A Head Full of Monsters: American History as Horror Show

What inspired you to write Monsters in America? What sparked your interest?

Honestly, at least part of the inspiration comes from being a lifelong horror nerd. I found a way to bring my geekery together with my scholarship when I discovered there wasn’t really a book out there like the one I’ve written.

Lots of scholars have written about the significance of horror but its mostly been religious studies folks or film and media people. They’re written some great books but nothing that has looked at the monster hardwired into the American historical process.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Take your monsters seriously. The language of metaphor and symbol is not enough to explain and explore their meaning. You may just want to be left alone with your tub of popcorn but there are layers and layers of meaning in the horror genre…and a larger historical experience the monsters we love were born from.

This book is, after all, a work of history and my contention is that American history has been a history of horror. It matters that the first European settlers saw the very air of America filled with devils. It matters that Frankenstein’s Monster became America’s most popular monster at a time when medical experimentation on racial minorities had become rather more common that we realize.

I think that the it makes sense that the zombie has become our current monster after a historical moment when apocalyptic notions of getting “Left behind” have become part of the warp and woof of cultural discourse (and I think the world is supposed to end on the 21st of October…right in the middle of my book tour!).

Somebody needs to write a “Left Behind…to Face the Zombies” parody by the way.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Yeah, I worked on a lot of local legends and monster sightings and I just could not include these because of space. I really wish I had spent time on the Mothman but Bigfoot edged him out—he’s maybe used to this.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That monsters are 1) just entertainment 2) important, but mainly psychological symbols. Monsters are entertaining, but what are we enjoying? Why do certain things frighten Americans in certain periods? And yes, maybe monsters are Jungian archetypes that fester in our psyches. But they are also tied to our national history, especially its most shadowy bits.

Theoretically, I’m really interested in Slavoj Zizek’s idea of how fantasy, including horrific fantasies, act to obscure the true horror of the situation. I believe in monsters, not in some Fortean sense, but rather as social constructions that take place at the intersection of religion, politics and the American way of violence. The America that has sold, lynched and bombed human beings has had a head full of monsters. So let’s be done with the language of symbolism. It’s weak tea.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing? 

Two audiences. Educated readers of history interested in exploring the darkest parts of the American forest. Second, horror fans like myself. Obviously I want cultural historians to be reading and discussing the book as well. But I feel like I need horror people to read it.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Wes Craven, my fav horror auteur, says that when people walk out of a horror movie, there is a weird joy about them, almost as if something has been released. They may have been terrified, angry at what the director was doing to them, all sorts of emotions along the way. But they also see and experience something new about the world. I think my book will have a similar effect. I hope readers find it a wild ride that sometimes pisses them off but leaves them with a feeling that they understand the American experience a bit better.

What alternative title would you give the book?

How about “Scott Geeks Out.” And to save time in answering the question that always comes up, I would have made the subtitle “Yes, there is stuff about zombies in here.”

How do you feel about the cover?

Love it. Gothic, threatening, weird, touches on the central them of the book in subtle ways…come with me to the darkest part of the forest…you can trust me (insert evil laugh). Thank God they don’t let authors design their own covers. I would have been like, “Lets put Freddy Krueger on it, and some zombies and splash some blood on the spine and put an exorcism image and we need Godzilla and, and…” It would not have been appealing.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Well, on my previous 10 questions I said “anything by Stephen Prothero” and that’s still true. But let me mention the work of a fellow Baylor author, Douglas Cowan. A religious studies scholar who has explored both the horror and sci fi genres, his books Sacred Terror and Sacred Space point us in exciting new directions.

What’s your next book?

Working on a short book about the 1950s horror host Vampira and Cold War notions of gender. I have a bigger monster project in the works to. But it has to germinate in the darkness a while before its ready to walk the earth.

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