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.