Understanding Monsters: Fear, desire and culture

Um, yikes. (Photo by Flickr user puuikibeach)

He is almost embarrassed to say it, but Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has seen a ghost.

He doesn’t even believe in ghosts, he told an audience last week at a seminar on the meaning of monsters. But while asleep at a B&B he undoubtedly felt the presence of eyes upon him. He awoke to find her standing there—a female apparition, dressed in black and mad as hell.

The incident stuck with Dr. Cohen, an English professor and director of GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, who is otherwise well-acquainted with monsters. His work, including the seminal 1996 book Monster Theory, has been called “foundational” in the budding field.

It reminds him, he said, that ever-deeper analyses of monsters themselves may not be the best way to search for their meaning. There’s much to learn from examining “the inter-space that opens when we encounter that creature and we admit we actually don’t know what’s going on there, and that something happens in that really ambivalent and … emotional space that we can’t exactly put into words.”

And the idea of “monsters,” as the other speakers noted last week, goes beyond the classical set of werewolves, hell-bent blobs and sundry undead. A monster can be anything—a virus, a company—or anyone stamped as an outsider, an other. (Recent history alone is stained with many examples, from blacks to Jews to women to illegal immigrants.)

We sat down with Dr. Cohen to discuss Halloween, the meaning of monsters and the sudden allure of zombies.

Q: My guess would be that you either love or hate Halloween, since you spend so much time focusing on monsters and this is the one day when everyone owns monsters.
I really enjoy Halloween, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s not as if I dress up as a monster—actually I don’t, I almost never do. But there’s something about Halloween that’s just celebratory and fun.

The only thing that I’ll say has changed about Halloween for me, as I’ve gotten a little bit older, is it does strike me that—despite all of the fun that happens—Halloween is really also a brooding on our own mortality and that it’s got a deeply sad component to it.

Part of it is trying to overcome a fear of death by having celebration in the face of death. But it’s also an acknowledgement that death is a part of our lives and we don’t get this on any other day. Our contemporary lives are so lived in denial of our own mortality that it’s the one day that it’s actually out there.

Q: Let’s talk about monsters. What are monsters and where do they come from?
Monster theory tries to answer that question, the question of definition, and a monster is a very hard thing to define. But I often go back to its Latin root which means that it’s a warning, a kind of message, and monster theory tries to decipher what that message is about. 

As for where monsters come from: On the one hand, they come from very specific cultural moments. Every historical moment has a monster appropriated to it, a monster kind of embodies the feeling of that time. That’s certainly part of it, but then they also seem to come from a place that’s outside of history.

It’s supposed to be the thing that you leave behind—except nobody ever leaves it behind, right? Everyone’s secretly interested in this.”

There are so many monsters that we share across cultures and times that there’s something that’s really uncanny about the repetition of these forms. For example, almost every culture has traditions of ghosts in it, and almost every culture has traditions, weirdly, of dragons. It doesn’t matter where the culture is located—by the sea, high in the mountains, if it’s isolated, if it’s in communication—there are just certain monsters that keep reappearing. It’s like they’re a part of the human imagination, so they come again and again.

I’m interested in both of those: What they say specifically, and what they say about the long history of human culture and the ways in which the mind tends to think similar things across different geographies in time.

Q: In the intro to Monster Theory you write that, “Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself.” You write that they are the embodiment of our fears, anxieties, desires.
Desire—I think that’s the part that gets left out a lot. We tend to think of monsters as being things that we’re afraid of and flee from, but if that were true we wouldn’t keep consuming ghost stories and horror films. There’s something that keeps pulling us back.

There’s this bond of desire, sometimes even of identification: Monsters get to do things that we ordinary humans don’t get to do. They get to be powerful and break rules and go their own way. There’s always repercussions—that’s how the narrative works—but for a while they get to do these things. I think we’re ambivalent about them: We fear them but we desire them at the same time. And that’s what makes them so powerful.

I also think that’s why no matter how many times you kill off a particular kind of monster there’s always “The Son of …,” or numerous sequels. They go on forever because we can’t let it stop. They keep coming back.

Q: There’s the perennial question: Are they real? In Monster Theory you say basically, yes—they are as real as we are. Does that come from them being born of our fears and desires?
I think it partly comes from that, but I also think the reality comes from the fact that they’re also born of fears and desires that are not ours.

(Photo by Flickr user chrisstreeter)

There’s a way in which it’s part of a cultural inheritance, and a cultural inheritance is always real, it always has affects in the world.

They’re real to the extent that they have effects. Monsters are kind of like the wind: you only see them from their aftermath, what they do. They change the way people think, they can change the way that people live their lives, they can change the way that people desire things. So they’re real in that way, that they actually have an affect in the world.

Q: How did you get into this field?
As I was doing my graduate training, a lot of the work that I was doing in the Middle Ages made me notice that the monster keeps appearing but never gets talked about by scholars. It was kind of an embarrassment—if they could talk around it, it would sort of go away, but there was no analysis of what it was doing in a text. It was the kind of thing that made medievalists sort of embarrassed of the works that they treat, and they made it seem as if these monsters were not protagonists or not worthy of attention.

So my dissertation was actually about the importance of that monster figure, and what we learn by focusing on it instead of looking away all the time.

Q: It does seem to be as much a study of ourselves and our cultures as anything else; it seems a bit silly to push it to the periphery. But I could see how people might have felt it was taboo.
Because it’s not “serious.” It’s supposed to be the thing that you outgrow. It’s supposed to be the thing that you leave behind—except nobody ever leaves it behind, right? Everyone’s secretly interested in this. They just get a little embarrassed talking about it.

I wanted to see what’s at stake in disavowing the monster, pushing it away; what actually is lost when we refuse to think about this thing that’s always with us and is so important a part of our culture? The monster is very much alive in our current culture, so we should be thinking about it.

Q: Within the realm of monsters, do you have a specialty?
My dissertation was on giants because giants were kind of the primal monster of the Middle Ages, and also a monster that has been in almost every culture and time period—it’s the human body magnified to the point at which it becomes strange, but it’s still a human body. And I liked that idea that it’s human and monstrous at once, a really rich figure to think with.

(Photo by Flickr user puuikibeach)

So that’s what I’ve done a lot of work on, but I’ve done work on other kinds of composite things. I just did a piece on werewolves. And there’s a yearly conference for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and this year’s theme is on the monstrous; I’m giving the plenary and it’s on zombies.

It seems like zombies are a monster that we can’t get away from at this moment. They are everywhere. I’m trying to figure out why they should be so pervasive.

I saw how many zombie games my 14-year-old son was playing—I just couldn’t believe how many there were—and I noticed that the Centers for Disease Control just did a graphic novel on what to do during the zombie apocalypse. It’s to teach people exactly what to do during a contagion, but they know that zombies are popular so that’s their hook. I want to think about why they’ve gripped our imagination so much right at this moment.

Q: It seems like a random monster, of all the cool monsters out there. Zombies are ostensibly brainless wanderers.
Brainless—they’re just body, they consume things. There are no individual zombies, they’re always a mass. We can kill them without feeling any guilt—yet they’re human, sort of, except we don’t have to think about their feelings anymore. I think they serve as a way of just letting out some of the aggression and meanness and violence that’s a part of us. They become a proper channel for it.

Another thing that strikes me is the zombie is the only way that most of us ever see a dead body. Death happens in a hospital; it’s quiet, it’s invisible. The zombie keeps bringing back the thing that’s hidden from us—decaying flesh, what we all become. I wonder if there isn’t something going on with that, too.

There’s also a way in which zombies are also always monsters of a recession, because they’re good at either figuring creditors or debtors, these things that won’t relent as they keep asking for parts of you, to take it back, to ingest it, to swallow it. Aren’t they perfect for an economic downtime? Maybe that’s why the vampires are gone, the sexy part is gone; it’s these zombies that are so relentless at a time when we’re all suffering economically.

Q: Do you have a favorite type of monster, something that you find particularly gripping?
Probably not. I tend to like the monsters that my kids are being for Halloween. My 7-year-old daughter is a vampire right now—and just the cutest vampire. She wants to put on fangs and drool blood out of her mouth and actually convince some kids at school that she is a vampire. She’s just very serious about this. I just think it’s the greatest thing.

And it’s such a relief from the princess phase, too.

—By Danny Freedman

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