Horror and History: An Interview With Historian W. Scott Poole

As the Halloween season continues to blossom around us, we might find ourselves asking what these stories and creatures of the dark tell us about ourselves.

The work of W. Scott Poole, a professor of history at the College of Charleston, was my first introduction to examining horror through a historic, borderline anthropologic lens. What does modern horror have to tell us about society’s fears? How has it changed over time?

Poole’s work, which includes titles such as Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting, Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, and, most recently, his forthcoming book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, tackles all of these questions and many others. I recently had the chance to speak with Poole about Wasteland, his research, and the evolution of the horror genre.


Credit: Counterpoint Press

What was it about the Great War (more commonly known as World War I) that prompted further examination in how it influenced horror? How does this work connect to your prior research?

I think in different ways, since I wrote the first edition of Monsters in America, I’ve essentially been on the hunt to trace the roots of modern horror, to find the ways in which it tends to wrap itself around modern culture. As you well know, particularly in the last two decades, there’s been a really vibrant horror culture. I kind of brought to it the question of “Where did that begin?” and how is it that we became so deeply fascinated with things that terrify us? My work on H.P. Lovecraft was an effort to try to go back and look at that particular root of this obsession.

I had always had a fascination with the Great War and its relationship with horror because of the novel by Christopher Bram, Gods and Monsters, which was first published as Father Frankenstein. There was also an Academy award-winning film in the 1990s with Ian McKellen playing James Whale, the director of Frankenstein. It essentially tells the story of James Whale, a second lieutenant in the Great War who, many years later, makes Frankenstein and many years after that, is still in many respects haunted by the monster and also by the war that helped him to make a monster.

So that book had a tremendous amount of influence on me, and then when I really began to dig into the origins of the horror film, I found that the connections were literally everywhere. It was difficult, if not impossible, to find a director, a major screenwriter, a major film from the silent era of horror films, that did not have some kind of connection to the Great War, usually as a veteran. There are all kinds of connections in the world of the art and fiction, in a way that made me feel like this was really the beginning of what we think of as the modern culture of horror, which is not meant to suggest that there have not been tales of ghosts and tales of the macabre in the 18th century. But our particular understanding of horror, especially when it comes to the horror of the dead, of the corpse, of the of the dismembered body, all of those things are shadowed by things like [the Battle of] Verdun.

In your view, has there been a significant change in how audiences interact with horror between WWI and now? Has what horror has dealt with changed significantly? How much would you say context bears on horror and how it’s interpreted?

You know, I think the post-9/11 period felt apocalyptic to many Americans. I actually think we look at horror now, since the turn of the millennium and since 9/11, in a way that’s very similar to the way in which the horror film and horror culture was thought about in the 1920s and ’30s. Specifically early in those films and in fiction and art, there was this real desire to destroy this cult of sentimentality that could grow up around the war. To really confront middle-class European and eventually American audiences with the reality of the horror that had taken place. I think there’s been other times in the last hundred years—I’m thinking specifically about the ’40s, maybe the early ’50s, and maybe a time even in the ’90s, at least in some cases—in which there have been some of our biggest horror films that have made quite a statement, that they’ve been escapist on purpose. They’ve been a way for us to leap out of a world we’re really uncomfortable with.

Jaws—I think in 1975—was a wonderful film, but was kind of a perfect example of an escapist monster movie during a terrible time in American history. The famous line about Jaws is: “Jaws isn’t about anything but Jaws.” That’s part of what makes it so popular.

Today, I find that there’s a real interest in what Jordan Peele has called “the horror film as social thriller,” the horror film that speaks to the politics of the moment. In that way we have a lot in common with F.W. Murnau, James Whale, [and others.]

In Monsters in America, you make mention of a national interest in what was seen as a sea serpent that was discovered. Naturally, a lot of narratives and questions rose around this. Were there any elements of WWI that were perceived in a similar way?

For one thing, I drew on a number of veteran’s accounts from the horrific things they were seeing as part of battle trauma, but also part of the phenomena known as battle hypnosis, which was really extraordinary and terrifying. I remember a German soldier’s account of his first time encountering concussive shelling, and describing himself as kind of in a hypnotic state. He is seeing very real, horrible things, but he’s also seeing things like dark, hooded figures that seem to be crawling or kind of slithering out of alleyways. Then of course the veteran’s trauma following that, you have very similar descriptions from thirty, forty, fifty years after the war.

I don’t want to give too much away [from Wasteland], but the most famous supernatural thing that happened related to the Great War was the story of the Angels of Mons. This idea that angelic figures fought alongside the British against the Germans. That has a long and strange history that I’ll let the reader take a look at. There are parts of it that are horrifying and parts of it that are kind of hilarious, and how that legend developed and grew. It actually became much more important to the civilians than it ever did to the veterans.

In Wasteland, you mention that horror films came out of WWI. What was unique about these films at the time? What influences do we still see from this era of film in horror movies today?

One of the most notable things about films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and these other films were what one German critic called “examples of a haunted screen.” I think it is challenging for us and from looking back to understand what it would have been like to watch a film like J’accuse, which I think is in some way the first zombie film—the first time an army of the dead marches across the filmscape. The thing is, the spectral effects that are used, and the use of shadow that was such an important part of German cinema, I think the effect of the technology is felt; it’s just simply not the same. Our films today are shot at least partially in digital, for example.

One very close similarity in the way horror fans like us experience these movies is—and that I think is directly related to the Great War—that, between 1914 and 1918, I don’t think there’s been another time in human history—I’ve thought about periods like the Black Plague in the 14th century, for example—where human beings were exposed to dead bodies, let alone bodies that had been damaged in every way military technology could possibly do. I think that changed the way people thought about death. I think it changed the culture of sentimentality that had grown up around the body and was such an important part of funeral practices one hundred years before the Great War, and it kind of just disappeared overnight. I think today, with everything from our zombie films to our slasher films, there’s [that terror] of the body sensibility. The fact that it can be torn, shredded, destroyed. I think that’s something, while it’s much more graphic today, but I think it’s something that would have been recognizable to those audiences. They would have understood our fascination with those kinds of images and experiences.

In your career, was there a specific movie or moment that began paving the way for your work? What initially prompted you to examine horror movies as a kind of home for the fringes of history, what cultures, especially U.S. culture, may not have faced head-on just yet?

It actually wasn’t a movie; it was reading the work of David Skal. His book The Monster Show is still an amazing work. I think he really showed me how I could take my two passions for history and horror and bring them together.

I really started writing these books when I was seven years old and saw Bride of Frankenstein for the first time on Shock Theater. I think I was pretty well hooked. This was going to be my life, no matter what happened, and no matter what profession I was in.

In previous talks, you’ve mentioned how horror is scary at the time of its release because it mixes around and plays with elements in that contemporary culture. What do you think will horror will be most based around/concerned with in the future?

Several years ago, when I wrote Monsters, I made the prediction that the digital frontier was really going to be the next thing our horror fiction came to life on. Social media, our fear of the strange experience of our social media accounts that aren’t really us—there’s kind of the fear of the Gothic double in that. There’s a “stranger danger” element in it. The role in our politics, the role of bots and of fake accounts and all these things that are at play. On a very personal level, the way in which catastrophic elements in people’s lives are often played out via Facebook Messenger, Twitter, text, all sorts of things. That’s part of the reason why I think we’re seeing a rash of films like Friend Request and Unfriended, Unfriended 2, Search. I think it fits with these phenomena that have gone a bit commercial now but had their birth on the Internet, like Slenderman. These stories that have grown up around things like Five Nights at Freddy’s that extrapolate out into various kinds of conspiracy theories, which thrived in turn on the digital frontier.

I don’t think the zombie craze is done yet, but like most genres, they sort of have their day and move along. Zombies, as much as we love them, I think may be shuffling offstage a bit.

Are there any specific works you would recommend for those new to examining horror through a more academic perspective?

I actually use Monsters in America with my college students and I find it works quite well. I also already mentioned David Skal’s Monster Show, and that’s really a wonderful book for anyone of any age. You could give that book to a teenager and they’d learn a lot about their favorite monsters.

I mean, I think this is one of the great things. I’ve noticed that slowly—a lot of the writing at first was academic—people are learning to tell these stories as stories. I think we’re going to get more books like that, that are open to anyone. For young readers, I think they should read or have read to them the wonderful book The Shy Creatures. I don’t know how many copies of that I’ve given away. It’s quite a wonderful introduction to monsters for little kids.

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is available for preorder. The book will be released October 16, 2018.

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