Here’s the second half of the lecture I gave last weekend at the Monsters and Myths in the Making Conference at the University of Florida. I had such a great time, saw some former grad students and ate some good food (Gainesville is a cool town…shockingly vegetarian friendly as well). We pick up with a discussion of the how the history of women’s bodies became inextricably intertwined with the history of witchcraft.
Clearly even in the age of exploration, the body represented the possibility of monstrosity and terror. We see this in the witch trials of the 17th (and let me add of the 18th) century. Since the 1990s and the important work of Carol Karlsen, the role of gender in the witch trials has had its rightful place. Karlsen further suggests that witchcraft had what she calls “an erotic content, “ so much so that Cotton Mather could claim that “a lewd and naughty kind of life “ was a ”probable” sign of witchcraft. What women did with their bodies became an occult text to be deciphered, a sign of their seduction by Satan.
The history of witchcraft is part of the history of the female body…indeed, I would argue that the modern, pervasive sexualization of the female body owes much to the history of woman as witch, woman as monster. A creation of the erotic/demonic that we see everywhere emerges from this.
A longer history is at work here. The woman as monster also owes something to the medicalization of the female. Ancient and medieval theoreticians of the body created a scientific discourse that made very similar claims. The Aristotelian and Galenic female body was a site of reproductive mystery-a whole discussion about the ways in which the parts of women’s bodies are inverted versions of the male body. Indeed many of the pre-modern discussions of the female body seems like efforts to create a map of what was thought of as negative space combined with strong desire to make assertions about the Uterus—described as a sewer, as a place where poisons are developed, and as on the move and the source of so-called “hysteria.
The witch trials in both Europe and America are perhaps best seen as a drama of the erotic/demonic…the fruit of folk belief and scientific discourses of misogyny and a performance of the discourse of female wickedness that stretches back to Augustine and beyond.
There are two contemporary obsessions with scary bodies I’d like to unpack in the time remaining…the dismembered body and the zombie body (or what’s left of it). Both are cultural obsessions of the moment that are best understood, really only understood, when placed in a larger history.
First, the body as a subject of dismemberment, our fascination with gore and its representation. Most horror, across its varied subgenres, involves some experimentation and voyeuristic pleasure in the disassembling of the body. The genre that fans and critics have come call “torture porn” is a heuristic system of bodily destruction.
This is in part due to the longer history of the body as a mechanism that can be taken apart. Vesalius with his idea of the body as “living design” had exposed the ways in which the body was more complex than the animated soul of Christian theology, clockwork that could be broken down into its individual parts.
Once we have disabused the body of its notions of transcendence we can abuse it in all kinds of ways…perhaps we even desire such an abuse. The body then becomes both less and more of a mystery. The dismembered corpse represents a particularly provocative semiotic. Its “the remains,” literally what’s left over, a residue.
And yet it points beyond itself to some action that has taken place, is the humpty-dumpty that had a great fall, the masterwork of the slasher, monster, killer, psycho. Its no accident that detective fiction and police procedurals became one of the triumphant narratives of the last two centuries…the body as evidence that’s proper disposition is to be surrounded and enclosed by all manner of forensic, legal and judicial discourses.
But it not just the story of the body as abused sign. The Civil War has something to do with how we all became gore hounds. Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage famously represented the war as “a machine that produces corpses.” It also produced images of corpses and images of the traumatized body. Matthew Brady’s photographs of the war ignored the sentimental conventions of most early photography. As I say in Monsters, his photographs “replaced sentimental comfort with shocking horror. Bodies lay on the ground, arms and legs in unnatural contortions.”
Gore then became intertwined with mourning, the dissolution of bodies with the effort to make sense of the history of violence. “Habeas Corpus” demanded American culture, in response to the unsolved case of more than three quarters of a million dead.
I would suggest that its no accident that American seized so readily on the news and imagery of the 1888 Whitechapel murders and Jack the Ripper. The dismembered body as public iconography appeared everywhere. Indeed, in the 1890s, America had its first celebrity serial killer in the story of H.H. Holmes and Chicago’s murder castle, a place that was presented to a nation undergoing the second wave of the industrial revolution as a kind of factory of death—like the war, a machine that produces corpses.
America’s wars and America’s fascination with the traumatized body forms an important sub-theme in the story of American monsters. In the years after World War I, what James Goodwin calls “the visual grotesque” found a significant audience both on the sideshow circuit and in the enormous popularity of the films of Lon Chaney Sr. Chaney, the so-called “man of a thousand faces” portrayed everything from a deformed circus performer, to a paralyzed magician, to a morphologically bizarre vampire to a heavily scarred animal trapper, to most famously, the hideously deformed Phantom.
The birth of contemporary gore is also directly related to the experience of the corpses and traumatized bodies of war. In the aftermath of Vietnam, which included not only 58,000 American dead but also 75,000 physically disable veterans, the traumatized body represented a public iconography.
Much of our body horror has a direct link to Vietnam in the form of former army combat photographer Tom Savini. Drafted into the army just before he had his opportunity to do the make-up for his boyhood friend George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Savini carried a make-up kit with him through basic training and to the war. What he saw in Vietnam directly informed his gory creation over several decades, including incredibly influential films such as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Savini has frequently referenced the images he saw, and photographed, in Vietnam as influential on his art. Horror images for the next forty years have, in some literal sense, owed their power and terror to the Vietnam conflict, reminding us how our monsters are hardwired into our history.
Speaking of George Romero, why do we have such a fascination with zombie bodies? I hesitate even to get into this since it’s an obsession that’s almost overanalyzed at this point.
I would note that the zombie, and the very different creature that is still its monstrous cousin the vampire, are a key to the American obsession with the body over the last few decades. These creatures, flesh eating or blood drinking, rotting away or forever young, have appeared as pop culture phenomenon at a historical moment when the body had become of central concern to American culture as a vehicle of pleasure, of theological meaning, of personal happiness and often of all three at once.
At the same time, these monsters with either perpetually beautiful bodies or utterly repugnant and decaying bodies became a paramount concern at a moment when there are all sorts of signs of our anxiety over threats to the body’s permanence as evidenced by the popularity of dieting and exercise regiments, public health campaigns and the growing acceptance of aesthetic plastic surgery.
The zombie is a special horror to a culture obsessed with the body. The vampire, in part because in most of its iterations it’s surrounded by various kinds of religious symbolisms (resurrections and life eternal born in blood are the most obvious), are often vehicles for transcendence, escape from the body or at least triumph over its corruptions).
The zombie, obviously does not transcend…either in their body or their appetites. They are eating machines that are also decomposing, mechanisms that are running down but that refuse to stop. Its hard not to wonder what Vesalius would have made of these anatomical clockworks. Culturally, its notable that we are obsessed with these things we generally call “gross”—and they are literally gross, the body as sum of all our posthuman fears, the body as abject consumer and consumable.
Monsters have been read by scholars mainly as metaphors, reflections of social anxieties or expressions of our psyches. Its not that I believe they are not these things…but I do believe they are more than these things. They are real, particularly in the way they have interacted with a variety of discourses that circulate in our history. In the monsters history, we read other kinds of histories and I certainly hope I’ve suggested some ways that the monster has an intimate relationship with our most intimate history…the history of bodies.