“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world that, without some hints touching the plain facts . . . they might scout at Moby-Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Joey: The demons, the demons!
Priest: Demons? Demons aren’t real, they are only parables, metaphors.
(Church door explodes and Pinhead stands threateningly in the door.)
Joey: (finger pointing at the monster) Then what the fuck is that!

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s arrival at the MGM commissary followed fast on a night of humiliation. The author of The Great Gatsby had embarrassed himself, in his mind irredeemably, at a party thrown the previous evening by acclaimed producer Irving Thalberg and actress Norma Shearer. Fitzgerald drank too much and launched into a long and embarrassing rendition of “In America we have the dog/and he’s a man’s best friend,” the kind of song, an observer noted, that “might have seemed amusing if one were very drunk and still in one’s freshman year at College.” Fellow screenwriter Dwight Taylor quickly saw that Fitzgerald’s erstwhile audience was not amused. Tolerant smiles turned to a low and ominous hiss of disapproval. In the sober light of dawn, Fitzgerald felt his humiliation compounded by the fear that Thalberg would fire him for his indiscretion, cutting off his income at a time when he was desperate for funds needed to pay for his wife Zelda’s care at a sanitarium.1

The following day, Fitzgerald planned on a hangover recovery lunch with Taylor. Neither seemed aware that they would share the commissary with the cast of the new Tod Browning production Freaks. Browning, coming off his wildly successful production of Dracula in 1931, enlisted actual sideshow performers to be the stars of his controversial project. The cast of the film that came to work on the MGM lot included midgets, a small boy with simian features and gait, fully joined Siamese twins, heavily tattooed persons of uncertain gender, and a so-called pin-head, a microcephalic with a tapering cranium and large, heavy jaw.

Almost as soon as Fitzgerald took a seat, Siamese twins known as the Hilton sisters joined him at his table, sitting down on a single stool. Holding a menu in their hands, one of the twin’s heads asked the other “what are you thinking of having?” Fitzgerald, already under the weather after his previous night’s adventures, became immediately and violently ill. “Scott turned pea green” remembered Taylor, “and rushed for the great outdoors.”2

Fitzgerald was far from the last person to have a bad experience with Freaks. America did not fall in love with the tale’s twisted love story that ends in the betrayal of the freaks by a “normal,” a betrayal that the freaks answer with a horrible and unforgettable revenge. In fact, the first audiences shrieked, vomited, or simply left the theater.

The preview of the film on December 16, 1931, can only be described as a complete and utter disaster. One observer noted that disgusted audience members not only left the theater, they actually ran to get away from the film. In response to audience reaction, Browning cut Freaks by more than half an hour. Despite significant changes, the film still managed to anger and disgust film reviewers as well as religious and civic leaders. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, later sold Browning’s ode to the sideshow in hopes that he and his company would no longer have any connection to it. Freaks went underground for thirty years until it appeared again in 1962 at the Cannes Film Festival and soon became a permanent feature on the art house circuit.3

The response to Freaks would seem to suggest that Americans have no room for the monster. As the United States faced an economic crisis in the 1930s that appeared to represent the failure and collapse of the American experiment, the portrayal of such disturbing topics as physical abnormality, torture, and ritual murder hardly seemed the tonic the movie-going public needed. The failure of Freaks perhaps signaled the public’s desire to see more of the kinds of films that Mayer and MGM had become famous for, namely, light romantic fare featuring actors who embodied Mayer’s fascination with blonde Anglos of perfect bodily proportions.4

Yet this was not the case. The biggest cinematic heroes of the decade before the Second World War, purely in terms of the money they made for their studio, included a foreign aristocrat who drank the blood of his victims in a film with a clear sexual (both homo and hetero) sub-text, and a monstrosity knitted together of cadavers and given, by his half-mad creator, the brain of an executed murderer. At the beginning of the next decade, Hollywood’s biggest commercial draws would include a man transformed into a ravening beast through a satanic curse and a raft of scientists delving into forbidden knowledge. Freaks flopped, and yet these other monstrosities shambled, howled, and slithered their way into America’s hearts.

The story of American monsters, and how they obsess American culture, allows us a look at the underground history of the United States. While a number of works have examined the horror story as a function of American popular culture, reading them as Rorschach tests for inner pathologies and metaphors for everything from adolescent sexuality to patriarchal violence, almost none have made connections with the larger story of American history. None have looked at the broader story of the monster in America, analyzing the monster as a historical problem.

Americans have an undeniable taste for the monstrous in all its forms, a taste in evidence from the time of the earliest colonial settle-ments. The narrative of American history can be read as a tale of mon-sters slain and monsters beloved. Witches and other night creatures infested the New England woods, and the devil inspired savage servants to combat the Puritans. Demonic rites and horrible shapes from beyond the grave lived in the shadows of the Southern plantation household. Sea serpents trawled the waters of the oceans where whalers and slave ships knit the new country into a world of commerce. Wild men and savage beasts prowled the virgin woodlands where America cut its railroads and canals, built its settlements, and created a market revolution. After the Civil War, the American obsessions with race and violence became the bloody chords of memory that held the Union together, a Union that in the twentieth century combined an idealistic rhetoric of democracy with the crassest of imperial endeavors. After World War II, terrifying visitors from other worlds came to tell this new imperium of its doom, while murderous maniacs hunted its citizens relentlessly on the high-ways, in the forests, and even at summer camp.

Monsters in America are everywhere and come in every genus and species. American pop culture has had its nauseating monsters, its sexy monsters, its religious monsters, and even its elegant monsters. They have menaced us in our fiction and frightened us in our films. Some of their images, from Dracula to Frankenstein to Freddy Krueger, are icons of modern cultural history. This book argues that the origins of all of America’s monster obsessions lie in something more substantial than media-driven cultural ephemera. American monsters are born out of American history. They emerge out of the central anxieties and obses-sions that have been a part of the United States from colonial times to the present and from the structures and processes where those obses-sions found historical expression. 6

While almost all the shambling horrors that walk across our the-ater screens and live under our beds have older, transnational roots, the American context has shaped them in definitive ways. Vampires and werewolves came out of the folkloric traditions of early modern Europe. But when they appear in our local cineplex, in the pages of comic books and prose fiction, and even in our folklore and urban legends, they are true American monsters. They are living representations of our dark-ness, simultaneously metaphors and progenitors of the American way of fear and violence. They are creatures of American history, their many permutations in folklore and pop culture impossible to explain without that complex history. American history can best be understood through America’s monsters.

  1. Account taken from Dwight Taylor, Joy Ride (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1959), 240–48.
  2. Taylor, Joy Ride, 240–48.
  3. A brief description of the film’s reception appears in Melvin E. Matthews, Jr., Fear Itself: Horror on Screen and in Reality During the Depression and World War II (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Press, 2009), 53–58.
  4. This argument follows Nancy Bombaci, who suggests that films of this era, espe-cially by Mayer, tried to create the ideal middle-class experience with an empha-sis on idealized white female beauty. She notes the irony that the villain/victim in Freaks replicates the statuesque blonde heroine of most of Mayer’s films. See Nancy Bombaci, Freaks in Late Modernist American Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 81–83, 100–101.
  5. A few have come close. Kendall R. Phillips in Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2005) looks at how the historical context of certain horror films affected and reflected their subject mat-ter. Most of these are, however, post-1960. His excellent analysis does not deal with the larger story of the monster in America. My reading of late twentieth-century horror film is deeply influenced by Linnie Blake’s The Wounds of Nations: Horror Cinema, Historic Trauma and National Identity (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008). It is outside of Blake’s purpose to examine the phenom-enon of the monster in American history.
  6. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes that “the monstrous body is pure culture” or, in other words, is born of a very specific cultural moment. He notes, for example, that in the nineteenth century, “Native Americans were presented as unredeemable sav-ages so that the powerful political machine of Manifest Destiny could push west-ward with disregard.” Much of my own view of the monstrous depends on Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” as well as other essays in Monster Theory: Read-ing Culture, ed. Jeffrey Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). See esp. Cohen’s essay, 3–25.