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...