Of Monsters and Men

‘Unclean Spirits Issuing from the Mouth of the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet’, circa 1255.

What can monsters and the monstrous tell us about earlier societies and civilisations? This week’s guest post comes from Tom de Bruin, who researches concepts of evil in early Christian literature, and is New Testament Lecturer at Newbold College of Higher Education. Read more about him and his work over on his blog.

Monsters are hot. It seems that networks are producing more and more monster shows: Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, and The Vampire Diaries, just to name a few. Monsters have escaped the fetters of the horror genre and broken free into blockbusters. Even classical works are being rewritten by mixing monsters with century’s old texts, to create new works and their film adaptations: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

In the ancient near east, monsters were everywhere, including ancient religious texts. The beasts of Daniel and Revelation, the giants of Genesis 6, the evil spirits, and people possessed by them are all examples of monsters and the monstrous immediately present in Biblical writings. Moving to extra-canonical works the examples are even more apparent: the tortures and tortured souls in the early Christian apocalypses, Lilith, and primordial beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth. The monstrous nature of some of these is immediately evident in their embodiment (e.g. giants). Others are monstrous in geography or location (e.g. tortured souls) and behaviour (e.g. demon-possessed humans). All are monstrous in the impact they have on the audience, they embody otherness, threaten commonality, yet strangely attract.

What are monsters?

Defining monsters or the monstrous is decidedly difficult. The term “monster” has, in contemporary times, come to mean anything imaginary that is unnatural, frightening or excessively large. In different times monsters assumed different guises. Often, monsters are ill-constructed of mismatching parts, grotesque in their overabundance of certain organs or qualities.

Whatever the monster might be, it was a culture that designed it that way.1 So-called Monster Studies examines the roles that monsters and the monstrous play in culture: it is ‘a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender.’2

Liminality and the Other

Culturally, monsters play an important role. They look different, they think differently, they act differently. As such they define the limits of “normal.” Wholly marginalised, they stand on the abyss of what is culturally acceptable and what is not. Beyond generally excepted ethics and aesthetics, they police ‘the boundaries of culture, usually in the service of some notion of group “purity”.’3

This delimiting role of the monstrous does not solely account for its permanent presence in cultural texts: monsters are found in texts from all ages and cultures. The monster is horrifically attractive. 4 Texts focussing on the monstrous often contain a tripartite structure in which first the monster is admitted. Then the monster is entertained and is entertaining. Finally, the monster is expelled. Entertaining the monstrous in texts is a safe manner to both describe and discourage socially unacceptable behaviour. Behaviour, that is, which remains unconsciously attractive.5 The entertaining nature of the monstrous shows that the monster is both distrusted and desired, both loathed and envied.

Illustration of Lucifer in the first fully illustrated print edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. Woodcut for Inferno, canto 33. Petrus de Plasiis, Venice, 1491.
Illustration of Lucifer in the first fully illustrated print edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Woodcut for Inferno, canto 33. Petrus de Plasiis, Venice, 1491.

Temporality is key to monsters. The monster is given a temporary existence in a clearly defined space. Carnival and Halloween are contemporary cultural instances in which monstrosity is given a defined temporal existence. The monstrous exists in the text, but only during the act of reading is the monster given life. Once the predetermined time has passed, the monster disappears. Order is restored, good is distinguished from evil and the self from the other. For this is the fundament of the monster. As the monster is principally defined as being different to oneself, the monstrous becomes a symbol for everything that is wholly different from how one wishes the self were. The dichotomy between representing otherness and representing desire shows an important characteristic of the monster. it reflects ‘back parts of ourselves that are repressed’.6 The monster, entertaining as it is, grows to show us that we too are monstrous. The monster is most deeply disturbing as it is neither ‘wholly self nor wholly other’.7 As the monster portrays unacceptable behaviour, it models our – often, by necessity, deeply hidden – unacceptable thoughts and actions.

Do Monsters Exist?

Finally, in its refusal to be categorised it is moot to attempt to put monsters in fully detailed categories. Questions such as ‘Are these monsters imaginary or physical?’, ‘Are they allegorical?’, ‘Are monsters nothing more than our subconscious emotions, fears, or prejudices?’ are not useful. The value of monsters is shown in Cohen’s answer to the question ‘Do monsters really exist?’: ‘Surely they must, for if they do not, how could we?’8 Monsters, real or not, allegorical or not, manifestations of our subconscious or not, are cultural productions. As such, through an analysis of the monsters and monstrous present in a text, we can learn about the culture in which this text was produced and transmitted. As such the text becomes a witness to a social milieu, which is in part defined by the monsters it fears.

The Assyrian Lamassu at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 721-705 B.C.

A Case Study in Monsters

Somewhere in the second century of the Common Era, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs reached their final form. A Christian author/editor created a book consisting of twelve farewell speeches, partly based on earlier texts and traditions. Each of the sons of Jacob, the patriarchs of the twelve Jewish tribes, was given a speech where he looked back on his life, prophesied about the future, and give his children advice for their lives. The advice revolves around the Christian double commandment: Love God and love your neighbour. These Testaments are full of monsters. Not physical monsters, spiritual ones. The invisible forces of darkness, often called evil spirits, are depicted having a very direct and powerful influence on the life of each person. They can influence the most important part of a human: the mind. The Testaments focus on the mind is some detail: each person consists of a human spirit that is constantly influenced by both good and evil spirits. Each person has to make sure that her mind does not become influenced by the evil spirits so that she can keep living a righteous life.

Monstrous Body

The Testaments describe the bodily nature of humans in the Testament of Ruben, the first testament. At creation, God gave mankind eight spirits that make up human nature: life, sight, hearing, smell, speech, taste, procreation and intercourse, and sleep. Soon after that Satan, God’s opponent, mixed his spirit with these and eight evil spirits were brought into being: fornication, greed, battle, flattery and trickery, arrogance, lying, unrighteousness, and sleep.9 These evil spirits are associated with various part of the body. Fornication comes from the reproduction organs, greed from the stomach, battle from the liver and gall bladder, etc. Thus certain parts of a person’s body can be associated with the forces of evil. In this way the spirit and the body are interconnected.

The association of evil actions with specific parts of the body, is a theme that is maintained throughout the Testaments. When Simeon plans to kill his brother Joseph, his hand withers for five days. The part of the body that is associated with the sin outwardly manifests itself as monstrous. The envisioned deed of the part of the body is horrible, but not only that, even the appearance of the part of the body is terrible.

Gad explains in his testament how we should understand this: ‘for by the very same things by which a man transgresses, by them is he punished’ (Testament of Gad 5.10). This seems to imply that God seeks a fitting and somewhat ironic punishment, but the Testaments require more nuance to this. If Gad’s hatred for Joseph arises in his liver, that is if the evil spirit manifests in that specific organ, it stands to reason that this organ will be influenced by that spirit. Therefore, any consequences of anger will focus on that specific organ.

Monstrous Mind

The forces of evil can influence more than just parts of the body. Staying with Simeon, we read how jealous he was of Joseph. The spirit of jealousy tortured him. His body, mind, and soul were agitated. Jealousy deluded and devoured him. He would awaken to confusion. He could not think clearly, his mind was paralysed. Eventually, he concludes:

And even in sleep desire for evil appears and devours him. It confuses his soul with evil spirits, startles the body, and wakes up the mind in confusion. Thus, he appears to others as if possessed by an evil and poisonous spirit.

(Testament of Simeon 4.9)

The last sentence is key. He appears to others as someone possessed by an evil spirit. A person under the influence of the forces of darkness, that is a person whose mind has been taken over by the monstrous, such a person will appear to others as being monstrous.

Hercules faces the giant Antaios in this illustration on a calix krater, c. 515–510 BC.
Hercules faces the giant Antaios in this illustration on a calix krater, c. 515–510 BC.

Manifesting Monsters

Through these two examples, we can see the power of monsters in the Testaments. The Testaments are, as we discussed earlier, predominantly interested in each person’s mind. The mind has to keep making good decisions. The monsters are not physically present and can have no physical influence on the world. But, mankind can function as a means through which the invisible monstrous manifests itself in the visible world. The great danger that the Testaments wishes to warn their audience about is the other. Monsters are the other made flesh, but each person could also become the other. A person can cross the border towards the monstrous, becoming a monster herself; with monstrous limbs and a monstrous appearance. In the Testaments the other is not a group of people marginalised, but an aspect of human nature, and thus a part of each person. As a person slowly becomes the other, she no longer is herself or even that which defines her. As one lets oneself go over to the dark side, one slowly becomes the other, losing all hope of remaining oneself. In this way she becomes everything she hates.

The basis of the Testaments ethics is closely related to this. It is mankind that makes the opponent visible in the world. The ethereal monster becomes incarnate in the deeds, attitudes and even bodies of people led astray. This struggle of not only doing the opponents will, but becoming a champion of the monstrous itself is the basis of the ethical exhortation in the Testaments. The motivation for the ethics is the call to the audience not to become exactly that, which they do not want to be. The monster must stay out of the community and, preferably, out of the world too.

  1.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 4. 
  2. Cohen, “Monster Culture”, 3. 
  3.  Cohen, “Monster Culture”, 8. 
  4. Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (London: Sage, 2002, 5. 
  5. Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (London: Routledge, 2003), 5. 
  6.  Shildrick, Embodying the Monster, 3. 
  7. Shildrick, Embodying the Monster, 3. 
  8. Cohen, “Monster Culture,” 20. 
  9. Tom de Bruin, The Great Controversy: The Individual’s Struggle between Good and Evil in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and in Their Jewish and Christian Contexts, Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus 106 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), 109–110, 149–150. 

The Promises of Monsters

Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's creature in Penny Dreadful.
Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s creature in Penny Dreadful.
If you’re not too keen on theory, never fear! What I say below is basically a more academic rewriting of this blog post

Next week I’ll be presenting at a conference called ‘Promises of Monsters’. In my paper, I’ll be looking at the way the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (and other monster mashups) use and abuse certain ‘promises’ or possibilities of the monstrous that have been popularised by literary critics. Though monster studies as an academic discipline is still quite young, the monster mashup can be seen to respond to many of its claims directly, using the language of monstrosity for commercial ends. Though they’re often marketed as a reinvention or subversion of cultural hierarchies, binaries, and stereotypes, the monsters of mashup (and the mashups themselves) fall short of these promises time and time again.

So what are the promises of monsters, generally speaking? One answer lies in Donna Haraway’s 1992 essay ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, which is also where the conference gets its name. This is not the critical approach I’ll be looking at in this post, however. Haraway never really explicitly defines the monsters she is talking about. Those she describes are not quite the same as the fantastical, fictional monsters I am writing about, though the links are there.

Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I'm sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I’m sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Instead, we’re going to go with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introductory chapter to Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996). In discussing what defines the typical or traditional monster, Cohen outlines seven theses. The first and most important is that the monster’s body is a cultural body. Cohen explains the creation of meaning through the monster as follows:

The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny in-dependence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4)

Monsters may have a real-world presence, and they may be legitimately terrifying, but they are always first defined in the realm of narrative and imagination. These narrative bodies shape (and are shaped by) what we consider to be abnormal and deviant. Take the parallels between narratives about zombies and narratives about refugees as an example. I’ve also blogged about this in the context of what Judith Halberstam calls ‘zombie humanism’:

It's not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
It’s not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
In this approach to monstrosity, then, one must thus ‘consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior’ (Monster Theory, back cover). A culture’s fascination with monsters would then suggest a desire to explore categories of ‘difference and prohibition’ (again, back cover).

Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as 'monsters' because of Western culture's negative associations with muscularity, black skin, and animalistic features.
Monstrous, but why?
Cohen’s second and third theses – that the monster always escapes and is the harbinger of category crisis – relate to the expression of the monster’s cultural body. The monster is constantly changing, and thus resists easy categorisation (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4-7). Cohen’s fourth thesis explores another fundamental mark of the traditional monster that reflects the first: it ‘dwells at the gates of difference’ (p. 7). Just as the monster’s body is constructed by the fears and obsessions of culture, it is also physically marked by what that culture considers as different. This alterity can take any form, but Cohen argues that ‘for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’ (p. 7). Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as ‘monsters’ because of the West’s negative associations with muscularity, rural culture, black skin, and animalistic features. Because of this inherently (bio)political aspect of the monstrous, through the monster ‘the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur’ (p.10). This is a quality that remains in the monsters of mashup, though the way the monster’s body is used to represent a social body or the nation-state is different in every case.

Because of its liminal position, the monster ‘polices the borders of the possible’ as well as signalling difference (thesis five; p. 12). By embodying what is forbidden, the monster also seductively hints at what might be possible should the reader choose to cross the boundaries it marks (thesis six; p. 16). The type of seduction enacted and boundaries drawn depends on the type of monster embodied. Critical work on medieval monsters simply shows ‘a morally and physically deformed creature arriving to demarcate the boundary beyond which lies the unintelligible, the inhuman’ (Of Giants, 1999, p. xiv), but with the development of modern systems of deviance and punishment, the monster has came to occupy a special place in the social hierarchy.

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991) .
In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), figurative monsters (morally) are also literal monsters (physically).
Using the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs as an illustration, Halberstam demonstrates ‘the distance traveled between current [late twentieth-century] representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Skin Shows, 1995, p. 1.). For Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside / outside, female / male, body / mind, native / foreign, proletarian/aristocrat’, and so on and so forth (p. 1). Postmodern horror, on the other hand, tends to favour ‘the obscenity of “immediate visibility”’, and its monsters are ‘all body and no soul’ (p. 1). This again signals the increasing loss of  direct significance evident in the twenty-first century monster. The concept of the human is at once too basic and too abstract to mythologise in any straightforward way.

Cohen’s final thesis explores how monstrous difference can be (and often is) deployed in critical theory to ‘reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression’ (p. 20). Critical theory tends to view the monster as an inherently progressive figure, or even a rebellious one, standing for the marginalised and fighting against an unfair society. It is by playing this final characteristic that the mashup is able to turn the monster’s traditional function on its head, highlighting the paradoxical (in)visibility, the loss of metaphysical significance, and the liberal populist tendencies that mark fantastical monstrosity’s twenty-first-century iterations. These narratives appropriate historical traditions of the monstrous as well as historical monsters.

What does it mean to be a monster in the twenty-first century, and how do both the form of the mashup and the ‘burden of history’ (as Hayden White would put it) complicate this identity? You’ll have to come to the conference to find out – or wait a couple of years for my thesis to be finished. In any case, fulfilling the promises of monsters is arguably more complicated than it used to be. It takes the right bodies, interacting in the right way, to reclaim the monster as a symbol of progressive identity politics.

Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us.
Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us?
I love monsters and all their promises, and I sincerely hope the third season of Penny Dreadful puts the arguments I make in this conference paper to shame. Until then, it provides plenty of fuel for blogging.