Book Club Channel
Monsters Book Excerpt: A Little History of Horror
Stephen Asma, author of a recent meditation on the nature of the monster, suggests that these competing biblical images reflect a complex conception of God emerging in Hebrew thought. Leviathan represents, in Asma's mind, the effort to reconcile the seemingly contradictory nature of God, a being who elicits both wonder and horror. Timothy Beal, in a close and brilliant reading of the Book of Job, argues that God describes Leviathan in detail to his unlucky servant because this creature provides, not a "spectacle" of "God's well- ordered world ecology" but instead an image of the "awful chaos that churns just beneath the surface." Both Beal and Asma see religious experience as a kind of horror movie, embodiments of the divine that evoke feelings of terror. The monsters of the Bible are symbols of that horror.5
Clashing images of God's monsters reveal both the slow development of ancient concepts of monotheism and the tendency of every human society to hold a deep fascination with the marginalized monstrous, the being that does not exactly fit in the cosmological order and yet is in some sense crucial to it. The horror of the monster goes hand in hand with its attraction. It has always embodied terror, raising questions about its own existence even as it terrifies.
The emergence of Christianity in the first and second centuries of the Common Era played a crucial role in the shaping of the monster in western Europe. By the second century, the concept of the devil as the enemy of God and the human race coalesced with Hebrew imagery of "the serpent in the garden." This tightly packed symbolic construction gave the Christian Church a head full of serpents, a monstrous brood that provided a wealth of demonic symbols. The description, for example, of the great dragon of Revelation chapter 12, identified with the devil, became paradigm for the west's imagining of everything from sea monsters to the king of the vampires (Dracula means, after all, "son of the Dragon").6
The medieval world born out of the ruins of Rome became a world of monsters that shared some of the same contradictory impulses of earlier mythologies. In Anglo-Saxon England, medievalist Jeffrey J. Cohen points out legends told of monsters building great houses of stone. In this context of legendary belief, mysterious ruins or rock formations came to be described as "the work of giants." In Anglo-Saxon England, the monster appears as Grendel in the Beowulf saga, a loathsome creature that tears down the doors of the house and cannibalizes everyone inside. In the medieval mind, the monster appeared as both creator of order and threat to order, a bundle of contradictions that borrowed from Christian images of Satan (both Angel of Light and Prince of Darkness) and from the old Norse cosmogonies in which the original great giant Ymir provided his own body for the foundation of the world, his bones becoming the hills, his flesh becoming dirt, and his skull transformed into the sky. The monster terrified, and yet human beings actually lived within his remains.7
Increasingly, the many monsters of the Latin Christian West represented composites of images of Satan, biblical monsters and the creatures from the folklore of pre-Christian Europe. Folklore about the nature of the devil and his work in the world naturally gave rise to stories of other terrible beings opposed to God and humanity. As historian Jeffrey Burton Russell describes this process in his multi-volume history of the devil in the western world, "the folkloric Devil shades off into other concepts such as the Antichrist, giants, dragons, ghosts, monsters, were animals and 'the little people.'" The process could work the other way as well, with the devil absorbing the myths and legends of pre-Christian monsters. In some parts of Europe, Satan took over the attributes of giants, and unusual geological formations became a house of the devil. Russell points out that this idea persists even into American cultural history with the tendency to name irregular rock formations or mountains "the Devil's Tower" or "Devil Mountain."8