‘Monster Show’ historian on his latest literary contribution
With Halloween quickly approaching, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), is gearing up its classic horror film lineup, with thrills and chills. A book accompanying this popular spooky programming is the celebrated horror film history book Fright Favorites: 31 Moves to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond.
Fright Favorites author David J. Skal, who is a highly regarded horror history author and authority of classic horror cinema, shares with us his history as an author, the creative process of creating Fright Favorites, and advice for aspiring writers.
Justina Bonilla: What inspired you to write non-fiction horror?
David J. Skal: I started as a science fiction writer. I had done a number of novels and they got good reviews. They didn’t make a lot of money for me. So, my agent suggested doing nonfiction. With a novel, especially if you’re not a bestselling novelist, you must complete the book and shop the whole thing around. But, with nonfiction, you can do a proposal, with sample chapters.
“When I was a kid, I was just fascinated with that old movie Dracula. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve never read a story about the behind-the-scenes”.– David J. Skal
I said to my agent, “When I was a kid, I was just fascinated with that old movie Dracula. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve never read a story about the behind-the-scenes”. By that time, I had been working in the theater and had quite a bit of entertainment industry experience. Whatever is on the screen, or the stage, there is an equally interesting backstory. I didn’t know what was there with Dracula.
Since I was going on vacation at the time, my agent said, “Write up a one-page description, and I’ll talk to you when you’re back”. Then, my agent had 20 New York publishers that wanted to talk to me about my book Hollywood Gothic. I went with W.W. Norton. I’m still doing books for W. W. Norton, one of the last great independently owned New York publishers.
I thought my book Hollywood Gothic was a one-shot. Then W. W. Norton came back and asked, “What’s next?” After the whole history of horror movies and The Monster Show books, I did a biography of Tod Browning. It just snowballed. I didn’t expect any kind of a career as a film historian.
I’ve also co-edited the Second Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is kind of my bestselling book. And, years later, there’s always a new audience.
Bonilla: Would you consider writing fiction again?
Skal: Yes. I’m returning to my fiction writing. There are a number of unfinished novels and ideas for novels that have just been on the back burner, while I’ve been playing Mr. Monster for the world. Until they pound a stake into me, I’ll write. I love books. I’ve always loved books. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Bonilla: How did you decide on the idea of Fright Favorites?
Skal: I was commissioned to do this. I came up with the idea of 31 films to look at. It’s a format that’s very flexible and will lend itself to a series whether I do it, or somebody else takes it over.
Bonilla: Were you able to get in a few of your favorite films?
Skal: I’ve got all my favorites in. However, it isn’t just my taste. There are a lot of cooks involved in this stew. Originally, we were going to do 31 films and it was clearly apparent we couldn’t accommodate everybody’s taste. I offered, “What if we have a, ‘If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy this’ spotlight section and effectively spotlight 62 films”. That seems to have worked. We can very easily turn this into a series. The feedback I’ve gotten has been very positive.
I think it’s a very nice assortment of films. There’s nothing in the book I don’t like.
Bonilla: Was there any film that was repeatedly requested?
Skal: Of all the films, Hocus Pocus was the most requested from TCM and my publisher. I didn’t realize that there had been such a cult that grew up with that film. It’s certainly a unique film. Director Mick Garris (who wrote the Hocus Pocus screenplay) later thanked me for putting Hocus Pocus in the book.
TCM wanted to be sure we had family-friendly films in the book. That was at the very top of their list.
Bonilla: With the inclusion of sci-fi films Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them in the book, how important was it to include that sub-genre?
Skal: In terms of how Hollywood approaches horror and science fiction, they don’t really make a distinction. Hollywood uses all the tried-and-true horror tropes in science fiction. Alien is set in a spaceship, but it’s a haunted house picture, where something jumps out at you. Science fiction purists very often don’t like film adaptations of their favorite books, because of that.
Aliens and other extraterrestrial phenomena are just as useful for eliciting scares and screams as crypts and cobwebs. People go to these kinds of movies for the same reason. They go for a thrill and to see something they’ve never seen before. Horror and science fiction do equally deliver the goods. People are still debating whether Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein is a horror novel or one of the first science fiction novels. That ambiguity you know has persisted especially in the world of horror and science fiction films.
Bonilla: Though TCM is known for classic films, what lead to the decision to have modern horror films a part of this book, such as Hereditary and Get Out?
Skal: Get Out was such a popular and breakthrough film. It’s one of the first big mainstream Black horror movies. Black horror had been in short supply. This success was amazing. Director Jordan Peele was wonderful.
Hereditary is a family film, about the dynamics of the family, and how a family deals with grief and loss. It pushes the family all the way over the edge into horror. The extreme emotions are more extreme in that film than in many other things we’ve seen recently. It’s a bravura effect. I thought leading lady Toni Collette really deserved an Oscar. It was such an amazing performance. But the scream queen doesn’t usually get the Oscar. Maybe someday.
“I always knew these movies were important. People made fun of me for it. But, you prove that they were important.”– David J. Skal
Bonilla: How have readers reacted to the book?
Skal: I was surprised how many people were excited by it. I thought, “Why haven’t I done this sort of thing before?”.
There’s one kind of fan letter I keep getting from people, saying, “I always knew these movies were important. People made fun of me for it. But, you prove that they were important.”. That’s one of the nicest things that I hear over and over again over the years. That I give validation to this freaky interest that those of us had as kids and people thought we were we were crazy. Maybe, we were crazy. But, it’s a special kind of crazy.
We recognize each other across a crowded room all the time. When I’m around people who have nothing to do with the industry or horror movies, and I’m introduced and somebody says what I do for a living, suddenly somebody talks about seeing Dracula and Frankenstein for the first time. It’s just these wonderful touchstones in people’s lives.
Bonilla: Is there a chance for a volume two?
Skal: I’m ready to do it. We are giving the book another push this year because it’s tied to the 31 days of October on TCM. After this coming year, I think there’s a good chance. And, certainly, let TCM know that. Write a fan letter to TCM.
Bonilla: What upcoming projects do you have?
Skal: I’m in this third season of Eli Roth’s History of Horror. We already shot it under distance conditions. It was quite elaborate to see what television production is like these days.
I didn’t realize it was gonna be a six-day commitment. I had to commit to self-quarantine for a number of days, take a COVID-19 test, and wait several days for the results. It’s like working in a straitjacket in some ways, but it’s one of the best series out there.
Eli Roth’s History of Horror has been one of the best-edited compilation series that I’ve ever seen. It’s fun to be involved in. They’re going to have a lot of great people in season three. I only saw my segment. I’m as eager as everybody else to see it. AMC has had great success with the show. Anything that keeps monsters alive, I’m happy to be a part of.
I’ve been writing a brand new, massively expanded version of my Browning’s biography, which will be out later this year. It’s a limited-edition art book with much more to learn about Browning.
Also, this fall, I’m going out on the fan convention circuit, meeting people who read my books.
Bonilla: How does it feel to be writing horror all these years?
Skal: I never thought I would be writing this long about horror movies. That I’d still be doing it, with people paying me to do it, and appreciating it.
Bonilla: What advice do you give to those interested in a writing career?
Skal: This often happens. Students and fans will ask about doing exactly what I do or planning a career as a film historian. Whatever you do, keep your day job. You also have to have a real thick hide.
If you want to write about movies, it’s got to be the most important thing in the world to you. To have some bottomless fascination that you can’t even explain, or get to the bottom of yourself.
Also, discipline, because you have to get into a regular pattern to write. When something clicks and it’s working, you have to give yourself a daily quota. You have to be at your computer at the same time, same hours every day, no matter how much you turn out. Even if it’s only one page at the end of 12 months, you’re going to have a heck of a lot of stuff to work with. Don’t procrastinate. It’s still one of my biggest problems. After all these years, you think I know better. But it’s easy to not start. And you’ll just regret it later. So, write. Write. Write. Write. Write.