W. Scott Poole, PhD, is Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston and likes to spend his time researching our fascination with things that go bump (or ‘bomp bah bomp bah bomp’) in the night.
Unlike most academicians, Scott’s the kind of guy you actually want to hang out with outside of class. This may or may not have something to do with his awesome Star Wars t-shirt collection, but who wouldn’t want to belly up to the bar with a guy whose research extends from Bela Lugosi to Dexter Morgan? His first book rings close to my own heart, Satan in America (unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to read it prior to publishing The Devil Wears Nada), and his latest book, Monsters in America, astutely narrates our cultural obsession with the grotesque, the taboo and the profane. It functions as an “underground history of the United States” where we discover that many of our nation’s monsters are often born out of our own ideologically-driven nightmares.
Yep. It’s terrifying.
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH W. SCOTT POOLE
1) Please settle the following debate between a number of my oh-so nerdy pals. Who is the better storyteller, Clive Barker or Richard Matheson?
I’m afraid the debate will continue since they are so different in style and are responding to vastly divergent influences and cultural tropes. Matheson’s best work depended on the idea of the world gone awry, a kind of suburban gothic where, most famously, the protagonist of I am Legend, spends an awful lot of time thinking about securing a peaceful middle class existence (he spends a whole day, not vamp hunting, but soundproofing his house.)
Barker, on the other had, explores the invasion of normalcy by other worlds, dimensions of horror that, as he writes in The Hellbound Heart, “break the surface of the real.”
I’d also note that their influences are very different. Matheson cleaned up the pulp tradition and gave it both depth and literary seriousness while also finding influences other than Lovecraft (no mean feat). Barker seems to me to belong to an older tradition that stretches back to Baudelaire and Huysmans, the satanic chic of the 19th century. This is why his writing is more lyrical than Matheson’s, if at times less sturdy feeling.
I like them both. So . . . both your friends are right. Buy each a beer.
2) Playing off of Zizek’s account of the monster materializing as a reflection of ideology, what particular ideologies do our monsters, in the United States, represent?
Zizek’s comment about fantasy constructions “obscuring the true horrors of the situation” seems to me to suggest that the monster more often hides in the weeds of sub-ideological concerns. They are less politics than the fears and anxieties that too often over-determine politics.
It also depends very much on the historical period you examine. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula stood in rather handily for a number of cultural and sexual desires related to immigration in the 1930s. Here you had a hugely popular film about an eastern European immigrant who could handily seduce young blonde women. American culture had just passed through two decades of anxiety about eastern European immigrants who allegedly procured young, innocent farm girls when they came to dens of sin like Chicago and sold them into “white slavery.” Neither vampires nor white slavery were real . . . they both influenced attitudes and habits of thought about the way the world worked.
3) Other than the The Misfits, what sort of soundtrack should accompany the reading of Monsters in America?
I listened to a lot of Tom Waits while writing it, so maybe putting on Rain Dogs would be the way to go. It seems like every time I do a radio show, the segment is introduced with The Cramps, which makes a lot of sense. I did a podcast with some hosts out of Liverpool that opened with “I’m Afraid of Americans” which I thought was brilliant.
4) How is it possible, historically speaking, that millions of people actually idolize/adulate/deify a character who takes great pleasure in killing and dismembering human beings (i.e., Dexter Morgan)?
I think it’s not especially surprising given our long history of fascination with serial murder. In the 1890s, H.H. Holmes in Chicago became the first mass murderer paid to produce a memoir for which he received thousands. And they have frequently been the subject of adulation and hero worship . . . even those who use them as barometers for how “sick” our society has become.
I think it’s important to note that what people love about Dexter Morgan, and serial killers in general, is neither the dismembering nor his moral code. Their interest is really in the way he ignores boundaries and looks (and forces us to look) into the darkness. Obsession with these ideas is not new . . . remember Dostoyevsky had Raskolnikov murder his landlady because the character wanted to be like Napoleon, he wanted to transgress the parameters of the acceptable. I do think that the relative safety and security of the lives of most Dexter fans has made them hungry for authenticity, even if it’s the primal authenticity of Dexter and his body bags.
I’d add that Dexter represents one of a number of what I call narratives of subverted normalcy in our society. Shows like the Sopranos and more recently Weeds and Breaking Bad are about the façade of middle class life being given a shot of reality by a walk on the wild and dangerous side. I’m not sure the viewership of these shows is happy with the life they live and the world they have created.
5) Who scares you the most: Pumpkinhead, Leatherface or Ann Coulter?
That’s an easy one . . . I don’t find Pumpkinhead particularly scary (or even a very good monster) and Leatherface is a terrifying Bodhisattva with important truths to teach us about America. I’m not sure Coulter has much to teach us about anything and her ideas (though not her personally) are pretty scary.
It does interest me that Coulter consciously constructs herself as frightening in the way she works the eye make-up and displays her rather odd anatomy.
She strikes me as something of a sideshow performer who maybe sees anxious liberals as her real audience—an audience she means to upset and terrify and titillate. She has needed to invent a monstrous character in order to say the monstrous things she says. I also think that, once you understand what she’s up to, you discover not much is really at stake when she says anything at all.
I have to add, in the aftermath of Limbaugh’s disgusting comments, that I hope progressives will be more careful in how they talk about their female opponents. The MSNBC crowd slips into locker room misogyny a bit too often when talking about female conservatives. There’s plenty to say about Laura Ingraham’s pas-de-deux with fascist ideology without talking about her the way adolescent boys talk about young women who frighten them. This would be playing the game the Coulters of the world actually want to play. As Nancy Thompson does with Freddy in the original Nightmare, you just have to take back your energy from these media constructs. It will be good for our culture and good for our collective blood pressure.
For more information about Scott and his latest book, check out www.monstersinamerica.com.
[Post-script: Allow me to apologize for neglecting to mention the Mistress of the Dark, Elvira. I am flabbergasted by my own thoughtlessness, and I can only hope she will immediately haunt me . . . immediately. Because, you know, “that girl can sure enough make my little line shine”–as so eloquently stated by the original GWAR, aka, The Oak Ridge Boys.]
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.