The Monster Show Book Review

There is a notion that the collective fears of a society finds its way into their popular entertainment, it is this idea that famed film historian, David J. Skal explores in his book, The Monster Show. Skal approaches horror films throughout history as a dark mirror reflection of the fears and dreads in American society throughout the twentieth century.  Beginning with the silent terror from German Expressionism and Lon Chaney on to the late 90’s and everything in between.

Skal delves into the sideshow nature of horror films in their infancy during the 1920’s and how the physically deformed characters brought to the screen by Tod Browning and Lon Chaney forced audiences to confront the idea that the technology they now enjoyed came about because it was developed in the trenches of World War I. They allowed those who would have died in previous wars to return home, their battle scars a constant reminder of the horrors of war. When the 1930’s and 40’s came with the rise of the Universal Monsters they are seen as a reflection of America’s fears of European menaces coming to prey upon them. It did not matter if it came in the form of the East European aristocrat, Dracula preying upon the working class, or Frankenstein’s monster the parable of technology growing completely out of hand, or the Wolf Man the story of an ordinary man who became a monsters given the right trigger; all of Universal’s stable served unwittingly as stand ins for the Nazi war machine.

During the Cold War it was the fear of the rapid advances in nuclear science and technology that gave nightmares to the world, and that was played out in the form of giant monsters and insects, until Alfred Hitchcock told us it was the nice guy next door who we should really be scared of. As social turmoil from tense race relations and Vietnam grabbed the nation by the throat, horror films became more violent and visceral, Skal even explores the idea that Tom Savini used his make up craft as a way to deal with the horrors he was in war. Skal brings a fresh take to the era of films such as Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive, by theorizing that it conceiving a child was now the greatest fear from those in the throes of a sexual revolution. Along the way he confronts the excess of the 1980’s with movies like; They Live! and vampires as a metaphor with the emergence of AIDS. In the 1990’s he covers the seeming social acceptance that horror enjoys with films like; Silence of the Lambs and Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula both movies make the monster a charismatic and morally ambiguous creature.

This book is increedibly well researched as you would expect from an author and historian as well regarded by horror fans as David J. Skal, and yet is written in a way that is incredibly entertaining that will keep you turning the pages long after the point where you thought you would stop. This book belongs on the shelf of any horror movie fan.