W. Scott Poole

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W. Scott Poole

Scott Poole is a historian, author, and a professor at College of Charleston.  And he’s also a monster lover.  But unlike most of us who simply dabble on the outskirts of the horror genre, Poole is immersed in monster culture—and American culture, too.  And he sees the two elements are inherently connected.  Both of these elements and more are examined with a microscopic lens in his thoroughly engrossing new book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession With the Hideous and the Haunting.  Over beers at a local bar, Scott was kind enough to talk to me about history, monsters, academia, cyborgs, and a host of other things, including how much he loathes Twilight.

SSv: In the introduction to your book, Monsters In America, you said that you take your monsters seriously.

Scott: Right, and I do.

SSv: Well, you didn’t need to say it because the book has plenty of evidence, but did you feel like you had to say that so people would know that this wasn’t a one-off subject that was “cool” to write about?

Scott: I think there are a couple of things going on with that statement.  One is there is a lot of academic writing out there about monsters right now.  And not much of it has been by historians, mostly film people, media people, etc. And so there is a lot, as you might imagine, a lot of writing about monsters as metaphors, as symbols.  And that’s good, I generally buy into that, but I really wanted to connect the monsters that we are afraid of to very real horrors in American history and make the case that we are talking about things that are more than metaphors in a kind of way.  They are real fears that are hardwired in horrible things that have happened in the American experience.

I think the attraction to horror is an attraction to marginalization. It’s often a way to express that sense of marginalization.

I think the attraction to horror is an attraction to marginalization. It’s often a way to express that sense of marginalization.

The other side of it is I think there would be the sense from some of my academic readers that this is not a very serious subject.  And it’s easily dismissed, and so I wanted to say that so that we would really take a look at monsters because they are tied into such serious issues.

SSv: And even if you had not said that, you have many examples that support the notion that we are hardwired into our monsters.  And you said, too, and this stuck with em, “History is horror.”  Did you still feel that you would have to convince readers of that connection despite the many examples?

Scott: Well I certainly felt like the evidentiary base was strong enough that, in a certain sense, it would be hard not to take it seriously.  But part of me taking this seriously is that I am a huge horror nerd. (Laughs) Along with being a historian, I just love to completely geek out about this stuff.  And there’s a whole horror community, a whole horror world, who, from a certain perspective, doesn’t take this stuff as seriously as maybe they should.  And so I think I was speaking to them as much as to this other audience of historians and academics.  That was one of the tough things about the book is I felt like it had two audiences that didn’t have a lot in common.  So far, and I think this has to do with the academic world moving so slowly, most of the interest has been from fans.  Most of the coverage has been from awesome sites, fans sites like Dread Central, Horror Talk, etc.

SSv:  So it’s going to be a while before academia comes around to your monsters?

Scott: Well, I’ve written books that have taken two years for academic journals to review.  So I’m not holding my breath.  (Laughs)  Now, I will say that I’m getting the opportunity to speak at some academic institutions as part of the (book publicity) tour and that will be interesting to have that exchange.  But it’s mostly indie book stores, horror collectibles stores, one horror movie marathon, which, for me, is a lot of fun.  And I think also a way to have serious conversations about serious things with serious people who just are not academics, or are just not part of that world.

SSv:  That can be tough to reach non-academics, but this subject matter lends itself for sure.

Scott: It does.  I think for some of the same reasons this is a problematic books for academics in part because they tend to  look for heavier theory, they tend to look for analyses of single incidents that run 40 pages.  And I really did try to go for readability as well as a strong historical base.

SSv: I think you achieved that well.  I always gauge how long it takes me to get into a book, and after about ten pages, I was with it. 

Scott: I’m the same way with my reading habits and I find that sometimes a book—if I just stick with it, it ends up well.  Some of my best reads have ended up that way.

SSv: You said you felt that some of the horror fan base doesn’t take this subject as seriously as they should. Do you think that’s because horror has kind of become this outlier to pop culture and hasn’t been given its due respect?

Scott: That’s absolutely the case. Part of the reason Silence of the Lambs won Academy Awards in 1992 was because it was essentially a horror film.  And that genre never gets recognized.  Like The Exorcist, which I think most film critics today would say is one of the most important aesthetic documents of the last 50 years, did not even get considered. I think it got an effects award. (Laughs)  So it’s always marginal to some degree.

I think some people—maybe even for me because it is important to see yourself as part of that weird community in a lot of ways—I think the attraction to horror is an attraction to marginalization.  It’s often a way to express that sense of marginalization.  “Hey, you know what I’m into? I’m into what’s really freaky.  I bet you’re not into this.  I bet you can’t go this far.” (Laughs) So I just don’t know if horror fans always think about the connection of their fascination to bigger subjects and issues like the history of race in America, the story of the treatment of Native Americans, the Vietnam War, or all kinds of things that horror has something to say about and can give us a different understanding of.

SSv: That was exemplified for me…for instance, with a movie like The Last House On the Left, Wes Craven has said specifically that that was a response to the Vietnam War, but a movie like Candyman, you don’t always get that it’s a movie about race…

Scott: And in fact it’s a very powerful movie about race, poverty, lynching, and it’s one of those movies that if I was picking a few movies that illustrate how horror is tied into history it would definitely be on the list. But at the same time, I don’t like to be too hard on people about these things because an instant work of art you can enjoy on 30 different levels. It could pass an evening or it could be a doctoral dissertation.  And, too, part of me pulls back a little bit and is with those that say, “Hey, can I just enjoy the fucking movie without a lecture?” (Laughs) I get that aspect, too. (Laughs)

SSv: What was illuminating for me were the early chapters in the book where you discuss these Puritanical ideas and the witch hunts. I always knew they were horrific events, but we always seem to protect ourselves from them.  If we learn about them in history class, it’s from a distance. No teacher is going to go into the details of these events for you.  Are we committing a disservice by not talking about these issues more?

Scott: We absolutely are.  And that goes back to the “history as horror” idea.  I actually think that one of the reasons that history tends to be on that list of students’ most boring subjects—which is the truth, by the way, there are a number of students who hate history.  I think they sometimes sense that there is kind of a cover-up going on; that they’re being asked to memorize this narrative, this chronology without any clear understanding of why that matters. And in the teaching of one’s own national history, there tends to be glosses over all of these dark undercurrents.  And I think sometimes the guy or woman in front of the class isn’t doing consciously.  It’s just a natural tendency to makes things more comfortable or more palatable combined with jingoism and nationalism which is a powerful deterrent to not talk about the real brutality of the witch trials, or lynching, or the destruction of native peoples.  And so I really did, and I’ll quote Stephen King here, I went out of my way to go for the gross out because I wanted to take some of these events and really put them in people’s faces. Like the descriptions of lynchings and the filming of lynchings so they sort of come off as these early horror films or this early form of torture porn…

SSv: ..that they showed to children.

Scott: Well, yeah, they showed them to anybody who was in the theatre at the time. In late 1890 you have films of executions and hangings.  And the significance of knowing that is you come to understand what history has been like; the experience of history for most people.  And it’s not palatable or a happy story for most people.

SSv: Yeah, some of the most affecting films and affecting books that I’ve read have been about slavery. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or A Mercy which are very accurate and beautifully written, but they don’t pull their punches.  I’ve seen films like that, too.  Rosewood comes to mind.  And there’s a tendency, too with people to have this knee-jerk reaction of, “Well, I don’t like hearing about that, so it must not be true.” So we can just turn it off. 

Scott:  I have to say, too, this is part of the dark magic of horror films; they can kind of sneak up on you in certain ways and present you with things that maybe you’re not ready for but then suddenly they’re jumping out of the closet.  Part of my desire to intermingle history and horror that way comes from that impulse.

SSv: From a historical perspective, what surprised me, as well was the early fascination with freaks and sideshows.

Scott: Right, that goes back to at least, the mid 19th century.

SSv: And then that slowly died out in favor of the film version of Freaks (dir. Tod Browning, 1932).

Scott: That was not popular when it first appeared.  And that is fascinating to me because people were so offended by this film Freaks, yet it’s the golden age of actual freak shows.  That’s what Coney Island was, essentially, was a series of sideshows.

SSv: Why do you think that was that people clamored for the real thing but were so turned off by this film, Freaks?

Scott: Well, people walked out of the theatre and Universal Studios got rid of the film—literally.  They sold the rights away and it went underground for about 30 years.  Part of it has to do with the narrative of the film. In the film, you have the freaks—it’s actually told from the perspective of the sideshow performers.  And the villain is the “normal,” he’s trying to cheat the freaks.  And they take this horrible, unforgettable vengeance on the normal because of this. I read one of the memoirs by one of the sideshow performers and he talks about how they always entertained themselves by making sure that they stared back at the people who were staring at them.  And they said, inevitably, people just looked down at the floor and walked away because of the idea of the object becoming the subject.  Part of the genius of that movie is that is what it does; it puts “normals” in the sideshow as the object.

SSv: And in addition to Freaks, there was this time, too, when our fears grew exponentially when science became prevalent. And you can date it back to Frankenstein, it took a modern form with the atom bomb. But you still see that today—you have people who won’t vaccinate their children because they are afraid of what’s going to happen to them. Why do you think this notion of science is persistent as a constant fear?

Scott: Well, and Michele Bachmann just recently evoked that by saying they—“they”—are going to force our kids to get these inoculations…

SSv: And that’s going to lead to mental retardation…

Scott: Right, exactly.  Which is summoning all these fears of “freaks” all over again. I think we went through a period in the United States, in the 1940s and 1950s particularly, where there was this kind of détente with science; science is our friend, the government says science is our friend and it will protect us from our Cold War enemies.  A number of things happened including increasing fears of a nuclear apocalypse.  And, by the way, I’m always struck by college students who have no conception of being a teenager pre-1991 with that whole sense of, “Wow, the world could really come to an end.  Everything I know could be destroyed.” Even in the movies, by the 60s, at least, there was a sense that science could get out of control.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a mad scientist, science itself is possibly dangerous.

SSv: All it takes is that one person to think that they could make science bend to their will.

Scott: Right. And you also get a lot of narratives—I think the most common horror narrative related to science right now, including films like Splice and shows like Battlestar Galactica, is this idea that the best intentions lead to these horrific results, that it inevitably ends badly.

So that’s why I prognosticate a little bit and think that most of our future monsters, once we’re over the zombie craze—which shows no signs of abating anytime soon—most of our future monsters will be these post-human monsters; humans ceasing to be human in some kind of way.  Which also speaks to some really serious fears about things that used to be science fiction; cyborgs and cloning, all sort of stuff that will become bigger parts of our serious ethical discussions.  So since they’re part of our serious ethical discussions, they’re going to be part of our monsters.  That’s how it works.

SSv: People can turn stem cell research into a monster when they need to.

Scott: Oh yes, Splice did that.

SSv: So you mentioned that the zombie craze shows no sign of abating any time soon, but where do you see horror going?

Scott: Well, if the zombie craze disappears—and I don’t accept your premise (Laughs)—I think torture porn is pretty dead.  That’s a form that has never really interested me.  After the first Saw and the first Hostel I think that genre said all it could say.  Now, it’s just about, “Well, here’s an interesting way we can dismember the body.” (Laughs) More and more, though, I think there are two possibilities: one is a return to Gothic horror.  Which we did that about a decade ago when The Sixth Sense came out.  And the reason that I suggest that is all this recent fascination with ghost hunters and the paranormal.  And there’s money to be made there.  With the found footage genre, too.  I think I would also say that these post-human fears; this idea of these efforts to change the human experience that go horribly wrong.  That’s probably where horror will go.

SSv: Cyborgs?

Scott: Yeah, Cyborgs—which has been with us for a while.  And I’ll say that I’m rooting for the return of werewolves. (Laughs)  It’s a banner I’m waving alone. I remember when the remake of the wolfman with Anthony Hopkins came out (2010’s The Wolfman)—which was not great, I have to admit but I enjoyed it—and I read an article that said, ‘vampires are done, this is the year of the wolf.’ And, well…

SSv: It didn’t happen.

Scott: It didn’t happen.

SSv: But the vampire mythology thrives.  It’s the one mythology that won’t die. Personally, I think it’s because you can interpret the vampire so many different ways, but why do you think that mythology persists over the werewolf or the blob?

Scott:  Well, partially because (True Blood’s) Alexander Skarsgard is much more attractive than any blob you might encounter. (Laughs) But I think also because the vampire is particularly attractive in Western culture right now because it has tapped into some cultural concerns that have been important to us for about 30 or 40 years. Like what I call the “plastic surgery” revelation of the 1980s, the fascination with this perpetually beautiful body, this hope for immortality.  And I almost think that the fact that so many of the vampires in vampire fiction are pretty to look at, it’s connected to that desire.  It’s the desire for immortal beauty.

I think also vampires, more than any other modern monster, tap into religious mythology. And True Blood does a great job of bringing this out.  It works by setting vampires down in the middle of the Bible Belt which is interesting because all the imagery of blood and eternal life…this is imagery that the South knows; this is in the hymns. (Laughs) They are accustomed to that sort of thing.  And the vampire is a Christian monster, even though it has shifted in many ways, it has clear roots in Christianity.  That’s why they’re scared of crosses, and that’s why they can’t be on consecrated ground.

SSv: Do you want to talk about Twilight?

Scott: I do, yeah.  Fuck Twilight. (Laughs) Write that down. (Laughs) Obviously I have a special animus against that series.  And if I’m honest with myself part of it is the horror nerd’s repulsion to this kind of, “Let’s take horror and make it palatable” or “Let’s take this horrible monster and de-fang it.” Because (Stephanie) Meyer (Twilight author) literally does that. And I don’t know why people don’t talk about this more.  If you rip a vampire’s fangs out that almost seems like a humiliation.  Combined with the cultural politics of Twilight which I think needs much more discussion and the fact that Meyer, by her own admission is a conservative Mormon. And it tells a story of abstinence finding a culmination in this very traditional, sort of hyper-heterosexual marriage where Bella ends up spending most of her time in the last book cooking for Edward and cleaning his family’s house and having his baby.  And having his baby, even though it’s made clear in the book, could kill her.  And in an America, to get political here, where there is this ongoing battle over abortion and this war on choice—that’s a pretty powerful message.  Particularly for a book that, let’s be honest, is directed at pre-teen women.

SSv: And married women, as well.

Scott: Actually, the “Twilight Moms” movement has fascinated me.  There’s a website for it and that’s very strange… And I’m not sure how much I want to say about that. (Laughs) Except to say that before I had read Twilight I was really struck by the very few people I know who are sort of conservative Christians and political activists. And I had one friend like that and she was over the moon about Twilight. And I thought, “What’s going on here?” Because these people typically tend not to like any type of narrative that involves anything magical or anything mythological.  Why do they like Twilight so much? And the more I read about it, it became clear to me why they like it so much.  Also I read in my research that youth ministers are using Twilight as a parable for the kind of man that teenage girls ought to look for, reinforcing very traditionalist messages about marriage, traditional message about sexuality.  And, to me, it’s absolutely horrifying that Bella almost dies giving birth and Edward so much wants his offspring that he essentially tears the baby out of her.

SSv: With his teeth, right.  Not his fangs.

Scott: Right. And the vampires also sparkle for fuck’s sake. (Laughs)

SSv: (Laughs)

Scott: In fact, I think (Meyer) says at one point (about vampires), that they glitter like diamonds.

SSv: So you have read the books?

Scott: I did. But I did that special kind of reading that you do with a book like that, even though people talk about the Twilight books as being “un-put-downable.”  But my sense of it is that that means that I skim it quick to see what’s going to happen next; this fascination with the plot, but not the writing.  To me, un-put-downable means that the author has created this world that I want to spend time in and sometimes that means lingering over paragraphs.  I don’t think anybody’s lingering over paragraphs in Twilight, I think they just want to see how the soap opera unfolds.

SSv: It’s a bit like The Da Vinci Code.

Scott: Absolutely, and a lot of my students were reading it at the time that it came out.  And they all said, “Have you read The Da Vinci Code? It will change everything for you.”  (Laughs)

SSv:  (Laughs) And did it change everything for you?

Scott: No, not at all.  They were wrong. My students were wrong. It happens sometimes. (Laughs)


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