It takes a village to make a monster, and by this, I mean that nothing or no one is intrinsically or “naturally” monstrous. Instead, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen points out in ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses),’ his introduction to his collection of academic essays on monstrosity, ‘Monster Theory: Reading Culture’ (1996), the monster’s body is always “pure culture,” the embodiment of culturally specific fears, desires, anxieties, and fantasies. What follows from this is that ideas of monstrosity and the forms that monsters take will differ across time and from place to place.
This stands to reason — what scared people (and what they hoped for) in, say, twelfth-century Slovenia will obviously differ from what scares people (and what they hope for) in twenty-first-century America.
We inevitably make our own monsters with the ingredients we have on hand, so the recipe keeps changing — even when the monsters themselves have been passed down from generation to generation.
The implications of the shifting social constructions of ideas of monstrosity are particularly significant when one bears in mind that what is monstrous is always defined in relation to what is human.
The monster is, as Cohen appreciates, “difference made flesh”; it is the other, the “not us,” that which a culture rejects, disowns, disavows, or, to borrow from Julia Kristeva, “abjects.” What this means is that to redefine monstrosity is simultaneously to rethink humanity.
When our monsters change, it reflects the fact that we — our understanding of what it means to be human, our relations with one another and to the world around us, the conception of our place in the greater scheme of things — have changed as well.
This article will discuss a sequence of interrelated trends governing contemporary Western ideas and representations of monstrosity. While there is, of course, some continuity between present-day representations of monstrosity and those of previous generations, the differences are telling and offer provocative insight into culturally specific anxieties and desires.
To consider our current monsters is to reflect on how we think about ourselves and our relation to the world. I will begin by observing the contemporary disconnection of monstrosity from physical appearance.
Beginning with the nineteenth-century Romantics and acquiring a substantial degree of momentum in the twentieth-century — especially from post-Second World War reconsiderations of ethnic and racial difference — one significant trend in representing the monster has been to decouple physical abnormality from assumptions about intelligence, character, or morals.
As presented in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) and elaborated on in Tim Burton’s updated version of Shelley’s seminal Gothic tale, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990), looking different is no longer sufficient to categorize a creature as monstrous. Instead, such narratives shift the emphasis onto oppressive cultural forces that unjustly ostracize or victimize those who are physically divergent.
When the “monster” becomes the protagonist and culture becomes the antagonist, ideas of normality and monstrosity must be reconsidered. This trend of “sympathy for the devil” culminates in contemporary narratives such as the ‘Twilight’ series (both book and film) in which one aspires toward monstrosity as an escape from the stultification of hegemonic social forces of normalization.
What follows from this decoupling of monstrosity from appearance is a significant cultural shift that aligns monstrosity not with a physical difference, but with antithetical moral values.
Monstrosity thus is reconfigured as a kind of invisible disease that eats away at the body and the body politic and manifests visibly through symptomatic behaviour.
I will suggest here that this reconfiguration of monstrosity surfaces in contemporary cultural narratives in four connected ways: (1) through the psychopath (and his first cousin, the terrorist) who lives among us and could be anyone; (2) through the faceless corporation or government agency that finds its impetus in greed and corruption, and sends forth its tendrils into the cracks and crevices of everyday life; (3) through the virus that silently infiltrates and infects the body; and (4) through the conceit of the revenge of an anthropomorphized nature that responds to human despoilment of the environment in dramatic and deadly ways.
What links these four related manifestations of contemporary monstrosity is their invisibility and potential ubiquity, and the response that they elicit is a form of paranoia most evident in contemporary conspiracy theories.
I will then conclude this discussion of present-day monstrosity with some consideration of one form that the response to the fear that monsters are everywhere takes — what I will refer to as “rational irrationalism” or the construction of nonsensical origins.
These are horror stories and monster movies that, to a certain extent circling around to my initial discussion of “sympathy for the devil,” go back in time in the attempt to explain the origins of the monster.
The attempt here is to offer a rational explanation for irrational behaviour by inserting that behaviour into a familiar narrative framework, be it childhood neglect and abuse, scientific hubris, or magic.
These narratives, however, ultimately offer only a semblance of logic while in actuality failing to demystify anything. The monster, as Cohen notes, always escapes, can never finally be known or captured fully — which is part of its monstrosity.