Timothy Beal: Religion and Its Monsters

Timothy K. Beal is Florence Harkness Professor of Religion and director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. He has published eight books, including Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith (Beacon, 2005), which was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and one of Publishers Weekly’s ten Best Religion Books of 2005; Religion and Its Monsters (Routledge, 2002), which was a Reviews in Religion and Theology Editor’s Choice; and The Book of Hiding: Gender, Ethnicity, and Annihilation in Esther (Routledge, 2007). He has published essays on religion and American culture for The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He has been featured on radio shows including NPR’s All Things Considered and The Bob Edwards Show. He is co-editor, with Tod Linafelt, Georgetown University, of the book series Afterlives of the Bible with the University of Chicago Press.

I was impressed with the perspective that Timothy brought to one of his books, Religion and Its Monsters, and Timothy made some time to discuss various aspects of the book with me.

TheoFantastique: Please accept my thanks, Tim, for your willingness to discuss your book. Perhaps we could begin by further introducing you and the subject matter. How did you personally and academically become interested in both the study of religion and monsters?

Timothy Beal: Thanks, John. It's great to be part of this project. There are a lot of ways to approach this question. But I think this book owes most to my college students at Eckerd College and then at Case Western Reserve University. The core of the book first emerged in a seminar course I taught toward the beginning of my career at Eckerd College. The course was called "Ecology, Chaos, and the Sacred," which tried to put biblical and ancient Near Eastern conceptions of chaos into conversation with the contemporary science of chaos and complexity theory, especially in the field of ecology. I had long been interested in the relationship between ecological order and chaos in Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient Near Eastern mythologies -- especially those places in which it was personified as a "chaos monster" or "chaos god." I was noticing somewhat similar representations in some contemporary discourse in chaos theory. So I said, hey, let's read this stuff together and see what connections we can make.

One of the primary personifications of chaos in the Hebrew Scriptures is Leviathan. Interestingly, there is some ambivalence about God's relation to Leviathan. Sometimes God identified with Leviathan, and sometimes Leviathan represents the chaotic enemy of divine order. From there, we began noticing deeper ambivalence in the divine character in relation to chaos. This is the case in other ancient Near Eastern mythology as well. Anyway, all this opened new questions about the relation between the divine and the monstrous (as well as our concepts of chaos and order, otherness and sameness, etc.).

When I moved to Case Western Reserve, I began teaching a seminar on "Religion and Horror," and continued the exploration with many more students. I initially imagined that the book would be about the cultural history of Leviathan as a way of reflecting on the relationship between religion and the monstrous. Leviathan is still a major figure in the book, but the book became ... well, monstrous, I suppose.

TheoFantastique: One of the criticisms I receive is that many Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists do not make the connection between Christianity and the monstrous, especially as it is expressed in horror films. Your book begins immediately in the Introduction by making the connection between the Judeo-Christian tradition and horror through the Frankenstein film. How did you come to your understanding of this connection, and why don't you think many conservative Protestants make this connection or go even further by being put off by the suggestion of the connection?

Timothy Beal: I'm hesitant to generalize about that. I suppose that for many those representations are simply reduced to "evil" and then seen as being radically opposed to religion. It's clear, in any case, that much of horror literature and film and culture is steeped in Christian theological tradition. It's really a deeply theological culture at its core. The second half of my book, "Monsters and Their Religion," is all about that. In fact, the book considered by most to be the first horror novel begins with a biblical question: are the sins of the father visited on their children? Also, the imagery of the monstrous in horror literature and film is often drawn from biblical texts (especially Revelation) and from other, less familiar religious traditions.

TheoFantastique: Some readers might be surprised by your discussion of monsters in the Bible, specifically in your mention of Leviathan and Behemoth in the Old Testament, and the Great Dragon in the New Testament. Can you say a few things about the biblical depictions of Leviathan and its connection to Near Eastern cosmogonies as it relates to chaos monsters as a threat to cosmic order?

Timothy Beal: Chaos gods or chaos monsters, as biblical scholars have been calling them for more than a century, are present in many ancient Near Eastern myths. They are personifications of chaos -- threats to order, both cosmic and social. As such they tend to oppose the creator gods in these stories. A creation story is often therefore described as a chaos battle (German Chaoskampf) in which the creator god establishes order by defeating the chaos god/monster. Sometimes, as in the Enuma Elish (and, in a way, the biblical book of Job, chapter 38), the creator god creates the ordered world from the defeated chaos god. Order emerges from chaos, and vice versa. Also, interestingly, the chaos god and the creator god are sometimes intimately related. In the monotheistic tradition of Israelite religion, I think, both elements may be found in the one God. Thus the ambivalence I mentioned earlier. There's a lot more about all this in my first two chapters.

Leviathan appears to be related to a similar serpentine chaos monster/god in Canaanite mythology. And the personifications of chaos in the Hebrew Scriptures generally has a lot of connections to those of other ancient Near Eastern mythologies (compare Enuma Elish and Job 38, for example).

TheoFantastique: Can you discuss the connection between Rudolph Otto's notion of the divine as an oscillation between fear and desire in the mysterium tremendum and how the same dynamic is found in the monstrous?

Timothy Beal: Everyone should read the first chapter of Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy. It has problems from a comparative religion perspective, but his phenomenology of religious experience is fascinating. I encourage readers to take a look at my discussion of him in the introduction. In a nutshell, Otto saw religious experience as a non-rational encounter with unknowable otherness, the wholly other, the unheimlich ("uncanny" or more literally "unhomey"). He characterizes it as an encounter with mysterium tremendum et fascinans, an unknowable that is both terrifying and fascinating. In this he was influenced by Kant's idea of the sublime. In this light, it's interesting to see how descriptions of religious experience are often very similar to descriptions of horror: a vertiginous encounter with otherness that is both fascinating and repelling and that ungrounds us in profound ways. Can horror be a kind of mystical experience?

TheoFantastique: Your chapter on the dragon from Revelation is particularly interesting as you trace its unique construction from chaos monsters of the past for the author's reading audience, and then note its significant impact in Christian culture and then in broader culture to the present day in literature and film. Can you highlight a few of the ways in which this monstrous figure has influenced contemporary popular culture beyond its more obvious manifestations in evangelical "end-times" literature and films?

Timothy Beal: Where to begin? Harris' The Red Dragon is a good start. That comes via Blake's watercolor, but Blake is inspired by the biblical figure. More interesting to me is the way this diabolical dragon, whose own ancestry goes back to Leviathan (read my chapter -- it's a somewhat complex genealogy), traces its way into Dracula and his offspring. And of course they have their own endless theological struggles, as Anne Rice well knows.

TheoFantastique: With my background in intercultural studies I was also interested, and dismayed, by your discussion of monsters outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition as influenced by other religions, and how the West, so influenced by Christianity, has tended to demonize other religious as the monstrous. In your discussion you mention these "colonial projections" as "one pole of modern primitivism," and then discuss Marie-Denise Shelton's ideas of "'official' imperial discourse, which affirms modern western culture 'as the perfect and ultimate state of humanity'; and second, the 'poetic' discourse which identifies with these colonized, 'primitive' others as a means of condemning the modern West as 'deficient and moribund.'" As I read this I couldn't help but think of this dynamic as applying to the current state of affairs in the struggles between the West and some Islamic nations and terrorist organizations. Without in any way diminishing the significance of the problem of global terrorism, would you agree that this is taking place and that we are still creating our religious and cultural monsters?

Timothy Beal: I certainly do agree. What is Osama Bin Laden if not a monster of our own making? In my "Religion and Horror," I always begin one class discussion with the statement, "There's no such thing as Osama Bin Laden." And we go from there. In fact, he is a monstrous projection more than a historical person. Indeed, we often imbue his figure with supernatural powers like omniscience and omnipresence.

Of course, there are also the monstrous projections of Jewish people within antisemitic discourse. Here too we face a very long and deeply regrettable tradition within both western European and Islamic discourses (the latter inheriting it from the former in the first part of the twentieth century, when the Nazis enjoyed powerful influence in the Middle East).

TheoFantastique: In your discussion of Dracula, one of the aspects you touch on is the aspect of Dionysian religion. You state that "Christian identity has continued to define itself against Dionysian religion, despite the fact that its rival has long since disappeared." I wonder whether this idea might be nuanced in that while formal Dionysian religion of the ancient past is gone, various aspects of it continue in a variety of religious and spiritual streams, and Christianity in the West with its long embrace of modernity and rationality while downplaying the more ecstatic elements of religious experience, continues to fight against those expressions of spirituality and religion that emphasize such aspects? Would you see any merit in such an idea?

Timothy Beal: I certainly agree, John. I couldn't say it better than you just did. I would add only that this is especially the case within Protestant Christian tradition, which is especially modernist/anti-"primitive" in its orientation toward the intellectual/doctrinal and away from religion as aesthetics.

TheoFantastique: As you move to a discussion of monsters on the silver screen one of the films you address is the classic vampire film Nosferatu. I was surprised to learn of the influences of Western esotericism and Theosophy, and that the producers were "explicitly interested in making the monster movie into an alternative venue for religious reflection." Do you believe that horror still functions in this way for many viewers regardless of the intent of film producers?

Timothy Beal: I think that it often does function in that religious way -- at least among the makers of supernatural horror (I don't know about slasher films). It goes back to religious experience as an encounter with otherness. Is that not what supernatural horror is about? I recently contributed an interview on this subject to a new website,, which is for horror screenwriters. So I gather that there must be some conscious religious interest among many horror movie makers and viewers.

TheoFantastique: In your concluding chapter you discuss the immensely influential work of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly through his monster gods of "Cthulhu Mythos." You state that for Lovecraft his supernatural horror was designed to elicit cosmic fear which he felt was "coeval with religious experience." You also suggest that "monster play operations as a critique of more culturally mainstream religious institutions." I have noted that Lovecraft's work is very popular in Neo-Pagan circles, and I wonder whether the elements of his work that approximates a religious experience, coupled with modern horror's frequent critique of Christianity might come together to account for some of Lovecraft's great appeal in religious circles and other alternative (sub)cultures like the Gothic movement. Any thoughts?

Timothy Beal: That's right on, John. I was amazed, by the way, by how many college students knew his stuff. And of course Lovecraft's mythos also gets play among Satanists, and even finds its way into some ritual texts via Anton LaVey.

TheoFantastique: Tim, your book has helped me understand myself and others a little better. At the close of the final chapter you state:

"But in instances of playing monster, in which monstrosity is embraced, even taken on as a form of one's own identity, something radically different is at work. Such monstrous performance art works against the general tendency to mark the distance between normative and non-normative identity, pushing us to get to know our monsters face to face - and perhaps, like the blind man in The Bride of Frankenstein, to share a good smoke and some new music."

I once read an interview with director Guillermo del Toro discussing his life and the influences in his film Pan's Labyrinth. At one point he made the decision to reject formal religion in favor of monsters and myth. I have chosen another path, and as a religious person I embrace religion, myth, and the monstrous. Thanks for helping me to know myself and my own monsters a little bit better. I hope this interview helps promote your work and generates a few more readers.

Timothy Beal: Thank you, John, for such a generous reading of my work and for inviting me to participate in this project.

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