The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror
Far more readable than the majority of critical studies of pop-culture grue, David Skal's The Monster Show is a landmark work and nearly as entertaining as that dead clown underneath your bed.
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 26, 2001
The Monster Show: A Cultural History of HorrorBy David J. Skal
$17, 446 pp., Faber & Faber Film historian Skal has codified and explained (finally!) our love of and need for horror from a sociological standpoint in this eminently readable book that begins with -- we kid you not -- Diane Arbus, drawing an equation between her transgressive photography and Tod Browning's legendary, banned "fotoplay" Freaks. From there, The Monster Show lurches backward a bit to chart the rise of horror as popular entertainment, from the Theatre du Grand Guignol in turn-of-the-century Paris to the revelatory effects of Lon Chaney's body-modifying make-up of the silent era. And that's just in the first 50 pages. Horror has always been ripe for both sociological and psychoanalytical dissection; not a year goes by that someone, somewhere doesn't take another -- you'll pardon the pun -- stab at it. But The Monster Show succeeds where others have lain gutshot and gutterbound, by dint of Skal's obvious and overwhelming passion for the genre. His prose is quick-witted and at times sublime in its juxtaposition of established fact with the real story behind the obvious. Who knew that long before Karloff was lost beneath Jack Pierce's famous Frankensteinian make-up there was almost a Broadway adaptation of Mary Shelley's story, set to open just months before James Whale's Universal Pictures version hit the nation's theatres? But wait -- there's more: The famous Weimar-era Bauhaus icon as precursor to Whale's monster! Adolf Hitler's love affair with King Kong! The Wolf Man's four-film quest "to put to rest his wolf-self is, in a strange way, an unconscious parable of the [WWII] effort"! Skal's close examination of cultural and popular trends through this century and the effects they had on the national psyche's craven craving for fake blood nets dozens of interesting (sometimes astounding) observations. You may not agree with them all, but they certainly make for some surefire conversation starters. Toward the end, AIDS inevitably rears its ugly head; as a horror metaphor it's one of the most literal and obvious, but no less worth noting. (Cronenberg's The Fly was a high-water mark of sorts along those horrific lines.) Far more readable than the majority of critical studies of pop-culture grue, and vast in its scope and research, The Monster Show is a landmark work and nearly as entertaining as that dead clown underneath your bed.