Monster Theory 101

Today I decided to do something a little different and bring a little theory to the blog. I have mentioned before that I’m interested in why things frighten us, the building blocks of fear as it were. I found Freud’s essay The Uncanny illuminating as it explained why we are often afraid of inanimate objects becoming animate e.g. manikins or porcelain dolls.

A man called Jeffrey Jerome Cohen theorizes that monsters are birthed by their cultures, representing the anxieties of a specific time and place. If you look at the monsters in fairy stories then they can tell you a lot about what used to scare us and still does today, albeit in a different way. I would suggest that today it’s not so much the monsters in the woods that scare us but the idea that they may be monsters among us in society; a wolf in grandmother’s clothing.

I decided to write about Cohen’s seven theories on monsters. If this sort of thing bores you then feel free to skip onto something more to your taste. No judgement. I find a great deal of theory drier than a mouthful of unbuttered Jacob’s crackers and unless the concept interests me, am about ready to fall asleep after a few paragraphs. As some of this may appear in my dissertation I should say that my name is Leanne (nice to meet you) and I’m not plagiarizing myself. 

So, those of you that remain, on with the theory.

By the way, these are my interpretations of Cohen’s theory, others may differ and it doesn’t mean that either of us are incorrect. Much literature is all about individual interpretations of the provided material. This is also a very simplistic presentation and not as detailed as it might be if I was submitting to University. This blog isn’t meant to be too academic.

 1) The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body.

I’ve already briefly discussed this above. Cohen basically says that a monster is a product of a time and place, a projection of cultural anxiety, fear and desire.

The monster is always an other, outside of society (e.g. lurking in the woods) or for a more specific example, Beowulf‘s Grendel lurking in the haunted fens outside of Heorot – beacon of civilized man. The darkness here takes shape and literally rips its way into society, in this case representing the Danes fear of uncontrolled masculinity.

2) The Monster Always Escapes.

Now anyone who has seen a monster movie is probably already yelling at the screen, although Jason and Michael Myers must be on sequel 114 or something by now.

The idea is that the monster is always reborn, often mutates into something else that haunts society. Evidence of this will be provided in my next article, detailing an urban legend about a vanishing hitch-hiker.

We cannot banish the anxiety that births the monster – we will always be afraid of something, the fear just mutates to spawn something more appropriate to our time. Now, instead of emails talking about werewolves in the woods, we get them about potential pedophiles, or carrots causing cancer. Our fears change and the monster always returns in one form or another.

3) The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis.

The monster resists definition.

Cohen uses an example of the creatures in the movie Alien. They are reptilian, yet humanoid, shed their skin like a snake but their carapace like an arthropod.

If we return briefly to Grendel we can see that many of his characteristics are echoed in the heroic Beowulf, he functions as a doppelgänger, a projection of all that Beowulf wishes to banish in himself and is simultaneously the antithesis of Danish warrior culture. 

I think of it as that moment in a horror movie where you know something is out there in the dark, but not what it is. In Jeepers Creepers the movie is tense and scary (imo) until the monster’s reveal. Once we can identify it as some demonic entity some of the fear is banished simply because we can label it and file it away as unreal. The hybrid is always more scary because we cannot do this, when we plunge the stake into Lucy do we not see something of ourselves in her?

These hybrid creatures terrify us because they exist, we cannot organize them or control them, they exist outside the boundaries of human definition, language fails us.

4) The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference.

Quite simply this is Grendel haunting the fens.

The monster is otherness personified, ‘difference made flesh’ (Cohen) and exists at some place outside. We banish them from society, but they always return, lurking at the fringes to remind us of that which scares us.

Cohen expands much more on this theory, discussing how anterior cultures are often depicted as monstrous to justify action taken against them. We only need to look at the Muslims during the Crusades, where it was claimed they were using holy places as stables and persecuting the admittedly small Christian population. This justified the Church in sending in their holy soldiers. The Muslims were others, outside of Christian society and they must be corrected, their land restored to those who would care for it properly.

There are many examples of historical figures who were unpopular and often described in monstrous terms. Richard III was described as ‘little of stature, ill fetured of limmes’ and so on. Medieval society were very into the idea of inner perversity being reflected outwards, if you were a monster inside, then this would in some way be reflected externally. In old stories, if a demon walks on Earth in human form it must somehow be disfigured to reflect its true nature, a twisted hand or something along those lines.

The other must exist on the outside of society, we bar the gates against them, taunt and belittle them, but we cannot ever truly escape them.

5) The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible.

The monster is a warning of some kind, ‘curiosity is more often punished than rewarded’ (Cohen). We are best contained in our own recognizable space than wandering those haunted places outside. Little Red Riding Hood is told to keep to the path, a mark of civilization amongst the wilderness. But then of course, the monster awaits her in her grandmother’s house – becoming more frightening by the monstrous intrusion of the previously safe domestic sphere.Something similar happens in Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, where those who walk, walk alone.

We create borders that are policed in various ways, but there are many places where these walls fall down and leave us vulnerable. The woods in literature commonly reflects a departure from civilization and all it represents; here we are likely to find monsters. In this way literature is a form of control, an instruction manual on how not to be banished or consumed. 

6) Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire.

Dracula is a perfect example of this. Gradually we have moved from creepy Nosferatu to sparkly Edward Cullen, a desirable figure in spite of his obvious monstrosity. He might drink our blood, watch us sleep and eventually kill us, but he’s hot, so it’s fine.

They are the biblical snake, temptation made flesh. Sometimes we long to escape society, its stifling rules and customs, perhaps we envy the monster its freedom to act as it wishes.

We may be watching a movie and cheering along the hero as he blows people up, we become caught up in the action and are carried along with it. Equally there are those movies where the hero or heroine are incredibly annoying and we feel a little spark of satisfaction when they’re offed (just me then?).

We marginalize and fear monsters, but on Halloween many of our children dress up in monstrous costume. In the past this act was intended to let us blend in with the evil hordes that descended on this one night, but over time it has become perverted, transformed into something fun and harmless. We cavort in different flesh and the usual rules are more fluid, the other is invited across the threshold, but only for a specific amount of time.

7) The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming.

‘These monsters ask us how we perceive the world and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place’ (Cohen).

We create monsters, we decide what is scary and what should be controlled. Monsters change over time as society evolves (or devolves, depending on my mood) and can be read as a representation of their time.

Frankenstein was Shelley’s warning against technology, these days in films and literature we have robots that cannot be controlled by programming. Sometimes it is future possibilities that frighten us, things that might be not things that are. Mostly we like technology. I certainly hate hand washing my clothes, but I imagine every American gets an internal shudder before sticking their fingers in the garbage disposal, as though it might decide it’s hungry and lop off a finger or two.

There are personal monsters and societal ones – one person may be afraid of clowns for example, perhaps because the make-up they wear hides their true face. I don’t like full length mirrors, as previously mentioned. The rational side of me says it is probably because I am afraid of suddenly being pulled into the unknown. I fear loss of control of my own surroundings, or of myself – the same reason why I fear things like Alzheimer’s more than werewolves or zombies.The monster always represents something else, something deeper and more primitive – that which haunts the subconscious.

This was a long and possibly boring entry, but I hope it might have interested at least one person. If you would like to read the book that much of this theory comes from then I’ll provide the bibliographical details below. There is also an interesting essay expanding on his earlier theories which was published earlier this year. You can read that here.

 Cohen, J. (1996). Monster Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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