Monsters create meaning and absorb meaning out of social context…they have a history. The basic argument of Monsters in America centers on this idea, that we can understand our monsters through looking at historical context—and that we can understand historical contexts through looking at the monster.
The history of monsters interconnects with the history of evil. Frequently the monster has offered questions about the meaning of natural evil, the evils that are not the direct result of human malice but rather the “evils to which flesh is heir.” In other words, the cancer cells, hurricanes and sharks that annihilate us.
Some monsters have been direct embodiments of these dark structures of reality. The gods of the ancient near east, for example, were lords of chaos, monstrous creatures that lived and flourished in waste spaces that seemed to represent plague and destruction and disease. Meanwhile, Leviathan, giants and Behemoth in various biblical texts simultaneously represented divine order and divine order under threat. Can Yahweh control these things? Yes, sure, he can, can’t he?
But do monsters also reflect what theologians and philosophers call “moral evil,” the pain we endure because of acts of anger, malice, or betrayal? Or, more frightening, do they reflect the pain the world endures because, to quote from Christopher’s Nolan’s Dark Knight, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Evil with no purpose, “Evil, be thou my good” sort of evil (Milton) or evil as Iago’s purposeless desire to see the destruction of another.
The straightforward answer is yes. “Monsters are evil” might be an assertion that every three-year-old hiding under the covers assents to. But maybe we shouldn’t leave matters with the “I am going to hide under the covers till the Thing goes away” set (whether they are three or 40).
Its important to try and step back and classify what turns out to be a wide variety of responses to the monster: 1.) disgust 2.) fear 3.) thrill 4). sympathy. Interestingly, the monster very seldom inspires moral disapprobation when the creature in question is beyond our understanding. Fear and disgust, yes. Thrilling, often. But nobody wags a finger at the monster, nobody clucks-clucks. They run screaming, vomit or stay for the bloody spectacle.
Is evil really an essential part of our subjective experience of the monster? More often than not, they are evil in the way that tumors or earthquakes are evil. They tend to exist somewhere in between “natural” and “moral” evil while slightly tacking toward the chaos and inexplicability of natural evil. They are allied with the stuff that happens to us that we simply must stand in awe of, the inescapable parts of being human that leave us feeling powerless.
But we still struggle to create a moral narrative out of the chaos…of our society and of our own lives. Consider, for example, how the monster is both part of the language of moral outrage and of moral incomprehension. We use the term “monster” to describe human beings. We say that serial killers, child molesters, genocidal dictators are “monsters” and we sometimes say things like “monsters are real” when talking about them.
Why? 1.) in part this is often a way to shut down any effort to probe into the roots of evil. It becomes inexplicable and thus easier to push away and out of sight 2.) from the other side, we seem to have this sentiment that the monsters are a place for our imagination to play with the rules of social order…they become subversive forces that might destroy us or might teach us a thing or two. We can’t decide. Will they kill us or save us?
And its even more complicated. Perhaps as often, we feel sympathy with the creature of the night…and most every horror fan understands this automatic impulse. And this is not because horror fans are pathological and need to be locked up.
Monsters, after all, can teach us about the effects of evil if not evil-in-itself. They are frequently symbologies of the meaning of evil in a social context. Think for example of the sympathetic monsters of the classic Universal Studios era. Audiences, sometimes at least, felt for them, empathized with them…certainly contemporary audiences do.
These monsters were creatures cursed in various ways with the burden of their existence. We are also cursed with the burden of existence and have some of the same question for the universe as Frankenstein’s Monster. And, like him, we sometimes seem surrounded by angry villagers who do not understand our actions at all. Or, conversely, maybe we are the ones making monsters of others, explaining their actions through various gothic narratives we tell ourselves about them and their motivations.
One of the most interesting meditations I’ve come across in my reading has been Francois Flahault’s little book Malice. Flahault is interested in the role of the monster in relation to evil and much of his book is a reflection on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, especially on what it is that motivates both the monster and his maker to try and destroy one another.
Flahault describes human malice as having an “inner spring.” In his reading, this is not the Christian notion of Original Sin but something perhaps easier to understand. Malice emerges out of a desire for the infinite that is insistently bumping against the desire of others for the same. So, I want to be king of the world but so do seven billion other people. Malice comes from the desire to extend our borders against others or the feeling they are expanding their borders against us…they have defiled us and must be destroyed.
The monster stands in for the infinite, the threat to our borders. Horror narratives become a way to test the places where our limits are…and what we often find is that our terror is a terror of limitation or dissolution…the destruction of our Ego. I write in Monsters in America that Freud believed that the very essence of horror lay in the fear of physical gore. He points out in his essay The Uncanny that this is why so many children’s fairy tales (in the days when these proffered anything but sweetness and light) involved an eye or a head being stolen. We clasp after ultimate things, our desires are almost limitless. But the monster not only prevents us from reaching that desideratum…the monster dismembers and destroys us, ending our quest abruptly and forever.
Perhaps the destruction of the self is not only what we fear. Maybe its what we desire. I wrote a piece for Huffington Post that suggests that the desire for dissolution of the ego is part of the appeal of the “sacred monster.’” Next post, I’ll ponder this question a bit further.
In the next week, I’m headed to NYC and Princeton, NJ to work with Banger Films and the extraordinarily talented Liisa Ladouceur on a picture that deals with the idea of Satan in American culture and as America’s ultimate monster. I’m a talking head for the film and I hope to do a good job reflecting in public about some of these issues. Also, hope to see you in Asheville on Feb. 10 at 7:00 PM. I’ll be giving a book talk entitled “Love and Monsters” at Malaprop’s, one of my favorite bookstores in the world, about what it means to fall in love with monsters, in philosophy, literature and popular culture. And what happens if the monster falls in love with you…