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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Monster Mash, or How To Create A Monster

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Believe it or not, there is a science, as it were, of monsters. Known as teratology, the study sought to ascertain the origins and the significance of monsters. Originally regarded as ill omens, expressive of God’s displeasure, monsters were believed to warn of the imminence of divine judgment, or the wrath of God, and, of course, the punishment that would follow.

According to Marie-Helene Huet’s Monstrous Imagination, monsters have been considered to have originated as the result of divine creation, of demonic creation, of astronomical influences, of interspecies fornication, of imperfections in parental anatomies, and of the maternal imagination, especially as it focused upon images during the mother’s conception or pregnancy (1); “defective sperm or a deformed womb,” she adds, could also have been the causes of the births of such human deformities (6).

Later, monsters went from being regarded as warnings from God to being considered the results of birth defects, and some teratologists dedicated themselves to attempting to create monsters in laboratories--or in what passed, at the time, for laboratories. One such person, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (called Isidore of Seville, for short), claims to have created them by the thousands in an early effort to comprehend “monstrous embryology,” a study that he termed “teratogeny” (Huet, 108).

Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, exemplifies the excrescence of body parts.

Isidore of Seville also devised a classification system, or taxonomy, of monsters that contemporary horror writers might find helpful in their creations of literary, if not actual, monsters. David Williams summarizes Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy in Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature, to which are added the examples in square brackets:

In Isidore’s structure, monstrosity is constituted in one of the following ways: (1) hypertrophy of the body [i. e. giants], (2) atrophy of the body [i. e., pygmies] (3) excrescence of body parts, (4) superfluity of body parts [Multicephalics (hydra), bicephalics (Janus), tricephalics (Cerberus), Argus] , (5) deprivation of body parts [Antipodes, Cyclops, Acephalic (i. e., Blemmye or Epifuge), Grylle, Baubo], (6) mixture of human and animal parts [Lamia, Mermaid, Satyr, Centaur, Minotaur, Cynocephail, Manticore], (7) animal births by human women, (8) mislocation of organs or parts in the body [Grylle, Baubo], (9) disturbed growth (being born old), (10) composite beings, (11) hermaphrodites, and (12) monstrous races [Sciapodes] (107).

The tricephalic Cerberus (courtesy of the poet-artist William Blake)

There was occasionally some overlap among the categories, but, in general, they manage to account for most, if not all, of the extant monsters of myth, legend, folklore, and modern literatures in which monsters still answer curtain calls, such as fantasy, science fiction, and, of course, the horror genre, such as pygmies, giants, Antipodes, shape-shifters, multicephalic animals and humans, blemmyes (also known as epifuges), plants which grow human heads instead of flowers; animals with human heads or humans with animal heads, the Cynocephali, and the Astomori, many of which Williams discusses in his book.

Shiva, an illustration of a superfluity of body parts

Other writers also compiled taxonomies of monsters, including, as Williams notes, Ambrose Paré and Claude Kappler (15).

In developing his taxonomy, Williams offers twelve ways by which writers may create monsters:

Rip Van Winkle, who suffered a condition analagous to disturbed growth culminating in premature aging
  1. Hypertrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be enlarged, to produce a giant of some kind. Example: Giants.
  2. Atrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be shrunk, to produce a pygmy of some kind. Example: Pygmies.
  3. Excrescence: Abnormal outgrowths may appear upon the face, the body, or both, disfiguring a person and giving him or her a monstrous appearance. Example: the Elephant Man.
  4. Superfluity of body parts: One or more superfluous body parts--arms, breasts, eyes, legs, nipples, teeth--may form on (or inside) the body, often in unusual locations. Example: Multicephalic (many-headed), tricephalic (three-headed), or bicephalic (two-headed) creatures, such as the hydra, Cerberus, and Janus, respectively.
  5. Deprivation of parts: There may be an absence of one or more body parts that would normally appear on (or inside) the body. Example: One-eyed Cyclops.
  6. Mislocation of organs: Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).
  7. Mixture of human and animal parts: There may be a mix of human and animal body parts. Examples: Centaurs, mermaids, satyrs.
  8. Animal births by women: In a means of creating monsters that implies bestiality, women may give birth to animals. Example: Mixture of human and animal parts: Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).
  9. Disturbed growth: Normal growth may be “disturbed” in some way. Example: Premature aging, as with Rip Van Winkle (sort of).
  10. Composite beings: A creature may result from a composite of various body parts, animal, human, plant, mineral, and otherwise. Example: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ents, griffins, Gorgons, Pegasus, and vegetable lambs.
  11. Hermaphroditic births: Births of infants with both sets of genitals. Example: Hermaphrodite.
  12. Monstrous races: The existence of “monstrous races” may be posited. Examples: Dog-headed Cynocephali or the Astomori, who lacking mouths, live upon the odors of apples.

(One must wonder whether Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy was descriptive or prescriptive--in other words, did he create it merely to describe monsters or as formulae by which to attempt their actual creation in his laboratory? In either case, his classification scheme is useful to contemporary writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction who want, for purposes of their own, to create such fabulous creatures).

Although Williams, quite rightly, does not include the provision, in his summary of Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy of monsters, that the monster should exist, but “far away, not here” so that its existence cannot be easily confirmed, if at all, the monster maker is well advised to add this to his or her list of principles for creating monsters, because, although it does not relate specifically to the types of monsters that exist, as it were, it does offer sound advice concerning the location of the environment in which they might best be placed.

Monsters must also be metaphorical in nature; that is, they must represent not merely themselves but also a real-life, or existential, and, usually, a cultural, threat of some kind, as Godzilla represents the Japanese’s reaction to, and humanity’s fear of, the atomic bomb and, more specifically, the long-term effects of nuclear radiation upon its human victims. We have discussed this topic in previous posts, so we shall not belabor it here, mentioning it solely as a reminder.

However, as narrators are wont to say in Infomercials, Wait! There’s more!

In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers “seven theses” which, with some elucidation and modification, can, like Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy of monsters, assist writers in the creation of their own monsters:

Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body.
Thesis II: The monster always escapes.
Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis.
Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.
Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible.
Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.
Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold. . . of becoming.

Since Cohen’s theses require some explanation, we will save the task of elucidating (and modifying) them for a subsequent post.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Huet, Marie-Helene. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature. London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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