This is what I hope is going to be the first of a series of blog posts exploring some of the central issues that come up as I spend my sabbatical getting to grips with the Monster book. I am currently reading All The Theory – that is, trying to get my head around what it is that makes a monster monstrous, and how a monster manifests. On my reading list, inter alia, sit Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and Freud’s essay on the uncanny or unheimlich, along with a dose of Barthes and Benjamin. I am getting familiar with the stomping grounds of monster theory, delineated by Asa Mittman and Jeffrey Cohen, as well as looking at how various parts of cultural and media studies talk about this stuff. The logic here is that I’d like to draft out my initial two chapters, thinking through what a monster is and where monsters live, and then think about the third chapter, which looks at classical monsters in film (and which will build on the paper I gave at the Celtic Classics Conference this summer, “Release The Kraken? Ancient Monsters In Modern Epic”). So while the hope is that I’ll come up with a framework that’s broad enough to cover all the kinds of popular culture I want to talk about, in terms of examples I’m currently circling around film.
Which has led me to a problem of genre, which I ran up against when writing “Release the Kraken” but didn’t really explore there. Much of the writing about the monstrous, about what causes fear, assumes that for something to be truly monstrous, it has to generate a particular sort of response. That is, as viewers, we must fear it. What makes a monster a monster is terror, the emotion that it evokes in the viewer – the shudder of the horror film. Indeed, Asa Mittman argues that what makes a monster is its impact – by its effect shall ye know it. The cinematic monster, for instance, is often visually horrifying because it is covered in blood, pus, ooze – taking the form of a slimy mess of a blob that pulsates and repulses us. The connection between this and the psychoanalytic approach to horror, that we are terrified by the return of the repressed and the impure (to oversimplify), is clear – bodily fluids are taboo, we shudder and fear them.
Horror monsters also follow some familiar motifs. Robin Wood identifies five key ones that have reappeared since the 1960s – the monster as psychotic or schizophrenic human; the revenge of Nature; religious disturbance in the form of Satanism, diabolic possession or the Antichrist; the Terrible Child, often connected to the previous type; and cannibalism. Wood argues these tropes all speak to fears of the Other (as defined by the dominant Western capitalist culture), and that it is cultural fear of what is not viewed as culturally normative that generates the monstrous versions of that deviance. He points out that, given our monogamous culture and the emphasis placed on the family unit, there’s no wonder that there’s a lot of sexual tension floating about that also tends to find a place in horror films (cf. the well-known pattern of the sexually active female victim and the virginal heroine-survivor).
I dwell on Wood because he represents the tendency of studies of the monstrous to argue that monsters in films are generated by specific cultural fears, and the implicit assumption that most monsters are found in horror. And, indeed, most work considering the horrific in cinema thinks about horror films too. We get Psycho, Alien, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Frankenstein, The Mummy, American Werewolf in London, and so on and so on.
You’ll note that the list of usual suspects, gestural as it may be here, is woefully lacking in space for the classical monster.
So. Let us assume that we agree with Mittman’s statement, that the monster is known through its effect, since the alternative is to say that the monster is known by observation and categorisation, and that seems a rather dangerous route (for who decides what is monstrous, and who decides the categories?). Let us also note that the genre of film that generates this sort of impact, of terror, is the horror film. And let us finally note that while monsters of many descriptions, human and non-human, about in horror films, this genre is not the natural home of the classical monster, who is much more likely to be found romping in some sort of heroic epic (Clash and Wrath of the Titans, Immortals, the Percy Jackson series) before being decapitated or otherwise despatched.
With those premises in mind, is it possible for a monster that appears outside a horror film to be truly monstrous? That is, can a classical monster still be a monster rather than a glorified prop?
One response would be to bluster that the classical monster is by definition a monster. Everyone thinks it’s a monster, thus it remains a monster because we all agree culturally that it’s a monster, even if it doesn’t demonstrate the key quality of monstrosity any more. It frightened people once; even an old monster is still a monster.
There’s something a bit unsatisfactory about this position, though – it smacks of sphinxes with worn down claws and missing incisors, settling down to shred sofa cushions in a domesticated Nachleben rather than prowling the hills of Thebes and terrifying the unwary. According to Cohen’s very helpful Monster Theses, the monster rejects attempts at classifying it, escapes from whatever tomb attempts to confine it, and forever lurks at our gateposts. The comfy slippers of old age don’t feature here.
Another possibility is to look at the cinematic monster’s effect not so much on us, the audience, but on those characters up there on the screen with it. Do the villagers run around screaming until the hero has killed the beast? Then it is having the desired monstrous effect and so retains monster status, even as the film critic scribbles criticism of the CGI. Is it enough for the monster to generate fear within the film itself (or, using the posh terminology, to generate intradiegetic fear), even though those of us outside, the extradiegetic audience, aren’t fussed?
This feels a slightly more satisfactory answer, although I’m still not entirely sure that it quite captures what’s going on here – after all, I suspect many people would identify shuddering at Ray Harryhausen’s animated skeletons as a fond childhood memory, and in a weird way they remain quite creepy (unheimlich?) even after the aftermath of the CGI beasts which I seem to be finding the most disappointing of the lot.
I also wonder how much the comparative monstrousness of the monster has to do with the medium that it is reproduced in. The cinema is an odd safe space – we enter into it knowing that what we are about to see on the screen isn’t real, that we will return to the normal world when the picture is over. Seeing classical monsters thus provides a frisson of pleasurable fear; we know they are another culture’s beasts, but have the enjoyment of suspending our disbelief for the moment of the film itself. The process of reading a book, by contrast, invites the monster into our own heads, a much richer (for them) and more dangerous (for us) habitat.
The problem of genre, then, turns out to also be one of form. The hook of the monstrous, the claw that keeps it hanging on the edge of our world, is its connection to fear. Horror does not have exclusive rights to the experience of fear, both within texts (broadly defined) and within consumers of texts. Yet whether classical monsters tap into the roots of those fears remains to be seen. That said, I am starting to wonder whether the location in which we encounter the monster, the book or the screen, is what makes the biggest difference of all.
Jeffrey Cohen. 1997. “Monster culture (seven theses)”, in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Cohen. Minneapolis: 3-25.
Asa Mittman. 2012. “Introduction: The impact of monsters and monster studies”, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, ed. Asa Mittman with Peter Dendle. Burlington: 1-14.
Robin Wood. 1984. “An introduction to the American horror film.” In Planks of Reason. Essays on the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press: 164-200.