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.

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