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A Cultural History of Horror

"Quite simply--and complexly--the best book on horror movies I have ever read."
--Robert Bloch, author of Psycho

"Lively...provocative and illuminating."
-- Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Publisher's Description

Illuminating the dark side of the American century, THE MONSTER SHOW uncovers the surprising links between horror entertainment and the great social crises of our time, as well as horror's function as a pop-cultural counterpart to surrealism, expressionism, and other twentieth-century artistic movements.

With penetrating analyses and vivid anecdotes, David J. Skal explores a broad landscape of cultural expression -- from painting and photography, to theater and television, to comic books and novels. Ultimately focusing on film, the predominant art form of the modern world, he examines the many ways in which this medium has played out the traumas of two world wars and the Depression; the nightmare visions of invasion and mind control engendered by the Cold War; the preoccupation with demon children and mutants that took hold as thalidomide, birth control, and abortion changed the reproductive landscape; the vogue in body-transforming special effects that paralleled the development of the plastic surgery industry; the link between the rise of the AIDS epidemic and a renewed fascination with vampires; and much more. With a new afterword by the author that looks at horror's popular renaissance in the last decade, THE MONSTER SHOW is a compulsively readable, thought-provoking inquiry into America's continuing obsession with the macabre.





"It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the tru;ly monstrous."

Nathanael West

The Day of the Locust

In October 1961, while much of America was in an optimistic mood, buoyant as Jackie Kennedy's trademark bouffant, Diane Arbus had some ideas of her own.

She was holed up at the New Yorker Theatre at the corner of Broadway and West 88th Street in Manhattan, watching for the third time in as many nights the starkly magnified images of women who had no need for hairdressers of any kind. Pinheads, after all, didn't have hair to dress. And even a pillbox hat was an impossible fashion statement if your cranium was the size of a softball.

Arbus took a drag on her marijuana cigarette. She exhaled and the sweet cloud of smoke wafted before the projected shadows. She knew about fashion; she was a fasion photographer, and a respected one -- the work she did with her husband Alan regularly appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, and Vogue. But there was another part of her that would not be fed by commercial gloss; she felt a growing need to find and create images that were the pointed antithesis of glamour. The pinheads were great. And beyond the pinheads were big-headed dwarves, Siamese twins, a man without arms or legs who wriggled on the ground like a worm, a "half-boy" who ran on his hands, a human skeleton, and more.

She learned about the film from a friend of hers, an art promoter named Emile de Antonio, known familiarly as "De." He sometimes referred to himself, jokingly, as "a middle-aged vampire," probably in reference to his self-cultivated bad-boy image and legendary alcoholism. "Drink," De once said, "is my meat." He was also a filmmaker, about to begin work on a documentary drawn from kinescopes of the Mcarthy hearings. Years later, due to another political documentary, Millhouse, he would end up, proudly, on the Nixon White House "enemies list."

The verite aspects of the sideshow picture at the New Yorker interested him, and he knew that Arbus would like it, too. Freaks had been filmed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1931 and released the following year to capitalize on the enormous box-office successes of Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein. The director of Freaks, Tod Browning, had in fact directed Dracula and a slew of other money-spinning pictures dealing with morbid obsessions, deformity, and mutilation. Freaks was considered so horrible, however, that it had been disowned by the studio and suppressed by censors overseas for almost thirty years. The original negative, one legend had it, had been dumped unceremoniously into San Francisco Bay.

The film's story was set in a circus, and had a darkly compelling, fairy-tale simplicity. A beautiful trapeze artist, played by Olga Baclanova, marries a midget for his money. At their wedding banquet in the big top, she is feted by the sideshow freaks and ritually accepted as "one of us." But the drunken bride reacts with revulsion, and is not forgiven. The freaks watch and wait while she attempts to kill her husband with slow poison. One night, at the height of a raging thunderstorm, they take their revenge. Deep in a rain-swept woods, they swarm over her. In a shocking epilogue, we see that their crude surgery and clownish costuming have transformed her into a mute, squawking amalgam of a woman and a bird, a pathetic exhibit in a shabby pit.

In her 1984 biography Diane Arbus, author Patricia Bosworth paints the photographer's discovery of Freaks as a distinct epiphany. "She was enthralled because the freaks in the filmn were not imaginary monsters, but real." Human anomalies "had always excited, challenged and terrified her because they defied so many conventions. Sometimes she thought her terror was linked to something deep in her subconscious. Gazing at the human skeleton or the bearded lady, she was reminded of a dark, unnatural, hidden self."

Arbus had already taken some photos of twins and midgets but her discovery of the Browning film emboldened her. She began to frequent one of the last remaining freak shows in North America, Hubert's Museum on 42nd Street. In the flesh, the freaks were even more disturbing and attractive than the ones in the film had been. According to Bosworth, Arbus' reaction to the fat lady, the seal-boy, and the three-legged man was an anxious visceral excitement, accompanied by perspiration and a pounding heart. At first the freaks were aloof, but gradually they accepted the constant presence of the intense, dark-haired woman, and consented to the scrutiny of her camera. An echo of the most famous line from Freaks could not have escaped her, and no doubt she relished it: We accept her -- one of us! Arbus shot her subjects with a square-format Rollei and fine-grain black-and-white film, striving for and achieving an unflinching catalog of images previously forbidden or deliberately overlooked in modern photography. The deformed. The retarded. The sexually ambiguous. The dying and the dead. All the things people wanted to look at, but had been taught they must not. She told her mentor Lisette Model that she wanted to photograph "what is evil." Evil, to Arbus' mind, evidently was synonymous with that which was taboo. And while few would contend that Arbus photographed anything that was genuinely, destructively evil, she certainly created a bad-girl niche that would go unrivaled until the rise of bad-boy Robert Maplethorpe in the 1980s. Mapplethorpe would also use a square black-and-white format, juxtaposing forbidden imagery with the artifice of the classical still life. Arbus avoided studied compositions but had her own, recognizable mannerisms that evoked the dead-alive faces of daguerrotypes and the embalmed formalism of the wax museum.

If she had read the obituaries, Arbus would have known of the 1962 death of Tod Browning, a long-retired recluse in Southern California. But the obituary would have told her nothing she hadn't already known or intuited. Arbus understood Tod Browning's America better than anyone. She saw that "monsters" were everywhere, that the whole of modern life could be viewed as a tawdry sideshow, driven by dreams and terrors of alienation, mutilation, actual death and its everyday variations. Working-class families, through Arbus' unforgiving lens, emerged as denizens of an existential suburban freak show. Society dowagers were close cousins to Times Square transvestites. Caught at the right moment, almost anyone could look retarded. America, it seemed, was nothing but a monster show. It was a revelation, a cause, and a creed.

The year after Arbus discovered Freaks, she stumbled across Tod Browning's Dracula, not in a movie theatre, but tattooed instead on the midsection of a man who called himself Jack Dracula. The word DRACULA was tattooed on his inside underlip as well. The Frankenstein monster occupied prime space, just over his navel, and nearby lurked the Phantom of the Opera, along with assorted bats, snakes, werewolves, devils, ghouls, winged dragons, and birds of prey. All in all, he had over 300 tattoos, the first of which, Arbus reported, was the image of a steel hinge, implanted in the crook of his arm. The names BORIS KARLOFF, BELA LUGOSI, and LON CHANEY were permanently engraved into his skin. Jack began being tattooed about the same time the classic Hollywood horror movies had been revived on television in he late fifties. Now he was a walking horror festival all by himself, a harbinger of the growing "monster craze" that was catching the imagination of American children, tens of thousands of whom had become devoted readers of magazines with titles like Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein. Unlike Jack Dracula, the majority of the monster-boomers decorated their bedroom walls instead of their skin; their physical experiments went no further than removable makeup effects in highly diluted, though still recognizable, rites of adolescent passage and initiation. But Jack had taken one step beyond the armchair fans, using monsters as a vehicle for true physical transformation. Like his namesake vampire, Jack had to avoid prolonged sun exposure; the light-sensitive designs contained permanently embedded dyes that could turn poisonous.

Jack Dracula was a lightning rod for the energies of the dark gods which are the subject of this book: shape-changing entities that move in the modern imagination like dream-carvings on a dark carousel. With each revolution they mutate and evolve, the better to hold our attention. There are four primary icons on this carousel, which turns to a calliope dirge: Dracula, the human vampire; the composite, walking-dead creation of Frankenstein; the werewolfish duality of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and, perhaps most disturbing, the freak froma nightmare sideshow -- armless, legless, twisted or truncated, now shrunken, now immense--it changes each time we look, a violation of our deepest sense of the human form and its natural boundaries. The carousel turns slowly, but steadily; if one looks long enough, one monster eventually blurs into another.

Copyright (c) 1993, 2000 by David J. Skal. All rights reserved.

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