VAMPIRA IN FLORIDA

VampiraVampira. Slender Man. The “Ebola Zombie” meme.

Last week I had the chance to give a lecture and sign books for the University of South Florida’s Humanities Institute in Tampa.

My talk, entitled, “Old Dark House,” began by reflecting on the 1950s and what the character of Vampira meant in what we imagine as a very staid and deeply conservative era. I tried to let the idea of “the fifties” float free from its context a bit and link post-WWII America with some contemporary themes that have been of interest to me lately including the idea of “fakelore,” Slender Man, the nature of coercive language, and the idea of a linguistic virus.

Oh, and James Whale.

The USF Humanities Institute films the talks and puts them online, so I will be posting a link. You can let me know if I managed to tie these disparate threads together or just left them hanging in the air (I think I did a bit of both).

I should add that my hosts, Elizabeth Bird and Elizabeth Kicak, gave me a couple of pleasant days in Tampa. Also had the chance to have dinner with Jay Hopler (a scarily gifted poet whose collection Green Squall is a favorite of mine) and Amy Rust, a brilliant film studies scholar whose horror film class I think I need to take. I think we all should take it. And I mean all of us, the world.

The students at USF really made my talk. I found the Q&A very bracing, with some compelling questions about the relationship between rationality and the monstrous. I was also pleasantly surprised that the book signing became a free ranging discussion with students about everything from the nature of memes to Vampira and gay rights and on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Next up, book signing at “the home of horror,”  Dark Delicacies in Burbank, CA. on November 8 at 2:00 PM. Hope to see some of you.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, MONSTER PEOPLE!

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Happy Halloween monster people! I wanted to give you a quick update about a monster historian’s life this Halloween before you head out trick or treating.

My new book, Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, has found a wonderful home. Soft Skull Press, a division of the highly regarded literary press Counterpoint, has picked it up for their Fall catalog. Soft Skull is an incredibly culturally savvy press and I think its going to be a perfect fit for this history of gender and horror centered on America’s first horror host from the 1950s.  I hope many of you will be reading Vampira this time next year.

I have also completed an essay for the upcoming volume Age of Lovecraft edited by Jeffrey Weinstock that will feature an introduction by Ramsey Campbell and a contribution from China Miéville. My essay focuses on Lovecraft’s obsession with the idea of a historical “witch cult” and what his bizarre misreading of history and personal racism says to us about contemporary efforts to create a “philosophy of Lovecraft.” I’m especially critical of some of the speculative realists on this matter. I’ll keep you posted on when that volume will appear in print.

Meanwhile be sure to check out my essay and all the other contributions in the excellent volume Joss Whedon and Religion edited by Anthony R. Mills, John W. Morehead, J. Ryan Parker and K. Dale Koontz. Its out now in print and on Kindle.

You can also check out my new piece in HuffPo, out this week, “Season of the Witch.” You’ll find my thoughts on this season of American Horror Story and why we need the witch so much right now.  There’s a non-monster piece for you Orwell people in Jacobin as well.

I’m teaching a section of my “Monsters in America” class this semester and very much enjoying it and my students. I know of at least four classes out there using the book Monsters in America this semester…I’m skyping into two of them. Please let me know if you’d like a virtual visit to your class. I am certain we can arrange it. I’d also just like to know if you are using the book and how it’s going…so send me an email at poolews@cofc.edu.

That’s all for now…I hope you get whole bags of candy and overdose on horror movies this Halloween season.

AREA 51: COLD WAR HISTORY DECLASSIFIED

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News reports over the last couple of days have the CIA confirming the existence of Area 51, a government site in Nevada long considered the holy grail for many UFO enthusiasts and the basis of all manner of sci-fi films, novels and even a popular video game. Independence Day and, more recently, Super 8, are at least two examples of how the myths surrounding the top-secret site have figured into popular culture.

So, does the recently declassified material tell us anything about crashed alien vehicles and subsequent alien autopsies being performed?

Nope. Just the testing of spy planes like the U2 and probably various kinds of weaponized technolgies.  For a full rundown on what we know now (and mostly knew already), take a look at Sharon Hill’s great piece here.

As I explore in Monsters in America, the US government spent much of the Cold War hiding various aspects of its policies from the American people. For example, “Project Blue Book” existed not to investigate UFO sightings, but to tamp down any rumors about dangerous radioactive emissions (that the government sometimes tested on civilians without their knowledge).

The top-secret activities of the national security state, not monsters from the stars, helped create UFO conspiracy culture.  Maintaining support for containment necessitated lying about the survivability of an atomic exchange. For example, much of the information that came from United States Civil Defense had less to do with preparing for nuclear war and more to do with preventing panic (and open questioning of US foreign policy). The infamous “Duck and Cover” film provides the best example of this impulse, a film that compares the devastation wrought by atomic weapons to house fires and manageable natural disasters.

The truth was out there, to paraphrase the X-Files tagline, but it wasn’t a truth about aliens.

This does not mean that the monsters aren’t real. They are. Part of the real horror of Area 51 is the number of workers poisoned by various kinds of toxic material over several decades. I’ll be writing more about this aspect of the story in an upcoming essay for an online magazine… so stay tuned.

HORROR’S NEW GOLDEN AGE? PROBABLY NOT.

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"Welcome to primetime, bitch!"

Fans of classic horror have an embarrassment of riches waiting on them over the next two years. Or maybe a just a lot of embarrassment.

Although it could be argued that the vampire craze has at least crested (if not disappeared), horror continues to appeal to mainstream audiences. The Conjuring shined in a summer of lackluster blockbusters.  World War Z has already made more than half a million dollars. The zombie spiral will become a cash spiral in September when it’s released on Blu-ray/DVD.

"You maniacs! What have you done to it! Its a reboot!"

So, we have announcements over the last several weeks that both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are likely to get reboots as TV series. We’ve got a Sleepy Hollow series on tap for the fall. We’ve got a teaser for the new Dracula series. Both Frankenstein and Dracula will get another big screen treatment as early as 2014.

Genre fans are right to be suspicious. Bates Motel has been a mixed effort while Hannibal has not had the creative freedom it has deserved. I remain especially dubious about network TV plans given their history of botching good ideas and the possibility that they will take these important aesthetic documents and turn them into exactly the kind of lurid sludge too many already consider the horror film to be.

I love American Horror Story but that’s in part because its original material, self-consciously lurid bizarre and over the top and, most importantly, features Jessica Lange. The Walking Dead features actors and a stable of writers that have been able to make a zombie TV show compete with the best series of TV’s golden age.

"Listen to me! That is not how the story goes!"

But we are also in for some disappointing reboots of material that can’t possibly work as sequential weekly television. NBC’s Dracula series plans to have the King of the Vampires chasing down those who cursed him and becoming infatuated with a woman who looks like his dead wife. Oh no.

Its always great fun to see works that you love reimagined. In some cases, nuances and subtexts can be introduced that make such works an homage to their source material rather than a watered-down rip-off. But I’m afraid the interest we see in producing horror series and films based on the success of classic tales will produce more eye rolling than chills. Let’s hope one or two gems come out of  horror’s new heyday.

SCARY THINGS: WHAT’S NEW FOR MONSTERS

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You may have noticed that the Monsters in America blog has not been updated this summer with great regularity, so I wanted to catch you up on what’s happening and what to expect.

First of all, its summer…. so there’s that. Moreover, as I noted in a previous post, I’ve actually taught a lot this summer…two sections of my Devil in the Western World class and one very quick Maymester of my class that deals with horror narratives in American history.

The other answer is that two other categories of writing have consumed my typing energies. I’ve been writing a lot for various online magazines and this has absorbed any time that I would have put into the blog.  Recently I’ve written for HuffPo about both The Conjuring and my experience teaching Rosemary’s Baby. If you go here, you’ll see a short piece on how the coming zombie war is really a coming class war.

There is also new book in works, something of a follow-up to Monsters in America, that explores the life of Maila Nurmi (better known as Vampira, America’s first horror host) against the backdrop of midcentury Hollywood, the birth of television and changing ideas about gender. I’ve completed about two-thirds of the manuscript and hope it will find a home soon. I’ll keep you posted.

That said, I do plan to update the blog a bit more often in the Fall, though likely with shorter posts since my essays are mostly going other places these days.  I do have one long form piece that might be best suited for the blog but I haven’t made a decision about it yet. It’s on a topic that will be highly controversial for the small number of people invested in it…but matter not at all to most readers.

Be on the lookout here and on the Facebook page for more of my articles and other Monster-related matters.

If you don’t follow me already, please look me up on twitterand we’ll chat about all things horrific @monstersamerica

FORGET WORLD WAR Z. THE ‘ZOMBIES ARE COMING’

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World War Z has proven a hit with audiences if not with critics. Or with some fans of the book. I hope that those of you who hated the film will still read Max Brooks novel of the same name. It’s a complex work that borrows the oral history stylings of Studs Terkel to explore the political, environmental, religious and psychological effects of a global struggle against a monstrous threat.

And there’s no Brad Pitt.

Speaking of books you should read, one of the more interesting works on monsters I’ve read recently had to be Kelly J. Baker’s The Zombies are Coming The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture.Baker, a scholar of religion and American culture who has taught courses on the idea of apocalypse, has found a way to say something truly original about our zombie obsessions. Her book is an essential for fans and scholars of the genre.

I especially enjoyed Baker’s close attention to last year’s late summer “Zombie apocalypse” that managed to involve violent cannibalistic attacks, a moral panic, bath salts and Danny Bonaduce. Baker unpacks these events for us and makes a number iof interesting suggestions about the role of the Internet in reimagining the monstrous and the fantastic. At this moment, after all, you are participating in an online world that’s a reflection, or perhaps a map, of the real world. And yet not the real world even as it seems like a map that has become territory.

The most intriguing part of the work to me concerned “Doomsday preppers” and the relationship between zombie fantasies and American gun culture.  The author ponders the relationship between firearm fascinations, fantasies about the undead and attitudes toward gun control legislation.

Baker tells us of a mod of the AR-15, the massacre weapon of choice for psychotics, which features an “undead” trigger setting. Zombie targets are sold to gun aficionados who want to shoot at a male zombie named “Rocky…from Detroit” who looks a bit like Barack Obama. Or at Alexa (originally called “the ex-girlfriend”) who Baker points out, embodies “all the negative ways women are viewed in American culture.” Clearly something is being aimed at other than the undead.

This short little book ends with a smart bit of writing about the deep ambivalence about modern culture the zombie apocalypse obsession suggests. Why indeed are we spending some much time thinking about our culture coming apart at the seams? In fact, this section, and the book as a whole, would work as a wonderful jumping off point for a discussion in a classroom setting. I will likely use it in one of my upcoming  “Monsters in America” courses.

Now, I will spend another evening not going to see World War Z and watch the original Dawn of the Dead.

 

IS THIS EVIL BOOK EVIL ENOUGH?

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Should we ever use the term “evil.” The brilliant Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton thinks that some events, people and actions require the “e” word.

I teach a course at the College of Charleston on the concept of Satan in western Europe and the United States. Lately, I’ve been using the first chapter of Eagleton’s  On Evil as a way to begin a discussion about the historical usage of the idea, who has used it and for what reason.

Eagleton’s deeply aware of the problematic nature of talking about “evil.” He writes that its often used as a “punch to the solar plexus” rather than a term of analysis. Or it tends to be an expression of confusion over acts and events that we don’t understand. Calling terrorism “evil” expresses both outrage at disregard for human life and our inability to fully cope with the tragic consequences of such acts.

He also realizes that the term evil has gone out of fashion in some quarters and thinks perhaps we need it back, in radically revised form. Some in the modern west (he, somewhat awkwardly, picks on both Scandinavians and the French) are so convinced that the term evil has been misapplied by those interested in demonizing the cultural Other that they refuse to use it. But what about when you want to talk about Nazis?

On Evil convinces the reader that you can have morality without moralism and that its possible to talk about historical evil in terms of the material realities of history and culture rather than in terms of the demonic or even individual moral choices.

Unfortunately, Eagleton fails to acknowledge the fact that the impulse toward the annihilation of life tends to come from those who believed themselves warriors of righteousness. Eagleton is right that the phrase “the Other” has plenty of the scent of the trendinista about it. But its also true that history is in large part a story of victimization, the wholesale murder of those “others” hated and feared by those invested with judicial and police powers.

One of my students this summer put the matter very succinctly; “most of the evil we have studied was done by people convinced they were good.” The age of radio pulp villain who proclaims their evil evilness while tying someone to the railroad tracks never existed in truth. The destroyers of life and the connoisseurs of suffering believe they are warriors of righteousness, destroying evil.

Criticism to one side, On Evil is pure unadulterated Eagleton if you are a fan. This is as much as to say that he makes deep waters seems like a wading pool and that he turns heavy into quipy. Obviously, this gets him into trouble.

I still highly recommend this book. Its one of Eagleton’s intellectual thrillers you can’t put down, one of those books that seduces you with its breadth and that pops and crackles with insight on every page. Even when he’s wrong, he’s interesting.

I also highly recommend his even stronger work Why Marx was Right, a little book where Eagleton’s occasional tendency to oversimplification serves him well as he tries to answer simplistic criticisms of Marx.

 

Sea Serpents and Serial Killers

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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.”

The X-Files at 20: Just skip some of it

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I’m an X-Files fan. I guess.

This year is 20 years since Chris Carter introduced us to Scully and Mulder. Through that very strange decade of the 90s, economic bust and boom meets millennial terrors meets a fascination with alien autopsies, angels and prophecy, Scully and Mulder matched the national mood. Lots of us wanted to believe and even the skeptics seemed open to what Mulder always called “extreme possibilities.”

I started this post by undercutting my fan status because my affection for individual episodes bumps up against the rather baroque mythos that came to undergird the show. A conspiracy at the highest levels, we knew about this from the beginning. But Carter gave us what we sometimes say we want what millions of viewers have demanded from shows like say, Lost and Alias: an explanation. Actually a series of explanations. Entire story arcs of explanation.

Fredric Jameson maintained that conspiracy theories function as what he called “poor people’s cognitive mapping.” It’s a poor choice of words since conspiracy theory offers cognitive mapping for pretty much everyone. The world’s a complicated place and the allure of the ONE SINGLE ANSWER contributes to everything from our desire for television shows to explain their mythology to the rise of more or less every single expression of religious faith.

“I WANT TO BELIEVE.”  Yes, enough that I’ve long had the same poster that Mulder kept hanging in his basement office. But the poster doesn’t read, ”I WANT TO HAVE A COMPLEX MYTHOLOGY EXPLAINED TO ME.”

Revisiting the X-Files is probably well worth your time. Picking and choosing your episodes, and spending your time with the “monster-of-the-week” moments, might be the best way to do it.  I recommend “Jose Chung’s from Outer Space,” “Postmodern Prometheus,” and, to really mess you up, “Home.”

I started teaching my “Monsters in America” course today. More on this soon. And the Satan class? Two evenings a week, starting tonight.

Yes, that’s a lot of school for summer.

 

 

Studying Monsters

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This week I start the Maymester version of my “Monsters in America” class at my day job at the College of Charleston. I’ll be doing one or two postings on the site about the nature of our discussions and some of the themes.

Like the book itself, I build the course around an examination of America’s fascination with its monsters. Our discussions are driven by the idea that monsters are created by specific variables in specific historical contexts. This gives us the opportunity to think about what has been scary in American history and why.

Check back in and I’ll let you know how things are going. Tomorrow, May 15, is the first day of class and we’ll be talking about some of the theoretical approaches to the study of monsters, with a word in from everyone from Freud to contemporary scholars like Jeffrey Cohen and Douglas Cowan.

We’ll also talk about our favorite horror films, just for fun. Well, not just for fun. The class itself, like the book, will spend some of its time analyzing horror films as our cultural nightmare time.