When I was about 15 or 16 years old, I found a book in my local library. It was by David J. Skal and its name was The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. I took it out, planning to simply dip in and out of it for the remainder of the week; I was not a bookish teenager at that time, and Skal’s book was a weightier tome than I was used to.
When I started reading, I was captivated. Not only did I read the whole thing through, I periodically checked it out over the next few years.
Skal begins with an in-depth analysis of interwar horror cinema, showing how the Weimar classics and their stateside counterparts at Universal arose from a bubbling vat of cultural influences: modernist art movements, the decline of the carnival tradition and lingering wartime trauma. One of his main theses is that the motifs of disfigured Lon Chaney characters and stitched-up Frankenstein monsters reflect attempts to deal with the aftermath of World War One – and he finds a prime case study in the French film J’Accuse, in which ghosts of war dead are played by disfigured veterans.
From here, Skal charts the development of American horror through subsequent decades. In the 50s and 60s, monster movies were embraced by teenagers – something that the book attributes to how the motifs of rotting skin, sprouting hair, flowing blood and existential angst speak to everyday adolescent experience. Rosemary’s Baby and later films about monstrous infants such as It’s Alive and Child’s Play are, to Skal, reflections of the thalidomide baby scandal and debates over abortion. After that came the 1980s vampire film renaissance, offering a cycle of movies about blood infections just as anxiety about AIDS reached the public consciousness.
My library later got rid of its copy, presumably due to a lack of people checking it out. This is hardly surprising, as it had bizarrely been shelved alongside the books on Bigfoot and UFOs, rather than in the film and media section.
Last week I finally got round to ordering a copy of my very own, which I found online for £5. I look forward to giving it a proper read-through in the future; until then, I have gone back to dipping in and out.
One thing I remembered about the book is that, at one point, Skal quoted from Janice G. Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire. This stuck in my mind as it was the first time I came across what would now be called the TERF perspective, although I had no memory of the context.
After delving into my newly-obtained copy, I found that the passage in question comes from a late chapter called “Scar Wars”, in which the book discusses surgical themes in horror cinema. Skal talks about the rise of cosmetic surgery, and shows sympathy for the hardline feminist point of view that such procedures are horrific, Frankensteinian mutilations of the female body in the name of an imagined ideal. He then goes on to depict gender reassignment surgery in a similar light:
Perhaps the most extreme version of socially-sanctioned vivisection occurs in the realm of transsexual surgery. Transsexuals are held to be persons literally trapped by an accident of birth in the body of the opposite sex. Only rarely is there true hermaphroditism or genetic evidence for such a diagnosis; but the deep anxiety over gender is real, and is addressed with the knife. As in horror movies, a metaphor is literalized. In the case of men, testicles are cut away and discarded, penises are hollowed out and inverted to become “vaginas” that have a kind of interior sensitivity that real vaginas lack. Psychiatrists told women for generations that they were supposed to have “vaginal orgasms”; finally, through transsexual intervention, doctors were able to create their fantasy in the flesh.
In The Transsexual Empire, Janice G. Raymond makes an excoriating argument against the practice from a feminist standpoint. “In its attempt to wrest from women the power inherent in female biology, transsexualism is not an isolated or aberrant medical procedure,” Raymond writers. “It can be placed along a continuum of other male interventionist technologies such as cloning, test-tube fertilization and sex selection.” To Raymond, transsexualism gives birth to not only a “she-male,” but more important, a “he-mother.” Frankenstein restored to earth. The immensely popular cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a campy recap of horror characters and clichés, made a similar point in histrionic drag: Rocky’s mad scientist… is a “transsexual transvestite from Transylvania,” the very soul of gender-bending, in stitches.
Horror films in the sixties, seventies, and eighties did much to popularise the notion of sexual doppelgangers: Psycho still remains one of the most-seen black-and-white movies of all time. It would be revealing to learn the extent to which horrifyingly persuasive images of men and women sharing a single body influenced and legitimized the trannsexual [sic] procedure itself.
Skal goes into much more detail than I remember. Indeed, The Monster Show’s comments on gender reassignment was surely the most in-depth account of transsexualism that I had encountered at that point in my life, as I had previously come across the concept mainly in throwaway jokes in comedy shows (although these throwaway jokes were enough to make me realise that [a] a procedure called a “sex change operation” existed; and [b] I wanted one when I grew up).
Revisiting this chapter, I am reminded of how I reacted to it at the time. I can remember rejecting Raymond’s portrayal of sex changes as some sort of patriarchal mad scientist plot, while simultaneously appreciating the fact that she and Skal had given me a deeper understanding of the topic.
Clearly, The Monster Show had a bigger impact on my development than I previously remembered. As an impressionable teenager I came across gender reassignment being described in horror-movie terms, and I rebelled against it. Now, more than ten years later and those feelings a dim memory, I find myself running a blog called “Attack of the Six-Foot Tranny”.
I wonder what David J. Skal would make of that connected string of dots…