The Monster Show - A Cultural History Of Horror by David J. Skal http://www.monstershow.net/the_monster_sh… is one of the best books ever written about the subject. (The only other serious contender is Stephen King's Danse Macabre, but that is more of a personal overview of the the author's relation to the genre) Skal, who has devoted his career to all things scary, examines the genre from all possible angles.
Skal's thesis is bold, but he backs it up: for him, the history of modern horror mirrors the troubled history of the 20th century. From anxiety of the brave new world of new political, economic and scientific thought in the late 1800s, through two world wars, the Depression, the Cold War and finally the AIDS crisis, Skal finds that the things that scare us in popular culture echo the things that scare us in real life.
Skal examines the xenophobia inherent in characters such as Dracula (in particular in the unauthorized silent film version Nosferatu), the influence of psychoanalysis on works such as The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, and how anxieties over new reproductive technologies and the horrors of Thalidomide led to "monster children" narratives in the 60s and 70s. (Sometimes Skal seems to be reaching; the fact that Ronald Reagan frequently rewatched his movie King's Row -in which he played a double amputee- may be a comment on Reagan's psyche, but it may just be that he was reliving his past glory.)
Skal profiles several fascinating characters, from Frankenstein director James Whale (who snuck a gay subtext past the censors in Bride Of Frankenstein) to Vampira. One amusing interview is with David Manners, who had supporting roles in Dracula and several other Universal horror movies, yet saw little significance in horror. We learn that the treatment of disfigured WWI veterans helped the development of modern plastic surgery; that Universal shot a Spanish language version of Dracula with different actors on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi version; and that one of Hitler's favourite movies was King Kong. Skal covers everything from the infamous Grand Guignol theater in Paris to the rise of Fangoria magazine nearly a century later,
Skal notes an interesting change at roughly the midpoint of the century, as the old supernatural-based monsters (Dracula and the Wolf Man in particular) started to lose their ability to induce fear, and became the cuddly stuff of kids' shows. Meanwhile, new fears raised by science (in particular the atomic bomb) and violence being broadcast into homes on the news created a demand for more intense scares. Probably the emblematic movie of that era was Night Of The Living Dead, which lacked any possibility of a happy ending beyond survival. The horror of the 70s and beyond from The Exorcist to the slasher movies in the wake of John Carpenter's Halloween, reveled in this new wave of nihilism.
(Part of Night Of The Living Dead's power might have come from its production values, which were out of necessity. Director George Romero used a crew used to doing film for TV news, so the movie has a documentary quality. Interestingly, Skal notes, Tom Savini, who later did the makeup for Dawn Of The Dead, was in Vietnam at the time, witnessing real-life carnage that inspired his later work)
As Skal's narrative reaches the 80s, the author notes the return of the vampire as a metaphor for the new danger of AIDS. Skal also has an interesting take on Stephen King, citing the snobbery literary types showed as King hit the bestseller charts, as well as King's (Skal convincingly argues that the uproar over American Psycho was not just about the extreme gore but also the fact that it was written by a "serious" author and published by a "serious" imprint)
Two figures loom large in The Monster Show, one famous, the other unknown. The first, Tod Browning, director of the 1931 Dracula, is a subject Skal has covered in depth in both a biography and a chronicle of the making of the Lugosi film. Browning was a Don Draper/Jay Gatsby type: tall and handsome, he was also a full-blown alcoholic running from his past. Bizarrely, Browning followed up the success of Dracula with one of the all-time career-killing movies: Freaks. Not quite horror, Freaks - which featured real-life sideshow performers in all but three major roles - nonetheless terrified and disturbed audiences, and becomes a key metaphor for Skal.
The other figure who stands out among Skal's profiles is a woman known only as "Megan," a bit-part actor with a secret life as a real-life vampire. Having suffered extreme physical abuse at the hands of her religious mother, she turned first to the hippie subculture and then to the punk/goth scene in LA in the late 70s and early 80s. She found herself drawn to the idea of drinking blood as a sexual ritual, and found a willing "donor" to whom she remained monogamous. "Megan" also had a strong interest in castrati, and her possession of one of the few recordings of the only castrato ever captured on vinyl led to a meeting with vampire queen Anne Rice.
First published in 1993, The Monster Show had a second edition released in late 2001; unfortunately, the new chapter had been written before the event which offered up fresh horrors for Skal to analyze. The new, post-9/11 "monsters" - zombies, sparkly vampires - form interesting variations on old forms, and it would be fascinating to hear Skal's take on them. As it stands, The Monster Show is a great overview of what scares us. And unlike jokes, the horror still thrills after it has been explained.