Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Purple State of Craig
Because the conversation continues….
Where do monsters come from? Filmgoers may think Frankenstein arose in a mad scientist’s laboratory. But the vivid imagination of teenage author Mary Shelley brought her monster to life in 1818. Perhaps rising scientific experimentation fueled Shelley’s creativity. Frankenstein may have expressed the dislocation brought about by British industrialization. Hers was a handmade monster cobbled together from spare parts.
But historian W. Scott Poole traces how Frankenstein also stoked Americans’ fear of a slave rebellion. Shelley’s story fueled the anxieties that arose from Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Virginia. Monsters morph with our changing times and evolving fears.
While we can never isolate all the elements contributing to our horror stories, Poole looks at the distinct soil that produced Monsters in America. He lurks in the forests and depths that gave rise to Moby Dick, the Headless Horseman and even Bigfoot. Writing from his faculty position at the College of Charleston, Poole locates many of our manias in racial fears and tensions. Having grown up in the South, I find many points of connection with Poole’s potent analysis. (You can read an excerpt this month at the Patheos Book Club).
Poole grounds his research in ancient biblical stories of sea monsters, like the Leviathan in the book of Job. While it is easy to see how the unknown depths of the sea could spawn such speculation, it is tougher to understand why certain monsters arise in our own times. I was particularly fascinated by Poole’s discussion of the horror films, The People Under the Stairs (1991) and Candyman (1992). While easily dismissed as schlock films designed to scare teen audiences, these original stories by Wes Craven (Stairs) and Clive Barker (Candyman) are recovered as remarkably resonant in exploring issues of race, power, and privilege.
People Under the Stairs deals with exploitative landlords who take their control over residents too far (turning kids into zombies!). And the setting for Candyman in Chicago’s subsequently razed Cabrini Green public housing project adds an air eerie wistfulness to the bloody scares. It shamelessly trades upon white fears of a big, bad black man. But the backstory adds a historical twist that causes us to reexamine the our fears. For an ‘alternative’ historian like Poole, attention to our monsters opens up hidden corners of our national history that desperately need to be brought to light.
Monsters in America begins as an inventive mash up of genres and timelines. Poole describes Cotton Mather’s search for fossils proving the existence of the biblical Nephilim as a predecessor to the Salem Witch hunts. Having grown up in North Carolina, I was fascinated by Poole’s research on the Lost Colony of Roanoke and legends of a “deer woman.” Pool also makes haunting connections between the massacre of Pequot Native Americans with Herman Melville’s descriptions of the bloody whaling ship, Pequod. Monstrous actions in our collective history surface in the stories we continue to tell.
The second half of the book settles into a slightly more predictable rhythm. The science fiction films of the 1950s are linked to the fears of communism that gripped America. Zombie films like Night of the Living Dead are said to reflect the national confusion regarding war in Vietnam. Poole also connects zombies to a rising sense of apocalyptic dread. He links Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and Carrie to women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and the subsequent debate over abortion. Horror fans may not be used to thinking so sociologically about their favorite films. Poole offers historians a fresh way into complex and messy chapters in American history.
So what do our most recent monsters suggest about current conditions? Poole contrasts the rise of ‘gentlemanly’ vampires in Twilight with HBO’s over-the-top True Blood. He suggests that Stephanie Meyer’s influence on vampire mythology will pale in comparison to Alan Ball’s bayou bloodsuckers. But they represent two poles in our heavily staked culture wars, the abstinent and the erotic. The romantic idealism of Twilight may sell more units, but Poole suggests that the most unruly and subversive monsters always win in the end. With the political rhetoric in the race for the 2012 presidency only starting to heat up, it will be fascinating to see what monstrous spectres will appear.
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