Gilmore: Anthropology and Monsters in Cultural Imagination

In a previous post I mentioned the work of Dr. David Gilmore, an anthropologist who teaches at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), an interesting book that provides an anthropological perspective on monsters in various cultures. Dr. Gilmore graciously consented to an interview on the thesis of his book.

TheoFantastique: Dr. Gilmore, it’s my pleasure to discuss your book with you as we explore the meaning of our monsters. To begin, you state early on that you have had an “endless fascination with monsters” and as your book continues you note how this is true of all cultures the world over. On a personal level, how did you come both personally and professionally to an interest in and study of monsters in various cultures?

David Gilmore: Some unconscious quirk made me do it! Ever since I could read I was drawn to sci-fi and to the thrill of the unknown, but especially the idea of pure “evil” as an embodiment, a living breathing “thing” arrayed against humanity. I guess I was a pretty lonely repressed kid and I must have felt a secret identification with the “alien” who gets back by attacking the world. Who knows whereof our nightmares come?

TheoFantastique: You note that monsters have a connection to “a divine source,” and that at times they even “[carry] profound, even spiritual meaning beyond just frightfulness.” This might seem a surprise to some in Western culture now that our monsters largely reflect our ambivalence toward religion, but can you comment on the connection between monsters and the spiritual or religious?

David Gilmore: If you reflect on the semantics, you will have the answer. The monster is “awesome,” “terrible” and “superhuman”–these are also words we use for our God, or our gods. There’s a certain ambivalence in the human mind about gods and monsters. Like Jehovah, the monsters of our imagination punish us for transgressions; they are omnipotent; we stand in fear of their awesome power. Monsters, however, are both super- and sub-human, divine and demonic, godlike and atavistic. In the Christian Middle Ages, monsters were thought to be instruments of God, messages, symbols, punishments, warnings.

TheoFantastique: As you put forward your methodology of studying monsters you state that while other academic disciplines have addressed this topic that anthropologists have tended not to do so. I have benefited from anthropology in my graduate studies and it was this perspective that most attracted me to your book. Why do you think anthropologists have been reluctant to apply their discipline to the study of monsters, and why types of unique perspectives might the anthropologist bring to a broader perspective on the topic?

David Gilmore: Anthropology started out as The Comparative Science par excellence. The idea was that by comparing the cultures of the world we could find out things about the bedrock nature of humanity underneath the surface variation. But this useful viewpoint has been superseded by specialized navel-gazing today: anthropologists now spend their entire life engrossed in the nuances of one single culture, rarely comparing anything. It’s a shame.

TheoFantastique: In your methodological analysis you draw upon a variety of theoretical frameworks, including the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas as she touches on the idea of “ethno-monstrosity,” Can you briefly touch on some of aspects that cultural anthropology can provide from this framework?

David Gilmore: Anthropologists have discovered that in virtually all cultures of the world, people tend to place their own order upon the world of nature,” providing a framework for negotiating reality and thereby taming it. But what about those rare instances that do not “fit” these schemes? That’s where monsters and all other ideas of pollution or “the unnatural” come into play. The surface details differ of course but the underlying psychological processes reflect a deeper human tendency–perhaps as Clause Levi-Strauss would have said, dealing with the exceptional, the anomaly, is “hard wired” in the cerebellum.

TheoFantastique: I was also pleased to see the application of Victor Turner’s work on ritual and liminality brought into the analysis. I have appreciated from his work as applied in other contexts but have never seen it applied to a study of the monstrous. How might Turner help us understand the function of monsters in our ritual and liminal spaces, particularly in Western contexts where monsters in film serve as symbolic texts for engagement?

David Gilmore: Turner wrote that all cultures have periodic “times out” (brief vacations from the rules) when people are allowed to think beyond the “normal” and to invent new images and concepts. This is psychologically necessary, he felt, for human growth as well as for social cohesion, as a kind of universal safety valve. One of the things that people give vent to in times of untrammeled freedom is that which most frightens them: their own unconscious fears and primitivity.

TheoFantastique: In your chapter on “Ritual Monsters” you touch on the function of monsters that assists young people in “awakening them to their own values and moral traditions.” The noted horror historian David Skal has made similar observations about ritual and horror in what he labeled as “Monster Culture” among youth. So might there be positive ritual aspects to our monsters for the youth (not to mention those a bit older) and more substance to such interests than the fears that are many times expressed about the gore aspects of many contemporary horror films?

David Gilmore: Yes, but in traditional cultures the monster has a didactic purpose” to teach youngsters about how they must conquer their own worst impulses and to work with others to slay the dragon of aggression and cruelty. I wonder if we are teaching our youth this valuable message. Previously the dragon-slayer was a “Culture Hero” because he/she saved the society from monsters; now the dragon-slayer is just playing a violent video game for amusement. Where’s the moral message?

TheoFantastique: Your book addresses monsters from a variety of sources in a number of cultures throughout the world, and readers will benefit from considering each of them as your book describes their various manifestations. But I’d like to highlight just a few aspects of your discussion that might be most relevant to Western consumers of monsters in popular culture. As Christendom continued to spread in influence throughout the West, how did it shape the presentation of the monster, especially as it surfaced in film?

David Gilmore: The Monster has always sprung from the unknown and the unexplored regions of the world: the unconscious, from the deep earth, from the darkest caves, from the bottom of the sea, and from outer space–the mysterious reaches of the imagination. The new realm of the Monster is Cyberspace.

TheoFantastique: I found your mention of contemporary monsters in folklore and popular culture of great interest as you mention the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot and your mention that “Western science has by no means relegated monsters to oblivion.” Whether we consider pre-modern, modern or post-modern cultures it seems as if human beings have a real need to create monsters. What positive contributions do they make to our understandings of ourselves, fellow human beings, our social circumstances, as well as our hopes and fears?

David Gilmore: The Monster is the embodiment of all that we fear–in the world and in ourselves. To be fully human, we all need to confront these fears and to conquer them: hence the endless narrative of the Hero (a la Joseph Campbell).

TheoFantastique: I was most intrigued by your statement that “monsters indeed help us to think and to imagine,” and that they are “are our guides, our entree into the mysterious worlds that lie both outside and within us.” Can you expand slightly on these ideas?

David Gilmore: By creating monsters and thinking about them, we give visual expression and an objective outlet to our imagination and we relieve our own anxieties. The monster represents a repudiation–through projection and distancing–of the deepest and most repellent parts of the self.

TheoFantastique: Dr. Gilmore, thanks again for sharing your thoughts as expressed in your book. They make a valuable contribution to our understanding of our monsters and ourselves.

David Gilmore: My pleasure. Remember the immortal words of Nietzsche: when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back.

Comment Pages

There are 3 Comments to "Gilmore: Anthropology and Monsters in Cultural Imagination"

  • ILoz Zoc says:

    First, fantastic look for your site. Great color scheme.
    Second, excellent interview. I read this book some time ago. I’ve got to now take it off the shelf and revisit it.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    I’d be interested in knowing what monsters come from cyberspace. Stephen King wrote a story about a monster dog that came from a camera, but I can’t think of one coming from cyberspace — perhaps that’s the germ of an idea for a novel. The e-mail egregor.

  • […] representations of “human qualities that have to be repudiated, externalized, and defeated.” In a 2008 interview he […]

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