A Q&A with Scott Poole
1. You’re a feminist who watches slasher films and a pacifist vegetarian with a fascination with blood and gore — how do you explain these seemingly contradictory interests?
I think it seems contradictory because of a basic misunderstandings of the nature of horror films. Horror is by nature subversive since monsters challenge our assumptions about what is natural and what is traditional. But not everyone agrees, a few feminist critics of horror films have pointed specifically at slasher films as being inherently sexist and celebrating violence against women. But female actors like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Heather Langenkamp in Nightmare on Elm Street battled the monster at the end — the monster of meaningless, often sexualized and almost always very male violence. I’m not sure how one could be a feminist and not like these films.
As to being a vegetarian, I’m really not sure how or why meat-eaters enjoy zombie movies. Or films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre that engage in some pretty heavy handed symbolism regarding the carnivorous habits of American society. It all seems like PETA propaganda to me.
2. Why is the weirdly beautiful but short-lived Bride of Frankenstein your favorite monster?
She is one of the first truly subversive monsters. The Bride of Frankenstein calls into question all kinds of patriarchal and religious assumptions about men, women and relationships. Here you have a woman literally created to be nothing other than a bride, not unlike the sort of root patriarchal myth of Eve being created for Adam. But the Bride refuses her creator’s twisted plans from the beginning, screams a scream of rebellion (not fear) and because of her, the entire castle ends up burning to the ground. The Bride refuses to play the game. Maybe in some basic way, that’s why I love monsters. When society lays out a menu for them, they kick over the table. And then they eat the waiter.
3. How do you respond to critics who believe “real” historians deal with events like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, important election cycles and major changes in social history, while your writing and research belongs in film or media studies?
Those critics think of history, and I really hate this, as a bunch of capitalized “Big Events,” a dead chronology, a timeline to memorize. If that’s all there is, then history becomes like a trip to a museum where historians are the docents who follow you around, make sure you don’t touch anything on display and shush you if you talk too loud. There is an underside to history and an existential quality. The real work of history is being done when there is a moment of truth, when its costs are confronted and our involvement in it is made plain. William Burroughs described “the naked lunch” as “that frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” History is the naked lunch.
4. Can you identify a particular moment in your work as a cultural historian when you realized you had to write a book about American monsters?
Absolutely. While writing Satan in America, I came across an account of sea serpent sightings off the coast of New England in 1817. When I researched further, I found a wealth of newspaper accounts about a sea monster spotted in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The “monster” became a favorite theme of songs and stories and was even loaded down with political rhetoric — they nicknamed him “Embargo” after the hated Jeffersonian Embargo.
The charming stories about “Embargo” came as a welcome relief after days spent researching Indian massacres, the violence of the slave ships and lynchings, stuff that was depressing as hell. But then I noticed something. What did the people of Gloucester do when they first sighted the serpent? They tried to kill it. Men went out in boats with muskets and harpoons, all intent on finding this Marvel, this Wonder and destroying it.
I think I discovered that the Monster was the way to get down the rabbit hole of American history, to find the heart of darkness, to find a secret history. And I do think I found that hidden place.
5. You cite Greil Marcus as the historian you most admire — isn’t he best known as a music critic and journalist?
Marcus writes with incredible gravity and beauty about American music in books like Mystery Train and The Old Weird America. In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, he went somewhere else and wrote about the idea of a secret history — the hidden facts, the dark truth and the thing the guy in the tie at the front of the class doesn’t want you to know (and maybe doesn’t even know why he doesn’t want you to know it). He breaks apart that timeline and rediscovers America — Robert Johnson and Abraham Lincoln right there with the Sex Pistols and the European Dada movement, the Blues and Elvis. Causes and effects cease to be simple in what Marcus calls “the old weird America.” History becomes something wild, still untamed and right beneath the surface of the fake and the phony.
Too many academic historians make history seem like a concert series at Tanglewood. Marcus knows it’s a carnival, three rings and lots of sideshows, with the freaks, the street preachers, the barkers all making a lot of noise at once. Truly the old weird America.
6. Do you have a favorite folk-horror legend from American history?
My favorite, disturbing as they are, would be the urban legends that began to develop in the 1960s about the “the escaped maniac with the hook for a hand ” who attacks the kids making out in their car. Or “the babysitter in danger” and even “the dangerous babysitter,” all of these stories where you can see all the anxieties of Nixon’s silent majority on full display. These are all modern fairytales about gender, sex and social control, fears about the very real social changes the United States was passing through in the 60s and 70s. All these things are like vivid, waking dreams the culture is having, signaling the death of certain traditionalist assumptions about family, gender, and sexuality. It’s no surprise that there was a backlash in the 80s with a wave of moral panics that further illustrate anxieties about change.
7. What symbols have our monsters (from Salem to True Blood) borrowed from mainstream American religion?
Religion and popular culture grew up together in the American experience and they still swap and trade symbolisms. Salem itself was in part a kind of media phenomenon in which Puritan theology mixed freely with lurid sensationalism. Everyone had to write a pamphlet about it and Cotton Mather wrote, in some respects, the first American horror novel in his descriptions of Salem.
Vampires are Christian monsters, with all the symbols of blood, eternal life and even the power of the symbols of the Church. One of the things I like about True Blood is how it actually ignores some of the traditional religious trappings of the vampire legend. Religion often appears only in the form of the buffoon while there’s no question where the real power lies. We’re also getting to see alternative, pagan groups as valid spiritual paths and as something just beneath the surface of the southern Bible Belt. And I think the South, America in fact, is pretty pagan underneath the churchiness.
8. You get to spend a day with any horror auteur — who would you pick?
Wes Craven. From Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream, his films are my favorites. This is a guy who went from being a philosophy professor to making one of the most disturbing films in American history, The Last House on the Left — film so violent it only makes sense if you see it in the light of the Vietnam War. And even then, you can barely watch it. Then he creates a horror franchise out of a Dream Demon, out of the same dark territory that gave William Blake and Charles Baudelaire their visions. Yeah, give me a day with Craven. All I would want to do is to ask him where his monsters come from … and then listen to him talk.
9. Vampires or zombies?
I’m on Team Zombie. The vampire (with some exceptions) is not a creature of the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic narratives hold a deep appeal for me. As a society, we can discover what we think about ourselves by understanding what the world will be like when its time is up. Beyond that, I think I identify with zombies but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an immortal creature of ethereal beauty like the modern vampire. But I sure know what its like to shuffle through life feeling kinda hungry.