Authors@Google: W. Scott Poole

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 21.11.2011

>>Female Presenter: So W. Scott Poole blames repeated viewings of shock
theater at an impressionable age for his monster obsession. Associate professor of history
at the College of Charleston, he's also a prolific pop culture
critic. His reviews and commentary can be found at,
and other sites. In addition to "Monsters in America", his
other books include "Satan in America: the devil we know".
And "Never Surrender: Confederate memory and conservativism
in the South Carolina upcountry" which was the 2004 winner
of the George C. Rogers Award for best book on South Carolina history.
Poole lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his partner Beth Phillips, two dogs,
an extensive comic book and vinyl record collection.
Please help me to welcome Scott Poole.
>> Scott: Well thank you. And thank you for letting me come talk to you about monsters
and hopefully talking back to me about monsters as well. I hope we've got some time.
I'm planning for some time for Q and A so anything I don't cover in the discussion can
I hopefully answer for you. So this is a weird book in certain kinds
of ways. This is a book that's a weird combination
of some different things. I am a historian. I'm a
traditionally trained historian even if I'm not a traditional
historian in some ways. And so, this book really is
a cultural history of the idea of the monster. It's not
a cultural history of horror movies although there's
a lot of horror movies in it. It's a cultural history of how
narratives of monsters have intersected with American
history from the colonial -- first period of colonial settlement
all the way to the present. So that's part of
it. Part of what makes it weird -- if that's not weird
enough to try to do that -- is that this is also a book
written by and for horror nerds. [audience chuckles] I am
absolutely a horror geek. I consider myself kind of part of that community.
I see this book in a way as a kind of valentine
to the genre that I love so much. And that kind of community
that gathers around it. So, you know, it's -- it's
a book that is different things. It has sort of an
underlying seriousness. You'll find phrases in there
like 'landscapes of corpses' [laughter] and that
kind of thing that suggests, in fact, I really am after exploring
some of the darker parts of American history. But then,
I think also horror fans will find a lot in it as well.
Hopefully finding ways to look at layers of the kind
of pop culture entertainment they already enjoy and encounter
those things in a different kind of way. Now, as
Shannon mentioned, I do, in fact, owe -- blame -- whatever
part of this fascination to a lifelong fascination
with classic horror and also more contemporary horror.
The fact of the matter is, I spent a number of long Saturday
afternoons in the late 70s -- I've told my college kids before during
the Clinton years but in fact it was during the
Carter years. [laughter] Sitting down in front of my parents ginormous
console television set which I also have to explain
to them didn't mean it was a wide screen TV. [laughter]
It means it was this gigantic piece of furniture with this
little tiny screen on it watching shock theater. If you're
not familiar with shock theater. Shock was actually
a package of films that Universal Studios started
marketing in the late 1950s to local TV stations. And
they actually marketed two packages -- one that
was called Shock Theatre, the second that was called
Son of Shock. And it actually was this combination of kind
of the universal monsters -- Bride of Frankenstein,
Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, all that kind of stuff along with the 1950's
creature features. The giant bugs. The 50-foot women.
All of those kind of radioactive terrors that
were very much part of the Cold War mentality in America.
And so, you know, for me in a sense that's kind of where
my own obsessions along those kinds of lines began.
Now, the question though becomes, "Fine, okay. We get
it, Poole. You're a weird kid. [audience laughs] There's
no doubt about that. But how does that connect to serious historical
work?" And is that kind of material serious enough for
real historical inquiry?" Well, I think that it
is. And I think it is, in part, because of what one
of my favorite historians -- who's not actually a historian
-- Greil Marcus -- has to say. A quote that in some
ways -- you'll find it in the book -- but it's really
informative about what I explore. [reading] "Parts of
history, he says, because they don't fit the story a people wants to tell
itself, survive only as haunts and as fairy tales."
So there is as with every country and as with every society
and every culture, there's this master narrative. There's
this story that we get out of the textbooks. There's
the story that the guy up in front of the classroom
in the tie tells us. There's the chronology that
we're taught to believe is essentially the story of American
history or the story of any culture for that matter.
But most of us have the sense that there's something lying
underneath. Something's under the bed. Something's hiding in the closet. There's something in
kind of the darkest part of the forest. And that's why
I see monsters as a kind of access point into secret
histories. And I'm almost afraid to use that term, because
you know now there's sort of the secret history of
everything. But I think when it comes to exploring the
master narratives -- particularly of history that
we've been told to accept--, it's an important idea.
And I think that monsters have become -- as I've explained
in other contexts -- a kind of a map to hidden topographies.
A map to where the bodies are buried in American
history. Now, in the book, I don't actually give a
definition of the monster. I don't actually say, "Monsters
are this." There's a lot of different reasons for that.
Partially because monsters today are all different sorts of
things. But I think also it's because what the monster is
depends on the historical context that they emerge in.
Monsters actually kind of soak up meaning. They're
sort of these sponges that collect meaning out of the historical
context in which they appear. So, for example, when I
talk with my college students about the universal monster
cycle -- Dracula, wolf man etcetera. They, almost the
first thing they always say is, "you know, that stuff
just isn't scary. How could people have thought that
that was scary?" Even more interesting I've had the
experience of watching the exorcist with graduate students -- which I and even some of you still
find a frightening film -- and their response has
been, "you know, I just don't get it. This is too slow.
The special effects aren't that great. I just
really don't find it frightening." Well, I think the fact
of the matter is, that different things are frightening
at different periods and they're frightening
because of the context they're in. They're frightening because
they're kind of sticking in and playing around with
parts of others that are connected to that larger cultural
aegis. They're kind of soaking up meaning while at
the very same time they're these powerful social constructions
-- monsters are -- all by themselves kind of helping to
contribute meaning in certain kinds of ways to the era
that they appear in. That's a little abstract. So let's
talk about a couple of very specific examples that
I think will help you see this. And what I've decided
I'll talk about today is first of all the 19th century
American obsession with the sea serpent. You may not
know that there was a 19th century American obsession
with the sea serpent, [audience chuckles] but after today
you will be aware how obsessed Americans were with this creature and then
something that you probably know a good bit more about. That
is the obsession with the serial killer and with
the slasher. Kind of the murdering maniac, hook for a hand.
All that kind of stuff from the 70s and 80s. So kind
of a more historical example -- the way we tend to think
about that term -- and then a more contemporary one.
But let's get to the sea serpent first. Indeed, Americans
were obsessed with this creature in the 19th century.
And when I say "obsessed," I don't just mean as
a pop culture phenomenon. I don't just mean that there were
sort of marginal people in American society who were
interested in the possibility of these creatures. I actually
mean that, even in the emerging scientific community
in America. Sort of the beginnings of natural
science. There was a real interest in whether or not
sea serpents were real. In fact, no less a scientific name
than Charles Lyell the geologist was absolutely
convinced, based on eyewitness accounts, that sea serpents were
an undiscovered animal. A creature that we simply
didn't have an exhibit or specimen of and that we
were eventually going to find. Now, at least one
of -- and this is not the only -- but one of kind of
the trigger points for interest in this creature was a
series of sightings not too far from here. In 1817,
there were a series of sea serpent sightings in Gloucester
Harbor. In fact, hundreds of people claimed that this creature, and they
actually drew a picture of it, this creature showed
itself in the harbor. Was seen by whalers who got out in
their row boats and went out to get it in true American
style when they saw this marvel, they decided "hey let's
get our harpoons and our muskets and let's go kill it." [laughter]
And so, hundreds as you can see here -- well, make you
can't see it very well -- but it's the largest ever seen
in America. Just made its appearance in Gloucester Harbor, Cape Ann,
and has been seen by hundreds of respectable citizens,
people claim. Not a bunch of crazies. Not slack jawed
yokels and that kind of thing. Hundreds of respectable citizens saw this
creature, it was claimed. Now, there was so much interest
in this that an early American scientific society -- in
fact a very elite scientific society -- known as the New England Linnaean Society, located
in Boston featuring a number of kind of America's emerging scientific elite. They took a special
interest in the sea serpent, decided they were going
to work up a zoological profile of it. Started collecting
a variety of eyewitness accounts including the eye witness
accounts that came from the Gloucester Harbor siting. And then at one point, actually believed
they had found a specimen. And here's a drawing of
it that a member of the society did. Thought that they
had found a specimen of one of the sea serpent's babies
-- one of its spawn essentially -- about three feet in length.
And there had actually been a lot of discussion
about the spawn of the sea serpent. There was all this
talk in 1817, 1818 -- well, maybe this thing has shown
up in Gloucester Harbor because it's going to spawn
and that's going to be really terrible for the fishing
industry. They were taking it this seriously they thought
how is this monster going to ruin the local economy was
the discussion. Well, the Linnaean Society found
this creature -- three feet long -- very strange
markings on it. They could not identify it as any known
zoological specimen. Unfortunately for them but good
for science, Louis Agassiz famous zoologist connected to
Harvard took a look at at it and said, "you know, this
isn't actually a spawn of a sea serpent. This is actually
a fairly common New England water snake that happens
to have a skin disease, some kind of skin infection that has caused it to have all these
strange markings." New England Linnaean Society disappeared
about two years later. Essentially in kind of complete
embarrassment. They only formed in 1818, so they weren't
around that long. There were other reasons for their
dissolution, but I think this was part of it. So after
this, the scientific or emerging professionalized scientific community in America sort of takes
a turn when it comes to the sea serpent. They start saying
things like eyewitness accounts are not enough. That's
not what we mean by scientific evidence. Scientific
evidence has to do with having a specimen in a lab that
is confirmed. Doesn't have to do with how many people have
seen it. And the American public's response to this
was, "Well, okay, fine. But sea serpents are awesome.
And what if they do exist?" [laughter] And so, the sea
serpent becomes a really important part of American popular culture.
As you can see here. This is from the 1850s. This is
a piece of sheet music from the 1850s. Sort of the 19th
century version of the CD or the download. And I actually
discovered in an issue of Harper's Magazine that this
particular sheet music was on whoever was the 1850s version
of Ryan Seacrest's top ten list of best-selling sheet music. So the
Sea Serpent Polka. Very, very popular. Captains started
naming their ships the USS Sea Serpent. It just became
a very important part of American culture and representation.
It even showed up in the side show and sort of the
history -- the emerging history of the American carnival
tradition. And I wanted to show you this image, in part,
because you can see where this is going and you can see where
the turn away from science fits in with this. This
great wonder of the world -- Hydrarchos -- sea serpent.
Supposedly 114 feet in length. This traveled all over the
country. This is actually from an advertisement for
a show in Brooklyn. And unfortunately you can't see
the small print in there. You can see it in the book.
The image is reproduced in the book. But it essentially
makes the claim not that this is an unknown animal,
not that this is an animal we haven't discovered yet, but rather that it is a supernatural
creature. In fact, it specifically says -- the promoter
claimed -- what we've got here is the skeleton of
Leviathan. This beast from the Hebrew Bible. From the
Old Testament this kind of chaos monster that existed
from the beginning of time. So you see there, as the scientific community has
said, "no, we need evidence." Sort of the American
public in the popular imagination said, "We don't care about that
and in fact, maybe it's supernatural. Maybe that's the
explanation for these creatures." As you might guess, I
do draw some connections in the book between sort of
popular misunderstanding of what counts for scientific
evidence today -- the whole debate over intelligent design. I mean in certain kinds of ways, it's
the same sort of discussion. By the way, just side
note, that in fact was an actual set of fossils. It's simply
that it was fossils that had been taxidermied together
to look like a sea serpent and became so popular that Herman
Melville actually mentions it in Moby Dick. There's
a reference in Moby Dick to these fossils that have been
discovered in northern Alabama that some people believe
are the bones of fallen angels, he says. Became quite a
important part of sort of the American psyche in the 19th
century. Now, not all monsters are quite so friendly and
interesting as the sea serpent. And in fact in some ways
at least one of the new monsters -- the late 20th century
monsters -- that have obsessed Americans is sort of the
knife-wielding maniac. The psycho. And of course, this
begins in the late 1950s with one of America's first
modern celebrity serial killers -- Ed Gein. The Ed Gein
killings which directly influenced the 1960 film Psycho.
And then, by the 1970s, certainly by the 1980s and for
sure in the early 90s, there was this mountain of films,
books, sociological material, even criminological material on the dangers of the serial killer.
And in fact, the alleged dangers of the serial killer
to essentially everybody. To every American.
Even though statistically, all the homicides in the United
States during the 1980s taken together -- only about
0.01 percent of those murders were actually ever
traced to an actual serial killer or stranger killing as
they were often called. And yet, there was this mountain
of material produced about them. Why is that?
Why did the serial killer become the monster of that particular
moment? Well, I think there's a number of answers to
that. And part of it has to do with the sort of
political climate during that period. There were some
who made a connection -- kind of a direct connection --
between what they saw as the changes to American society
during the sexual revolution. During the 1960s and
counterculture and what they saw as an increasingly quote
unquote degenerate society in the 1970s and 1980s. And
some of these claims actually came from some relatively
surprising sources. So, for example, in 1984 -- which
was kind of the beginning really in a way of the serial
killer becoming a major obsession in American society. A
New York Times Editorial reported that quote many
officials -- no officials named, no agency actually
linked to them, just simply "many officials," believe
that a link exists between sweeping changes and attitudes
regarding sexuality that have occurred in the last 20
years and the emergence of the serial killer. So that
very vague assertion suggested that the sexual revolution -- maybe second wave feminism as
well -- the direct result of that had been serial murder.
Now, some made this -- connected these dots -- dots
not easy to connect in an even stranger sort of way. One
of the most popular genres during the 1980s and in fact
it's remained a very popular genre -- true crime book, the
true crime novel. And in fact, there was a particular author, Ann Rule, R-U-L-E,
who was a particular best seller. I mean, her books were just insanely popular.
If there are any -- this is a strange way to put it
-- but if there are any Ted Bundy fans [laughter] out
there. Then [chuckles] you probably have heard the name Ann Rule. Because
she wrote the book "Stranger Beside Me," which has become
classic in the true crime genre. Now Ann Rule is an
interesting person. She actually got her start during
the 1960s writing these kind of under-the-counter -- literally
kept under the counter-- magazines with names like
Spicy Detective. True Crime. That kind of stuff.
And yet, by the 80s, she's a best-selling author and
she's writing for magazines like Good Housekeeping and Family
Circle. And she's making claims like these. In her
book about Ted Bundy, she suggests part of the reason
that Bundy becomes a serial killer is that he came from an unstable
home. An unstable domestic environment. She says and
I quote, "his mother was deeply involved in the promiscuous
culture created by the 1960s." And so, her equation
there is "single mom; dates a lot -- Ted Bundy." [laughter] Now obviously this was sort of
a -- these were sub-political kinds of statements. She
was not openly allying herself with the emerging Christian
right, which it's no accident I think the Moral Majority
was formed in 1978 almost on the emergence of
this serial killer epidemic quote unquote. Nevertheless,
she is using a kind of political language -- certainly a culturally
political language. And she wasn't alone in this. The
true crime genre did this a lot, talked about the monster
as really the production or the produce of the counterculture. Now, part
of this era -- part of the era of the 1980s and part
of really the American fascination with the serial killer--
was the emergence of the popularity of the slasher
film. Now, there's a whole political discussion around
the slasher film that I get into in the book that I won't
really get into here. The really short version of it
was that at least part of the critique of the slasher
film was from second wave feminist critics who argued that
essentially these are movies are killing women. These
are movies about how the sexual revolution was bad. These
are movies in which the first couple that had
sex is the one that dies and the only woman that lives is
the one that's a virgin. That's kind of really in a way I
would argue a simplistic understanding of these films. And
that did come out of and was important part of second
wave feminism's critique of these. Third wave feminism has
a much more complicated view of these movies. And I should
add even in talking about this that I consider myself
a feminist scholar. And so, some of the things I'll have
to say about them should be read in that light. I actually
want to bracket that whole discussion -- although
I'm happy to answer some questions about it and talk to
you instead a little bit about kind of a different -- maybe
a sort of new interpretation of these films. I actually
see the slasher films as what I call subversive fairy
tales. Stories that are overturning certain kinds
of stories that had already been circulating in American
society. Specifically, cautionary tales about the dangers
of the counterculture, the dangers of sexuality.
Urban legends and social rumors that had suggested basically
young people -- particularly young women -- were
completely out of control. So let me give you a couple of
examples of that. In talking about what I call the dangerous
babysitter stories. And then, also the babysitters in
danger stories. Let's talk dangerous babysitters first.
Now, believe me I didn't think that a book about monsters
would lead me into researching the history of babysitting but it
certainly did and it actually turned out to be a
important part of this story. You probably all heard the
urban legend of the cooked baby. The cooked baby story
as it's generally told today. Although this isn't the
original version of it. I'll tell you the original
version. But as it's usually told today. Babysitter --
she's talking to -- who of course is female, right?
Always female. Babysitter is talking on her phone to her
boyfriend. She's watching TV. She's raiding the
refrigerator. She's been told to put the roast in the
oven and the baby to bed and [laughter] instead she puts, you know,
the roast to bed and she puts the baby in the oven. It's
terrible, right? And everybody knows somebody who knows
somebody who's cousin knew somebody that saw this on the
news. [laughter] It's an urban legend, right? Well, the original
version of this story -- folklorists refer to it as the
hippie babysitter. Because it's a story that started
circulating in the 1960s. And it basically went like
this. It's similar to the version I just repeated, except the babysitter is a counter-cultural
teen that shows up high. And for whatever reason -- parents
decide, "okay, she's high. We're going out to dinner
anyway." They leave her with the baby. And because
she's smoking pot, that has led her to put the roast to
bed and the baby in the oven. Now, there's an even later
version of the story that started making the rounds in
the 1970s that made it not a babysitter but rather a
single mom who's taken too much Valium. And that's
what caused this horrible thing to occur. So these
were -- these were sort of social cautionary tales.
These kind of social rumors that were meant to be
warnings about what happens if you trust young people, if
you let counter-cultural kids too close to your own kids,
and about why you ought to, for goodness sakes, stay within
a traditional marriage. You're liable to cook the baby
otherwise essentially. [laughter] Now, allied to those stories is
the babysitter in danger story. And this is so famous, I
don't even have to tell it. In fact, there was a movie
made about it in the 70s and a recent remake. The whole
story about the babysitter. She's at home. There's a
call being made. The call, it turns out, is from inside
the house. The mad killer is actually up stairs. It is
sometimes called the story of the man upstairs. That's
sort of the folklorist version of it. It's related to
the dangerous babysitter in that it's yet another story
about how, really, young women don't know what they're
doing. They really cannot be left in charge of things.
They're going to be -- they're going to become victims.
And both of these versions -- both of these types of
stories -- either say young women are victimizers or
they're victims. Now, what does that have to do with the
Slasher genre? Well, the Slasher genre in different ways
turns these stories on their heads. It takes these
social cautionary tales, which have basically been around
for 20 years, and tells a very different version of them.
John Carpenter's Halloween, for example, in 1978, it's a story about babysitters
in danger. Laurie Strode is a babysitter in danger. Jamie Leigh
Curtis is a babysitter in danger. Does she become the
victim? Does she show herself ultimately to be
irresponsible? No. In fact, she becomes the monster
hunter. She's kind of the Van Helsing of the story -- the one that
kills the monster at least until the sequel. And of
course they didn't know there was going to be a sequel
when Halloween first came along. So for all practical
purposes, the monster was dead. Now, quickly -- there is
a related sort of genre of these. Related to the
American summer camp. And again, as with babysitting, I
really didn't think examining monsters was going to end
up leading me to examine the history of the American
summer camp, but it certainly did. And let me give you
kind of a brief version of that. After World War II, the
summer camp becomes very important, as does a whole
network really of civic organizations, church groups,
neighborhood organizations, sports organizations -- all
which had the purpose of kind of reining in young people
who were increasingly seen as getting totally out of
control. We think of that as, "That's a 1960s phenomenon," but it's not. 1950s was the age
of Marlon Brando and the Wild Ones; nobody wanted their
kid to be Marlon Brando. It's the age of "Rebel Without a Cause."
Everybody's afraid, "my kid -- he's wearing a leather
jacket; he's going to turn out to be James Dean." It
was the age of the juvenile delinquent . The idea of the
juvenile delinquent became important. So there's the
emergence of all this whole system of things meant to
become sites of social discipline. Meant to turn kids
into good citizens, basically. And the summer camp was
very much a part of that. Now, a very strange side to
summer camp, which we think of as, you know, encouraging
the values of teamwork. Everybody sits around the
campfire and sings the praises of Camp Watchatoochee --
whatever it happens to be. Kids go out and they encounter
nature. Fresh air. Exercise. Blah, blah, blah. That's
what it's supposed to be about. And yet, there's this
other side to the summer camp, which many of you are
probably familiar with -- in which sitting around the
campfire also means hearing stories of monstrous murdering maniacs [laughter] who are hiding
in the woods, [laughter] hiding in the darkness just right beyond the light of
the campfire. The escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand
-- which by the way, lunatics who have lost their hands.
Why give them a hook? [laughter] Ever thought about
that? Doesn't make rational sense. Not a hook. Worst idea ever.
And yet, almost every camp -- and actually examined
kind of the alumni memories and this kind of thing of
camps all over the country. And what I found was camps in
central Kentucky had stories of Headless Hattie. This
horrible sort of female demonic presence that was going
to come after the kids. I learned about -- some of
you maybe have seen the documentary about "Cropsey",
this disfigured hermit in Staten Island but also camps around upstate
New York. And the warnings always were, "it's the kids who aren't
practicing the values being taught at summer camp that
the creature is going to get." So, if you're the kid
smoking pot out in the woods, then Headless Hattie is
going to get you. If you're the kid who's off by
themselves instead of swimming and doing archery practice
and that kind of stuff, then that's going to make you the
victim. In the strangest -- in a way most offensive
thing I've found-- was from one of these upstate New York
camps that kind of emphasize that it's the kids who don't
follow the fresh air, physical regime aspect of summer
camp that the monster gets. In fact, the specific quote -- and I am quoting here -- was that
"we learned that Cropsey always goes after the fat kids"
unquote. So it's literally the kids that are physically
unfit that aren't living up to this sort of standard
of health and good citizenship that the monster is going
to go after. Well, this is part of what makes Friday the
13th -- at least in its first two versions -- so interesting.
You think, "well, it actually sounds very similar.
There's a summer camp. There's a maniac out in the woods
surrounding the summer camp. But guess what? He doesn't
go after the kids. He goes after the counselors. And
in fact, he goes after the counselors who are telling
the stories around the campfire of the thing that is going
to to get you. So in a certain kind of sense, the Friday
the 13th films -- particularly again the early ones
-- I'm talking 1981, 1982, become sort of these vengeance
narratives for kids who had sort of heard this stuff
from counselors for ten years, for 20 years, the monster becomes
not a moral custodian, but rather just this force that's
going to wreak vengeance on all these forces of control
that they've had to encounter at summer camp and
in other kinds of situations. I would add really briefly
that at least part of my response to kind of the political
discussion around the Slasher film has to do with the
birth of the idea of the final girl, which is not my
phrase at all. There's a scholar by the name of Carol
Clover who wrote this book with this great title called
Men, Women and Chain Saws [laughter] in which --she as a feminist
scholar herself-- as well explores these films and talks
about the fact that -- first of all, they're not simply
about women being killed, they're about women fighting
killers. And in fact, Halloween, which you see here with
Jamie Lee Curtis as we've already talked about. That's
the story. And I actually think a lot of these films
are the background to a figure that's now essentially ubiquitous
in popular culture -- the idea of the female action hero,
which Buffy is part of, but you could name ten other
examples in many kinds of ways. That doesn't make them
feminist films, but also problematizes the idea that
they're simply films about killing women. You could make
a stronger argument that they're about women killing
monsters. Which is also an interesting kind of, part
of a discussion given the political climate of the 1970s
and 80s when these films were born. So, just to wrap up
and to hopefully give us a bit of time for questions as
well, I just like to say that part of what my analysis
does and what the book tries to do is to make the
argument that really story and history are not separate.
It's not that monsters are about popular entertainment that's here. And then actual events -- the
events that people are actually living as history are
over here. Narrative and social structure are always
together. Now, we tend to pull them apart. I guess I've pulled
them apart today just kind of for purposes of analysis.
I'm not sure that that's how people actually experience
the world though. I think that the images that
they see in popular narratives -- whether that's more
recently in film or longer ago in discussions about sightings
of the sea serpent -- has a lot to do with how they
experience history. And so, then the monster becomes
not just a sort of marginalized entertainment or interesting
pop culture, it does become this guide into this
underground America -- a way for us to go places that
maybe there's not any other way for us to go. So thank you
very much. And if you have any questions or anything
you'd like to talk about. Thank you.
>>Scott: Any more of this you'd like to talk about, I'd love to.
>> Male #1: Could you talk about what's happened to vampires in the last 20 years?
[laughter] >> Scott: Oh gosh. In fact, interviewer a
couple of weeks ago asked me a interesting question. "if you could
re-title your book, what would you re-title it?" And
I've not seriously answered. I think I would call it,
"yes, there is stuff about vampires and zombies in here."
[laughter] Because you're definitely not the first person. I
actually spent a whole chapter on this. A chapter entitled
"Undead Americans," in which I explore -- not just
the recent -- certainly not the recent interest in vampires
and zombies as well. But the fact that that's part of
a longer trajectory. Really kind of going back to the
1970s in certain kinds of ways. In fact, although I'm
not going to blame Anne Rice for Twilight. Not at all.
I do think kind of this image of the tormented brooding
vampire with a soul, who wants a soul, and also in love,
[laughter] and that kind of thing. I mean, that really goes back to -- that
really goes back to the incredibly popular Anne Rice
novels which were 1970s. Came out of the 1970s. And is
part of -- both that and the zombie phenomenon. I see
as part of kind of a -- well, actually I talk about Reagan
talking about the post-Vietnam syndrome, which, in
part, has to do with a fascination with and an awareness of
the dismembered body. Gore as kind of a popular
culture in certain ways obviously more of an influence
on the zombie mythology than vampire but certainly kind
of a fascination with death that's very much in
the background. Yeah.
>> Male #2: Regarding the serial killer fascination. [inaudible]
Jack the Ripper. [inaudible] Like the time where people sensationalize.
>> Scott: Oh, actually in the 1880s. One of the most popular American -- not English --
American narratives was Jack the Ripper. Americans were more into Jack the Ripper than
the British were. In fact, so much so there were all these claims Jack the Ripper was
an American. There were claims that Jack the
Ripper -- [audience member comments inaudibly] [laughter] It's hilarious. Because
actually that's exactly what it was. It was kind of like this. [laughter] Their monster
can't be better than our monster, you know? [laughter]
It's exactly it. I mean, there were stories
about -- oh, there's been these weird killings in Texas -- got to be Jack the Ripper. Weird
killings in New York. He's come over here or
maybe he was an American in the first place. There were novels written in which the
Pinkerton agents, that sort of secret service --
private secret service, pre-Black Water Black Water of the 19th century they go over to
England to investigate the White Chapel murders and they discover it's actually a Native
American who's doing this and that that accounts for the quote unquote savagery of
the killings. And so, yeah. Many of you if you've ever read
Larson's excellent book, "Devil in a White City." That talks about the serial killer,
H. H. Holmes, who in some ways was kind of America's
first real celebrity serial killer of the 19th
century. In fact, received like 10,000 bucks from Hearst to write his story. It was kind
of the first true crime story. Then it went away.
For a really long time. And comes back. But there's definitely a big background. I wish
I had put that in the book "USA, USA". [laughter]
That would have been a great section title kind of for
that really.. >> Male #3: So earlier you were talking about
how they watch these movies -- shock movies. And you said that it was basically the culture
at the time didn't find this scary. Could it
also be these things have been subsumed into the culture. They've seen these things before
so it no longer -- like out there and scary.
>> Scott: I think that could be it. I think that, you know -- so for example, you know,
thinking about -- thinking about the universal -- the universal monsters. They're
in some ways almost a kind of an iconography now. And kind of immediately recognizable.
You know, I thought of them before as kind of
an almost literal iconography in the sense that
religious symbols that at one time may have had
this powerful "oomph" kind of punch. You know, even -- especially some of the gory stuff
like stations of the cross and saints with arrows
sticking out of them and all that kind of thing. I mean, after a certain point, that
just becomes that stuff on the church wall. And I think in a certain kind of way, that
maybe has happened with those kinds of monsters. Although, I do still think that
it has to do with the moment that makes things
scary. I mean, I think it's really interesting for example that what's sometimes called the
torture porn genre -- The Hostel and Saw and that kind of stuff. I mean, those movies
appear right in a moment when we're having an actual
conversation about the ethics of torture. And
so, it seems like the monsters are really hard
wired into the moment in a way that makes them
frightening. Which means that horror is a historical experience, you know, in a kind
of way.
>> Male #4: Along those same lines, what are your thoughts about Colonial New England and
kind of unique circumstances then, whether it's sea serpents
on Gloucester or the Salem witch trials, what was going on in this part of the country that
caused so much of it to happen here?
>> Scott: That's easy. Puritans. [laughter] No, yeah --
in a way that's true. Actually, the first sea
serpent sightings in New England were in the early 17th century. Although the Gloucester
serpent that I talked about. There was a lot of discussion about what that meant and even
some efforts later to connect it to the supernatural. The very first sightings by
Puritans in 1630s, 1640s, they were convinced these were manifestations of Satan. Big
surprise with them, right? Because everything was. These were people who even thought black
bears were manifestation. Black dogs were manifestations of the devil. And so, it's
really interesting that you move from that to
-- in the very same part of the country -- in the early 19th century -- a kind of quasi,
turned out pseudo, kind of discussion of the same kinds
of creatures. But yeah, it's certainly the
influence of Puritanism seeing all kinds of phenomenon through the filter of Calvinism
and all its associated terrors, you know? Yeah?
>> Female #1: Fascinating to think about the path
of social discussion next to what's happening in pop culture. Just curious
think about today and monsters in the news today of the history
or even broader catholic church to Penn State. It's the national
social dialogue that you would kind of think was running in parallel to that-- experience,
if there is one. >> Scott: Well, you know, there actually is
always -- always -- horror narratives connected to dangers to children. And that is nothing
new at all. I mean, in fact, the Slasher phenomenon, the serial killer phenomenon,
was connected to that. The witch craze was connected
to that to some degree. Because there were all
these discussions about, "it's women who are infertile, who are unable to become mothers
who are the ones most likely to become witches."
And that's kind of an anxiety about, "what's happening with the children?" Yeah, I think
sort of -- a good example of this in the 1980s, we had the missing child panic in the 1980s.
Even though statistically there were actually fewer missing children during that era than
in earlier kinds of eras. But it all got tied
into -- not just the serial killer panic -- you mention my Satan In America book for example.
I talk about the Satanic panic of that era where, you know, there was this whole
discussion of every time somebody's pet went missing, they were convinced there was a
Satanic ceremony of some kind being performed. My grandmother
actually thought Satanists were stealing her cats. [laughter] Serious..
>>Male #5: Have we seen changes in like the tenor or the subjects of the monster
over the years, sort of like the waves of immigration that we've seen?
>> Scott: Yes, although what came to mind when
you first said that was that there's been a
tendency obviously through American history to
monsterrize the immigrant in certain kinds of
ways. I actually think that that's one of the
interesting things about the popularity of Dracula in 1931. Dracula is essentially an
immigrant. And in fact, he's an eastern European immigrant, which American culture
during that period was especially nervous about. People with Bela Lugosi's accent were
seen as a threat. And a specific kind of threat. Don't know if you're familiar with
the white slavery panic of the early 20th century. This is what it was called. This
kind of rumor panic that essentially said, "you
know, these young innocent Anglo women from the
farms of the Midwest are going to places like Chicago. And what they're finding there are
these immigrants from eastern Europe, often Jews, who are seducing them, turning them
into prostitutes." Sort of early ideas about sex
traffic about. That kind of stuff. Never any actual evidence that this was actually
happening, as with most of these things. There were novels being published
about it, discussions of it. Then you have the very same period Dracula that's about
this eastern European immigrant who has this
incredible power to seduce women with a simple look and to actually kind of make them part
of his harem. And so, again, I think that kind
of goes to this idea of, "what is it about history
that makes things frightening at particular moments?" I mean, in the background of those
people's minds would have been all of those ideas.
Whether or not it was sort of conscious when they were watching it is hard to know. I've
also thought about the fact today when we watch
the original Frankenstein, James Whale's 1932 Frankenstein. He comes across.
And I think this was actually Whale's intention. He comes across as this very sympathetic kind
of monster. I'm not sure many 1932 audiences would have seen it that way. You know, there's
kind of a lynch mob that forms in Frankenstein. The whole angry villagers with torches kind
of stuff. And they form because he essentially
kills this young girl. It's an accident, but he kills her anyway. One of the things that
struck me as I was reading and writing about that was, you
know, in 1932, film that showed all over the country, film that also showed in rural
theaters in the American South, there would have been people -- I don't mean this as a
joke at all -- there would have been people watching
that film who had taken part in a lynch mob. I
mean, lynching was relatively common during that
period in the South. And so, how they would have viewed that story as opposed to how
contemporary viewers would have seen it is an
interesting thing to look at it. I mean, some of the same people would have thrilled to
the heroics of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation, right.
And there's actually similar imagery in Frankenstein and
Birth of a Nation. And so, I think in a way history is what's scary.
It's what's happening at that particular historical moment.
>> Male #6: When you're talking about history is
what's scary. If you look at how things have progressed.
These supernatural creatures and then there's Satanism and there's magic and
supernatural. And I'm looking at movies now --
particularly the Saw genre. Are people scared of mechanical engineers? [laughter]
>> Scott: Yes. [laughter] People are also increasingly scared -- you know, historians
aren't really supposed to prognosticate, but people are also increasingly scared of sort
of the terrors of the digital frontier. This
may be a good place to talk about this. You know,
I think about films like Source Code, Duncan Jones' Source Code, where
there's this idea of -- it's not killer Androids -- it's not killer robots. It's our
humanity locked into the technology. And also, the terrors that I think are kind of implicit
in the fact that, almost all of us exist as ourselves and also as Internet constructs
of one kind or another. I mean, my publicist
made me get on Twitter this month. Been on Facebook forever. So now there's me. But then
there's also these things that aren't really me
out there, you know? And what's that? That's the doppelganger. I mean, that's sort of the
terror as old as Gothic literature itself. Things
that are you but really isn't you. And I actually think that in film and maybe even
in ethical reflection on these kinds of things,
we're going to see more and more monsters on
that digital frontier. Let's call them the Google monsters for example. [laughter] Yeah?
>> Male #7: In 9/11 something very, very scary happened. And we sort of started a national
conversation about fear became 'we have to protect ourselves
from fear' -- we're being too driven by fear. We need to be driven by hope. All these
things. And I [inaudible] on that translating itself to
monsters in the pop culture over the last 10 years. Is it because it
was all above board that there wasn't any need to create things below board? Or [inaudible].
>> Male #8: That's like when the Muslim subculture, the Arab terrorism started being
very big. That's the fear of where that fear really started growing. It wasn't a big thing
before that. Before that when you heard about people terrorism, they were blowing buses
up in London and the IRA?
>>Male #7: So I'm so close to it that the fear
that sounds credible, although overblown to me,
is what historians 50 years from now will be
studying as the Muslim scare.
>> Scott: Yeah, I think there will be some of
that. I think it's also true though that – and I think part of your question was, "why
haven't there been fantasy scenarios that have
obstructed that, reflected that, become metaphors of that." And I actually think there
has been to some degree. I actually think that
part of the new terror of Contagion -- the movie, Contagion -- the terror of infection.
The terror of sort of out of control disease --
has to do with anxieties about everything from
dirty bombs to bird flu to bio-weapons to -- all
of that. And if you think about films like Contagion, if you think about Rise of the
Planet of the Apes. If you think about 28 days
Later. I mean, all of these are films that are
in certain kinds of ways tapping into fears of
uncontrollable outbreaks of infection sometimes related to military -- quasi military --
actions of one kind or another. I haven't seen
Contagion yet, but I have a friend, horror novelist Jonathan Maberry who said after he
saw Contagion, he wanted to do Jell-O shots of
sanitary soap. [laughter] So I don't know if any of the
rest of you have seen it yet, but anyway. Yeah?
>> Male #9: Potential source just like much of
the TV series 24 particularly [audience members speak simultaneously] --
>>Male #10: There's a lot of stuff I don't think it falls into the horror
of the genre. It falls into action adventure more than horror.
>> Male #11: Well, so 24 is a great example. I
think it is trying to look at it 40 years later. The story of the pervasive underground
conspiracy. He has to not just find the first guy. But the guy behind and the guy behind.
>> Scott: Right. And the threat that's being faced is so terrible that any means necessary
becomes possible to deal with it is often the case in
the horror genre. Like, if you're fighting the
monster, then everything becomes fair. You can
sort of suspend ethical reflection, and you can just burn
the whole town down, right? All right.
>> Multiple audience members: Thank you. >>>>Scott: Thank-you