Halloween Horrors

A look at monsters and myths that inform modern-day understandings of gender, power, and other social relations, in time for Halloween.

Asma, Stephen T. On monsters: an unnatural history of our worst fears. Oxford, 2009. 351p ISBN 9780195336160, $27.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2010

In this enjoyable and edifying book, Asma (Columbia College Chicago) unfurls the long and twisting cultural history of monsters, both imagined and real. But, as readers quickly learn, the book is more than a historical account; it is a map of people’s at once intimate and disowned fears, a map that extends from antiquity to the future. Thus Asma surveys the cultural record and formation of monsters in the ancient period (e.g., the works of Plato, Aristotle, Pliny), through the medieval period (e.g., the Alexander romances and Beowulf), the early modern period through the 19th century (the scientific material of Darwin and Paré), to modernity (with considerations as varied as the Leopold and Loeb trial of 1924 to fictional creatures such as zombies), and finally into the present and beyond with examinations of cyborgs and terrorists. The book, in short, is a rich survey of monstrosity and its changing social, psychological, and even political meanings. This highly readable, often humorous book is suitable for anyone interested in the history of ideas, culture, and the imagination. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above; general readers. M. Uebel, University of Texas

Cole, Phillip. The myth of evil: demonizing the enemy. Praeger, 2006. 256p ISBN 0275992160, $49.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2007

Cole (Middlesex Univ.) has written the best book on evil to date; it deserves a place on the shelves of both academic and public libraries. The author considers the literature on evil from mythology to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, including recent philosophical works by S. Neiman (Evil in Modern Thought, 2002) and J. Kekes (Facing Evil, 1990), and old standbys such as H. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). Three major arguments emerge from this extensive review, all of them cogent. One is that the concept of evil is not only a meaningless concept that adds nothing to an understanding of human behavior, but also a dangerous one because it obscures possible understanding of events. The second is that the notion of evil is a mythological concept, not a religious or philosophical one. Evil is part of the story that humans tell to make sense of their (as opposed to others’) world view. The third is that stories of evil arise from fear of the unknown that humans feel is threatening them. This unknown can be metaphysical or political. Cole ends with a chapter on contemporary politics and the “evil of terrorism,” an expression he would strike from the language. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-level undergraduates through faculty/researchers; general readers. S. C. Schwarze, Cabrini College

Dracula’s daughters: the female vampire on film, ed. by Douglas Brode and Leah Deyneka. Scarecrow, 2013. 310p ISBN 9780810892958, $65.00; ISBN 9780810892965 ebook, $64.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2014

For their third collaboration as coeditors (after Sex, Politics, and Religion in Star Wars, 2012, and Myth, Media, and Culture in Star Wars, 2012), Brode and Deyeka deconstruct female vampires in cinema. The 16 provocative, scholarly essays explore the historical and literary origins of the female vampire and chronicle her near century-long legacy in film. Individually, the essays provide comprehensive critiques of cinematic portrayals throughout the genre–from Gloria Holden’s reluctant vampire Countess Zeleska in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) to postfeminist-era iterations in such offerings as Let The Right One In (2008) and Twilight (2008)–while also analyzing how prevailing social perceptions of women of the time informed and influenced the making of these films. Collectively, the contributors paint a picture of a powerful, complex supernatural archetype that simultaneously elicits sympathy and desire in the viewer and is a universal and timeless metaphor for unleashed female sexuality and empowerment. Willson, Goldsmith, and Fonseca’s scene-by-scene comparison of Dracula’s Daughter and its “remake” Nadja (1994) poignantly illustrates how film draws on the reinterpretive nature of the vampire myth as cautionary tale and the transformative essence of the vampire herself as she transgresses societal and cultural norms as well as life and death. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. M. J. Theisen

A Fairytale in question: historical interactions between humans and wolves, ed. by Patrick Masius and Jana Sprenger. White Horse Press, 2015. 318p bibl index ISBN 9781874267843, $100.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2015

Editors Masius and Sprenger have compiled an extraordinary volume that evaluates archival sources detailing the human relationship to wolves since the Renaissance.  The 14 chapters reveal the diversity of injurious and deadly encounters in regions of Europe, North America, and central and southern Asia.  The historical record shows that pressures caused by human population growth and land conversion for agriculture often forced wild wolves to exploit the only available prey that remained: humans.  In response to communal fears, humans pushed back in diverse ways, mounting extermination campaigns and increasingly conflating the biological wolf with forces of evil, yielding anthropomorphized wolves and predatory humans (i.e., werewolves).  The contributors document the evolution of human-animal relationships to establish a critical foundation for modern conflicts over wolf management in such regions as the northern tier of the US, northern Scandinavia, eastern Germany, and southern Asia.  Though philosophical and theoretical discussions early in the text may be more meaningful to advanced researchers, the empirical records described and discussed throughout most of the book will be fascinating and meaningful to even nascent scholars. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. J. P. Tiefenbacher, Texas State University

Gibson, Matthew. Dracula and the Eastern question: British and French vampire narratives of the nineteenth-century Near East. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 231p ISBN 1403994773, $65.00; ISBN 9781403994776, $65.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2007

Whereas much recent scholarship on vampire literature has focused on Bram Stoker’s fiction as a reflection of British attitudes about Ireland, Gibson (University of Surrey, UK) argues that authors of major vampire narratives consistently set their works in the Near East to explore the “Eastern question” in light of the changing political landscape in eastern Europe as the Ottoman Empire waned. In the first half of the volume, the author focuses on well-known British texts–John Polidori’s novella “The Vampyre,” J. S. LeFanu’s “Carmilla,” Stoker’s Dracula and The Lady of the Shroud–contextualizing them within specific Victorian political controversies. In the second half, Gibson focuses on the works of Charles Nodier, Prosper Mérimée, and Jules Verne, providing a similar analysis of the French response to political conflicts in the Near East. The author works diligently to provide historical contexts for his study (this material may prove difficult for less experienced readers), and throughout he successfully engages the growing scholarship on vampire literature and postcolonial theory. Overall, this is an innovative, important approach to vampire narratives and to Stoker’s work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty. R. D. Morrison, Morehead State University

McClelland, Bruce. Slayers and their vampires: a cultural history of killing the dead. Michigan, 2006. 260p ISBN 047209923X, $65.00; ISBN 0472069233 pbk, $19.95; ISBN 9780472099238, $65.00; ISBN 9780472069231 pbk, $19.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2007

An independent Slavic scholar, McClelland draws on a wealth of meticulous research in this engrossing study of vampires and vampire hunters and slayers. Covering more than a thousand years of history and a broad range of geographical regions, the author traces the beginnings of vampire rituals and folklore back to their Balkan and south Slavic roots, explaining the historical, religious, and cultural contexts from which they originated. He follows the development of these motifs to the present day, considering their reflection as symbols of evil in current literature, film, and popular culture. McClelland devotes particular attention to various manifestations of the vampire slayer, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Based on primary and secondary literature in a host of languages, this scholarly and highly entertaining work touches on history, folklore, ethnography, anthropology, linguistics, and the history of early Christianity. It features detailed footnotes, an extensive bibliography that includes archival and manuscript sources, field reports from Bulgaria and Macedonia, and publications in Slavic and other languages. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; general readers. S. C. Summer, Columbia University

McCloud, Sean. American possessions: fighting demons in the contemporary United States. Oxford, 2015. 175p bibl index afp ISBN 9780190205355, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2015

Though by their very nature cultural fads and fancies change continuously, in the US, few new trends seem to stray far from the supernatural—whether angelic or demonic. Even as pollsters declare the decline of institutional religion, belief in God and in the power of prayer has remained strong. Indeed, American film and television industries trade on belief in unseen powers; witness the success of Harry PotterThe Lord of the RingsPirates of the CaribbeanTwilightThe Vampire Diaries, and many others. Such good news for Hollywood has not been a welcome development for some modern-day Evangelicals, who see these as further evidence of Satan’s work in the world. Against such spreading demonic influences, notes McCloud (religion studies, American studies, and communication, Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte) in this interpretive critique, there has emerged a self-identified “third wave” of Evangelicals engaged in spiritual warfare. McCloud examines third-wave handbooks, deliverance manuals, websites, documentaries, and television programs, providing an interesting description of demon-obsessed Evangelicalism and placing it firmly, even uncomfortably, within the context of a US culture that is itself possessed by consumerism, haunted by an idealized past, and imbued with the language of the therapeutic. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. J. R. Stone, California State University, Long Beach

Schutt, Bill. Dark banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures. Harmony Books, 2008. 325p ISBN 9780307381125, $25.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2009

Depending on one’s perspective, one of the most fascinating–or revolting–modes of existence can be found among those creatures that have adopted a survival strategy based on the consumption of blood. Relatively common among invertebrates, feeding on blood is a rare and unusual way of life among vertebrates. The book emphasizes a diverse array of outlandish animals, from leeches and bed bugs to vampire bats and vampire catfish. Here, Schutt (biology, C.W. Post College) indulges his own fascination with creatures that subsist on blood as he explores some of the macabre, humorous, literary, historical, and scientific aspects of hematophagy. He offers an absorbing and insightful glimpse into this specialized facet of natural history. Dark Banquet is an interesting, well-written volume that this reviewer found to be both educational and fun to read. Written in clear language and a witty conversational style, it is primarily directed at the general reader. But, even biologists already familiar with animals that thirst for blood will find much to interest them here. Though some minor scientific errors have crept into the text, these do not detract from the otherwise intriguing, well-thought-out story that the author weaves. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic, professional, and general collections. D. A. Brass, independent scholar

Williams, Wes. Monsters and their meanings in early modern culture: mighty magic. Oxford, 2011. 344p ISBN 0199577021, $110.00; ISBN 9780199577026, $110.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2012

Williams (French, Oxford) recasts the scholarship on the subject of monsters and their role in medieval society, taking historians to task for their superficial knowledge of how monsters came to be. Williams’s analysis extends beyond a narrative of monsters in literature. He weaves together multiple disciplines–natural sciences, philosophy, linguistics, sociocultural studies, colonial discourse, and geodemographics, for example–into a tapestry of belief systems and their expressions in medieval rules and rituals. Williams’s study enriches the scholarship on monsters and their meanings (Peter J. Platt, ed., Wonder, Marvels, and Monsters in Early Modern Culture, 2000; Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, CH, Apr’10, 47-4330). Monsters also contributes to the trajectory of re-periodizing history (Dale Martin and Patricia Miller, eds., The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography, 2005; Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, 1999). Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. B. Blessing, University of Vienna

Young, Elizabeth. Black Frankenstein: the making of an American metaphor. New York University, 2008. 308p ISBN 9780814797150, $75.00; ISBN 9780814797167 pbk, $23.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2009

Frankenstein and his monster have infiltrated the American cultural imaginary in myriad ways, from cinematic features by James Whale and Kenneth Branagh to blaxploitation films to art to Franken Berry cereal. Young (Mount Holyoke College) marshals an impressive array of these appearances, including fiction, essays, speeches, and paintings, in order to reveal the racialized construction of the Frankenstein story in US culture. Young’s “black Frankenstein” monster becomes a powerful metaphor for negotiating the racial anxieties of modern America. As the author recounts, the figure appears in both racist and antiracist discourses, exhibiting the powerful mobility of the monster metaphor as well as its popular appeal. Young combines sharp analysis with her amazing research, noteworthy for its breadth and scope, to demonstrate the depths to which this image has penetrated American racial cultures. Whether she is examining novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, filmmaker Mel Brooks, or comedian Dick Gregory, Young offers astute readings of the cultural text and its racial underpinnings. Building on recent work by Paul Gilroy, Teresa Goddu, Toni Morrison, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri, this book provides a compelling new vision of the monster we thought we knew so well. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers, all levels. D. E. Magill, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown