monsters 101

Man is the animal that must recognize himself as human to be human.
Giorgio Agamben
The monster was the best friend I ever had.
Boris Karloff


What do you need to know about Monster Theory:

The Monster’s Body Is a Cultural Body

In the contrast between culture and nature, the monster’s body represents culture. It is entitled to this role not only because, in contrast to a highly-mimetical figure of a hero, it does not confirm itself in nature, but primarily because the life of a monster is an authentic product of the literary world and because the foundations of alternative worlds could only be laid by the laws of reality.

  • Each culture will produce their own monsters and their own versions of monsters. “The monstrous body is pure culture”
  • The monsters is born as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment, a time, a feeling, and a place. A monster will always change because culture changes, our fears and beliefs are always changing.
  • The monster signifies something other than itself: it is a displacement, it inhabits the gap between when it was created and it is received, to be born again.

The Monster Always Escapes

  • “The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns” This is the unsettling feeling you get when your mind starts to wander and the feeling of insecurity when thinking about your monster
  • “Monsters must be examined within the intricate matrix of relations (social, cultural, and literary-historical) that generate them” This explains that monsters tie into the persona that we assign them
  • “the undead returns in slightly different clothing, each time to be read against contemporary social movements or a specific, determining event”
    Over time ideals change, adapting to our different interpretations of this monster
  • “Monster Theory must therefore concern itself with strings of cultural moments, connected by a logic that always threatens to shift; invigorated by change and escape, by the impossibility of achieving what Susan Stewart calls the desired ‘fall or death, the stopping’ of its gigantic subject monstrous interpretations is as much process as epiphany, a work that must content itself with fragments”
  • monster theory is the concern of culture an cultural moments connected by logic that is always changing. Monsters are always changing in culture, therefore, are always escaping.

The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis

  • “they demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality. The too precise laws of nature as set forth by science are gleefully violated.” Monsters are externally incoherent bodies that resist attempts to include them in any systematic structure. They refuse easy categorization and defy the natural laws of evolution. The power to evade and undermine are coursed through the monsters blood.
  • “the monstrous offers an escape from its hermetic path, an invitation to explore new spirals, new and interconnected methods of perceiving the world.” The monster always escapes and returns to its habitation at the margins of the world.
  • “rebuke to boundary and enclosure” The demand radical rethinking of boundary and normality.
  • Monster described as systematic phenomenon rather than object or idea of how it is perceived.
  • Monster escapes because it is hard to categorize.
  • Disturbing hybrid
  • Externally incoherent
  • Resist systematic structuration.
  • Resists classification built on hierarchy or merely binary opposition.
  • Demands a system allowing polyphony, mixed response (Difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction).

The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference

  • People who are different are viewed as monsters.
  • Differences tend to be political, cultural, racial economic, sexual, not fitting into the norm.
  • People make up stories that will form the different people into monsters.
  • The “monsters” are a threat.
  • Used to justify treating them differently.
  • Going against what was considered the norm of the culture was considered monstrous. This included sexual orientation,  race, economic status, and political preference.; this allowed actions against these “monsters”, or “not normal” individuals to be justified.
  • “Representing an anterior culture as monstrous justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act heroic” (Cohen).
  • If physical deformation was a result of a corrupt imagination, anyone might fall victim to their own moral frailty and susceptibility to corruption; anyone might capably produce or become a monster. Literary monsters, then, might be seen not only as instruments of instruction but as a means of catharsis. Readers might be inspired to recognize and confront their own spiritual and mental monstrosities when faced with literary manifestations of their bestial tendencies.

The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible

  • Keeping people in a bubble and keeping them from exploring the world in order to keep order.
  • “To step outside this official geography is to risk attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse)to become monstrous oneself” (Cohen).
  • The Monster represents consequences of curiosity, desire, or rebellion. (As dictated by the Monster’s creator).
  • The tale of a Monster discourages certain actions and behaviors as dictated by the Monster’s creator.
  • The Monster can serve as an intimidation tactic to deter individuals from going to certain places.
  • Monster’s may serve as an example for what is to come if one does/doesn’t do a particular thing.
  • Monster’s can be a crude template for vilifying or humiliating certain individuals or groups so as to discourage intermingling.
  • A Monster can also be depicted as the enemy; anything or anyone the
  • Monster’s creator views as lesser, grotesque, or deemed worthy of destruction.

Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire

  • The fear of the Monster could be translated to desire because humans are inherently curious creatures and are often attracted to the taboo.
  • The Monster can be a method of escapism, to ponder subjects and situations they would normally not encounter due to either outside, or self-made restrictions.
  • The Monster may symbolize what we see in ourselves, the simultaneous admiration and disgust being a common struggle for some. (This simultaneous admiration and disgust may also be the attractive combination to sensationalize a Monster.)
  • Monsters may also stand for the anxieties we face and our inner turmoil over existential issues and morality.
  • monsters practice forbidden concepts
  • offer a way to escape via fantasy
  • people have a simultaneous reaction of repulsion and attraction
  • represents a projection of “other”
  • awakens the joy of being frightened
  • uses the rush-/excitement of dressing up as a demon on Halloween. it’s something we don’t get to take on often, at least socially
  • people are able to relate/live vicariously an entity that takes various forms and one that expresses different identities
  • the exploration via these monsters was exciting in contrast to the imposing environment the Church was creating(a few centuries ago)
  • made the taboo more accessible
  • overall, monsters are something different and it sparks the dark/curious side in us.
  • Monster is linked to forbidden practices in order to normalize
  • Monster attracts
  • Evokes escapist fantasies, the linking of the monster with the forbidden makes it more appealing
  • Monster can serve as an alter ego
  • We know when we see horror films, that the jolts of horror are temporary, so we use it as a temporary escape
  • The lands monsters live in are realms of happy fantasy, horizons of liberation
  • Monsters serve as secondary bodies through which the possibilities of other genders, other sexual practices, and other social customs can be explored
  • Making a monster desirable is accomplished by the neutralization of potentially threatening aspects with a liberal dose of comedy

The Monster Stands at the Threshold . . . of Becoming

  • Monsters are our children
  • We can hide our monsters deep in our mind, but they always return
  • Monsters come back knowing more
  • They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression
  • represents the repressed memories of our childhood
  • ultimately, they challenge our perspective, what we find acceptable
  • monsters require us to question our tolerance towards different expressions
  • Our own fears never fully go away just go for a little then come back stronger than before.
  • Monsters bring context with their existence
  • They reside in the deepest, darkest parts of our minds
  • monsters can be within
  • They are our fears
  • can be our own minds



The Devil in Disguise: Modern Monsters and their Metaphors

The monster may be sometimes horrific, but fascinating is always the right adjective for it. Throughout the past decade or so, we’ve had a resurgence of monsters. Werewolves, vampires and zombies have all experienced their zeitgeist moment, capturing the public’s attention and circulating through television spin-offs until the next monstrous trend took over. The latest incarnation of our fears, Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, will premiere on FX on July 13, featuring a new breed of vampire. Other shows, like Hemlock Grove, Salem, and In the Flesh feature a horrifying panoply of nightmarish creatures. But it might be useful to think about why pop culture is raising the dead, and what it says about our contemporary fears.
Monsters have for centuries been manifestations of society’s fears and anxieties. As Stephen T. Asma explains in On Monsters, “Monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, which in turns derives from the root monere (to warn). To be a monster is to be an omen […] The monster is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature, and politics”. More often than not, monsters stand as symbols or emblems of a culture’s nightmares. China Miéville posits, “Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds”.
One of the most famous monsters in Western history is that of Frankenstein’s monster, crafted by Mary Shelley in a Gothic, epistolary tale that has been said to represent concerns about morality, the social responsibility of science, and the changing role of capital and labor during the Industrial Revolution. Frankenstein’s cobbled-together, promethean creature has haunted the Western imagination for centuries, but the monster’s immortal ability to frighten also reveals his protean abilities to represent different kinds of terror throughout history.
During Episode 3: “Resurrection” of Penny Dreadful, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster Caliban provides a metacommentary on the mutable metaphors he has cut since his creation. He confronts his creator, saying, “Did you not know that was what you were creating, the modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? Who is the child, Frankenstein?” (2014). Within Penny Dreadful, his visage is imagined as a product of an industrial accident, the hazards of a modern technological society in transition. He is a creature made by his cultural and historical context, and yet each time Frankenstein is recast in contemporary society, he is reanimated by the latent fears and horrors of his current creators.
The meaning of monsters changes throughout time. Zombies have typically been interpreted as the manifestations of Capitalism gone awry, or what happens when workers are so alienated from their labor that they become nothing more than shambling, undead slaves. Anthropologists Isak Niehaus and Wade Davis have both written about zombies and capitalism in South Africa and Haiti, respectfully, and David McNally has written about the invisible occult economies that dehumanize laborers and keep them enslaved in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism . As Annalee Newitz writes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, “One type of story that has haunted America since the late nineteenth century focuses on humans turned into monsters by capitalism. Mutated by backbreaking labor, driven insane by corporate conformity, or gorged on too many products of a money-hungry media industry, capitalism’s monsters cannot tell the difference between commodities and people. They confuse living beings with inanimate objects. And because they spend so much time working, they often feel dead themselves”. 
But the recent outbreak of zombies in pop culture speaks to other fears. AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic story in the style of Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road (2006), a narrative that reveals our fears about the breakdown of society and the disintegration of culturally coded forms of morality and behavior in the face of sheer human survival. The films 28 Days Later (2002) and I Am Legend (2007) and Max Brooks’s novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) not only confront the deterioration of society, but also speak to the terror of germ-warfare and super-viruses—diseases we can’t defend against and that could potentially mutate our whole sense of humanity. In an interview with The New York Times, Max Brooks explains, “’Since 2001, people have been scared […] There’s been some really scary stuff that’s been happening — 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, D.C. sniper, global warming, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu, SARS. I think people really feel like the system’s breaking down’” (Brodesser-Akner 2013). He elaborates that his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) was inspired by the HIV/AIDS outbreak, and that his writing allows readers to “metabolize their anxiety through science-fiction”. The metaphorical threat that zombies pose is very real.

Vampires too have experienced a cultural resurgence from the crypt. Historian Luise White has looked at the way vampires represented the extraction of labor, fears of colonialism, new technology and Catholicism in Western Africa (2000) and the vampiric figure in Gothic, Victorian literature often represented a sexualized, immoral fiend that defied all the codes of propriety so heavily policed by the state in the 1800’s. I would argue that the most recent vampire zeitgeist emerges from similar fears about pathogens and disease. The vampires of Jeremy Cronin’s novel The Passage (2012) emerge from a highly contagious virus carried by a bat in South America, and the very title of Guillermo del Toro’s collaboration with Chuck Hogan, The Strain (2009), is a literary conceit. Guillermo del Toro, the consummate devotee of monster mythology, combines Russian folklore with contemporary pathological panic, to create a breed of vampire that spreads through viral contact. In an interview with BBC, del Toro observed, “There are two levels of vampirism: one is the regular vampire, which is just like it has always been; and then there’s the super vampires, which are a new breed we’ve created” —these super vampires are the ones that have sprung from modern technology and the imagination of contemporary consumers. The protagonist of The Strain, Dr. Eph Goodweather,is enlisted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate potential biological warfare and his inability to contain the spread of the virus or protect his loved ones speaks to a panic we all share in times full of new super-viruses and illness resurgences. These vampires are the very modern plague we most fear.
Kaiju, or Japanese monsters, have stomped onto the big screen for their own cultural moment. Yet these primordial monsters represent far different modern anxieties. The original Japanese film that initially launched kaiju into international fame, Gojira (1954), was a response to the nuclear warfare of World War II and the casualties of Japanese fishermen due to undisclosed nuclear testing in the Pacific. Brian Merchant writes, “The world’s most famous kaiju—Japanese for ‘strange creature’—remains for many the cultural embodiment of nuclear hubris, and they returned to him perhaps to be reminded of what seemed at the time an unheeded warning. Because that’s clearly what Godzilla was: A somber, cautionary tale about nukes” (2013). Guillermo del Toro’s homage to kaiju culture, Pacific Rim (2013) still resonates with these fears of nuclear power, and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) reboot was inspired by the devastating nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011. Screenwriter Max Borenstein has commented about the cultural cache of Godzilla, “’Godzilla will always represent that fear that there is something beyond our control […] That no matter how much preparation or how much technology we might pour on a problem, we could be washed out or stomped out instantly and capriciously just like ants’” (Sacks 2014). Many have also commented that Godzilla also speaks to our fears about natural disasters and climate change—that through our contamination of the climate, we have unintentionally provided nature with the god-like power to wreak complete destruction on human civilization.
But I don’t think kaiju are going to be the next monstrous sensation. Vampires and zombies are largely symbolic creatures, but, China Miéville argues, “for literalism of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we should relax about it”. And, as Rosemary Jackson posits in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981), Gothic horror has the potential to be transgressive, to look “in a glass, darkly” and mirror back our own subconscious fears and misgivings. I would argue that we are moving through the Uncanny Valley and beginning to confront our fears more literally. Monsters have typically represented the “Other,” separated from humanity through distortion. And the thing we fear most now are our own creation—computers. Wally Pfister’s Transcendence (2014) follows a scientist’s attempt to upload his consciousness into an artificial intelligence program, and arguably the most frightening part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is when Captain America and Black Widow confront the cybernetic consciousness of Nazi scientist Arnim Zola, his visage flickering across the computer screen. Whether or not singularity is inevitable, I foresee another evolution of the Frankenstinian story, one in which we are fearful of the technology we’ve created and our inability to control our own creations. It is the monstrous possibility of true posthumanism.






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