Back in my full-time teaching days, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting was an excuse to buy books. Not that we were flush with money, but the prices were so good (we’re talking academic books here) that they simply couldn’t be passed up. Those days are long gone. This year I limited myself to a single book: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. I was not disappointed. Poole gives us a smart study with considerable insight into American culture. Not only that, but it also proved an excellent source of self-understanding. I had never come across the phrase “monster kids” for those of us born in the blue light of the television when the Universal monster movies were released for television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. Poole classifies himself in that camp, and it is clear that we share this “guilty pleasure.”
Categorizing our monsters into types that fit various aspects of the American self-image, we find our national phobias reflected in our fictional fears. Throughout the book the uneasy sense of uncertainty towards sexuality, science, and death, like the revenants described, keep arising from the ground. Although Poole is a historian, it very soon becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind both identifying and challenging these monsters is religion. It is a view Poole shares with Douglas Cowan and Stephen Asma and other analysts who take seriously the origins of our fears. Monsters creep out of the same mental space as gods. That which is not real is no less scary for its non-existence.
Particularly insightful was Poole’s analysis of the subversive nature of monsters. They challenge convention, forcing a cultural catharsis. The notable exception, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, also has a religious rationale. Meyer, a conservative Mormon, effectively extracts the fangs of the vampire to make it a safe, if not Christian, monster. Monsters make establishment believers uncomfortable, for they remind us of the darkness that always follows the light. Humanity responds with efforts, religious and scientific, to banish the dark. But at the end of even the longest day, night will come. When it does, I would recommend curling up with Poole for an evening of cultural self-understanding. Followed by a bowl of popcorn and a movie from his filmography.