American Horror Stories Aren’t Just Cinematic

A new history ties the genre to U.S. atrocities—not always convincingly.

By , an American writer.
A man dressed as a vampire walks though a hotel lobby in Salem, Massachusetts on October 1, 2022.
A man dressed as a vampire walks though a hotel lobby in Salem, Massachusetts on October 1, 2022.
A man dressed as a vampire walks though a hotel lobby in Salem, Massachusetts on October 1, 2022. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

One of the virtues of a properly written revisionist history is that it forces the reader to confront the architecture of its telling—the details, facts, and theses that underpin any history—and it sets that confrontation on its own terms’, not the readers. Even the critics of the 1619 Project had to confront its arguments and facts in a way that foregrounded American slavery instead of relegating the atrocities to the background.

Author W. Scott Poole’s Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire is a revisionist history of the United States that places a great (and arguably undue) emphasis on the misdeeds and malevolence of U.S. actions in the 20th century. The reader is forced to reevaluate American history through the very dark lens Poole provides, which is how the author wants it. When Poole sticks to history, his book is generally solid. But Poole attempts to demonstrate how horror films reflected historical trends and, in some cases, anticipated or even influenced them, and it is here that his otherwise formidable skills as a researcher and writer lead him astray. This is a reasonable history of real 20th-century American horrors; it is not a strong guide to the fictional version.

Poole’s version of American history is a sinister one, a litany of the evil and wickedness that the United States has wrought on its citizens, neighbors, and the world at large. In this, Dark Carnivals is not substantively different from previous leftist revisionist histories, from historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to much of the output of the New Left historians to the 1619 Project. All the familiar lowlights of American history are here: slavery; geographical expansion at the expense of Indigenous peoples, Mexicans, and Filipinos; the occupation of Haiti; the costs of the post-World War II containment policy; the many coups (Greece, South Vietnam, Guatemala, and Iran) enacted or supported by the U.S. government; CIA black sites; preemptive strikes in Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, and the Philippines; domestic racism and oppression of Blacks and Indigenous peoples; secret wars in Laos and Cambodia; the investigation and harassment of left-leaning actors by the FBI under former director J. Edgar Hoover; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan; the recruitment of Nazis by the CIA after World War II; the My Lai massacre; Operation Phoenix; former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s foreign-policy machinations; etc. etc. etc., world without end, amen.

One of the virtues of a properly written revisionist history is that it forces the reader to confront the architecture of its telling—the details, facts, and theses that underpin any history—and it sets that confrontation on its own terms’, not the readers. Even the critics of the 1619 Project had to confront its arguments and facts in a way that foregrounded American slavery instead of relegating the atrocities to the background.

Dark Carnivals Book Cover
Dark Carnivals Book Cover

Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire, W. Scott Poole, Counterpoint, 384 pp., $28.00, October 2022

Author W. Scott Poole’s Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire is a revisionist history of the United States that places a great (and arguably undue) emphasis on the misdeeds and malevolence of U.S. actions in the 20th century. The reader is forced to reevaluate American history through the very dark lens Poole provides, which is how the author wants it. When Poole sticks to history, his book is generally solid. But Poole attempts to demonstrate how horror films reflected historical trends and, in some cases, anticipated or even influenced them, and it is here that his otherwise formidable skills as a researcher and writer lead him astray. This is a reasonable history of real 20th-century American horrors; it is not a strong guide to the fictional version.

Poole’s version of American history is a sinister one, a litany of the evil and wickedness that the United States has wrought on its citizens, neighbors, and the world at large. In this, Dark Carnivals is not substantively different from previous leftist revisionist histories, from historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to much of the output of the New Left historians to the 1619 Project. All the familiar lowlights of American history are here: slavery; geographical expansion at the expense of Indigenous peoples, Mexicans, and Filipinos; the occupation of Haiti; the costs of the post-World War II containment policy; the many coups (Greece, South Vietnam, Guatemala, and Iran) enacted or supported by the U.S. government; CIA black sites; preemptive strikes in Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, and the Philippines; domestic racism and oppression of Blacks and Indigenous peoples; secret wars in Laos and Cambodia; the investigation and harassment of left-leaning actors by the FBI under former director J. Edgar Hoover; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan; the recruitment of Nazis by the CIA after World War II; the My Lai massacre; Operation Phoenix; former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s foreign-policy machinations; etc. etc. etc., world without end, amen.

This is all very familiar to anyone acquainted with the disgusting realities of American history. Dark Carnivals is useful as a single-volume compendium of the greatest hits of American wrongdoing. What is likely to gall some or perhaps many American readers is that Poole’s recounting of American history is strictly negative, without any room for or possibility of positive actions. But these offended readers, like those who reacted so strongly to the 1619 Project, are forced to argue with Dark Carnivals on Poole’s terms—something they won’t enjoy doing. Poole’s history is correct, as far as it goes. His recounting of the My Lai massacre and America’s bloody acquisition of the Philippines as well as Operation Desert Storm and all the rest are accurate; the United States really did do all of those things.

But this narrative falters when it tries to weld horror film to the history of the American empire. Poole’s thesis is as follows:

This book explains that Americans’ love of this iteration of horror comes from the same root as their acquiescence to the violence that made America. The jump scares and the gore, the evil cabals and paranormal activities, all allow us to imagine that evil comes from demonic principalities or masked killers, that it happens to innocent Americans in their allegedly safe homes. Violence is not what is done in our name, by fresh-faced young people we’ve hired to kill for us, in places we can’t find on a map. Violence is done to us and we fight back and we win—we always win. By the time the credits roll, these films assure us that everything is okay, that the evildoers have been punished and the American way of life, and the piece of it you’ve broken off for yourself, will not change even a little.

Poole largely alternates chapters between events in American imperial history and stories about individual horror films, filmmakers, or in the case of screenwriter Rod Serling and author Ray Bradbury, those whose horror texts appeared in different media than film. As his earlier book Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror showed, Poole has a deep knowledge of horror films, and his narratives about horror films and horror-makers is a winning combination of the anecdotal and broad brush. Yet in Dark Carnivals, unlike Wasteland, errors small and, unfortunately, large creep in. The Shadow, a vigilante hero, was better known from the pulp magazines, not his radio show, as Poole states. Americans were fed a steady diet of horror shorts and silent films from the onset of cinema, so that the appearance of the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera did not startle the American public with its newness but rather confirmed that horror was one of the most entertaining and rewarding genres of cinema to be found, building on works like the 1910 Frankenstein, the 1911 Dante’s Inferno, the 1920 The Head of Janus, and the 1922 A Blind Bargain. Bradbury’s life after his first story was published was not an “uncertain period” but rather one of prolific appearances in the pulp magazines.

Poole’s decision to almost entirely ignore prose horror fiction leads him to make inaccurate generalizations and conclusions about the genre as a whole. When Poole writes that “horror fictions clashed with the way much of America wanted to understand itself” during the 1920s and 1930s, he fails to take into account the vast output of prose horror fiction of the era and readers’ responses to it, which were far more in line with Americans’ understanding of themselves; the influence of prose horror on filmed horror—Nosferatu was based on author Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alraune was based on writer Hanns Heinz Ewers’s book of the same name, and A Blind Bargain was based on journalist Barry Pain’s The Octave of Claudius—is a historical fact, but Poole refuses to even consider it. Horror films may center violence, as Poole claims, but it’s easy to find prose horror fiction—such as writer Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or writer Ramsey Campbell’s The Face That Must Die—that does not. Horror films and writer Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth didn’t prep Americans for the (fictional) appearance of the antichrist, prose horror fiction like the author Salem Kirban’s 666, and author Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby did. And so on.

Poole’s attempts to demonstrate that the “jump scares and the gore, the evil cabals and paranormal activities, all allow us to imagine that evil comes from demonic principalities or masked killers, that … [v]iolence is not what is done in our name, by fresh-faced young people we’ve hired to kill for us, in places we can’t find on a map” and that there is something peculiarly American about this fail to convince readers and frankly don’t work. Even the smallest acquaintance with horror texts—prose and film—produced outside of the United States quickly demonstrates that the appetite for supernatural or conspiratorial horror is not limited to the United States. Horror fiction has been a mainstay of international fiction since the 19th century, and countries like Argentina, Brazil, France, Mexico, South Africa, and Spain have seen numerous outstanding horror authors and works of horror.

Structurally, Poole tries to associate horror texts and horror creators with the horrors of the American imperial project to show that the latter informed the former as the former influenced the American people. Poole is only intermittently successful in this. He is convincing in tying Serling’s creative output to his experiences as a soldier during World War II and afterward. Less convincing is Poole’s chapter on the FBI’s investigation of Bradbury, author Isaac Asimov, actor Bela Lugosi, and other figures of science fiction, fantasy, and horror; Poole tries to argue that “horror would have a role in an emerging national security state such as this one,” but there are far better and more relevant ways to make that argument than in dragging in numerous anecdotes about writers and actors, some of whom are only peripheral to horror. Poole switches back and forth from the horrors of American history to the plots of horror films and the actions and biographies of those involved with them, but too often, the latter seem to have little to do with the former.

And even as a history, there is a flaw in Poole’s approach, and unfortunately, it’s a book-threatening one: the unrelieved nature of his narrative, the fact that, in Poole’s telling, not only is there no room for goodwill on America’s behalf but to even raise the notion of goodwill is to give one away as a naif or worse. Poole’s United States is irredeemably evil and focused on capitalism and empire to the exception of all other policies. In Dark Carnivals, no American with any power even has good intentions, much less did anything to help anyone.

This is an authorial approach that is willing to plumb the intricacies of power but has no tolerance for the complexities of human character. Poole assumes that every powerful American’s intent was evil. In its elision of the nuances of human character and the replacement of the shades-of-gray motivations of real people with something more cartoonishly evil, Dark Carnivals demonstrates that the underpinning of Poole’s argument is an ideological faith rather than an analysis of the facts. Poole gets his historical, if not always filmic, facts right; his psychological assessments are another issue. The absolutism of his approach does a disservice to both historical actors and the actors, directors, and writers of American horror, which itself could and can be far more nuanced about the nature of American power than he admits. Author Stephen Kozeniewski’s The Ghoul Archipelago, the “imperial Gothics” of Latino writers from the 19th century to today, and writer Roxane Gay’s “Of Ghosts and Shadows” are all comparatively nuanced and insightful into the nature of American power and imperialism.

Poole’s history of the American empire’s origin in the 20th century is generally solid, and it is undeniably useful to have a recounting of the United States’ abuses of individuals, groups, and nations in one place. His anecdotes, even when irrelevant to his thesis, are usually enjoyable, if not always enlightening, and his deep knowledge of horror films serves him in good stead in discussing them. But the absence of prose horror from Dark Carnivals hurts the book’s arguments, and Poole’s almost religious portrayal of Americans’ evil intentions often renders the book an agitprop screed rather than a soberly written history.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Jess Nevins is an American writer, most recently of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century.

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