Our Old Monsters by Brenda S. Gardenour Walter (book review).

Brenda S. Gardenour Walter’s book ‘Our Old Monsters’ is more informative by its sub-title ‘Witches, Werewolves And Vampires From Medieval Theology To Horror Cinema’. In other words, Walter is looking at the real life source of these creatures and how its evolved over the years from how the church, in this case we should be thinking Catholic, demonised a lot of things. Oddly, she doesn’t go for the Catholics by name for the first third of the book. She does reference things as being ‘Aristotelian’ and just in case you don’t know that means it could only be one of two things, it either was or wasn’t something. There was no middle ground. From there, she then spends a chapter looking at some horror film examples in a bit more detail.


The opening chapters could really be seen as how women were demonised by the Church and a lot of that was based on their time of the month or period and its loss of blood. Reading this, I’m surprised any woman survived unscathed. Oddly, sex was seen as the means for the man to keep the woman warm. Go figure on that one and any thoughts as to what made babies.

With her look at Satan, she references a fishy smell from women. Oddly, Walter forgets that this is actually something real and to do with female monthly periods rather than Satan. When you consider this is from the Catholic Church, why are we so surprised at their attitude of not liking it? Nevertheless, it was seen as the work of the devil which must surely have kept women in their place at the time. When you consider how the Catholic Church ruled by keeping everyone subservient, it’s not difficult to see them accusing anything they didn’t like. In fact, Walter doesn’t mention Catholicism until she discusses ‘The Exorcist’ and certainly discusses their involvement with the subject of vampires, which seems odd to ignore or at least establish which church in the factual data.

Something that I didn’t know was that eels, because they were black, were considered dangerous as being demonic. Then again, illnesses that produced black bile like the Plague were also associated with the devil and must surely have held back medical treatment.

The film examples follow the usual pattern of synopsis but not follow a time-line. As many of these movies develop on each other as a foundation, this lack of ‘evolution’ might make it a little topsy-turvey for some. Even so, there were several films I’ve never came across. Her coverage of witch-based films and even a mention of TV series covers everything but ‘Bewitched’. Granted it was a sit-com but there was the Halloween episode where Samantha and her mother, Endora, laughed at the preconception of ugly witches which was making a very valid point about stereotyping. As this was also something Walter was covering, it seems a shame it was missed. Indeed, in less enlightened times, the likes of Mary Poppins would also be considered a witch. Likewise, there have been witch films, like ‘Bell, Book And Candle (1958), where the witches looked normal. There is humour in there but it could easily have been filmed showing ugly witches, even in disguise. It’s all very well saying that the media depiction of witches as being ugly and evil but it does need to be balanced and shown that they are not all that way and I’m only dragging a few examples out of my head.

Walter brings up in interesting comparisons between vampires and the persecuted Jews of that time period. I’m not altogether sure I agree with it. Mostly because any cadaverous looking person is going to have exaggerated ears and noses. I should point out that I don’t think Walter is anti-Semitic but is more about how the associations were evolving back in the 18th century and how the Christians resentment often seeped through and depicted as such. Mind you, as only ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ (1967) was the only film I can also recall to feature a Jewish vampire, I’m not entirely convinced. Although Walter doesn’t mention them, if memory serves there was a Jewish vampire in Marvel’s ‘Tomb Of Dracula’ which was also regarded as a breakthrough at the time. If anything, vampires who come from other faiths has never been a big thing in fiction of any media. Myths of witches and vampires do exist around the world so more a result of mostly unfounded fears than religious connotation although that didn’t stop them exploiting them to keep their followers under control.

Werewolves are kept to only one chapter. Walter focuses more on the madness and legend than the causes of lycanthropy that no doubt inspired it. If anything, people turning into wolves is much more basic than witches and vampires which rarely has any diversity, except being related to them.

One thing that did make me think after reading this book is how few cases of vampirism and werewolves there are today. You can only hope that people are less superstitious today or see them as medical conditions. Even so, those people who have a taste for blood have to be considered wannabes because they certainly don’t have any recognised in-built vampire characteristics to make them appear supernatural.

Although I’m not entirely convinced by all of Walter’s arguments, she does explain well and is a smooth writer and easy to read. About the only failing is 20 pages of chapter notes which even I ended up only doing a quick scan after each chapter which does tend to defeat their objective. If you need a grounding on the subject and some of the films out there then this book will serve you well.

GF Willmetts

January 2016

(pub: McFarland. 241 page indexed large enlarged paperback. Price: £37.50 (UK), $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78647-680-0)

check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com

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