Tag Archives: Monsters

Gendered Lupines

No doubt an excuse isn’t required for reading about werewolves this time of year. Something about October encourages that sort of thing. Hannah Priest edited a collection of essays from various scholars titled She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. As is to be expected among academics, there are several interpretations wrapped together here and the book covers female werewolves from the Middle Ages—where they are sometimes associated with witches—up through modern cinema. A number of literary sources and a few television representations, and even an RPG, are also part of the mix. The problem with multi-contributor books is that it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions, but some observations do come up repeatedly here, and they are worth pondering.

The connection of the female with the animal nature of human beings is stressed for the female werewolf. As might be expected in a patriarchal culture that is becoming more so daily, this is considered an aspect of inferiority. The connection between lunar cycles and werewolves as an inherent feminization of the monster is also brought up more than once. The bodily transformations of puberty also play a role. What we can clearly see amid all of this is that although male werewolves outnumber females in literature and film, and, with a few exceptions, in folklore, the very nature of the werewolf is coded as feminine. This is something that isn’t obvious until a book like this points it out.

Given my own idiosyncratic interests, I was surprised how much religion came into the discussion. Among classic monsters, werewolves tend toward the secular end of the spectrum. There was, however, from the Medieval Period up through early modernity, an ecclesiastical fascination with werewolves. This fascination often came in the form of recriminations against women—attempts to subject them to the wills of men. The church often blamed werewolves on women out of the control of menfolk. And of course, you may kill a monster with no need to feel guilt. More modern views of female werewolves—particularly in movies—are more, well, humanizing. Recognizing that wildness is part of being an evolved animal means that we’re more sympathetic (or had been until November of last year) to the woman who is able to let go of convention and become truly liberated. Now that we experience the poignant lengthening of nights that stir our primal fears, werewolves come naturally to mind. If only we could learn what they have to teach, we might all howl at the harvest moon.

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

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.