The Horror of War and the Thrill of Horror
A new book explores the First World War's role in creating the horror genre.
Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, by W. Scott Poole, Counterpoint, 289 pages, $26
The First World War wasn't just itself a great horror. In Wasteland, W. Scott Poole makes a compelling case that it launched a great age of horror fiction.
After the armistice of November 1918, a wave of vivid memoirs, plays, novels, and poems tried to grapple with the civilization-shaking event that everyone had just experienced. These gradually gave way to more sanitized recollections, as each nation tried to move on from the conflict. Yet that wartime experience didn't disappear from the culture, Poole argues. It went underground, feeding a resurgent horror genre, especially in the new medium of film. Movies transmuted the effects of poison gas, flamethrowers, machine guns, and massive artillery barrages into creatures that reminded audiences of their all-too-real confrontations with death and dismemberment. While most of Europe and America tried to turn away from an industrial war's killing fields, the horror genre stared deeply into those abysmal years and brought forth fascinating monstrosities.
Poole, a historian at the College of Charleston, begins with the 1922 German vampire film Nosferatu, the opening titles of which call it an "account of the great death." The card is dated to the early 19th century and a nonmilitary story follows, but as Poole notes, the phrase surely conjures thoughts of the great death that the picture's German audiences had just been through (nearly 2 million soldiers killed, plus approximately one quarter of that in civilian dead). The titular vampire, glimpsed in a soil-filled coffin underground, "evoked all the corpses of the age, scattered across battlefields." The scale of the vampire's ravages becomes "a flood of death…just as the Great War had brought to all of Europe." Many of the movie's creators fought in the war, including director F.W. Murnau and producer Albin Grau; Grau described the conflict as "a cosmic vampire, drinking the blood of millions."
Another director, Paul Wegener, was a decorated veteran of the Eastern Front. In Poole's telling, Wegener's The Golem (1920) is saturated in the war's terror, with its monster created of mud (think of trenches) and acting as a remorseless, inhuman killing machine (think of mechanized warfare). That kind of mechanical monster, a frightening reflection of dehumanized humanity, also appears in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Poole sees Caligari's hypnotized killer as a metaphor for the well-drilled soldier—a suggestion of the ease with which the authorities could turn ordinary Europeans into mass murderers.
Poole's thesis is more overt in Abel Gance's J'accuse. At the climax of this 1919 war drama, a legion of dead soldiers rise from their graves to march on a nearby village, anticipating many zombie stories to come. They return to their coffins, Poole notes, only after the villagers acknowledge that they didn't pay enough attention to the soldiers' suffering while they were alive.
An even better example may be Edgar G. Ulmer's strange and underappreciated The Black Cat (1934), in which two veterans duel through means both physical and semi-supernatural in a modernist home built on the site of a Great War massacre, the basement of which is filled with preserved corpses. One of the leads, Bela Lugosi, was really a veteran, and his war stories unnerved the other actors and the crew.
Other films took the image of horrific corpses in different directions: dummies, puppets, mummies, waxworks—figures inhabiting the uncanny valley between human beings and fantastic shapes. At times these forms echoed not just the dead but the mutilated living.
The First World War saw breakthroughs in medical technology, allowing some soldiers who would have died in previous conflicts to live—but in altered form. Disfigured veterans, such as those with facial injuries (gueules cassées, or "broken faces") mitigated by innovative prosthetics, were mirrored in such movies as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and Freaks (1932). For Poole, these modern monsters were creatures of the war, even when they had pre-1914 origins: "The double, the doll, the wax figure, the puppet all mimicked the Great War dead. They evoked the mechanical automata of the war of steel against flesh that had so completely reminded Europeans of their mortality."
Poole also lets us see anew the horrific images of machines devouring people in Metropolis (1927), linking them to the war as well as one of the war's spinoffs, the Soviet revolution. The film's mobilization of people into inhuman masses reminds us not just of industrial labor but of industrial war. The director, Fritz Lang, was yet another World War I veteran.
Poole doesn't limit his coverage to film. He discusses literary figures, from Franz Kafka to T.S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land (1922) finds a clear real-world source in the Western Front. Painters turned to horror too—notably veterans Otto Dix and Max Ernst. In Poole's account, the shocking visions of dada and surrealism flow from the Great War's deep terror and trauma: "Horror offered the surrealists the grammar for the new language they sought to create."
The American role in this story is somewhat different, as the U.S. entered the war late and suffered only a fraction of the European nations' death tolls. But the experience did occur, and its cultural reckoning was buttressed by the transatlantic flow of European artists. James Whale fought in the Somme campaign of 1916, then won fame by staging and filming the play Journey's End, a tense drama set entirely in a British dugout. In Hollywood, Whale directed part of the World War I epic Hell's Angels (1930)—and then, in 1931, made Frankenstein.
In Whale's hands, the latter story's monster represents the terrifying war dead—not just one body but the brutally recombined fragments of many. His existence on the boundary between life and death, between the human and the inhuman, recalls Caligari's Cesare as well as the shell-shocked soldier. To Poole, he also recalls "the maimed and mutilated returning veteran," another object of mingled dread and sympathy.
Outside the medium of film, Poole's analysis of the Americans sheds new light on the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Many of Lovecraft's short stories openly featured the war, such as "Dagon" (1919) and "The Temple" (1925), whose plots are driven by U-boat raids, or "Herbert West—Reanimator" (1922), whose mad scientist brings an assistant to Europe to recover corpses from the war. Lovecraft's visions of vast ruins and immense massacres can be seen as refractions of the Western Front. One source for his imagined apocalypses was the real apocalypse the world had just experienced.
After making the case for postwar horror's ties to World War I, Poole takes the genre forward into World War II. In so doing, the author takes issue with Siegfried Kracauer's influential 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, which sees Germany's turn to fascism anticipated in imaginative film. Poole argues that Kracauer underestimates the power of the popular horror genre at recollecting the Great War. Poole does think the Nazis made canny use of horror not just in what they wreaked upon the world but in the rhetoric and movies they supported. Jews, Slavs, communists, backstabbing politicians, and homosexuals appeared as monsters to be feared and destroyed, a trope drawing on two decades of interwar monster fiction.
Horror films made later in the 20th century still carry echoes of 1914–1918, even when they're clearly connected to contemporary wars, as with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Vietnam or World War Z (2006) and Iraq. "In every horror movie we see, every horror story we read, every horror-based video game we play, the phantoms of the Great War skittle and scratch just beyond the door of our consciousness," Poole writes.
Wasteland overshoots at times. The book struggles to summon M (1931) to the bar, but it cannot quite make the connection between the war and the film's tale of a child murderer, the police, and the underworld. Some of Poole's connections are a touch too abstract, as when he compares Victor Frankenstein's lonely lab to "an industrial process" and thus to the First World War. (The links he draws between 1932's Island of Lost Souls and the terrifying science of that era is more persuasive.) Identifying King Kong's creators as veterans is useful, but it is less accurate to argue that New York City has become a necropolis by the film's end. At times the book's focus on later works of art blurs subsequent conflicts with World War I.
Such issues aside, Poole has made an important contribution to cultural history. Wasteland reveals how horror stories can have even darker roots.