America is in love with horror, with demon children, gender-bending vampires, and the battlefield aesthetic of post-Vietnam movies. Illuminating the dark side of the American century, this provocative book uncovers the links between horror entertainment and the crises of our time, as well as horror's function as a pop analogue to surrealism. 100 illustrations.
Frightfully well-done survey of modern horror, eclipsing Stephen King's seminal Danse Macabre (1981) for clarity of writing, if not personableness or depth of idea, and Walter Kendrick's The Thrill of Fear (1991) for cultural savvy. Where Kendrick found horror literature, film, etc., to be primarily a way of coping with fear of death, Skal (Hollywood Gothic, 1991, etc.) stands with King in discerning within the genre responses to myriad contemporary social ills, from economic stagnation to AIDS. Skal opens with a striking symbol of the symbiosis of horror and societal unease: Diane Arbus, photographer of outcasts and misfits, sitting in a darkened Manhattan theater in 1961 watching a rare screening of Tod Browning's notorious horror masterpiece, Freaks. A rundown of Browning's life and of the nearly parallel career of Brain Stoker's Dracula and its many offshoots follows (some of the Dracula material is cribbed from Hollywood Gothic), culminating in the watershed year 1931, when Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Freaks burst onto the screen, defining American horror (like King and unlike Kendrick, Skal avoids extensive discussion of premodern horror). While Skal's text is intensely (sometimes forcibly) idea-driven (he finds the 1931 films, for instance, revolving "around fantasies of 'alternative' forms of reproduction," responses to the "dust bowl sterility and economic emasculation" of the time), he never forgets that horror is foremost a mass entertainment, and he enlivens his narrative with a wealth of enjoyable anecdote and fact (e.g., that Bela Lugosi, who spoke almost no English, learned his lines phonetically) as he covers every aspect of contemporary horror - from EC comic books, Aurora plastic models, and Stephen King to oddball TV horror hosts and the impact of latex makeup. Skal's love and respect for the genre shine through this impeccably researched, lively chronicle: a top-drawer choice for horror fans. (Kirkus Reviews)