The meaning of monsters

Stephen Asma is a philosophy professor writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Monsters and the Moral Imagination. Here is some of his theory:

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. . . .

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. . . .

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?

He goes on and on about such “monsterology,” but I don’t find any of these points particularly persuasive about why we find zombies, vampires, aliens, and slashers so compelling. What is YOUR theory? Put another way, if you are a monster fan this time of year, if you love to get scared, and if you enjoy horrific images, what’s the big attraction?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Mary Jack

    I think humanity has a deeply rooted perspective for tragedy. Whether that’s fear of death morphed into fear of the undead, or uncertainty about safety morphing into bizarre encounters with aliens, animals, and minerals.

    I used to think tragedy was an invention of man, but I think we can tie it to sin, having seen that Jesus died as an innocent man and turned tragedy on its head.

    Happy endings, on the other hand, may just be coping mechanisms, cathartic, etc.

  • Mary Jack

    I think humanity has a deeply rooted perspective for tragedy. Whether that’s fear of death morphed into fear of the undead, or uncertainty about safety morphing into bizarre encounters with aliens, animals, and minerals.

    I used to think tragedy was an invention of man, but I think we can tie it to sin, having seen that Jesus died as an innocent man and turned tragedy on its head.

    Happy endings, on the other hand, may just be coping mechanisms, cathartic, etc.

  • Dan Kempin

    There is something here in the fact that the use of monsters is different in our culture–even within a generation. It is true that liberal culture uses the monster genre to “scold” for intolerance. I would grow weary naming iterations of classic monsters/bad guys with a “twist” on how we view the moster/villain. (‘Wicked’ is the freshest in my mind at the moment.)

    In addition, though, there is not just a tendency to accept mosters, but to identify with them. There is not so much an increase in gore and sadism in slasher movies, but the slasher himself has become the hero with which the audience is to identify. This feels to me like it goes beyond innocent escapism.

  • Dan Kempin

    There is something here in the fact that the use of monsters is different in our culture–even within a generation. It is true that liberal culture uses the monster genre to “scold” for intolerance. I would grow weary naming iterations of classic monsters/bad guys with a “twist” on how we view the moster/villain. (‘Wicked’ is the freshest in my mind at the moment.)

    In addition, though, there is not just a tendency to accept mosters, but to identify with them. There is not so much an increase in gore and sadism in slasher movies, but the slasher himself has become the hero with which the audience is to identify. This feels to me like it goes beyond innocent escapism.

  • WebMonk

    Has Asma never actually read Frankenstein?

    The story of Frankenstein should have made Asma happy – the originally peaceful monster was driven to rage and mayhem by the hate, fear, and attacks of the general public.

    And he says that story is an example of how modern culture engenders an us-vs-them intolerance in our kids?!?!?!

  • WebMonk

    Has Asma never actually read Frankenstein?

    The story of Frankenstein should have made Asma happy – the originally peaceful monster was driven to rage and mayhem by the hate, fear, and attacks of the general public.

    And he says that story is an example of how modern culture engenders an us-vs-them intolerance in our kids?!?!?!

  • Tom Hering

    The only horror movies that have ever scared me are the ones where you don’t see the monster until the end, or only see what the monster does – never the monster itself. Films like these are effective because fear rules in the imagination. And it’s not so much a fear of the simple unknown, as it is of something malignant that keeps itself hidden – until it’s free to torture and devour you. The monster that hides under the bed or in the closet, or that lurks outside your window, keeps you awake to the reality of spiritual evil: the Devil and his demons, and an eternity spent in Hell.

  • Tom Hering

    The only horror movies that have ever scared me are the ones where you don’t see the monster until the end, or only see what the monster does – never the monster itself. Films like these are effective because fear rules in the imagination. And it’s not so much a fear of the simple unknown, as it is of something malignant that keeps itself hidden – until it’s free to torture and devour you. The monster that hides under the bed or in the closet, or that lurks outside your window, keeps you awake to the reality of spiritual evil: the Devil and his demons, and an eternity spent in Hell.

  • John C

    I think the monster that is the spamfilter has just swallowed some of my posts on speaking truth to power

  • John C

    I think the monster that is the spamfilter has just swallowed some of my posts on speaking truth to power

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I am drawn mostly to the vampire genre. But even there, I’m not sure if there is a common thread to what makes Dracula on the one hand and The Interview with the Vampire compelling reading or viewing. They do both catch some aesthetic point about the beauty and glamor of night. But Ann Rice seems to provide an idea of eternal youth, while Stoker explores the vulnerability of happiness (which he portrays brilliantly) and uses the whole story to develop interesting human characters. I would gladly read a story where Jonathan and Mina Harker and Dr. Van Helsing faced a very different challenge not even involving vampires. Though I’d want them facing some danger together.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I am drawn mostly to the vampire genre. But even there, I’m not sure if there is a common thread to what makes Dracula on the one hand and The Interview with the Vampire compelling reading or viewing. They do both catch some aesthetic point about the beauty and glamor of night. But Ann Rice seems to provide an idea of eternal youth, while Stoker explores the vulnerability of happiness (which he portrays brilliantly) and uses the whole story to develop interesting human characters. I would gladly read a story where Jonathan and Mina Harker and Dr. Van Helsing faced a very different challenge not even involving vampires. Though I’d want them facing some danger together.

  • http://www.drunkenkoudou.com Stewart

    There is a psychological tendency to venerate monsters. These can be good monsters or bad monsters, but any creature exhibiting immortality earns a strong position in the psyche. Vampires are little more than manifestations of Lilith in a later form… It is natural for us to be fascinated (and terrified) by the numinous experience.

  • http://www.drunkenkoudou.com Stewart

    There is a psychological tendency to venerate monsters. These can be good monsters or bad monsters, but any creature exhibiting immortality earns a strong position in the psyche. Vampires are little more than manifestations of Lilith in a later form… It is natural for us to be fascinated (and terrified) by the numinous experience.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X