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Monster Theory: Culture, Monstrousness and Ourselves

As I searched Amazon.com for reading materials related to the fantastic to add to my wishlist the description of Monster Theory: Reading Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1996) struck me as intriguing:

“Explores concepts of monstrosity in Western civilization from Beowulf to Jurassic Park.

“We live in a time of monsters. Monsters provide a key to understanding the culture that spawned them. So argue the essays in this wide-ranging and fascinating collection that asks the question, What happens when critical theorists take the study of monsters seriously as a means of examining our culture?

“In viewing the monstrous body as a metaphor for the cultural body, the contributors to Monster Theory consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior. Through a historical sampling of monsters, these essays argue that our fascination for the monstrous testifies to our continued desire to explore difference and prohibition.”

Monster Theory is edited by Jeffrey J. Cohen who is associate professor of English and human sciences at George Washington University. Dr. Cohen agreed to discuss the collection of essays that make up this book, and in particular his contribution to the volume.

TheoFantastique: Dr. Cohen, thank you for your willingness to discuss the book you edited that discusses monsters and their part in culture. With an intercultural studies background, and a personal interest in expressions of the fantastic and monstrous in pop culture, your book struck a number of chords with me. In the preface you note that “monstrousness” has become “a mode of cultural discourse.” This may seem strange to some who only see this as a fringe phenomenon that surfaces at Halloween or in horror films, but can you provide some examples of how this manifests itself?
 
Jeffrey Cohen: It’s funny, we’re used to thinking about monsters as fringe phenomena, but there is nothing ultimately all that marginal about them. Although we tend to place them at the world’s borders, at the edges of calendars, at the farthest reaches of outer space … they nonetheless reveal themselves as intimate to everything we do. Look at the adjective we both just used to describe the monster, fringe. That happens to be the name of a new television show I watched last night, a repackaged and gorier version of The X Files. The show is filled with monstrosities, like a baby that ages to a decrepit old man in a matter of minutes. I’ve also been watching the BBC series Primeval, about intrusions of dinosaurs into contemporary London. Horror films don’t appear only at Halloween: they represent one of the most perennially popular cinematic genres. So, even though we’re used to thinking of the monster as inhabiting some distant geography, it always turns up much closer to home, and much more frequently than you might expect.
 
TheoFantastique: In your chapter in the book you provide what you call “a new modus legendi: a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender.” How did this interest in cultural reading come about for you on a personal level?
 
Jeffrey Cohen: That’s a tough question! I suppose I could push my fascination with monsters all the way back to my childhood, when I was haunted by frequent dreams of stone giants, so much so that I developed an elaborate personal mythology about them. I also loved watching B grade monster movies: my Saturday afternoons were frequently lost to “The Creature Double Feature.” There is nothing more enjoyable than a badly done 1950s alien or monster film.
 
TheoFantastique: Can you provide a few thoughts about what America’s monsters say about us as a culture, and connect this to a few examples from popular culture?
 
Jeffrey Cohen: Not really. I don’t understand contemporary American culture very well because I live it. Being in Washington DC and feeling alienated from most of what goes on at the White House doesn’t help. Actually, I’ll offer this hypothesis: it is very difficult to come up with a monster that reveals much about our culture because at this point we’ve come to believe that we do not possess a common one — that is, we have been in an enduring state of thinking passionately about what sets citizens of the US apart from each other (red versus blue, believers versus secularists, liberals versus conservatives, and so on). We don’t really want a monster to give us unity, to organize us into a collective against something.
 
TheoFantastique: You also state that “monsters are never created ex nihilo,” and that they “must be examined within the intricate matrix of relations (social, cultural, and literary-historical) that generate them.” You then discuss this in light of the evolution of the vampire from Stoker’s literary creation to Anne Rice’s vampires to Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What aspects of cultural development have impacted this metamorphosis in the vampire and how does this shift in the monstrous help us to understand our anxieties?
 
Jeffrey Cohen: You could argue that what Stoker explored through his rather xenophobic rendition of a vampire was contemporary national identities and what was for him the problem of foreign immigration. There is also a current of sexual fear in his monsters. Anne Rice’s sympathetic vampires are about the positive allure of the erotic. They are also, at least early on, a drinker’s paean to alcoholism. Each book was popular in its time because it managed to tap into the fears and desires of its audience: Stoker reacts against a historical reality, Rice responds positively to (and here I’ll pick up another theme from her work) the gay rights movement and offers an positive vision of homoeroticism.
 
TheoFantastique: In your discussion of “seven theses toward understanding cultures through the monsters they bear,” thesis seven is “The Monster Stands at the Threshold … of Becoming.” Under this thesis you state that “monsters are our children” and that in a sense “they ask us why we have created them.” This thesis might make readers a little uncomfortable in that monsters for many are more fun as escapist entertainment. But if we want to understand ourselves, our social interactions, and our culture better by way of self-reflection in light of our monsters how might we take more ownership of them as our offspring even if we consider them our illegitimate children?
 
Jeffrey Cohen: Disidentification against the monster is too easy, and will never allow us to understand why children AND adults get so much pleasure from donning a frightening costume every Halloween. Prospero said it best at the end of The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” Monsters can be used for all kinds of evil, especially to demonize and dehumanize groups and cultures. To acknowledge the monster’s source in the self is not only to have a more capacious view of humanity, it is also to act responsibly to our fears and desires.

TheoFantastique: Thank you for your discussion of this interesting book. I hope as a result of our dialogue that it becomes a source for more reflection.

(Monster Theory can be ordered as part of the TheoFantastique Store selection of recommended books and other fine resources.)

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