The Monster Theory Reader, a 560-page compendium edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, might look like a less toothy version of the fictitious Monster Book of Monsters, the Hogwarts text that Harry Potter is unable to tame in Cuarón’s 2004 film, The Prisoner of Azkaban. As the title suggests, however, it is not a collection of monster stories, a teratological taxonomy, or a magical menagerie. Instead, it is a collection of critical and literary theory that, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, analyzes what monsters mean, and how they create that meaning. In doing so, The Monster Theory Reader addresses the myriad ways in which monsters have been defined, how they function in different times and cultures, and mainly, how our understanding of monsters—ostensibly imaginary creatures—can help us to understand ourselves.
Drawing from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen‘s 1996 essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)“, included as the first essay, The Monster Theory Reader explores our understanding of its subject comprehensively and over time, and so pulls not just from a slate of excellent scholars but also from pioneers Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, and Donna Haraway. Opening with an insightful “Genealogy of Monster Theory”, editor Weinstock, a Central Michigan University professor and prolific literary critic, lays out the complex nature of the project: “What monsters are, where they come from, what they mean, and the cultural work they do are questions that have preoccupied philosophers, theologians, psychologists, physicians, and cultural critics.”
Etymology helps shed light on a dark subject. Quoting Timothy Beal, Weinstock reminds us that “‘monster’ derives from the Latin monstrum, which is related to the verbs monstrare (‘show’ or ‘reveal’) and monere (‘warn’ or ‘portend’)”. And so the essays, taken together, indeed warn or portend, perhaps more now than ever.
Despite adult reassurances to children that monsters are pretend, the collection goes on to demonstrate—an English word that shares its root with “monster”—the many ways in which monsters are rooted in reality and across cultures. Monsters have encompassed the late medieval catalogue of “monstrous births”, later understood through genetics; mythical monsters that were European explorers’ exaggerated impressions of animals; and cryptids—strange creatures likely propagated by human hoaxes rather than anything in nature. And each of these is real, a way to use the idea of monsters to understand how humans respond to fear and the unknown.
Even more interestingly, and more troublingly, are the ways in which humans have routinely labeled other humans not like themselves as monsters. Part II, “Monsterizing Difference”, lays out over six separate chapters and details the ways in which Western culture has, as scholar Alexa Wright puts it, “closely bound up … human monstrosity … with ideas about the ‘other’ and ‘otherness'”, where otherness “literally means ‘the state of being different.'”
The Pygmies and other so-called “monstrous races”, the supposedly blood-thirsty Jews of medieval Europe, the “monstrous feminine” depicted from Medusa to De Palma’s 1976 film, Carrie, and Gothic representations of homosexuality—contributor Harry Benshoff’s book is beautifully titled Monsters in the Closet: each is examined and illuminated under the lens of monster theory. And what we find, when we consider the ways in which humans have responded to difference, is frequently more frightening than the monsters themselves. But we have even more reason to be scared.
Writing as I am in April of 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and shelter in place orders throughout the United States and the world, I can’t help but gravitate to Margrit Shildrick‘s chapter, “The Self’s Clean and Proper Body”. As Shildrick writes, “The inference that people with disease or disabilities are morally at fault is clearly evident in the blame and stigma attached, for example, to cancer and subsequently to HIV/AIDS in the twentieth century.… The disruption of corporeal integrity and the open display of bodily vulnerability is always a moment for anxiety and very often for hostility.”
Editor Weinstock’s contributed chapter, “Invisible Monsters: Vision, Horror, and Contemporary Culture”, only touches on “the monster inside us: viruses,” briefly, analyzing films such as Wise’s 1971 film, The Andromeda Strain, Petersen’s Outbreak (1995) ,and Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). But his conclusion deftly demonstrates why a seemingly esoteric project such as The Monster Theory Reader is not just for devotees or scholars. It’s for everyone: “By virtue of its invisibility to the naked eye, not only does the virus have the potential to be everywhere and to bypass all boundaries but the real concern is that we may already be infected without knowing it. The monster may not only be lurking without, but within, defying visibility until its horrific effects occur.” Despite being written well in advance of spring 2020, this sentence, ostensibly about fiction, becomes a way to understand a moment in time that eludes most conventional cultural understanding.
After the Introduction and foundational essay on “Monster Culture”, the next essay included is “The Uncanny”, by Sigmund Freud. (That it is followed by Masahiro Mori‘s “The Uncanny Valley” and Julia Kristeva‘s “Approaching Abjection” is a testimony to Weinstock’s editorial acumen.) While psychologists have spent generations distancing themselves from the father of their field (a Freudian might suggest is because of their own professional oedipal complex), here “The Uncanny” serves as a perfect framework for understanding monstrosity. In the midst of the 2020 pandemic, it demonstrates (that word again) how much we need monster theory, not to understand monsters per se, but to understand the strangeness of contemporary life and those things rooted in the real that nevertheless seem to defy comprehension.
Freud uses the German word “unheimlich“—translated as “uncanny”—as a way to distinguish from “heimlich“, or that which is native, familiar, and homely (as in, a reminder of the home). Freud says that “we are tempted to conclude that which is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” But Freud, being Freud, is more interested in the ways in which the familiar can turn uncanny—unhomely, unfamiliar—or the homely can, simultaneously, frighteningly, be unhomely or uncanny at the same time. “Many people experience the feeling [of the uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts”, notable in the uncanny storybook prevalence of the “haunted house”. And so our doubles—doppelgangers, foils, dolls, twins, children, reflections, sick or disfigured bodies, severed body parts, the living dead, spirits, and more—are especially, uncannily scary, not because they are unfamiliar, because they remind us of both ourselves and the dead, and thus our own death, even more than any Other can.
We are living in uncanny times, where the fear of illness and death—to say nothing of actual illness and death—is everywhere, and there is no clear or visible Other to blame, despite the efforts of jingoists and “Chinese virus” xenophobia to the contrary. At the same time, many of us—the lucky ones—are specifically confined to our homes, the very site of heimlich and, as a result, unheimlich. And so our lives take on the uncanny quality of seeming the same, yet inexorably altered, a kind of life in death where time passes differently and our languid hours at home are less a refuge from death than a reminder of our own mortality.
As Freud concludes in his essay, “Concerning the factors of silence, solitude and darkness, we can only say that they are actually elements in the production of the infantile anxiety from which the majority of human beings have never become quite free.” This would always have been a psychologically tough concept to accept. But in light of our own current moment of solitude and darkness, our current state of uncanny anxiety, the words take on an additional, terrible sting. The world has turned monster theory into monster practice.
In a different time not long ago, I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park and was pleased to discover that it included The Monster Book of Monsters, in a cage, with a sign: “Danger: Book May Bite.” So it is that Monster Theory, for better and worse, but mostly better, could also include this warning. This book, indeed, may bite. The best books often do.