically “subversive intent,” according to Poole. This might be a mental patient uprising against their unfair caretakers or a wife cruelly murdering her husband.

World War and Cold War

The post WWII era is characterized by radioactive lizards and alien invasions. The radioactive lizards served as a way to define the nuclear threat and attempt to deal with it. Americans were understandably paranoid about what nuclear power might do — rather than write some lame script about some anti-nuclear weapon activists attending conferences, Americans created a nuclear monster.

The alien invasions were based on fears of a Soviet invasion during the Cold War, and probably some residual fears of Nazi Germany that was so firmly planted in the American mind. There was also the fear of invasion from within: communists at home; perhaps even your neighbor. Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be an example of this inability to trust your neighbors’ intentions. Poole mentions the paranoia brought on by J. Edgar Hoover, who told Americans to be very suspicious of young people who play the guitar or women who are way too interested in education.

Serial Killers

The 1970s and 1980s and even 1990s witnessed a response to the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Americans began consuming what he calls “horror news” wherein  The “sexual counter-revolution” of the 1980s created the myth of the serial killer, who was represented as the inevitable result of the sexual revolution. The serial killer was often given deep sexual motives for his violent crimes. “We created this” was the idea. “True Crimes” authors noted things like Ted Bundy was born out of wedlock and raised by a single Mom, or Jeffrey Dahmer was a homosexual.

What does the Monster Look Like Today?

Where is the insatiable debt monster? or the overpriced health-care monster? Now, now, the monster of today is the evil businessman in the movie who tries to make a profit at any cost.

 

Poole, Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011.

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