Tag Archives: Monsters

No Place to Hyde

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?

Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?

Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.

The Unliving

Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.

Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.

To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.

Living Challenged

One of the surest signs of hope for the world is that academics are beginning to notice monsters. A trickle began some time ago and it’s probably best to call it a trickle still, nevertheless, the quality of the trickle is improving. Some serious publishers are now counted among the mix of those who pay attention to the lovable unlovable. Greg Garrett’s Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse is one of the more recent approaches to the undead that looks for religious themes among them. They’ve been there from the beginning with zombies, of course, but few with tenured positions bothered to look. It’s an open question how long the current fascination with the undead might last, but Garrett’s treatment finds them useful sources of theological thought.

Perhaps the aspect of my own fascination that I feel most often compelled to explain is why fear has such an appeal. Garrett makes the point that fear often causes people to make bad choices, and I would have to agree. It is, however, the fear of fear that takes a greater toll. You see, fear is a survival instinct. Without fight or flight we’re all zombie food. Some of us learn this harsh lesson early in life, and if we manage to survive long enough we might even become nostalgic for it. It’s not that I like be afraid, but I do know that if we fear fear—if we avoid looking at what scares us—we put ourselves in danger that the flight response might well prevent.

Garrett’s treatment is helpful in demonstrating that there is a reason for such stories. In fact, according to his analysis zombies can leave you with a profound sense of hope. He uses the living dead as a means of thinking about community, ethics, and apocalypse. Not all end of the world scenarios are that bad. How we treat the living dead may tell us quite a bit about our own rectitude or lack thereof. In other words, zombies are more than their puerile thrills might suggest. There’s something of substance here. I don’t agree with all of Garrett’s conclusions, but he offers a stimulating tour of the current media frenzy around the living challenged and is surely correct that there is more going on with monsters than many of our parents would like to have a religion expert admit. Those childhood years might not have been wasted on monsters after all.

Revisiting Frankenstein

There’s nothing like going back to the classics. Many people don’t realize that one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It has never been out of print. As a novel it has its issues, but the tale strikes something deeply responsive in readers. And the story may not be what you think. You see, the movies have made Frankenstein’s monster into something Shelley never intended. Indeed, today’s Frankenstein monster is pieced together from various monster images, just like the mad doctor’s original creation.

After a lapse of many decades, I decided to read Frankenstein again. It must’ve been in my tweenage years that I’d last done so. I recall putting the book down thinking how sad it was. Something happens, however, when you return to a book after a span of many years. This time I was looking for the mad doctor and hoping to determine if the monster deserved that title at all. The story won’t let any easy answers come. Victor Frankenstein is a young, impulsive man carried away by an idea. He doesn’t contemplate the consequences of what he’s doing. It’s like buying a dog without considering that you’ve just realigned your priorities for several years. Not noticing that his growing creation is hideous to the eyes until it’s too late, he simply abandons the creature without a word. (The parallels with an absentee father should be obvious.)

The creature—monster is a bit harsh—wants acceptance. He isn’t a mute brute with bolts in his neck. He’s not a robot. He is Adam kicked out of the garden with no Eve. He doesn’t start out evil. The rejection of his creator forces him to murder in a desire for revenge. Shelley’s world was deeply influenced by the Bible as well as Milton. Religious concepts are constantly under evaluation. The child of radical parents—her mother was one of the first feminists on record—Shelley questions everything here. No doubt in Victor’s mind he’s created a demon. Or has the monster created Frankenstein? Until the very final pages nobody else actually sees his monster, or at least hasn’t seen him and lived to tell about it. What fuels the creature’s fury is rejection. Evil doesn’t just happen in the world of the mad doctor.

Sympathies are divided in Frankenstein. We feel for the monster. His creator never apologizes. Never reflects that he somehow shares (or completely owns) the blame for the sad fate of that which he’s created. Living under a Frankenstein presidency, these unanswered questions hang thickly in the air. Lack of foresight seldom ends well. The monster isn’t always who you assume it to be.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Dreaming Reality

The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)

In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.

monster

When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.

Know Your Monsters

at-stakeEdward J. Ingebretsen is one of the most intelligent analysts of monsters about. That may seem like a small order, but it’s not—many people write about monsters, and Ingebretsen is one to whom attention is owed. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Popular Culture is not an easy book to read. Narratively sophisticated, it takes on some issues we’d rather not have addressed. One of the great myths about monsters is that they’re all for fun. The current understanding of monsters gives the lie to that worn adage. Monsters tell us something extremely troubling about ourselves and we don’t like to have someone pointing it out. When hearing that some of the monsters considered are Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith, the prospective reader might wrongly assume why. The monster may not be whom one expects. Indeed, Bill Clinton makes his way into the discussion, as do Andrew Cunanan, O. J. Simpson, and Matthew Shepard. Be not quick to judge, however; you must pay attention.

As most writers on monsters recognize, religion often fuels them. Without belief monsters have no power to scare. We’ve probably all seen horror films that underscore this point. If a creature is unbelievable it loses its ability to be frightening. The movie invariably ends up in the B category and is appropriated for laughs or for an example of how not to make a film. Ingebretsen knows that to understand monsters we must understand ourselves. We too often allow unspoken prejudices (which are sometimes nevertheless shouted aloud) to inform our opinions of what is deviant or evil. Just look to Washington and see if you can disagree. The more we tease these monsters apart, the less they conform to expectations.

As implicated by his title, a great deal is at stake in coming to grips with monsters. They aren’t just for childhood Saturday afternoons anymore. It may be that they are one of the healthiest means for dealing with the steady stream of fear flowing from the District of Columbia. Without our metaphors, we are lost. Those set on destroying monsters have no concept of just how terribly helpful they are. You can’t be sure who the beast is, they are so very protean. They will, however, get you through some dark nights. Not without scars, but wiser, if a touch more melancholy, in dawn’s cold light. Take monsters seriously. It’s the only way to survive them.