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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Monster Mash, or How To Create A Monster, Part 2

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In the introductory chapter of Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains the theses upon which he believes the “understanding” of “cultures through the monsters they bear” should rest. In doing so, he provides, inadvertently, perhaps, a framework upon which writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction may construct monsters of their own.

These are his seven theses, which, in this post, we shall explain and modify to fit our own purpose as monster makers:
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.

Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body.

Cohen’s first thesis is that the monster represents an existential concern--“a fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”--of a particular time and place.

Thesis II: The Monster always escapes.

According to his second thesis, such concerns change from time to time, so the monster that represents them must be protean, altering its appearance as necessary so that it might continue to embody the latest of its culture’s ever-shifting, real-life fears, desires, anxieties, and fantasies. Its shape-shifting character makes its essential nature a mystery.

Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis.

The monster also heralds (and, therefore, warns) of a “crisis” regarding its culture’s categories of understanding the world, including itself and the societies and individuals who comprise the culture. It defies the neat scientific pigeonholes into which a culture would group all things under the sun--for example, as mineral, plant, or animal--resisting “compartmentalization” and inviting new explorations of the world and new understandings of existence. Neither fish nor fowl, it doesn’t fit its culture’s categories of understanding, and, therefore, its meaning is ambiguous and open to interpretation: “A mixed category, the monster resists any classification built on hierarchy and binary opposition, demanding instead a ‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response (differences in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and resistance to integration” (7). In sum, as Cohen argues,
The monstrous is a genus too large to be encapsulated in any conceptual system; the monster’s very existence is a rebuke to boundary and enclosure; . . . it threatens to devour. .. any thinker who insists otherwise. . . . It breaks apart bifurcating, “either/or” syllogistic logic with a kind of reasoning closer to “and/or,” introducing what Barbara Johnson has called “a revolution in the very logic of meaning” (7).

Sometimes the tiny helps us to grasp the much larger, so a real-life example of a categorical crisis might help to elucidate Cohen’s third thesis. To this end, ladies and gentlemen, I introduce the lowly Euglena. Scientists had long argued that all things are divisible into three broad categories: minerals, plants, and animals. Then, one day, they happened to catch sight of the Euglena under their microscopes. A one-celled animal, with a cell wall and the ability to move under its own power, by thrashing a flagellum, it was an animal--except for the chloroplasts that allowed it to photosynthesize--organelles that animals lack and an ability that animals do not have. The Euglena was neither animal nor plant, but a whole new sort of organism that defied their neat scientific pigeonholes and led to a crisis, of sorts, in the culture of their discipline, until they were swept into a new category, specially made for them alone, that of the Protista. The tiny Euglena was a monster of the microscopic world, creating in microbiology the same “rebuke to boundary and enclosure” that the monster, in general, creates on the much larger level of cultural understandings of the world. (think of what Swamp-Thing might accomplish!)

Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.

The monster is the eternal Other, the Not-Me of its culture, the culture’s rejected self, envisioned as an outsider who dwells in the land beyond one’s own. As such, “the monster,” Cohen observes, “is difference made flesh” (7), whether the monster of the day represented “the aboriginal inhabitants of Canaan” who were “envisioned as menacing giants to justify the Hebrew colonization of the Promised Land,” the Muslims whom medieval French crusaders pictured as “demonic caricatures whose menacing lack of humanity was readable from the bestial attributes,” Native Americans considered “as unredeemable savages” and threats to “Manifest Destiny” which sought to “push westward with disregard,” or “an alien culture. . . within vast communities dedicated to becoming homogeneous and monolithic” against whose very existence a “Final Solution” was required (7-8). Many monsters, both ancient and modern, Cohen says, are the products of “race” as much as cultural and other biases: “From the classical period into the twentieth century, race has been almost as powerful a catalyst to the creation of monsters as culture, gender, and sexuality” (10). The monsters that such biases help to spawn are such as supposedly inferior ethnic groups, “hermaphrodites,” homosexuals, and other “marginalized social groups”; quoting Rene Girard, Cohen reminds his reader that--
Monsters are never created ex nihilo, but through a process of fragmentation and recombination in which elements are extracted “from various forms” (including--indeed, especially--marginalized social groups) and then assembled as the monster, “which can then assume an independent identity” (11).

As that which is different and Other than the status quo, the monster, which cannot be pigeonholed according to the reigning culture’s categories of understanding, including those of its own understanding, the monster is a reminder of the arbitrary nature of the culture itself and of its categories of understanding and “threatens to destroy not just individual members of a society but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed” (12).

Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible.

Although the monster invites exploration of the unknown (the body of potential knowledge that lies outside the “boundary and enclosure” of the culture’s categories of understanding), it also repels such exploration, because one of its purposes is to guard and protect the borders that a culture erects to defend itself against the absurd and against challenges to its own system, or, as Cohen says, “The monster of prohibition exists to demarcate the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, to call horrid attention to the borders that cannot--must not
--be crossed” (13), the fact that some of these “relations” are, of themselves, “horrid”:

Primarily these borders are in place to control the traffic in women, or more generally to establish strictly homosocial bonds, the ties between men that keep a patriarchal society functional. . . (13).

The prototypical example of a monster that threatened the culture of its day is that of the Cyclops, Cohen says, whose anarchistic society, bereft of tradition, represented a threat to classical culture by the lawless and uncultured barbarian. The monster, Cyclopean or otherwise, threatens because it is potentially deconstructive:
The monster’s destructiveness is really a deconstructiveness: it threatens to reveal that difference originates in process, rather than in fact (and that “fact” is subject to constant reconstruction and change) (14-15).

Not only does the Greek myth concerning the threats of the Cyclops to its culture, but such science fiction films of the 1950’s as She and Them! also reflect the “deconstructiveness” of the monster and its theme of cultural relativism. She is a movie about “a radioactive virago from outer space who kills every man she touches” and Them! is about “giant ants (really, Communists) who burrow beneath Los Angeles (that is, Hollywood) and threaten world peace (that is, American conservatism)” (14). As such, both movies reflect the tendency of their makers, white men, to cast women and nonwhites as “monsters” and reflect taboos against incest and miscegenation, two threats that white men see as incompatible to their continued supremacy within, and control of, their society and culture (17).

Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.

Notwithstanding its threatening nature, the monster is, paradoxically, an object of desire, Cohen argues, in the same way that the forbidden fruit attracts the appetite. Confined to the limits of the silver screen (or, one might add, the page of a novel), the monster offers a means of venting the impulses an audience has which, otherwise, are forbidden and subject to social sanctions. The monster is cathartic. Besides, sooner or later, a hero will arrive to chop off its head:
When contained by geographic, generic, or epistemic marginalization, the monster can function as an alter ego, as an alluring projection of (an Other) self. . . . We watch the monstrous spectacle of the horror film because we know that the cinema is a temporary place. . . . King Arthur will ultimately destroy him. The audience knows how the genre works (17).

What is true on the individual level, Cohen argues, is apt to be true on the cultural level as well. If the individual can see him- or herself as the monster, his or her culture can also project onto the monster those aspects of itself that it officially rejects, creating a sort of mirror self of the damned:
What Bakhtin calls “official culture” can transfer all that is viewed as undesirable in itself into the body of the monster, performing a wish-fulfillment drama of its own; the scapegoated monster is perhaps destroyed in the course of some official narrative, purging the community by eliminating its sins. The monster’s eradication functions as an exorcism and, when retold and promulgated, as a catechism (18).

Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold. . . of becoming.

“Monsters are our children,” Cohen contends, for it is we, out of our own “fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy,” create, and, when they reenter our world “from the Outside,” from the outer darkness, as it were, into which we have cast them, which they invariably will do, they come bringing gifts of a sort: “not just a fuller knowing of our place, but. . . self-knowledge, human knowledge” (20). Moreover, they fulfill a critical function, asking “us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place”:
They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perceptions of difference, our tolerance toward its expression. They ask us why we have created them (20).

During her stint as television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah Michelle Gellar said, tongue in cheek, that she knew that vampires exist, because she saw them every day. Near the conclusion to his chapter, Cohen asks a similar question, but offers a serious, rather than flippant, answer. “Do monsters exist?” They do, he insists, “for if they did not, how could we?”

For the monster maker, monsters are a means both of critiquing the existing order and for supporting it. They are paradoxical creatures in this, as they are by nature. They show us the germs, some of them pathogenic, in the baby’s bath water, but they retain the baby, at the end, rather than tossing it out with the water in which it has bathed. The baby is the individual self, but as it exists in the greater context of a specific culture located here and now. The Other which threatens the self and its culture exposes horrors within both, but, in so doing, it exposes these threats as diseased tissues, as it were, that must be excised--or exorcized--if the body itself is to survive. After the dragon is loosed upon the earth for a time, King Arthur will arrive to chop off its head. Meantime, the monster will target the vices and sins of the ruling elite itself, against whom King Arthur is both the sire, the defender, and the conqueror, all in one.

As we saw in the previous post in this series, In developing his taxonomy, David Williams, perhaps inadvertently, offers twelve ways by which writers may create monsters:

Hypertrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be enlarged, to produce a giant of some kind. Example: Giants.

Atrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be shrunk, to produce a pygmy of some kind. Example: Pygmies.

Excrescence: Abnormal outgrowths may appear upon the face, the body, or both, disfiguring a person and giving him or her a monstrous appearance. Example: Elephant Man.

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.

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.

Mislocation of organs: There may be a mix of human and animal body parts. Examples: Centaurs, mermaids, satyrs.

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).

Disturbed growth: Normal growth may be “disturbed” in some way. Example: Premature aging, as with Rip Van Winkle.

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, vegetable lambs.

Hermaphroditic birth: Both sets of genitals may occur in the same individual. Example: Hermaphrodite.

Monstrous races: The existence of “monstrous races” may be posited. Examples: Dog-headed Cynocephali or the Astomori, who lacking mouths, live on the upon the odors of apples.

To these twelve, we added a couple more:

The monster should exist, but “far away, not here,” so that its existence cannot be easily confirmed, if at all.

Monsters must be metaphorical.

Based upon a modification of Cohen’s seven theses, as indicated by paraphrases that reorient some of his insights, we can now add seven more principles to consider in the creation of monsters:
The monster is an embodiment of its culture’s peculiar concerns.The monster always escapes.

The monster indicates a dissolve of a culture’s ways of understanding itself and its world.

The monster represents that which is different from accepted truths.

The monster protects the interests of the status quo.

The monster allows an audience to vent pent-up antisocial desires.

The monster both critiques culture and also tells us who we are, thereby helping us to become what we are not but may want to be.

In our final installment in this series, we will consider how these ideas and principles, and some others, apply to the creation of more monsters that inhabit horror fiction that has Christian interests and themes but which is not necessarily marketed as “Christian” fiction per se.


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

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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