Literary criticism is not for the faint of heart. Biblical scholars long ago adopted the methodologies of literary criticism since it had become clear that an absolute meaning for any biblical text will always end up being a chimera. Many of us are versed in the techniques of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, reader-response, post-colonialism, and any number of other means of parsing hidden truths from texts. Since it is October and monsters have a way of creeping into the psyche about now, I read Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Halberstam is using the word “technology” technically here, so this isn’t the easiest of texts to digest. Still, for those of us haunted by monsters this text does tap into one of the main connective tissue between monsters and religion: meaning. As Halberstam notes, the Gothic suffers from a surfeit of meaning. There is just too much meaning bursting out that we have no choice other than to analyze.
Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein, and up through Bram Stoker’s Dracula into the modern horror film, Halberstam probes deeply into the layered meanings offered by the Gothic discourse. The monster is a transgressive creature, one with indistinct boundaries. I couldn’t help but to think how odd it is to suppose that we end at the limits of our bodies. The things that we do influence our environment, and we are capable (often through science) of a kind of spooky action at a distance (think of drones, HAARP, or fracking—I’m talking literally spooky here). As Halberstam points out more than once we don’t make monsters, monsters make us human.
Skin Shows is all about boundaries. Biological, psychological, sexual—we define ourselves by our boundaries. The monster is no respecter of such boundaries, forcing us to face our own definitions with a certain ambivalence. What do our monsters say about us? Do we really want to know? Monsters can be brutally honest. More honest, at times, than religions are willing to be. As views change over time, so do conceptions of the monster. Religions frequently attempt to hold out against inevitable change. Perhaps such stalwart bravado is admirable, at least until we experience a dark and stormy night of the soul. Here be monsters.