monsters and monstrosity

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacle head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.
H. P. LOVECRAFT, “The Call of Cthulhu”
People like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves… they feel better then. They find it easier to live.
Andrzej Sapkowski
Sometimes a person’s monstrosity seems superhuman.
Louise Erdrich


Is the monster apart from, or a part of the Self? If the monster is the Other, not the Self, then is that Other intimately intertwined with the Self? Is the monster that which the Self denies, represses, or sheds in order to be? The monster has been with us in art and literature for centuries and we cannot seem to erase it from our thinking. More than ever, in fact, we are bombarded with images of monsters, with humanity s constant re-creation of the monster. One can also ask: Is it the monster masking as humanity or humanity masking as the monster? Is the monster intrinsically inhuman or is it depicted as such because humanity seeks to censor ignore/dismiss that which is different? We need to see the imagined monster as humanity’s (re)-creations of monsters and the monstrous beyond the traditional physical representations in the attempt to scrutinize if the true monster is actually within us all and not limited to any outward physical monstrous representation.  

What is a monster? At least three concepts have been proposed: Aristotle thinks a monster to be a “mistake of purpose” in nature; Noël Carroll thinks a monster to be a scientifically impossible being that arouses disgust and fear; Cynthia Freeland thinks a monster to be an evil being. Thus a two-headed calf is an Aristotelian monster; a werewolf a monster on Carroll’s definition; and Norman Bates of Hitchcock’s Psycho a monster on Freeland’s concept. These have no interesting overlaps. My project is to discuss Norman Bates and Mark Lewis (of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). Bates and Lewis are monsters, but only on Aristotle’s concept.

Three concepts of monstrosity. Philosophers have recently become interested in exploring the genre of horror fiction and the concomitant concept of monstrosity. Books by Noël Carroll and Cynthia Freeland are the leading studies on these topics. Each has an opinion on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (also 1960), and on the monstrosity of Psycho’s Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Peeping Tom’s Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm). In brief: Carroll thinks that neither Psycho nor Peeping Tom are horror stories and that neither Bates nor Lewis are monsters; Freeland holds the opposite view. I will argue that both are wrong. Psycho and Peeping Tom are horror stories, though not for Carroll’s reasons; and Bates and Lewis are monsters, but not for Freeland’s reasons. I’ll begin with an ancient account of monstrosity.
In Aristotle’s Physics a monster is a mistake of nature, something that failed to attain its natural end. “Now surely as in intelligent action, so in nature; and as in nature, so it is in each action, if nothing interferes. Now intelligent action is for the sake of an end; therefore the nature of things also is so. … Now mistakes come to pass even in the operations of art: the grammarian makes a mistake in writing and the doctor pours out the wrong dose. Hence clearly mistakes are possible in the operations of nature also. If then in art there are cases in which what is rightly produced serves a purpose, and if where mistakes occur there was a purpose in what was attempted, only it was not attained, so must it be also in natural products, and monstrosities will be failures in the purposive effort.”
Aristotle’s example of such a failure is borrowed from Empedocles, an ox with a man’s face, though from his discussion it isn’t clear whether Aristotle believes such a thing existed, or whether he simply presents this as a famous example of a possible monster. In any case, for Aristotle monsters now and then occur as missteps of purpose in nature just as grammatical mistakes now and then intrude on purpose in writing and wrong doses here and there ruin healing.
Noël Carroll takes a monster to be “a being in violation of the natural order, where the perimeter of the natural order is determined by contemporary science.” Contemporary science, of course, is the state of scientific knowledge now, and scientific knowledge may enlarge over time. “Superman is not compossible with what is known of the natural order by science,” Carroll writes. “He may at a later date become so, as knowledge of other planets and galaxies advances, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
But Superman, while a monster, is not a horrific monster, the stories in which he appears not horror stories. A horror story must aim at arousing what Carroll calls “art-horror,” a combination of fear and disgust caused by and directed towards a monster that is threatening and impure. A monster is impure if it is “categorically interstitial” (sometimes described as a “mixture of what is normally distinct”) such as an animal that is part fly, part man; or if it is “categorically contradictory” such as a vampire that is both living and dead; or if it is “incomplete” such as a severed hand that acts on its own; or if it is “formless” such as a malevolent fog or a people-eating blob.
Another writer on horror, Cynthia Freeland, objects. “If monsters are really ‘super-natural’ as he [Carroll] thinks, then a real-life monster like Bob Rusk in Frenzy does not quite fit the paradigm.” For Freeland, horror films are about evil, and “monsters are usually (though not always) evil in horror movies ….” Some of the characters Freeland takes to be monsters are obviously supernatural: the six-foot cockroaches that can assume human shapes in Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic (1997), for example. Some of Freeland’s monsters are empirically possible, including Catherine Deneuve’s psychotically depressed character in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1963) and the shark of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) – at least she assumes that film’s great white is consistent with current shark science. For Freeland, what makes these monsters is their evilness.
So we have three concepts of a monster: a mistake in natural teleology, though one that occurs now and again in nature (Aristotle); an empirically impossible being that is “impure” and that arouses fear and disgust (Carroll); and an evil creature, sometimes empirically impossible, sometimes “real-life” (Freeland). These concepts concur with ordinary ways of speaking in which we might describe a two-headed calf, a werewolf, and Pol Pot, the architect of mass genocide against the Cambodians, as monsters.
Do these beings have anything interesting in common? That is, are the monsters described by Aristotle, Carroll, and Freeland species of an overarching genus of monstrosity? It would seem not. The two-headed calf is natural development gone wrong, the werewolf a scientifically impossible being, and Pol Pot quite natural but very evil. Perhaps some commonality might be found in our reaction to these beings. Even here, however, there seems no common ground. Aristotle’s natural deformities arouse pity and in extreme cases repulsion; Carroll tells us (his) monsters arouse fear and disgust; Freeland’s evildoers arouse moral indignation. This suggests that “monster” has three distinct meanings – or to put it another way, the term “monster” can denote any one of three distinct concepts. (This is not to say that monsters bear a “family resemblance” to one another.

Carroll and Freeland each have a plausible concept of monstrosity; they err only by insisting that theirs is the unique concept of monstrosity (if indeed they do so insist). No one concept of monstrosity fits all monsters, and I’ve argued that only Aristotle’s can account for the monstrosity we sense in Norman Bates and Mark Lewis. It should be pointed out that Carroll’s and Freeland’s main target is the definition of the genre of horror. Their concepts of monstrosity are designed to fit that project. For each writer, a horror story is by definition one that includes a monster. My sense is that only the Aristotelian monsters that arouse pity and revulsion will make a story into one of horror, and this because revulsion is an emotion similar to horror. This is why The Elephant Man is not a horror film (the John Merrick character arouses pity but not revulsion), and why Psycho and Peeping Tom are horror films. The character of Norman Bates and Mark Lewis initially arouse sympathy and perhaps pity, but then at the end elicit revulsion.


Replacing the Monstrous


“Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘here are our monsters’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.” French philosopher Jacques Derrida points to the resistance of monsters towards language and classification, to the very question of whether monsters could have a place in their own right within discourse and thus within life, history and society. Yet monsters do have a long cultural tradition: they appear in legends and mythology, were expelled from science and medicine at the onset of modern times, and today they find their fictional form in gothic literature and horror movies. What is actually a monster? What is a monster like before its appropriation by language or fiction? What about our monsters? What is the monstrosity latent in everyday situations? In people’s feelings and expressions?
What interests me here is not to give an account of monsters in cultural history, rather to explore how the monstrous is replaced in art and culture by a fictional form: what is at stake in this transformation process? The dictionary entry for ‘monstrous’ reads: “1. Shockingly hideous or frightful. 2. Exceptionally large; enormous. 3. Deviating greatly from the norm in appearance or structure; abnormal. 4. Of or resembling a fabulous monster.” Both the words ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ originate from the medieval vulgar Latin verb ‘monstrare’, which translates as ‘to exhibit’ or ‘to point out’.
Is the monstrous always already domesticated by the symbolic order? Or does it slip in and out of the twilight zone of transformation from a knotty and murky shape into a differentiated form? Operating on the edge of visibility, the monstrous is a symptom that points beyond itself, bringing a latent and dark inner reality to the surface. Banned to a hidden realm, the monstrous persists as a crack in the slick and smooth surface of ‘normality’. Here is an issue for artists: how could one give the monstrous a fictional form while acknowledging that it also indicates an unruly, worrying and intrusive reality that resists the power of metaphors? Can monstrous feelings and memories actually be fully absorbed by an emblematic form? Or will this substitute inevitably be haunted by the inner grey zone it sought to exhaust? How to remember and unveil – or, perhaps, disentangle – the cluster of operations on the limit between the visible and the invisible, the allowed and the forbidden, the accepted and the rejected? Replacing the monstrous?

The association of monstrosity and visibility prompted by the word’s etymology is confusing, since the word took on the reversed meaning, banished as the monstrous was to the realm of the invisible throughout the history of modernity. In her essay ‘Dangerous Connections’, Slovene philosopher and performance theoretician Bojana Kunst sketches the importance of the “modern obsession with differentiation in science, philosophy as well as art” as a backdrop to understand the interest of today’s performance art in addressing the monstrous. “Differentiation is the only way to place the modern subject in the centre of the world. The autonomy and certainty of the modern subject can only be achieved by means of a purification of the dichotomies between man and woman, culture and nature, the natural and the artificial, the living and the non-living. The monstrous, the composed, the unusual, the in-between, and the creation of connections in general, posed a constant threat to the location and status of the modern subject throughout the history of modernity.”
For a long time, deformed species and anomalies were not only categorized as ‘abnormal’ or ‘monstrous’, but even excluded as objects of research in modern science and medicine. In his famous study The Normal and the Pathological (1943), French science historian Georges Canguilhem analyses the definitions and concepts that underpinned these processes. He shows how normality functions as a construct, wondering how science can give a proper place to the intricacies and digressions of life and can account for the intuition that man is “a living being who is never completely at home and whose essence is based on error,” and that “error must be at the root of what makes up human thought and its history.” Changing the angle or turning a metaphor upside down can put science on the way: “To the extent that living beings diverge from their specific type, are they abnormal in that they endanger their specific form or are they inventors on the road to new forms? One looks at a living being having a new characteristic with a different eye depending on whether one is a fixist or a transformist.”
Back to Bojana Kunst, who thinks performance art should embrace with joy and enthusiasm this ‘transformism’ of new and hybrid forms, this reversal of differentiation, a process she calls ‘monstration’. “Monstration proves a way of embodiment, a necessary positioning tactic for contemporary subjectivity which itself arises from a number of impossible and dangerous connections. The traumatic and at the same time delicious excess of the body as author is not only a consequence of the extremely suppressed position that the body generally occupies in Western culture. It is also playful flirtation and a display of the post-human body image whose connection with the (dangerous, unconventional) non-human is actually one of its basic traits.”

The production of monsters and monstrosity to test the limits of science and subjectivity, and the moral order they are embedded in, is a common topos in gothic literature. Monstrous in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) is not only the creature that results from Victor Frankenstein’s scientific experiments, at once gruesome and a metaphor for the excessive development of science. Interesting is Frankenstein’s exposure to his own creation, to this appalling yet all too human monster. After working for nearly two years, Frankenstein has to admit that “the different accidents of life are not as changeable as the feelings of human nature.” The moment the creature awakens, its sight strikes the scientist with horror, entraps him in a dangerous connection, charges his body with anxiety and releases an enormous amount of transformative energy. Frankenstein is subject to a mental and physical process of monstration, as after a restless night taut with nightmares he seeks to ease his mind through physical exercise. A choreography that fails to exhaust the monstrous yet has to cope with it incessantly. Below I have assembled some lines from Shelley’s Frankenstein:
I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind. I traversed the streets without any clear conception of where I was or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear, and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me. I trembled excessively. I was unable to contain myself. It was not joy only that possessed me; I felt my flesh tingle with excess of sensitiveness, and my pulse beat rapidly. I was unable to remain for a single instant in the same place; I jumped over the chairs, clapped my hands, and laughed aloud, unrestrained and heartless. The form of the monster on whom I had bestowed existence was forever before my eyes, and I raved incessantly concerning him.

In the twentieth century the gothic novel has found an equivalent in the horror film, in which monsters are pets of considerable size and uneasiness domesticated by the entertainment industry. Though often grotesque in their appearance, the reception of these horror movies is clotted with social anxieties and thus also reflects the times and sometimes even functions as a space for critique. Latent though unaddressed in Cooper and Schoedsack’s classic King Kong (1933) are racism and colonialism, the exclusion and occupation of otherness. Although staged in an exotic way, it is the indigenous sacrificial rituals on which the film’s economy of fear thrives, while the gorilla Kong symbolises indeed adventure and spectacle. Monstrosity seems to linger in many places, but its appropriation by entertainment is reflected by the film in two remarkable scenes.
On the way to Kong’s island, filmmaker Carl Denham organizes a rehearsal on the ship with actress Ann Darrow, who repeatedly puts up a horror-struck face in front of a virtual monster. The theme of the movie within the movie adds a meta-layer to King Kong as it doubles the gaze and the framing of Hollywood cinematography. Interesting in this particular scene though is the act of rehearsing. It is not so much about living in and through film imagery to rehearse for life. Not about rehearsing in the light of death to face its unrepeatable nature. But something in between: rehearsing to confront fear, driven by a belief in the power of make believe. This pre-productional moment announces a similar post-productional operation: in the movie theatre the spectators are invited to embrace fiction and its repetition as they rehearse to withstand their own anxieties and monstrous feelings.
Caught, chained and shipped to New York, the gorilla Kong is shown in a theatre on Broadway. The exhibition of ‘freaks’ was a popular phenomenon in 19th century fairs, an exploitation of monstrosity for the sake of entertainment. In King Kong the theatre adds a new element to it: the monster is tied up, but is it ready to adapt to the complex rules of the theatre? Confused by a photographer’s flashlight Kong breaks loose, steps through the theatre’s ‘fourth wall’, then continues tearing down the theatre building and disappears into the city. Not burdened by the symbolical frontiers between fiction and life, Kong easily overrides the power of spectacle. Unlike the way Marcel Duchamp’s readymades surrender to the definition of the museum, Kong proves his displacement to be an unsuccessful replacement. Theatre or not, the monster doesn’t want to be a pet.



One of the origins of the image is rooted in a ritual exchange with death: where life ceases to exist and the human body starts to decay, an image or material object functions as a stand-in. A common example is the death mask, moulded directly on the face of the dead person, so that the replacement process is tangible. Figurative sculpture hosts many relations with death and has mostly functioned as a stand-in in some way. After a strong focus in Western art on the technologies of representation since the Renaissance, the ritual origins of images and their relation with death have become again of central interest in the twentieth century. Art and popular imagery as a place where to deal with absence, invisible realities, and remote memories.
In 1993, Californian visual artist Mike Kelley curated the exhibition The Uncanny, in which he explored, lead by Freudian concepts, a certain quality shared by figurative sculpture. Kelley speaks in the catalogue of a physical sensation tied to the remembrance of certain strong, uncanny, aesthetic experiences he had as a child, past feelings that “seem to have been provoked by disturbing, unrecallable memories.” For Kelley the production and use of sculptural replacements, as well as the act of collecting, revolve around this loss, a lack that is to be dealt with. Fetishes, idols, funeral images, dolls, puppets, waxworks, mannequins and dummies are all involved in practices based on what Kelley calls “sympathetic magic”: a belief that the stand-ins could function just like the thing itself. The rituals performed with them also replace the “socially destructive practices of human and animal sacrifice and the burial of precious goods.”
In a world overflowing with media and imagery like ours, Kelley’s interest to reinsert objects related to ritual practices into an artistic context also points to their obscene reversal: media images of violence engender violence. This phenomenon is familiar as a motivation of censorship and regularly accompanies the description of atrocities in the press when yet another videogame has spilled out of the screen. British novelist J.G. Ballard has made this obscene reversal of replacement the central theme of his visionary oeuvre: we stage violence and horror to liven up the deadness of perfect life. From the bizarre re-enactment of trauma in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and the death rehearsals in car accidents in Crash (1973), to recent novels such as Cocaine Nights (1996) or Super-Cannes (2000) in which a retreat to staged violence seems to be the only way to overcome the boredom of a slick, tanned, face-lifted, hypersurveilled life –suffocating in its accomplished fiction. Whatever its nature, the monstrous haunts and infects the fiction we produce in an attempt to replace and exhaust it. The monstrous insists to be dealt with or takes revenge for its denial, returning in an unexpectedly cruel sacrificial economy.

Through complex mediation strategies such as collecting, re-enacting and rehearsing, Mike Kelley and J.G. Ballard aim to create a place for violence, death and monstrous feelings in art and fiction, testing at once the limits of representation. Elsewhere, non-artistic media seem less concerned with these strategies, driven as they are by the paradoxical obsession to exploit monstrosity as such, in its unmediated form. The urban fiction of the snuff movie as the ultimate document of a sacrificial exchange of life and image is more common and real than we would like to admit. The war in Iraq has yielded a rather large amount of widespread video recordings that document beheadings conducted by radical Muslims. Irrespective of the complex political and economic motives of the latter, these documents have a second life when distributed over the Internet by allegedly alternative ‘media’ that nourish an opaque but voracious desire for monstrosity.
“Can you handle life?” asks the website, presenting its motto. The video footage and photographs one can find on the site are gross and shocking: a myriad of atrocities from horrifying medical and forensic documents to videos of executions. The economy of spectacle the news is soaked with nowadays is at once enlarged and disguised here: “We do think that we are offering a service to the world by showing something the regular news will not show. Ogrish does not provide a sugar-coated version of the world. We feel that people are often unaware of what really goes on around us. Everything you see on is reality, it’s part of our life, whether we like it or not. We are publishing this material to give everyone the opportunity to see things as they are so they can come to their own conclusions rather than settling for biased versions of world events as handed out by the mainstream media.” Are these documents actually so real and unmediated as they pretend to be? And in what way are they part of our lives? Do we desire to expose ourselves to documents of atrocities in order to replace the image by a traumatic reality? Do we take part in this violence searching for lost or obsolete real feelings? Or simply to acknowledge pain as motivation for an allegedly reality-grounded critical response and be able to “judge for ourselves”?
Unlike the well-framed work of Kelley, Ballard and other artists, the documents on are subject to the paradox of the obscene: precisely by showing everything, there is nothing to be seen, no truth or meaning to be revealed except for an abysmal lack. The site’s quest to grasp the monstrous is trapped in a loop. It doesn’t provide a perspective on the cluster of clandestine desires it thrives upon. When missing an intricate fictional frame, can exposure to the monstrous ever release a transformational energy that puts our deeply ingrained ideas about the monstrous and the normal at risk?


Perhaps the last question to be asked if one ponders about the replacement of the monstrous by fiction is always that of lightness. If one, as an artist or writer nowadays, aims to speak about the times we live in, how does one avoid being crushed by reality, by a world overflowing with horror? Performance has to do with incarnation, which involves the risk of being overwhelmed by a violent reality, for which no answers are to be found. In his Norton Lectures (1985), Italian writer Italo Calvino pleads for lightness, for a malleable, nimble and witted use of language to approach the heaviness, slowness and in transparency of the world. He says that a light and precise formulation could bear an intense awareness of reality, without the risk of being entangled in it.
The myth of Perseus, who conquers Medusa, as written by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, delivers Calvino some images that should speak for themselves, but also help to clarify his own poetics. Only through an indirect approach of the Gorgon’s head, looking away instead of responding to the monster’s gaze, does Perseus succeed in avoiding petrifaction. Thus Perseus’ power is not the denial of a monstrous reality, but the refusal of direct perception. Even after Medusa’s decapitation, Perseus handles her severed head very carefully:
Mean-time, on shore triumphant Perseus stood,
And purg’d his hands, smear’d with the monster’s blood:
Then in the windings of a sandy bed
Compos’d Medusa’s execrable head.
But to prevent the roughness, leafs he threw,
And young, green twigs, which soft in waters grew,
There soft, and full of sap; but here, when lay’d,
Touch’d by the head, that softness soon decay’d.
The wonted flexibility quite gone,
The tender scyons harden’d into stone.
Fresh, juicy twigs, surpriz’d, the Nereids brought,
Fresh, juicy twigs the same contagion caught.
The nymphs the petrifying seeds still keep,
And propagate the wonder thro’ the deep.
The pliant sprays of coral yet declare
Their stiff’ning Nature, when expos’d to air.
Those sprays, which did, like bending osiers, move,
Snatch’d from their element, obdurate prove,
And shrubs beneath the waves, grow stones above.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV, written 1 A.C.E.)


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