the moral monster

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth
Monsters are meaning machines

The monster has been a popular figure in Western society for centuries, as a notion that has both fascinated and frightened its members.

Throughout time, the monster has been used as a symbol of warning in fairy tales and cautionary tales. One of the most popular cautionary tales in Western culture is the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which follows the narrative structure of fairy tales and presents a damsel in distress and a big, bad wolf who threatens her safety.

We live in a time of monsters. Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return.

A moral monster is a figure who performs monstrous, abnormal actions, and thereby transgresses the rules and borders of society and humanity. This kind of monster cannot be detected visually, but has to be revealed by its monstrous actions. A typical moral monster that hides among us is the serial killer.

The monster challenges us to discuss and reconsider our society’s rules and values, as well as the actions that characterize ‘normality’. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen suggests that the monster is not only a threat towards individual members of society, but also the structures within society upon which we build our identity as human beings.

kathy-ruttenberg-female-unconscious-4-19-12-14According to Cohen, we get the monsters we deserve. The monster always seems to appear at a time of crisis, and has an ‘ontological liminality’ that threatens the rules of society. The Oxford English Dictionaries defines the term ontological as ‘referring to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being’, and explain how liminality, or the liminal refers to something that is ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold’. Cohen claims that because the monster is a being that is ontologically liminal, it can question binary thinking and introduce a crisis. This shows us that the monster both appears in a moment of crisis and creates a crisis within us, since it is placed at the edge of what we can know. It is a figure that challenges us to discuss and reconsider our own rules as well as society itself. Since the monster is a product of its time, monster narratives can say something about our society and ourselves. As a result of this the monster has frequently been, and still is, presented in literature in Western society.

Cohen argues that the monster is ‘an embodiment of a certain cultural moment– of a time, a feeling and a place’ and that the monster’s body ‘incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy’ in a certain culture. There is a complex relation between social, cultural, and literary-historical factors that create and shape the monster. This means that the monster is constantly changing according to the changes within society and its norms and ideology.


Another important feature of the monster is that it can function as a scapegoat. Cohen claims that the unwanted aspects of a culture can be transferred to the monster, before being ‘ritually destroyed in course of some official narrative’. By exterminating it we can free ourselves from unwanted thoughts and ideas, and it can therefor function as a sort of ‘exorcism’. If these narratives are retold and promoted they can even operate as catechisms. There appears to be a short boundary between the scapegoat and the monster, and this means that the monster can be seen as the absolute other. When it has shown its true self, it needs to be banished. The scapegoat is always different, or ‘other’ in some way, and because of this, the moral monster can also be seen as an embodiment of ‘otherness’. It is a notion that is both challenging while at the same time helps us create structure and boundaries.

Otherness is always created, and a culture can be read and analyzed through the ‘other’ monsters it creates. Therefore, it can also say something about what society accepts and does not accept in regards to its members’ behavior. Cohen notes that ‘[m]onsters are never created ex nihilo’ and that they are a combination of elements that are considered deviant and ‘other’. As another, the moral monster also exemplifies the binary opposite of ‘self’, both the individual ‘self’ and the ‘self’ that is linked to our function in society, and how challenging features of this might be changed and developed.

The moral monster is a despot who breeches the laws of society. This makes it a transgressive character that exemplifies otherness and the abnormal, something that is opposed to the conforming members of society. Cohen argues that ‘otherness’ is always created and that the monster embodies this. In the OED the term otherness is defined as ‘the quality of fact of being different’, while the term ‘other’ is defined as an ‘alternative of two’. An individual that is considered ‘other’ and does not conform to the rules, stands a binary opposite to a ‘normal’ individual.

As a result, s/he is situated outside the social pact and can therefore be categorized as different from the rest of society.

Since the moral monster is an ‘other’, a frightening, transgressive notion we want to keep it at safe distance from ourselves, and one way of doing this is through the use of literary narratives. Another function narratives can have is to help us understand problematic and challenging notions, such as the moral monster. Two of literary branches that can be used for such a purpose are myths and fairy tales. These are narratives that create structure and boundaries, and therefore they function particularly well when dealing with transgressive figures such as the moral monster.




The moral monster

The monster is a figure that has been present in popular stories throughout time. We will focus on the literary moral monster, rather than real monsters who live within society. We first need to know what the concept of the moral monster embodies.

‘The monster is transgressive’, Cohen states. It is a notion that refuses to be categorized, but is linked to ‘forbidden practices’ that are frowned upon by society. One of the main goals of linking the moral monster to behavior and ideas that are not accepted is to teach the members of a society what is considered ‘normal’ behavior and what is not. Cohen argues that the monster’s transgressive traits are used in order to ‘normalize and enforce’ those values that are seen as proper within a culture. The reason why the moral monster is especially useful as to convey ideas and values is because its monstrousness is a result of its actions, rather than its physical appearance.

fine-art-sculptures-Kathy-Ruttenberg-FishbowlAs we have seen, the moral monster is considered transgressive because it does not conform to the rules and norms set by society. A result of this is that society categorizes it as deviant and abnormal, but also ‘abhuman’. Kelly Hurley explains the ‘abhuman subject’ in the book The Gothic Body (1996). She describes it as ‘not-quite-human’, and argues that it always is ‘in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other’. The abhuman body is a liminal one, she claims, and is often perceived as ‘abominable’.

She points out how the liminal body of the abhuman does not have ‘a fully human existence’, but is rather balancing on binary oppositions such as ‘human/beast, male/female, or civilized/primitive’. As a result of this, it is able to ‘confound[s] one’s ability to make sense of the world’. The abhuman moral monster is, through its liminality, forcing us to question the ideas and values upon which Western society is built. What is particularly fascinating about the abhuman moral monster is its ability to take human form, but still be monstrous. This ability to appear like a human being, and still be liminal, makes it a threat towards the ‘integrity of human identity’. The notion of the abhuman can also raise the question ‘what is a human being?’ If the abhuman subject can look like a human being, but be monstrous, it suddenly blurs our definitions and categories in regards to this question. It can also function to represent the aspects that are repressed by a culture and considered ‘other’, and this makes it an intriguing notion to study, as it can tell us something about society and the problematic aspects of the ideas and values it promotes.

Abhumanness is a repulsively fascinating spectacle’ that returns frequently in literature. This combination of features makes the abhuman alluring, in the way that it is both frightening and attractive. With its human-like traits and monstrous behavior, the abnormal subject can be seen as what Sigmund Freud described as ‘the uncanny’. He explains how the uncanny is ‘in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only though the process of repression’ (Freud 1955). This suggests that the abhuman moral monster represent something that has been repressed by society, which threatens to resurface through the body and actions of the moral monster. The ability to embody repressed fears while at the same time have familiar traits makes the abhuman monster especially intimidating. It means that it is capable of hiding its monstrousness, while it at the same time is making us fascinated and attracted to it.

148450As we have seen, the monster is a notion that continues to haunt our imagination, and make us paranoid. Given this, the monster stories in this thesis will be investigated as stories about paranoia. In monster narratives the boundaries between self and other are blurred, as we project the self to the world outside. This is then read as hostile, as the other ‘becomes a version of the self-returned, with interests, in the form of hostility’. This suggests that parts of the culture that has been expelled, or abjected, may return to haunt it.

TV-series can show us how paranoia is presented in contemporary society, and how it is problematic to detect the ‘invisible’, abhuman moral monster. They can also show us how the expelled notions of society still haunt us, and how these conceal themselves in modern times. The problem of detecting otherness hidden behind familiar traits is one of the key aspects of myths and fairy tales. These are narratives where one can learn about, and be entertained by, the horrific creatures of the world through fictional stories. Monster narratives and fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” can produce enough paranoia for us to be aware of the dangers of the forest, and thereby they function well as a cautionary tales. We can say that the paranoia that was once created by ghosts is now presented by the urban, rational killer on the loose, the serial killer, and that this is still portrayed in various cautionary narratives today…

Our monsters, ourselves


Monsters and the Moral Imagination

Monsters are on the rise. People can’t seem to get enough of vampires lately, and zombies have a new lease on life.

The reasons for this increased monster culture are hard to pin down. The monster proliferation can be explained, in part, by exploring the meaning of monsters. Popular culture is re-enchanted with meaningful monsters.

The uses of monsters vary widely. In our liberal culture, we dramatize the rage of the monstrous creature—and Frankenstein’s is a good example—then scold ourselves and our “intolerant society” for alienating the outcast in the first place. The liberal lesson of monsters is one of tolerance: We must overcome our innate scapegoating, our xenophobic tendencies. Of course, this is by no means the only interpretation of monster stories. The medieval mind saw giants and mythical creatures as God’s punishments for the sin of pride. For the Greeks and Romans, monsters were prodigies—warnings of impending calamity.

After Freud, monster stories were considered cathartic journeys into our unconscious—everybody contains a Mr. Hyde, and these stories give us a chance to “walk on the wild side.” But in the denouement of most stories, the monster is killed and the psyche restored to civilized order. We can have our fun with the “torture porn” of Leatherface and Freddy Krueger or the erotic vampires, but this “vacation” to where the wild things are ultimately helps us return to our lives of quiet repression.

Any careful reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, will reveal not only a highly sexualized description of blood drinking, but an erotic characterization of the count himself. Even John Polidori’s original 1819 vampire tale The Vampyre describes the monster as a sexually attractive force. According to the critic Christopher Craft, Gothic monster tales—Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—rehearse a similar story structure. “Each of these texts first invites or admits a monster, then entertains and is entertained by monstrosity for some extended duration, until in its closing pages it expels or repudiates the monster and all the disruption that he/she/it brings,” he writes.

A crucial but often-ignored aspect of monsterology is the role those beasties play in our moral imaginations. Recent experimental moral psychology has given us useful tools for looking at the way people actually do their moral thinking. Brain imaging, together with hypothetical ethical dilemmas about runaway trolley cars, can teach us a lot about our real value systems and actions. But another way to get at this subterranean territory is by looking at our imaginative lives.

Monsters can stand as symbols of human vulnerability and crisis, and as such they play imaginative foils for thinking about our own responses to menace. Part of our fascination with serial-killer monsters is that we (and our loved ones) are potentially vulnerable to sadistic violence—never mind that statistical probability renders such an attack almost laughable. Irrational fears are decidedly unfunny. We are vulnerable to both the inner and the outer forces. Monster stories and films only draw us in when we identify with the persons who are being chased, and we tacitly ask ourselves: Would I board up the windows to keep the zombies out or seek the open water? Would I go down to the basement after I hear the thump, and if so, would I bring the butcher knife or the fireplace poker? What will I do when I am vulnerable?


The comedy writer Max Brooks understands that dimension of monster stories very well. In books like The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, Brooks gives us painstaking, haunting, and hilarious advice about how best to meet our undead foes. For its April Fools’ edition, the otherwise serious journal Archaeology interviewed Brooks, asking him (tongue firmly in cheek): “Does the archaeological record hold any zombie-related lessons for us today? What can our ancestors teach us about meeting and, ultimately, defeating the undead menace?” Brooks replied: “The greatest lesson our ancestors have to teach us is to remain both vigilant and unafraid. We must endeavor to emulate the ancient Romans; calm, efficient, treating zombies as just one more item on a rather mundane checklist. Panic is the undead’s greatest ally, doing far more damage, in some cases, than the creatures themselves. The goal is to be prepared, not scared, to use our heads, and cut off theirs.”

Brooks is unparalleled in parodying a well-worn monster tradition, but he wouldn’t be so funny if we weren’t already using monster stories to imagine strategies for facing enemies. The monster is a virtual sparring partner for our imagination. How will I avoid, assuage, or defeat my enemy? Will I have grace under pressure? Will I help others who are injured? Or will I be that guy who selfishly goes it alone and usually meets an especially painful demise?

In a significant sense, monsters are a part of our attempt to envision the good life or at least the secure life. Our ethical convictions do not spring fully grown from our heads but must be developed in the context of real and imagined challenges. In order to discover our values, we have to face trials and tribulation, and monsters help us imaginatively rehearse. Imagining how we will face an unstoppable, powerful, and inhuman threat is an illuminating exercise in hypothetical reasoning and hypothetical feeling

Monsters and the Moral Imagination

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