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The History of American Fear

An Interview with Horror Historian David J. Skal

By Cori Brosnahan

David J. Skal is a horror historian and the author of “The Monster Show” and “Hollywood Gothic.” His most recent book, “Something in the Blood,” explores “Dracula” creator Bram Stoker. American Experience spoke to him about the history of American horror films, the allure of gore, and what zombies symbolize in the modern mind.

You’ve spent decades writing about horror and American history. What have you learned?
Horror movies provide a secret history of modern times. All the great social cataclysms and traumas of at least the 20th century seem to have put in motion, decade by decade, new patterns in the kinds of entertainment we use to scare ourselves. And I think what we’re doing is processing unpleasant information in such a way that we don’t have to look at it too directly. It’s not exactly catharsis; I invented the term “catharsis interruptus,” which maybe describes it better as a half-remedy, a temporary coping mechanism for dealing with the conundrums and challenges and traumas of modern life. Something that at least gets us through the night.

 

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Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in the 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

 

When do we first start to see horror films in America? What are these early films like?
In American silent cinema, there were often scary stories and terrifying characters, usually played by Lon Chaney, the famous “man of a thousand faces.” But they were always human beings, and if something seemed to be ghostly or supernatural, it had to be explained away as a criminal enterprise.

That wasn’t the case in Europe, where the early cinema embraced the outright fantastic from the very beginning — the trick films of Georges Méliès, for instance. And then there were the German expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu” — which were not escapist entertainment, but rather self-conscious art films intended to embody metaphors about the Great War. In “Caligari,” you have this malignant authoritarian figure sending forth his sleepwalker to kill and be killed, just as untold numbers of soldiers had been in the Great War. And in the original promotion for “Nosferatu,” there was this idea that the vampire represented the cosmic vampire of war itself, which had drained the blood out of Europe.

The European and the American traditions came together at the beginning of the talkie era, when Universal Pictures produced “Dracula,” which was the very first time that Hollywood had taken a chance on an outright supernatural premise. Dracula was not a criminal; he was a 500 year old demon from hell. The film was a freak success. It came out in 1931, the worst year of the Great Depression, and literally saved Universal from bankruptcy, as did “Frankenstein,” which they brought out very quickly after they realized what a success they had on their hands with “Dracula.” So even though “Dracula” is not a polished or artistically innovative film — in fact, it really creaks — it’s still one of the most influential films Hollywood ever released because it opened up the dormant possibilities of the fantastic and the supernatural.

Vampires, zombies, ghosts — these monsters never go away, but interest in them seems to ebb and flow. Is there a connection between a monster’s popularity and the cultural moment at hand?
Yes. The 1930s, the Depression era, was a time when all of the promises of the Roaring Twenties and the faith in progress and science, and all these things that were going to make our lives better just crashed and burned. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that we saw the rise of the mad scientist, the expert, the egghead, the people who were supposed to fix things for us, but instead had a malign influence. The image of the Frankenstein monster is a proletariat image — asphalt spreader boots and work clothes; he’s like a mute symbol of the whole working class that’s been abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of him.

The atomic monsters of the 1950s — Godzilla was the first and most widely imitated example — are obviously a reaction to the war, and the new anxieties it brought up. There were no real giant radioactive monsters, but there were giant anxieties during the Cold War. So the fallout shelter kind of replaced Dracula’s crypt.

Then the AIDS epidemic happened in the 1980s. People were thinking about blood, and you see the resurgence of vampires in the novels of Anne Rice and movies like “The Lost Boys,” “Near Dark,” and “Fright Night.” The idea of corrupted blood and mysterious illnesses taking away the young — these were part and parcel of old vampire stories. And the vampire has always existed at the boundaries of sexual propriety and sexual transgression — which, of course, was part of the AIDS epidemic as well. So vampires became very important and they really haven’t lost much of their staying power. When people ask me, ‘Well why are vampires so popular again?’ I say, ‘Well, they haven’t been unpopular in quite a while now.’

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Films like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy in the early 1930s. AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The American suburbs boomed in the years after World War II and soon became a favorite setting for horror films. Why it that?
People were anxious about the suburbs — this was a whole new way of dealing with your neighbors, of dealing with your community. There was a lot of alienation that came with the ’50s — people were essentially walled off in their discrete nuclear families, and you didn’t have the street life of the big cities where these people were all moving from. Alienation tends to breed bad thoughts and anxiety and horror, so it’s not surprising that the ’50s and ’60s were such a wonderful cauldron for the bubbling up of horror from suburban imaginations.

Later, the suburbs became a popular setting for horror films because horror works best in very familiar environments. The most popular horror movies aren’t set in faraway worlds, they’re not complete fantasy, they really seem to have their bite and their kick when they could happen in our own backyards.

Comparing old and modern horror films, one thing that strikes you is how much more gore there is today. What explains the attraction to gory movies?
Blood is one of the most surefire horror themes; whether or not it’s being explicitly shown, it tends to drive a lot of horror. In the original “Dracula” film with Bela Lugosi, there’s only one drop of blood shown on a character’s fingertip, that’s it; in a vampire movie today, that’s almost unthinkable. So I think in our over-technologized present, gore serves a different function: it’s a reminder that we are flesh and blood. When we’re being told that we are nothing but machines or extensions of machines, on some level we don’t buy that. Horror is a realm in which we can explore this idea that we’re not computer components, we’re not completely rational beings, we are messy and we’re filled with blood and guts and unruly emotions, and all of this stuff that tends to be celebrated in gore horror.

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George Romero’s 1968 cult classic “Night of the Living Dead” spawned five sequels and countless imitators. Photos 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

The horror landscape of recent years has been dominated by zombies. What metaphor do they serve?
I think now zombies represent the idea of the other; the rampaging hordes of zombies — they represent any outsider you want. We’re a very polarized society culturally and politically now. One thing we see in the zombie formula is the haves versus the have-nots — those who have life versus those who don’t, locked in a death struggle.

But like vampires, zombies just lend themselves to all kinds of metaphorical dimensions. George Romero produced “Night of the Living Dead” back in 1968 — another extremely influential piece of filmmaking. By the time he did his first sequel called “Dawn of the Dead,” he intuited that there was social satire and social criticism in the idea of zombies as the ultimate consumers, the ultimate critique of consumer society with their ravenous, unquenchable hunger.

You’ve spoken about finding comfort in monsters. Can you explain why?
I think just from a personal standpoint, the reason a lot of us were drawn to horror movies in the 1950s and early ’60s was that the Cold War was happening. I wasn’t afraid of monsters when I was a kid, but I was terrified of the Cold War and the atomic tests and the Cuban Missile Crisis and all that. That scared the hell out of me. As beings who couldn’t die, monsters were reassuring — they were like nuclear security blankets. I grew up in a world that seemed like it was totally out of control, and my favorite one — Dracula — he was totally in control. I think that’s a major part of his appeal to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Originally published on October 28, 2016.

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