Greg Garrett: America Is Scared of Itself

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Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation-and a book excerpt-from Monsters in America.

It's a staple of American thought that America is a land of innocence. We typically mean that in two ways: we were founded innocent of the offenses committed by so many older cultures and nations, and we are continuously innocent in our dealings. American exceptionalism is grounded in the firm beliefs that we are the greatest nation in the world because we don't commit arbitrary acts of aggression, because we are a land founded on freedom, and because every American has the opportunity to pursue and find happiness. In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that until the 20th century, the United States didn't even know about "the use and misuse of power"-even a Christian realist like Niebuhr, immersed in the contest between Western capitalism and worldwide communism, may have bought into that myth, despite the genocide of Native Americans, despite slavery, despite wars for territory like the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War.

What Scott Poole's new book Monsters in America gives us in opposition to that myth of eternal American innocence is an alternate reading of American history that acknowledges the "dark corners of American history." Although we may think we have always exercised power and influence benignly and managed our affairs with no blood on our hands, Poole looks at the monsters that inhabit our literature and culture, and suggests that they are always telling us about our feeling-known and unknown-about American culture.

In these tales of monsters, haunted houses, murderers and fiends, and frightening sexuality, Poole argues that America is dealing with the horrors of slavery, genocide, miscegenation, atomic weapons, unleashed female power, and the threat of apocalypse. Like many cultural critics (including this one), he understands the books, movies, TV shows, and urban legends we choose to celebrate and consume as having currency because they help us make meaning, often without our knowing it. To Poole, these stories and the images they contain are not metaphors; they are true, in the sense that they tell us something real about us as a people. And so while some of the works he covers may seem ephemeral or inartistic, Poole suggests (and supports his contention successfully) that "[i]n American history, the monsters are real. The metaphors of the American experience are ideas hardwired to historical action rather than interesting word pictures."

Monsters mean something.

And we find monsters in American culture since its earliest beginnings.

Poole's most compelling readings of the monster as essential metaphor are his readings of slavery and racism, of the treatment of women, and of our fears of social, cultural, and/or political apocalypse. Poole notes Frederick Douglass' characterization of slavery as "America's pet monster," and he argues that the monstrosity of African slaves was used both as an excuse for slavery and a compelling reason to keep slaves controlled and under the dominion of whites. Comparisons were often made to apes and orangutans, frightening and powerful humanoid beasts, and even someone as supposedly enlightened as Thomas Jefferson supported the essential difference between whites and blacks, writing that African are "inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind," and suggesting in a tale of orangutans having a penchant for black human women an equation between this deviant animal sexuality and the purported desire of black men for white women. "Racism," Poole suggests, "became a new doctrine of monsters in America," and it continued long past the end of slavery.

In his reading of King Kong (1933), for example, Poole reads the movie, along with many other critics, as a tale of white women menaced by a bestial African. The film "made use of white supremacist imagery tapping into centuries of white folklore about Africans and apes and the alleged hypersexuality of black men. Certain aspects of the narrative remind us how often America's monstrous metaphors are uncomfortably close to historical reality." Kong is subdued and taken from Africa in captivity aboard a ship; in America, he is held for the use and amusement of his white male masters. Upon his escape, he proves to be dangerous-and dangerously human-and only his violent death will put things right.

Frankenstein (the popular 19th century novel and the popular 20th century Universal monster movie series) also exploits the fear of the other, the beast who seems human but isn't, and who menaces white womanhood. In both the best films, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein's monster is represented as a danger to femininity. In a scene in the original film, he menaces Elizabeth (Mae Clark), the camera cuts away, and we return to Elizabeth moaning, disheveled and with torn clothing, on her bed-a representation, Poole suggests, of interracial rape. In the later Bride of Frankenstein, the bride (Elsa Lanchester) chooses death over violation by this monstrous Other, and the narrative twists and imagery directly echo a similar choice made in D. W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of A Nation (1915).

Films from the 1960s, 1970s, and later reveal a fear of the sexual permissiveness unleashed by the Pill, and of liberated women. From Rosemary's Baby (1968) to The Exorcist (1973) to the slasher films of the late seventies and eighties, horror films wrestled with the problem of women's unleashed sexuality. As Poole points out, "Women's sexuality and reproductive abilities became the focus of numerous horror . . . exposing America's nervousness over contraception, abortion, the sexual revolution, and the changing nature of the family." Movies such as the highly-sexualized Alien (1979), in which the monster Alien is represented as feminine (it implants its young in males, which "outrages the male body, literally tearing it to pieces") offered a critique of American woman's liberation, balanced by the strong female character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who becomes more and more mother-ized as the series goes on-a Mama Bear, in Sarah Palin-land.

Likewise, the slasher films, in which sexualized teenagers are always the first victims of the killer, are part of a "conservative critique of women to domesticate themselves fully. . . . Monsters, either as home invader, babysitter, or bad mother, suggested that women's liberation threatened the very lives of America's children."

Finally, the wave of zombies in books, movies, and television represents our fears that we are headed to hell in a hand basket. The rising tides of discontent-witness the recent figures in TIME that overwhelmingly suggest America is in decline or headed in the wrong direction-are increasingly represented by the mindless zombies of Dawn of the Dead onward, The Walking Dead in both comics and TV, and are a cultural reflection on "historical horror and rapid social change," which we have certainly been witnessing over the past few decades. The zombie, Poole reflects, "symbolizes for many Americans the current state of their own society. . . . The hopelessness of the genre, with its images of civilization's dissolution, and human beings cannibalizing one another, represents a theme in American life since the 1960s."

As someone who writes, speaks, and teaches about the link between religion and culture, about the many ways that literature and pop culture are used in out society to make meaning, I can say that Monsters in America does a bang-up job of demonstrating how our culture helps us achieve some sort of understanding about our world and our lives. Poole's examples are well-chosen and well-explicated. It is a frightening world we live in, yet the horrific things in our literature and culture play a vital part in helping us reach some understanding, and even some peace about them.

Happy Halloween, everyone. May your monsters be manageable, and your lives infused with the peace of Christ.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

[Used with permission. Originally posted on Patheos.comon October 20, 2011.]