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