It’s Halloween month! What spooky scary nonfiction might you be reading? I mean yes — real life is scary enough, especially this year, but perhaps you’re distracting from the everyday horror and existential angst with some nonfiction about less-present scariness? Just me?
The wonderful Molly at Silver Button Books is again hosting Frighteningly Good Reads, a fun, relaxed initiative to read and discuss scary books this October, so go see what she’s reading and share your Frighteningly Good Reads posts there. (For my previous spooky nonfiction reading recommendations, see here and here.)
This year I read The Frighteners: A Journey Through our Cultural Fascination with the Macabre. Reverend Peter Laws is long obsessed with horror and all things grim and gruesome, jokingly calling himself a “sinister minister”. In this pop psychology/sociology study crossed with memoir, he writes about some of the mental impulses behind our collective undeniable fascination with macabre topics and lore.
What’s interesting here is that things like gory horror movies, graphic and violent video games, and a general inclination towards entertainment or hobbies of a more macabre nature are often dismissed as not having greater cultural value, or, worse, negatively contributing to behavior and perceptions. Laws sets out to prove why this isn’t so based on the psychology behind our consumption of such things.
He examines his own love of horror movies despite an aversion to real-life blood and gore, looks at local legends like the Hull werewolf, vacations in Transylvania, meets shopkeepers and collectors of objects once belonging or peripheral to serial killers, and interviews real vampires and a convention of furries (I’m not convinced the latter quite belonged in this book, although made for an interesting look at an unusual social group nonetheless).
The format and style have a Mary Roach-type of voice, but the research isn’t as intense. It’s more a surface-skimming look at these ideas, but that’s not the worst. I’m not sure how much more time I would’ve really wanted to spend hearing about actual blood-drinking vampires, so the quick tour through these worlds was fine by me.
Yet it falters a bit for this too, since we get more of Laws embarking on fear-stoking activities as opposed to what I would’ve liked — more history and related case studies to explain where this fascination comes from and how it actually benefits us. It’s at its strongest where the sociology and psychology are explained and the focus is less on the personal, even if that was a necessary starting point.
I was intrigued to learn that activities like rubbernecking at car accidents, a kind of real-life horror consumption, are evolutionarily beneficial, as they help teach us what we should be afraid of and how to avoid mistakes that might cause us harm. So morbid fascination has its advantages. It’s a simple, perhaps not novel concept, but the way Laws illustrates and contextualizes ideas like this felt freshly informative.
The Frighteners isn’t as broad in scope as I would have preferred either, but for what it does cover it’s enlightening and entertaining. I had a laugh-out-loud moment and elsewhere the light tone just made reading it more fun, but it wasn’t at that Mary Roach sweet spot of scientific smarts plus well-played humor. I think it’s just a light way to enjoy the season and learn a little about why we’re drawn to darkness and spookiness at all. published September 25, 2018 by Skyhorse
For an eerie, chilling historical read there’s Stacy Horn’s Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. It’s perhaps unfair to group the ominous specter of the mental institution with Halloween, but this is exactly where ideas of hauntings come from — physical locations where unthinkably terrible things or mistreatment occurred, where even for decades or centuries after, we struggle with processing what happened there and how people unnecessarily suffered.
These spots seem too laden with history not to be somehow haunted, and even if you’re not a ghost believer (me), it’s chillingly frightening.
The Asylum itself sat opposite Seventy-Ninth to Eightieth Streets in Manhattan. The two islands lay so close to each other that inmates on Blackwell’s could watch the ever-changing steel, brick, and granite panorama on the opposite shore. Commissioners would mention this in their reports as if the views of New York City were an entertaining feature, but in reality it was like being on the wrong side of a moat surrounding an enchanted, glittering palace.
Blackwell’s Island is now called Roosevelt Island, a slim stretch of land situated in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. Today, it features luxury housing sold promising “small-town charm” with big-city views and upscale riverfront cache, but it was once nicknamed Welfare Island for its occupants of a “lunatic” asylum, two prisons, a poorhouse, and multiple hospitals, including one for smallpox.
This very readable, if dispiriting, history of Blackwell Island’s medical and social institutions and how and why they failed those they were meant to aid and protect follows a different figure in each chapter, with some recurrences of the most significant. These include the Reverend William Glenney French, one of history’s unsung heroes, who treated and ministered tirelessly to the incarcerated and hospitalized population.
Blackwell’s was also the setting for journalist Nellie Bly’s infamous undercover reporting, when she got herself committed to the asylum for ten days and reported on the appalling conditions there. So most of the stories are bleak along the same lines — there was never enough money or concern about the sick and destitute, and this attitude led to grave neglect and abuse.
It’s especially unsettling because it’s not buried too terribly deep in the past — the island’s first penitentiary was built in 1832, and the history Horn covers stretches into the early 20th century. And sadly, our stigmas around mental illness still have far to go today, and our treatment and consideration of the poorest and sickest among us, not to mention incarcerated populations, have even farther.
And it’s saddening to consider all of this in one go, although mercifully the book isn’t very long. Some parts are a bit drier and more data-heavy than others, and I far preferred the more-specific anecdotes that were available to illustrate everyday functioning and typical occurrences (horrifying as some of these were — I cringe just remembering the description of baths in the asylums) but I think it’s a worthwhile read for its precise focus, and for a lesser-examined corner of New York City history.
I walked the Queensboro Bridge a few days ago and looked down at Roosevelt Island; it seems so slim and small, and looks meticulously upkept. It’s hard to reconcile its current affluent, curated image with the historical reality — just the magnitude of everything Horn relates here, but it’s a history that feels important to know. published May 15, 2018 by Algonquin
What scary or Halloweeny nonfiction are you reading this year?