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Monstrosity, Catholicism and Revising 1641 Inhuman Rising

Monstrosity, Catholicism and Revising 1641 Inhuman Rising
© Photograph by Pendora's Box

Monstrosity emerges from under the stairs, from the attic, out of the cellar, spaces on the edge rather than at the centre, making it difficult to live at ease when you believe that you are surrounded by monsters. The existential and social anxiety that can be traced in Irish Anglican attitudes and behaviour in the eighteenth-century (despite the concomitant expressions of security) can be partly explained by the fact that most of them thought that they were living everyday life in a country mostly populated by diabolical monsters. This is the kind of anxiety horror cinema is particularly good at depicting, and it might be helpful to think of eighteenth-century Ireland as a refined version of a zombie movie in which a small, select group of survivors battle in a world dominated by the living dead. The best analogy may be to George Andrew Romero’s seminal zombie film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968), which features a group of stressed out and increasingly agitated survivors trapped in a farmhouse besieged by a large crowd of the recently dead who have mysteriously returned to some semblance of life. The zombies have only one thing left on their minds: eating living flesh.

On all sides, Irish Anglicans were surrounded by hordes of sanguinary and satanic Catholic demons waiting for a chance to dismember, disembowel and, in some cases, cannibalise them (just as they cannibalised Jesus in the Eucharist), or perhaps possess their bodies and absorb them (through conversion) into the Catholic collective like a kind of primitive Borg. Indeed, the notion that Catholics shared one mind was expressed forcefully by Archbishop William King in 1727 when he complained that all Catholics “have a correspondence and mutual intelligence by means of their priests and they can at any time bring a mob together from remote places”. The annual sermon on October 23rd, commemorating the 1641 rebellion was a yearly reminder — as if any were needed — of just how precarious life was for the elect in a godforsaken place like Ireland. “Are there any of those bloody papists in Dublin?” famously asked one eight-year-old girl when she had emerged from Christ Church cathedral immediately after the commemorative sermon in 1746. The girl’s terror was palpable to Dr John Anthony Curry, a Catholic physician who was so influenced by the remark that he determined to make an effort to change the mindset of his Anglican countrymen and women by revising the history of the rising. Such revision, however, required convincing Anglicans that the bogeyman was not real, that Catholics were not zombies or bloodthirsty maniacs, and it, therefore, encountered the difficulty that it is extremely hard for people to give up the ghosts they have lived with for generations. Unmaking monsters is much more problematic than making them in the first place.

“Monster” may seem like an extreme term to use in relation to Anglican perceptions of Irish Catholics, so an incursion inside the theradome is necessary to justify the frequent recourse to it in this chapter. I will begin where every other critic on the matter of the monster begins, by telling you that the word monster is derived from, or at least connected, to the Latin word “monstrum”, meaning to show, or demonstrate, to reveal, or warn. Monsters tell us something — indeed, warn us to be wary and to watch out: be alert, for here be things that frighten. Beyond their function as signifiers of the potentially dangerous, however, there has not been much agreement over what actually constitutes a monster in teratology. A definition has proved very difficult. Some monsters are rather obvious: giant bugs, of the kind that populate “creature features”, such as the enormous ants in ‘Them!’ (1954; directed by Gordon Douglas); the gigantic arachnids of ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1975; directed by Baron Bill Rebane) and ‘Eight Legged Freaks’ (2002; directed by Ellory Elkayem); or the oversized mutant cockroaches in ‘Mimic’ (1997; directed by Guillermo del Toro Gómez). Such creatures look disgusting in the first place and cause an instinctive repulsion in humans. They are horrifying biological mistakes, clearly outside the normal order of nature. These fictional monsters have “real world” equivalents, of course, in things like the Loch Ness Monster (whose monstrosity is helpfully signalled by his/her name), the Yeti or Abominable Snowman (another rather obvious title), and also the gigantic squid rumoured to be prowling around the waters around Norway and Iceland waiting for some tasty humans upon whom to feast.

The biologically queer have traditionally been culturally figured as monsters, and this kind of monstrosity, one associated with non-human animals, segues rather too easily into a view of certain kinds of humans as also monstrous — or at least signifying monstrosity. If we are now rather less (publicly) comfortable with assigning the term “monster” to humans manifesting biological oddness such as grotesque obesity, gigantism or dwarfism, hydrocephaly, physical retardation or handicap, this was not always the case, and freak shows and circuses made a great deal of money exhibiting such human strangeness to large crowds from the eighteenth-century onwards.

Moreover, humans have not been slow to translate real-life deformity into the fictional giants, dwarfs and other grotesqueries that populate myth, fairy tale and horror.

The term “monstrous birth” was fairly common in the early modern period and used to describe the delivery of a newborn manifesting almost any kind of strange defect. For example, in 1715 in Darken Parish, Essex, Sarah Smith reportedly gave birth to a baby with the body of a dolphin, talons instead of hands, possessing six heads (but one neck) with various facial features such as those of a calf, a camel and a dragon. This, Sarah Smith’s neighbours wisely decided, was obviously a monster, and a punishment for her generally loose way of life. Both mother and child died soon after the birth, with the village priest declaring (and who could dispute him?): “As she lived a monster, so she died of a monster”. Part of the thinking behind designating such unfortunates as monsters derives from Aristotle’s fourth book of ‘Generation of Animals’ (350 BC), where he declared, quite definitively, that “anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity, since in these cases Nature has in a way strayed from the generic type” (of course, given that Aristotle also believed that the first kind of monstrosity was when a female rather than a male was formed in the womb, thereby forever associating femininity and monstrosity, his certainty on this matter is not to be trusted). Biological bizarreness is, again, the central issue: monstrosity is easily legible because it is written on the body, the skin of the monster.

The great theorist of monstrosity Noël Carroll defines a monster as “any being not believed to exist now according to contemporary science” and which is seen as “threatening and impure”, “categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, incomplete, or formless”, affecting a response of disgust or horror in anyone perceiving it. For Noël Carroll, the monster is generally a biological hybrid or horrific biological combination of different species. Such shocking co-minglings are so radically impure that they cannot fail to produce a horrific response in anyone who sees them. Noël Carroll argues that monsters are the key to the horror genre because we are so curious as well as horrified by the bizarre biologies of the monster that we are driven by “cognitive appetite” to try to find out everything we can about that monster.

So far, so (relatively) uncontroversial. Both human and non-human animals can be included in the category of the monstrous as long as they manifest a kind of biological abnormality (in the case of humans, this will typically compromise their humanity, so that, for example, in David Paul Cronenberg’s version of ‘The Fly’ (1986), poor old Seth Brundle is fused with a common housefly to become “Brundlefly”, a hybrid of human/ insect). However, given this understanding of the term “monster”, a problem arises when someone who otherwise looks perfectly “normal” is thought of as monstrous. These people are not biologically impure but are, rather, psychological deviants. They differ from the normal not really in body but in mind, in thought. The main figure considered in relation to this category of monstrosity has been the “serial killer”, whose behaviour and way of thinking is so different from the norm that the term “monster” seems an appropriate one to apply (perhaps the only one).

It is difficult to know what to call a figure like the Satan-obsessed serial killer Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez, or the “Night Stalker”, who enjoyed himself raping, torturing and killing in 1980s California, believing himself “above good and evil”, except a “monster” — although I suppose the liberal mind might be able to come up with a less upsetting term. Such “monsters” are probably even more frightening to most of us than giant cockroaches. There may be a kind of evolutionary terror of spiders and snakes and various insects (useful, perhaps, when we were stumbling around the African savannah during the Neolithic, which would explain our apparent instinctual disgust when confronted with gigantic versions of these potentially harmful creatures) but our fear of the human monster that looks normal is rather more complex. On one level, of course, Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unheimlich can be all too easily applied to the psychological monster: there is something uncanny about the human monster that looks completely normal. They resemble that which is long known and familiar, your neighbour, your family member, but they are actually hollowed-out shells containing a terrifying otherness. The various manifestations of Walter Braden Finney’s ‘The Body Snatchers’ (1954) — including the two best film adaptations, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956; directed by Don Siegel; 1978; directed by Philip Kaufman) — contain one of the most obvious representations of this kind of monster, but even the glassy-eyed unemotional pod-people pale beside real monsters able to mimic the emotions of utter normality, of the normal self. Their monstrosity is revealed only when they attempt to rape, torture or kill you.

Again, while possession by an evil spirit is apparently signalled by a lot of clear indicators in our culture — such as speaking in tongues, vomiting pea soup, increased problem with body odour — this is not necessarily true historically. The witch, while often an isolated individual who behaved strangely, could be your wife, sister or mother whose evil only became apparent at certain points of the day or night. Monstrosity could hide, as well as reveal, in other words (hence Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s famous story).

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