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Interview with David J. Skal

David J. Skal might be the most important writer on horror film and literature in America today. His classic The Monster Show is a brilliant work examining how horror movies reflect not only what a society fears, but how they give the viewers great comfort during times of world events which look to doom us all. His other works include Dark Carnival, the Secret World of Tod Browning, V is for Vampire: The A-Z Guide to Everything Undead, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, and two other essentials in any horror buff’s library Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture, and Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween.

 

Mr. Skal is an expert on Dracula and all things undead, and as a child was scared by an obese automaton named Laughing Sal at the Euclid Beach Park, in Cleveland Ohio. If you have read Screams of Reason and seen the photo of Laughing Sal, I am sure you were scared too. Mr. Skal was kind enough to talk to Matt Sanborn for Mystic Skull recently.

Matt Sanborn for Mystic Skull: David, thank you so much for talking with us. Let me say I think that The Monster Show is perhaps the most important book on American horror films ever written. Now, as they used to say, our readers at Mystic Skull are just dying to know…First let me ask you a little bit about yourself. Were you always a horror movie fan even as a young child? On your website you state that you were fascinated with them during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can you talk about what those very tense days did to you and how it brought you closer to the genre?

David J. Skal: The first movies I ever remember seeing were Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and King Kong, both on television when I was about six years old. When I was ten, Cold War jitters gave me my first big jolt of death anxiety, and it's not surprising that I latched on to death-defying creatures like Dracula and Frankenstein, basically as nuclear security blankets. Dracula's crypt seemed preferable to a fallout shelter.

MS: You’ve worked a lot on researching Dracula, its writing and genesis to becoming an icon, and the films. What interests you so much about this tale as opposed to say something like Frankenstein?

Skal: Probably because Dracula's all about power and mastery and sex, and Frankenstein's monster is a hapless lonely klutz. Was there really a choice?

MS: How did you get Ed Gorey to do the cover for the original edition of The Monster Show? Was he the publisher choice or did you request him? (I knew him, and he really loved the book, “by the by”).

Skal: It was my idea, and I was thrilled when the publisher told me he'd accepted. However, he was something of an unprofessional pain in the ass to work with, and Norton nearly replaced him because of deadlines. They never saw a concept sketch, and I had to personally fake up a cover based on Gorey's "Dracula" designs for the sales catalog. He finally delivered at the last possible minute. I'm still very fond of the jacket, but we got negative feedback from booksellers who felt it looked too much like a children's book. There have been about eight different covers internationally, and my favorite is the British edition with Karloff as the 1931 monster.

MS: In The Monster Show you take the stance that horror films reflect not only what is going on in a country’s culture, but also what it fears most. After reading your book, one can see how true it is. However, it was not a theory really brought forward, at least as strongly, until your book. How did you come to this conclusion?

Skal: I started the book as a straight follow-up to Hollywood Gothic, a meticulously researched history that I would love to read myself, but which nobody had bothered to write. But as soon as I started my research, and discovered that the number-one pop song in America during the Missile Crisis was "The Monster Mash," my own experienced cultural anxieties came flooding back and I began looking for the cultural impact of war on horror entertainment throughout the twentieth century.

MS: You theorize that in the 1980s our obsession with the vampire genre was fueled by Americans’ fear of HIV and AIDS during the Reagan years. However, most people either didn’t know about it or care, (if they ever cared), until much later in the decade. Could it be theorized that what America really feared was some force, another recession or Russia, coming in and draining the wealth we were obtaining during that period?

Skal: Gay people drive a lot of cultural trends and would probably have made Anne Rice a best-selling author even without AIDS. I think you're forgetting the acute media hysteria surrounding blood contamination and the demonization of homosexuality generally. Anxieties about sex and death fuel pop culture horror much more readily than political or economic analysis, although that's always part of the picture, too.

MS: Presently we are having the movie market flooded with horror film re-makes. It just seems Hollywood is playing it financially safe. Do you think right now that they don’t care about saying anything or does the fact that there seems to be a dearth of new ideas say something about the country? Or is there an overt fear of losing money/losing their jobs?

Skal: Hollywood has never been interested in making statements through horror movies, only in making money. It's critics and cultural historians who look for meanings. Certain filmmakers, like George Romero, are certainly aware of the metaphorical messages of monsters and horror, but Hollywood itself has always been a kind of brain-dead zombie itself. But I think audiences are responding to zombies in a big way right now because zombies represent social disenfranchisement and class warfare with a visceral immediacy.

MS: You call the iconic Frankenstein Monster and Dracula the Dark Twins. They speak for the times. What are the Dark Twins saying to us presently?

Skal: What they've always been telling us--that modern life is trapped between warring mythologies of science against superstition and reason against unreason. Just look at the current state of politics, and the simultaneously cultural addictions to everything hi-tech and everything undead.

MS: You also wrote the book Death Makes a Holiday. Can you give us a feel for the major changes you have personally seen this day go through since you were a kid? What is your favorite Halloween memory?

Skal: What used to be a transgressive celebration of anti-social self-expression has morphed into a mega-monster of consumer conformity. My favorite Halloween memory is my first costume--Santa Claus with a cotton beard held on with Karo syrup. I must have been three years old but obviously had The Nightmare Before Christmas all figured out forty years before Tim Burton.


MS: I also wanted to touch on Tod Browning. Is there any way in the world he would have been allowed to make Freaks or The Unholy Three today? I find it odd there are so many TV shows that have little people or others with different conditions doing everyday things, which, let’s face facts, are pure schadenfreude; yet people are still offended by Freaks. What do you think Browning showed America with his films? What is he still showing us?

Skal: MGM actually took quite a bit of critical flack for allowing Browning to indulge his unhealthy obsessions, and it didn't start with Freaks. Then, as now, all kinds of grotesque and tasteless things make money--lots of money. Today, studios would be at each other's throats for the chance to have a new Tod Browning produce reality shows. The freak show as an American institution has never been really repressed. People will always want their "normality" validated by comparison to the "abnormal." Tod Browning may have been short on taste, but he sure knew human nature.

MS: Going way off topic for a moment, you were interviewed for the documentary Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon [about 1970s porn icon Jack Wrangler]. The film got a lot of publicity. At one time his movies were the taboo of taboo. He seemed like a funny, really smart guy. The fact that he has become an American icon – what is that saying about the country? Also, just purely because of who he was and the fact that he made gay porn, do you think to some people he represents an American nightmare? In other words, is he a sort of a handsome boogeyman to the conservative Christian movement, which you talk about in The Monster Show?

Skal: As a gay man myself, coming out during the time Jack was making his big splash, I can attest that having the chance to watch a stereotype-shattering man--butch, confident, defiant--having really hot sex with other men and really seeming to enjoy it (unlike a lot of porn stars, Jack was also a trained actor)--was a liberating revelation. I don't know if Christian conservatives paid much attention to him personally, but the very fact that all-American, hypermasculine guys are out there getting other guys, guilt-free, must be a true nightmare to closeted pundits and politicians on the religious right, who think they can hide by projecting their shadow-side on the rest of us. Porn needs more serious critical attention--it's not just a barometer of popular culture, in many ways it IS popular culture, bigger than Hollywood and professional sports combined. There's something primally erotic about moving images, and we all know this whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

MS: What is your favorite film version of Dracula? Least favorite?

Skal: Favorite: Langella (but not because of any fidelity to the novel). Favorite faithful version: BBC production with Louis Jourdan. Least Favorite: Coppola.

MS: And finally... If we were to create a time capsule and have to place one horror movie in it for each decade – just one, for the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the new millennium. What goes in there?

Skal: Almost impossible without alternates, but here goes. 1920s: Caligari. 1930s: Bride of Frankenstein. 1940s: Cat People. 1950s: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 1960s: Night of the Living Dead. 1970s: The Exorcist. 1980s: The Thing. 1990s: Silence of the Lambs. Since 2000, I need to switch focus to television for True Blood.

 

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