Monsters, in Theory

MonsterTheoryI want to understand monsters. I suppose that’s pretty common among Monster Boomers, but the thing is academics have been slow to give credence to our creatures. Yes, monsters are a throw back to the Medieval Period or worse, and reflect superstition, the supernatural, and things that go bump in the night. Our scientific worldview has no place for them, but they continually come back to peek in our windows and stomp on our cities. Horror movies, for example, consistently rate high in box-office grosses. And even adults, if caught in unguarded moments, might confess to enjoying the uncanny. So it was that I read Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Yes, it’s dated, but by humanities’ standards, it’s not too bad. Jurassic Park, one gets the feeling, was the rage when the book was being written.

As with most collections of essays, this is a Forest Gump of papers. Some of them were quite good and others were that kind filled with po-mo nougat. The one thing that was missing, sadly, is, well, monster theory. I’ve read just about every academic book available on monsters. I have yet to find a serviceable theory to help make sense of them. Yes, there are plenty of theories of origins—where monsters come from—but how to we handle them? Everyone knows that a stake is useful for vampires and a headshot is necessary for a zombie, but what are these revenants telling us really? Why do we still, when we can carry the internet in our pockets and call for help in the middle of nowhere, fear monsters? How do we construct, rather than deconstruct them?

Psychologists, of course, have a couch day with monsters. They represent parents, or phobias, or penises, or any number of things that make us uncomfortable. But how do we know a monster when we see it? Monster Theory, for example, has two chapters on conjoined twins. Now, at the time “monster” was a term used occasionally, but it is highly insensitive, let alone politically incorrect, to refer to humans that way. Then there were chapters on vampires and ghosts. Well, I suppose the dead can’t help their state either, but if they come back they could at least behave. Monstrosity is a concept, like religion, that we just can’t live without. We need our monsters in the dark just as we need dreams and desires. The question is what to do about them, and even after reading this weighty tome, I still don’t know.

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