Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Horror Theory: Some Thoughts on Monsterology (Part Three)

The last post offered a rough model for categorizing monstrosity along various parameters.  These included to what degree monsters resemble or depart from an ideal human form, whether they are actual living terrors from the past or unknown ones yet to be encountered, and whether they are familiar, that is, in our family:  mammalian, or at least having a backbone—or not.  Are they symmetrical?  Is their physiology based on an even number or an odd number of appendages and facial features? 

There have been many attempts at such classification, and one suspects the process is amusing, if not always edifying.  Stephen King, for example offers a simple and effective means of categorizing monstrosity in his important book Danse Macabre.  He proposes that many—though not all—specimens of monstrosity can be categorized as variations of one of the three most popular Universal Studios monsters from the 1930s and 1940s:  Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf. 

Broadly speaking, the Frankenstein monster is “the Thing Without a Name”, created from parts, utterly incapable of assimilating with itself or its environment.  It is soon out of the control of the arrogant scientist or society that assembled it, and becomes a destructive horrific force. 

Dracula represents all entities that subsist on and contaminate the life force of another, often through perverted and displaced sexuality.  The timeless conflict between civilization and barbarity, between id and superego—between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, as King puts it—is expressed in the Werewolf, and his less hirsute cousins, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  For good measure, King later throws in a fourth archetype, the Ghost—formed from the projections of a tormented, divided mind.

Most horror readers and writers are probably familiar with Danse Macabre, which is comparable in many ways to H.P. Lovecraft’s foundational Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927).  Whereas Lovecraft surveyed horror literature from the mid-1700s until the early twentieth century, King covers the period between the 1950s and 1980s, including radio and film—an ambitious undertaking.  (The 2010 edition of Danse Macabre contains commentary that brings the book up to the early twenty-first century.)

King’s book is more accessible and much less pretentious than Lovecraft’s essay, but both are valuable and interesting to read side by side.  One can see how far the field has developed, and appreciate the impact of various media on horror entertainment since Lovecraft’s time.  Danse Macabre contains two very helpful lists of recommended books and films—about 100 in each category—which if diligently followed makes this work the equivalent of a graduate course in modern horror.   

While less concerned with the taxonomy of monsters, Ken Gelder’s The Horror Reader (2000) contains several insights about the nature of monstrosity offered by various critics in the field.  The material here can be used to flesh out some of the subcategories in the model presented in the last post, especially those that pertain to human mutations and serial killers. 

For example, in an excerpt from the introduction to her book, Monstrous Imagination (1993) Marie-Hélene Huet describes how in the Renaissance it was believed that monsters, especially those among human offspring, were believed to have “resulted from the disorder of the maternal imagination”.  Instead of reproducing a child resembling the father, monstrosity involved the erasure of paternity and its substitution by a product of the mother’s whims, traumas, misguided desires and imagination.  The mother’s thoughts and mental imagery during conception and pregnancy were somehow imprinted on the infant. 

Such births were thought to be bad omens, both for the family and the society.  Huet traces this very resilient idea back to Aristotle, who believed that monstrosity was not due to physical deformity so much as the child appearing markedly different from its parents—again, the idea of monsters as being unfamiliar—that is, not in the family. 

Huet notes that this idea of the mother’s role in creating monstrosity through the power of her mental imagery still appears in literature and film, long after it was debunked in the 19th century.  Two movies of a few decades ago come to mind in this context.  In the 1980 film, The Elephant Man, the origin of John Merrick’s grotesque disfigurement is explained as a result of his mother having been traumatized by a rampaging elephant while she was pregnant. 

In David Cronenberg’s very disturbing The Brood (1979), a young woman is able to produce “psychoplasmic” offspring by converting intense suppressed emotions into fetal like growths—a kind of parthenogenetic, fatherless birth.  Here again is the Renaissance idea that monstrosity, and its destabilizing effects on the family and society, results from the erasure of paternity.  The potency and recurrence of this notion suggests it touches on some archetypal understanding about human relationships and reproduction.

Also in Gelder’s anthology of horror criticism is a discussion of Tod Browning’s infamous 1932 film, Freaks.  Mary Russo connects the concept of “freakiness” that was appropriated by 1960s and 1970s pop culture with the deeper understanding of deviance and ostracism as portrayed in Browning’s film.  (The movie had been re-issued in the 1960s, and again in 2004).  People with genetic abnormalities were no longer considered bad omens or divine messages after the late 19th century, but were classified as “specimens” according their physiology, putting some psychosocial distance between the “freak” and the rest of society.  “I am not an elephant!” we can hear John Merrick say, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

Yet their interaction with the public—often in circus sideshows—rendered freaks the creations of the surrounding culture, reflecting fears of racial and cultural intermingling, nonconformity, and deviance, and later contributing to the emerging eugenics movement.  Russo quotes another critic who saw the connection between the faux exotic histories of side show freaks and the much uglier reality of racism, colonialism and cultural chauvinism of the time:

We find the freak inextricably tied to the cultural other—the Little Black Man, the Turkish horse, the Siamese Twins…The body of the cultural other is by means of this metaphor both naturalized and domesticated in a process we might consider to be characteristic of colonization…On display, the freak represents the naming of the frontier and the assurance that the wilderness, the outside, is now territory.

Finally, in an excerpt from Mark Seltzer’s Serial Killers:  Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (1998), there is disturbing commentary on the emergence of a relatively new kind of monster, in many ways a product of mass media, celebrity, narcissism and even the self-help industry.  Who knew that what distinguishes a serial killer from a mass murderer or a murder spree is the number of victims, (4 or more), the duration of the killing, (greater than 72 hours), and the presence of a “rest period” between murders? 

Seltzer describes these individuals as soulless vacuums who absorb the psychologizing and medicalizing of society in order to produce an externally determined sense of self.  Their horrifying activities are a kind of performance art grounded in the expectations of their audience.  Seltzer sites the chilling observation that in a number of these cases that the killer is an avid reader, that he studies up on his profession, as it were.  “Serial killers read many books about serial killing, and the pop-psychologists’ visions make up a part of their curriculum…‘There is some evidence that actual serial killers may pattern themselves on fictional accounts.’”    

So much more can be said, and needs saying about the monsters in our midst.  An examination of monstrosity is ultimately an examination of ourselves and of our societies—it is about what we must reject as not family.  The fearful study of monstrosity leads us forward and backward in time, away from a center where we hope we are safe, among those who are familiar and similar to us.  Just a few steps behind us, or just a few ahead, are creatures and creations ready to appear and reappear to terrify us whenever the stars are right.  But then again, what’s back there?  What’s up ahead?  Shall we look?

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