Sea Serpents and Serial Killers

The first three days of the Monsters in America class have been fun for me (well, fun that has included getting up around 5:30 every morning to have some time for coffee, reading and a bus trip before my 8:30 AM class starts….but still fun).

We’ve packed in centuries of monsters in three class meetings. For those of you unfamiliar with Maymester, it’s a two and a half week sprint that involves three and a half hour meetings every day.

Good thing we have lots of Monsters to get to know. And plenty of good horror movies to watch.

I think I’ve been most pleased with how well the class did with their work on the 19th century American obsession with the sea serpent. We talked on Friday about the Gloucester Sea Serpent sighting of 1817 and how this formed part of a near obsession with this creature though the Victorian era (including sheet music entitled, I kid you not, “The Sea Serpent Polka”).

I use this material to explore how the sea serpent played an important role in the professionalization of science, especially after a number of 19th century thinkers and institutions embarrassed themselves over the sea serpent when they chose to accept “eyewitness evidence” as more important than “empirical evidence.”

The greatest gross-out moment for the class surely came in our discussion of the Victorian fascination with death, mourning, ghost stories and serial killers. Believe it or not, it wasn’t H.H. Holmes that got them. It was the ornamental mourning braids I brought along aka as century old dead people’s hair.

H.H. Holmes America's first celebrity serial killer

In Monsters, I explore the role that the catastrophic death toll of the Civil War played in creating a culture obsessed, not only with death, but with gore. The posed Matthew Brady photographs are only one aspect of this fascination. Its no accident that H.H. Holmes becomes the first American serial killer celebrity in the 1890s. Public interest centered in part on the guts and gore of his dark experiments in terror in the “Murder Castle.”

So, on to Monday’s class. We’ll be talking about the interrelationship between American racism and the sideshow tradition. We also be watching and analyzing Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks.


Favorite students quotes…the description of taxonomist Carl Linneaus’ willingness to allow for fantastic, undiscovered creatures as his “monster box” and the one student’s description of traditional images of God as “the Great Smiting Thing.”

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