Human Monstrosity in Fiction and Film of the United States

Michelle Kay Hansen
Michelle Kay Hansen

The oft-debated question in gothic and horror studies, “What makes a monster?” is a key question because the definition of monstrosity is what many scholars will base their definition of “gothic” and “horror” upon.

The more restrictive the definition of monster, the more confined one’s definition of gothic and horror becomes. I was first exposed to this debate through Noel Carroll’s ‘The Philosophy of Horror’ (1990).

This work is a seminal, though contentious, work of criticism in the discipline of ‘Horror Fiction and Film’. Its book jacket blurb hails it as bringing together the philosophy of art (including fiction, film, and visual arts), the philosophy of mind, and questions of popular culture, and providing a “comprehensive knowledge” of the horror genre.

Though there are certainly helpful and enlightening aspects of the study — for example, Carroll’s ability to distinguish subsets of genres such as fantasy and science fiction from that of horror, and his later discussion of arthorror’s relevance to postmodernism — the premise of his work itself, his definition of “horror” as pertaining to works which feature a particular kind of “monster,” is not only overly-simplified, but indeed unfounded.

Carroll claims that horror must be defined by the appearance of monsters in the work, and specifically that monsters are “of either a supernatural or sci-fi origin”, and therefore cannot be human.

He reemphasizes this later, saying “‘monster’ refers to any being not believed to exist now according to contemporary science”. If a human being is the antagonist, or the horror is more psychologically driven, the story or film falls into a different genre rather than that of horror, dubbed by Carroll as “tales of terror” or “tales of dread”. In fact, Carroll attempts to separate the horror genre completely from the gothic, while I believe that these two terms — Gothic and Horror — can and should be used interchangeably if a broader definition of monster is applied to the scholarship surrounding the literature and popular culture of the United States starting from its literary beginnings in the seventeenth-century.

Carroll is not the only one to reduce the definition of monster to such a small group of creatures. David D. Gilmore, in his 2003 book ‘Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors’, seems to support Carroll’s reductive definition, confining monsters to “supernatural, mythical, or magical products of the imagination”.

He continues: “I will not include heinous criminals or mass murderers like Hitler or Stalin (justifiably “monsters” in a metaphorical sense), nor will I include physical abnormalities, freaks and birth defects, or other real anomalies or deformities (referred to as “monsters” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance).

Additionally, for purposes of cultural comparison, I will exclude witches and sorcerers, because, like our serial murderers, they are only human beings who have gone bad, rather than fantasies. For the same reason I exclude revenants like ghosts and zombies, which are, once again, only dead (or half dead) people come back to haunt.”

Gilmore not only says humans cannot be monstrous, but takes it even further by excluding anything that may have been human in the first place.

The purpose of this dissertation and the chapters therein is to point out the glaring weaknesses in various arguments about the definition of monsters, what makes a monster, and the concept of monstrosity in general.

My argument is positioning itself on the opposite side of scholars such as Carroll who restrict the definition of monster to beings of supernatural or mythical origin.

The articles will not only examine humans as monstrous, but will contend that those monsters which are generally thought of as inhuman (zombies and vampires, for example) are actually fueled by human fears and social constructs. In many cases, the monster itself is not what is at the root of horror in these stories and films — the monster is only a metaphor for what human beings are attempting to deal with in their own lives, past and present. When viewed through a socio-historical and psychoanalytic lens, it becomes clear that the definition of monster is a much larger concept than what Carroll uses to define art-horror, and that “monsters” can actually encompass not only human beings, but more abstract concepts like institutions or academia.

This changing definition is something that Carroll does not take into account, largely due to his dismissal of Julia Kristeva and other psychoanalytic critics who are commonly used to interpret horror and gothic fiction. Though Carroll does acknowledge the socio-historical influence on the appearance of monsters in art-horror, he fails to consider how these influences have also changed the very definition of what makes a monster.

Before examining my own definition of what makes a monster in the context of current conversations about monstrosity, it is important to fully develop Carroll’s own definition of what makes a monster.

In a section titled ‘Fantastic Biologies and the Structures of Horrific Imagery,’ also labelled by Carroll as ‘How to Make a Monster,’ Carroll breaks monsters into various categories, offering multiple examples throughout.

The first category is labelled “Fusion” monsters. These monsters blur the distinction between living and dead, or are made up of multiple categories of species which all defy biology in some way.

Basically, this is a monster made up of more than one entity, such as a mummy, vampire, ghost, zombie, man/insect, etc. The next category is “Fission” monsters. Like Fusion monsters, these are also made up of contradictory elements, but they have multiple individual identities.

Doppelgangers, alter-egos, and werewolves fit into this fission category. Next, Carroll discusses “Magnification” of entities which are already considered disgusting (such as overgrown insects), and “Massification” of repelling creatures (such as enormous amounts of insects), of which both types also fit into his definition of a monster.

At the end of the ‘How to Make a Monster’ section, Carroll brings up a strategy he calls “horrific metonymy.” In this strategy, the horrific beings are surrounded by things the audience already associated with disgust, making the monsters even more disgusting. It is not just the monster that is horrifying, but the locale. This emphasizes the monster’s own impurity/disgust by association.

Though these categories can be considered useful in a preliminary discussion of monstrosity, Carroll fails to consider — or even mention — what many other scholars in studies of the monstrous use to begin their definition of monster; namely, the etymology of the word “monster” and some of the earliest cases of the “monstrous,” which inherently involve human beings.

Popularly, the etymology of the word “monster” derives from the Latin monstrare, “to show” (with cognate forms demonstrate and remonstrate), as well as monere, “to warn.” As the etymological burden of these phrases suggest, the monster will always signify something. Usually it signifies difference, “whether lack or superfluity, whether too many or too much, hand, toe, finger, or other bodily member, for instance” (Ingebretsen 211).

But this difference always demands interpretation, because it signifies the ominous — something from which a detriment is expected, and something which deviates from the norm. The use of the word “monster” is always a metaphor in Gothic and Horror fiction.

The metaphor justifies a range of socially discounted, but nonetheless tolerated behaviours — “physical and rhetorical violence, social expressions of astonishment, scandal and insult, displays of sex as moral currency and economic exchange” (Ingebretsen 2).

In the ancient world, monstrosities, monstra, are named from admonition, monitus, because they point out something by signaling or symbolizing. Clearly, from the beginnings of recorded time, monsters have been part of a semiotic culture of divination, metaphors, messages, indications of deeper meaning, or inspiration.

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