The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, by David J. Skal

When I was a kid I used to love Scooby Doo, but even as a young child there was always something that bothered me about that cartoon. It was the ending. For 25 minutes the Scooby Gang was battling it out with assorted ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. Sometimes they had help from the Harlem Globetrotters, but most often it was just them against this supernatural threat. And then, in the closing moments, the ghost would be revealed as a man with a costume and a projection device, cursing out those meddling kids for thwarting his plans to get his hands on the property/buried treasure/whatever.

Horror fiction, whether on film or in print, needs a payoff. For horror to be successful, you need to finish strong. Take, for example, The Blair Witch Project. For about 80 minutes there was a lot of shaky camera work and indistinct threat. Nothing special. But that final shot of the kid standing in the corner of the basement, tying the ending to a throwaway line from the beginning of the movie, was payoff. I remember very little from the first part of the movie, but that last shot will stick with me forever.

David J. Skal’s history of horror in the 20th century has a lot more Scooby Doo to it than Blair Witch. The Monster Show starts off very strong, recounting the story of Tod Browning’s days working in the freak show of a traveling carnival, storing up the images and experiences that he would bring to the screen in the genuinely disturbing Freaks. Skal expertly handles these early days of Hollywood horror. The stories of Lon Chaney’s unprecedented feats of movie makeup, the fascinating tale of how Dracula moved from book to stage to screen, the brilliant director James Whale’s beautifully subversive Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man (my childhood favorite), and the tortured life of Bela Lugosi are recounted in lively prose and wonderful anecdotes. Skal obviously loves his subject and he’s done his research.

The 1950s era of giant lizard/big bug movies were clearly inspired by the ushering in of the nuclear age. Godzilla is not a particularly good film when compared to, say, Citizen Kane. But Godzilla is a fascinating look at the psyche of a country that had very recently been on the receiving end of nuclear warfare. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki echo in every frame of Godzilla. Here, too, Skal is on firm ground. His analysis of these movies, and the early TV era of schlock ghouls like Vampira, is excellent.

Then there’s the second half of the book. The fairly rigid chronology of the first half becomes a rough chronology in the second, as each remaining chapter races through the 1960s and beyond. Instead of concentrating on the films themselves, the book becomes a standard serving of academic lectures about the era under discussion. Lengthy discussions of AIDS, for example, are tied into horror fiction rather than the other way around. The first half of the book is a history of horror fiction with ties to the culture. The second half inverts this formula and suffers mightily because of it. It’s almost as if Skal stopped researching the films and instead wrote a half-baked sociological thesis and then inserted movie references to reinforce his points.

All of the standard clichés abound. Horror in the 1980s was a reaction to the conservative times (a particularly tired observation that denies that horror fiction has always been a very conservative type of fiction), vampire fiction was about AIDS, the demonic children school of movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Village of the Damned, The Exorcist, It Lives, etc) was brought about by a combination of The Pill, the generation gap, and thalidomide babies. With the exception of a single line that interestingly maintains that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was really an update of a battle between the mechanical Frankenstein and the shape-shifter Dracula, there isn’t a single observation in the second half of the book that you haven’t heard before in any documentary ever made about horror movies.

The near-total collapse of the book in the second half is too bad because the first half is so strong. The discussion of Stephen King’s fiction is cursory, and Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles get a more thorough analysis than the works of the great horror writers like Peter Straub, Clive Barker, James Herbert, or Ramsey Campbell. The superficial reading of King is surprising in that King is regarded by nearly everyone as the leading light of modern horror fiction while Anne Rice has long since moved on to other topics. Skal spends a few pages discussing the Broadway version of King’s Carrie and actually believes that putting this tale of torment and bloody revenge on the Broadway stage was a “can’t miss” idea that inexplicably failed. The entire discussion makes me wonder if Skal really gets his subject, as opposed to having a firm grasp on the research. Anyone with an understanding of what makes horror work could tell from the beginning that the idea of staging Carrie as a Broadway musical was as silly as the idea of a 50-foot woman rampaging through the city.

In the end, this is the greatest problem with the book. While Skal loves the early horror fiction, it seems that his interest in everything post-1960 is merely academic. The first half of the book is written by a fan who loves his subject and has done his research. The second half seems to have been written by a professor who is interested in the sociological meanings of his subject and whose research consisted of watching the DVD extras on a few of the more well-known movies. The Monster Show thrills for awhile, and then disappoints. Just like Scooby Doo.

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