Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting

Article excerpt

W. Scott Poole. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011. 277 + xviii pp. $29.95 (US). ISBN: 978-160258314-6

There is now a growing fascination--I hope not a momentary trend--with the monstrous and the paranormal in the academic study of religion and popular culture. The historiography of diabolism, ghosts, and even zombies is expanding rapidly to match the equal public appeal of ghost-hunting and zombie television. Historian W. Scott Poole distinguishes himself by focusing on the American context, providing a history told through the personified expressions of our anxieties and fears. In the follow-up to his first book, Satan in America, Poole has now turned his attention to the monsters that inhabit American cinema and American imaginations.

Each chapter features another generation of American life and the monsters that serve to unveil the collective anxieties of the era. We are introduced to quintessential scenes from horror literature or cinema, a healthy dose of audience response (when it is available), and on-the-ground experiences, sightings, lore, and so on. Issues of gender, race, and sexuality are highlighted wherever possible. Religion is a constant sidebar along this narrative, sometimes moving onto centre stage as with the discussion of the Puritans in the colonial period, "flying saucer cults" in the 1960s, and the religious right in the 1980s.

Poole begins with a vast overview of colonial preternatural lore and how such ideas informed dealings with native peoples, women, and African slaves. In chapter two, he moves into a discussion of Gothic literature and anxieties over female purity. The third chapter introduces both the American fascination with the freak show and the emergence of Frankenstein. Poole very convincingly demonstrates the connections between eugenics and lynching in the post-bellum South and the monster-lynching and monstrous scientific creations of literature. Aliens are the theme of the fourth chapter, in which the Cold War has forged a paranoid public suspicious of government and technology. Chapter five features the rise of mental health care and its connections with a new monster, the serial killer as portrayed famously in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and the slasher genre that followed. Chapter six draws connections between The Exorcist, the Satanic panic, Roe v. …

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