The horrors of the Great War spawned another kind of horror—namely, the pop-cultural kind. So says W. Scott Poole, a history professor at the College of Charleston, in Wasteland (Counterpoint, Oct.), which examines the influence of World War I on the books of H.P. Lovecraft, the films of David Cronenberg, the art of the surrealists, and more.
You’ve written titles on monsters, Lovecraft, and Vampira, a cult horror figure from the 1950s. How does your new book fit in with your earlier research?
One of the things that runs through my work is the idea that, while monsters are entertaining—and while horror films themselves are commodities, made to make money, made to give us thrills—they’re also a way that we can, at least in an oblique way, think about issues of both violence and death. Including, depressingly, our own mortality. What I’m trying to do is think about the origins of horror, and not just as popular entertainment, but really as a way to see the world.
How, to your mind, did the horror genre emerge from World War I?
One of the things that’s important and generally forgotten in terms of soldiers’ and civilians’ experience of World War I is that there probably had been no other time in history when human beings had been exposed to such a large number of dead bodies for extended periods of time. This is an aspect of the trenches on the Western Front that every soldier’s memoir talks about. It’s a very direct experience that some of the iconographic horror images of the 1920s and the 1930s—probably most famously James Whale’s Frankenstein—deal with.
Do you think contemporary audiences look to horror for the same reasons the World War I generation did?
Sometimes horror films are escapist. Sometimes they’re not at all. Sometimes they’re very direct confrontations with the realities of the world, with the realities of the news. Like the generation after the Great War, people today carry away things from horror films that they have to think about a lot afterward. You see this in work like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I always push back a little bit—or a lot—against the idea of horror films as either simple catharsis or simple escape.
You trace a lineage between early-20th-century horror and more contemporary horror. What’s the connection?
Really, from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, all of the classic horror greats of the last 40 or 50 years or so are deeply influenced by a culture that knew these earlier films. They’d met Frankenstein, they’d met Dracula. The other thing that’s important to understand is that I don’t see the Great War as an experience that ended in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. We had World War I, then we had a 20-year breather, and then there was World War II. More and more historians are thinking about this as a 30-year war. My sense is that there’s an eerie way in which we are still experiencing some of the unresolved horrors of the end of World War I.