Vampires, mad scientists, and American psychos: David J. Skal examines some cultural underpinnings of the horror genre

In the annals of American horror cinema, 1931 is a hugely significant year. That was the year that saw the release of both Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein – two movies that would not only become the most iconic horror films in history, but would launch the Golden Age of Universal horror pictures, as well as setting the template for the modern horror film in general. Both films found popular success among American audiences weary from the violence of the First World War, the excesses of the Roaring ’20s, and the hangover of the Great Depression. On the subject of Frankenstein, the Motion Picture Herald opined, “Say the savants, people like the tragic best at those times when their own spirits are depressed, and the economists tell us that even more than their spirits are at a low ebb.”

The comment is quoted by film historian David J. Skal in his 1993 survey of American horror, The Monster Show. Skal forwards the generally accepted argument that the Transylvanian count and the galvanic reanimated corpse form the bedrock of the monster landscape. Along with the werewolf (which no less an authority than Stephen King has linked to the changeling title character(s) in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), the vampire and the reanimated dead are the archetypes upon which most subsequent horror comprises mere variations.

The monsters personified so memorably by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were not, however, original creations of their respective filmmakers. Both find their genesis in Gothic novels and both had been brought to the screen in the silent era, most notably by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau (in 1922’s Nosferatu) and J. Searle Dawley (in 1910’s Frankenstein, a sixteen-minute short produced by Thomas Edison). Those films, in turn, were influenced by German expressionism and the burgeoning artistic movement that would come to be known as surrealism.

Skal traces this history in detail, focusing especially on the career of Browning, whose background in circus sideshows would lead, in 1932, to the appearance of Freaks – a film that remains one of the most visceral and controversial American motion pictures ever made. He views the early development of the American horror film through the prism of European expressionistic output in the early decades of the 20th century, most especially Robert Wiene’s 1922 shocker The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One of the most visually and stylistically experimental films of its day, Caligari’s influence is impossible to understate, though Skal goes some way in countering certain misapprehensions about its provenance and mise-en-scène:

Though the word “cubist” was used almost universally to describe Caligari in the popular press, the film’s style had very little to do with the art movement pioneered by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and perhaps epitomized for the public by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), a canvas memorably described as “an explosion in a shingle factory” by an unsympathetic critic. True cubism involved angular stylization, but was essentially about simultaneous, overlapping perspectives. Caligari was more properly inspired by expressionism, especially expressionism in the theatre, which forced conventional visual perspective into emotionally charged configurations.

The legacy of expressionism carries through much American horror of the 20th and 21st centuries, especially in film (though Skal also investigates the genre’s migration to the nascent world of comic books in the 1940s and ‘50s via the EC Comics series Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear). Combine conventional visual perspective forced into emotionally charged configurations with a large dollop of Grand Guignol, and one is not far removed from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or John Carpenter’s Halloween.

None of which is treated at any length in Skal’s book – certainly not with the depth or care with which the author examines the films of the Golden Age. As Skal’s survey progresses through ‘50s paranoia, ‘60s counterculture, ‘80s consumerism, and ‘90s hedonism, it gets faster and more cursory. The slasher films of the ‘70s and ’80s are more or less ignored, save for glancing mentions of Freddy Kreuger and Chucky, and important cinematic landmarks such as Romero’s and Hooper’s films and William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of The Exorcist are glossed over.

This is in keeping with Skal’s sensibility, which is more canted toward the spectacle of classic cinema than the grime of grindhouse sleaze; the author is more Famous Monsters of Hollywood than Fangoria. And the closer he gets to the present, the more tendentious his analyses become. He is correct to identify the link between the vampire resurgence in the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, but he succumbs to transphobia in his assertion of a connection between the Frankenstein myth and a growing acceptance of gender fluidity and sex reassignment surgery, which he calls “the most extreme version of socially sanctioned vivisection.” While he might have been on firmer ground equating the angry mob’s violent reaction against the essentially innocent monster in Whale’s film with the plight of trans people, he instead goes all-in endorsing the arguments of trans-exclusionary feminist Janice G. Raymond.

And while the bulk of his volume focuses on American film, one chapter late in the book takes a detour into literature, then confines itself to an examination of the works of Stephen King and Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 provocation, American Psycho. King is obviously a worthy subject of scrutiny, and Ellis’s novel has much of interest on the level of genre and sociology (and Skal proves more forgiving of Ellis’s excesses in that book than many contemporary critics), but surely there are others equally worth exploring? No single volume can cover everything, but Skal’s stated purpose to provide a cultural history of horror (at least, American culture and American horror) would be more convincing if he went further than simply mentioning in passing the importance of the 1980s to the landscape of paperback horror publishing.

All that said, The Monster Show is worthwhile as far as it goes, and much of its first half (taking us roughly to the end of the Second World War) is fascinating and well considered. The first 200 pages of Skal’s work, read in concert with W. Scott Poole’s 2018 book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, offer a cogent and thorough survey of the genesis of contemporary horror in the U.S. It remains for someone else to pick up the torch and do the same for the years following.

Vampires, mad scientists, and American psychos: David J. Skal examines some cultural underpinnings of the horror genre