Review: MONSTERS IN AMERICA – Scott Poole [Vol. 4, #23]

November 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

 

A Review of

Monsters in America:
Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Hauntin
g.
W. Scott Poole.
Hardback: Baylor University Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Mark Eckel.

“Trick-or-treat!” can only mean one thing—Halloween.  Stamped on American culture, the phrase brings to mind images of costumes, plastic masks, and parents holding the hands of little monsters as they collect candy calories.  But real monsters collect different trophies; they are no laughing matter.  Evil brutes exist inside and outside American neighborhoods.  Monsters in America is W. Scott Poole’s interpretive history.  For Poole Halloween means more trick than treat; we discover that the monsters are us.

Friedrich Nietzsche believed we are the monsters.  The atheist taught that inflicting suffering while enjoying the process is human nature.  Poole agrees telling us early and often “You are the main character in this terror-filled little tale” (xviii).  He rightly frets over our technology which ineffectively obscures the divine and so Americans create vampire stories which take God’s place (59): Americans are still attempting to apprehend mystery in the midst of supernatural confusion (11).  Both belief about the supernatural and the supernatural itself creates creatures which slither into our thinking-being-behaving.  Poole summarizes, “Perhaps our own beliefs about monsters and their intractable nature help to produce the monsters we fear the most” (164).  Alien invasions prompt the author’s apt comment, “The otherness of the monster can embody the sum of all fears but also an escape from fear” (131).  We can anticipate either alien salvation or judgment from beyond.

Poole does justice to judgment; the focus of some horror films.  But too often he ascribes American injustices with little more than a metaphorical connection to monster movies.  Indeed, the reader may struggle as I did with the leaps Poole makes between monster movies and American social ills.  Chapters three and four in my copy of the book, for instance, are littered with questions: “How did we get here?” “This is a logical leap!” and “What??!!”  His transitions from movie metaphors to American social ills are often strained if not unconvincing.  One wishes for a consistency in commentary.  At times in the book a movie director is taken at his word, the reason for his film given authorial intent.  Other times Poole relies too heavily on social interpreters for his connections.  Scholars will argue over interpretation because that is what scholars do.  But honestly, most folks go to horror films for what they would say is “the hell of it.”  Some people enjoy being scared, period.  Filmmakers create celluloid illusions with that in mind.  Social commentary may drive sub-text but money drives the movie.

Poole suggests monsters are created by America to mask its own monstrosities or monsters exist which interpret American culture.  But a third interpretive option exists.  America, like all nations, is made up of monstrous human beings.  While real monsters do exist, the reality of our own monstrosities mirrors not a national heritage as much as our human heritage.  Societal values impact individuals only as much as we understand an individual’s values.  No historically reflective Christian would disagree with Poole’s castigation of wrongdoings by some Americans.  The horrible treatment of indigenous peoples and slavery’s practice is sin that stains America’s history.  Solely focused on the horrors, readers would think that no Christian or church stood against the aberration of Scriptural teaching; but such was the case with missionaries and abolitionists.

Title and sub-title encouraged my interest in securing a copy of Monsters in America for review.  For my own part, I have been studying and writing about Gothic horror for some years.  I hoped to expand my interaction in the genre, albeit from an American point of view.  Honoring authors by not reading other reviews ahead of time, I anticipated simple engagement with monstrous intrigue of the horrendous and hideous.  What I discovered is that Poole should have written two books: his perspective on American history, another on monsters.  We are led to believe that bloody movies portray the sinister seditions of social conservativism—the ultimate grim reaper.  Poole’s book becomes a tired screed against those whose political-social viewpoints are antithetic to his own.  Judging from the verbiage, Poole’s sub-text for the American monster is conservative-Christian-white-heterosexual-Republican.  Poole’s constant harangue against anything “conservative” is a thin criticism to begin, stretched beyond any semblance of recognition by the end of the book.

The pages are littered with characterizations which demonize only a conservative set of ideas.  Poole’s excoriation of one homogenous grouping belies the essence of the problem which is our human nature.  Poole explains his parameters of a monster’s nature from the outside, in: monsters are a product of our collective hatreds “outside the human psyche.”  By so delimiting his interpretation, Poole mirrors his stated concern for other theories that monster interpretations are “reductive and overdeterminative” (13-18).  Indeed, Poole interprets the meaning of the meaning, reinterpreting historical narratives infusing past story with present perception: “history is horror” (22).  Not only is America guilty of creating its own horrors, failure to acknowledge monsters also creates them (23).  Evenhandedness exists in the book’s last sentence suggesting that liberal visions of social justice could create something worse (228).  Would that Poole could have written a chapter on one of the liberal American horror shows: 50 million babies slaughtered through this country’s abortion industry.

The little monsters who come to our doors for candy at Halloween are small reminders of our large problem.  Monstrosities exist in us and therefore they are all around us.  Monsters refuse to be cordoned off in only one nationality, ethnicity, religion, or political mindset.  Monsters in America instead should acknowledge monsters exist in every culture, every tribe, every era.  If one would like to get into the spirit of monster mania during Halloween, no better place to begin is with the books that generated monster madness: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. The scary tales found in the classic texts remind us—no matter our nationality, ethnicity, or political persuasion—the monster is us.

——–

Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College.  Some of his writings can be accessed at www.warpandwoof.org.