Monster Theory: an Introduction

I’m not sure what initially got me interested in monsters, but they’ve been a constant theme in my life for several years. I figure I should do a quick overview of the world of “monster theory” to which I’m likely to refer frequently, just for the sake of whoever hasn’t already fallen down this particular rabbit hole.

The etymology of “monster” suggests the function of monsters in stories: a monster means to warn, to demonstrate, to foretell.

Monster theory explores what monsters mean and what they do in the stories we tell. Monsters appear in all forms of media and have made their appearance as long as we’ve been telling stories. Many details change with the times, but some monsters appear again and again and again. Why is that? What are we afraid of? Some emotions are just so deeply part of the human experience and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, we’ve created whole genres around them (like horror). What do these stories tell about ourselves? Exploring the things that frighten us is illuminating – underneath a simple story may lie hidden biases and room for improvement. This is why I like horror and monster-theorizing everything: it’s all about personal growth and being able to look our mistakes in the possibly-literal eye.

One sort of framework I reference a lot is “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Just to pull out the list (though read it, it’s short):

  1. The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body: Our monsters are created from our current cultural context:  fears, anxieties, desires, etc. that we are wrestling with right now
  2. The Monster Always Escapes: Monsters appear over and over again, mutating with culture; you can trace the changes and the common threads, but must always be aware of their shifting context. 
  3. The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis: Monsters are difficult to describe because they exist in between categories – they reveal the ways binary thinking and adherence to categorization break down. Reality is messy and so are its monsters. 
  4. The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference: Monsters are the Other; they exist where we find experiences different than our own. They reveal our fears of what lies beyond our borders and norms. 
  5. The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible: Monsters demarcate the borders of what we consider acceptable; monsters are transgressive and defy expectation. 
  6. Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire:Given the above, who doesn’t want to be a little monstrous? And who are we without them?
  7. The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming:Monsters tell us something about ourselves and our assumptions. 

Beyond Cohen, some useful tools when hunting monsters:

  • Concepts of the uncanny & liminality – we all know it when we see it, but what effect does the uncanny have on a particular work of art? What do in-between spaces allow us to accomplish on a plot and personal level?
  • Personally, I really enjoyed the classes I’ve taken on theater history and monsters in drama – I think exploring how visual/performing arts are built up and why choices are made in presenting stories and characters provides valuable context for interpreting depictions of monsters in plays/films
  • History of favorite monsters and monster genres, obviously. History of horror, folktales and myths from particular regions, etc.. History in general, really. You need the context.
  • With stories in translation I really like to find multiple translations to compare and see how differently translators approach the text.

Two kind of guiding rules I try to follow:

  1. The things people do can be monstrous, but people are people. I’m wary of labeling specific individuals as monsters, as I feel it makes them Other and makes it too easy to not admit our own culpability. Note this isn’t a hard and fast rule; I by no means mean this in any way that suggests victim blaming, or that hurtful actions are somehow okay because we could all have done it, etc. Evil is evil. But the power of monster stories lies in the conceptual and personal and less in the specifics.
  2. Sometimes two monsters superficially look the same but underneath have wildly different genealogies. Sometimes two monsters look wildly different, but at the heart are telling us the same thing.

Okay enough background for now. Hopefully won’t make me sound too crazy when I inevitably end up on Frankenstein and climate change, vampire history, and modern fairy lore or whatever else I wander into.

Saturday Morning Science

It’s an off-and-on rainy morning here, so I’ve settled by the window with the best lighting and am doing my weekly skim through various papers and articles that caught my eye. This week in things I feel one should know about the world:


Welcome to the new experiment.

It looks cavernous and unfamiliar at the moment, but time and words will wear all the newness away. I hope to fill the space with all things selcouth – the strange, the marvelous, the extraordinary and the extra-ordinary.

Why am I doing this? A few possibilities:

  • I want a place for all my words/projects/experiences to come home to, so when you read one poem, you know where to go to find its siblings
  • I want an excuse to write about monsters at great length
  • I need incentive to actually write anything at all, and a plan and a schedule and an audience are good for that
  • I have an insatiable desire to Teach People Things, and an interest in science communication and now I have a platform from which to explore that from time to time
  • I just need to complain to the void once in a while

What to expect:

Right now my goal is to just write something once a week. I’m hoping to build up more content over time and be able to post something two or three times a week. Posts may include any of the following:

  • Book recommendations (especially books that go together! I love putting together thematic pairings of interesting media!)
  • Ramblings about adventures in science, both the exciting bits and the occasional overwhelming despair. It’s mildly cathartic for me and possibly entertaining for you.
  • Essays about monsters
  • Breakdowns of interesting science papers I read because people are constantly discovering cool stuff and I just want everyone to know!
  • Poetry
  • Pictures of interesting bits of nature encountered while out and about

Basically, anything and everything is fair game. If you’re here for the monsters but not the science, or vice versa, don’t fret, there will be tags. Feel free to navigate to the category of your choosing.

Thanks for joining me on this experiment in getting more writing done!

Book Pairings: Botanical Intelligence

Welcome to the first of probably many posts in which I share book (and sometimes other media) recommendations on a theme…

Plants somehow became a major theme of 2018’s reading. I think it happened because at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to really pay attention to the world around me as part of Operation Un-depress Myself. I told myself to look at the trees on my walk from home to the bus stop or wherever I was going, and pay attention to how they changed with the seasons.  It kind of worked. The side effect was a newfound fascination with all the ways plants have evolved to survive and adapt to changes.

Book #1: Semiosis, Sue Burke
I had been wanting to read this one since before it was published; the promise of intelligent alien plants and language and interspecies interaction sounded like my kind of sci fi. I had mixed feelings about the style, but I found the creativity Burke put into her vegetal species refreshing and really fascinating after having read so much about real plant adaptations. If you’re looking for fleshed-out human characters, this isn’t really the place, as the book spans several generations to explore how people establish a civilization on a new planet and build relationships with the other forms of life already there. 

Book #2: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer
I loved this book. Kimmerer is a good and thoughtful communicator, and her writing about the wonders of nature and the immense value of indigenous knowledge in understanding and working with the environment are refreshing and illuminating. So much of this book resonated with me; I wish more people shared her perspective in the scientific world and the world at large. Ultimately while this book celebrates nature’s ingenuity, it is also about people and our relationship with nature.

Book #3: The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, David George Haskell
Honestly I could have recommended any of a number of other books in the genre of lyrical explorations of plant biology, but I preferred the style of this one. Each chapter revolves around a particular tree and delves into its web of interactions, revealing fascinating bits of history, botany, and ecology. As runners-up (choose your own tree adventure): The Hidden Life of Trees, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, or The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring.