Hans Peter Broedel
This Halloween, I gave some thought to the sort of monsters that I find most horrifying. This is not something I’ve done before, which is perhaps odd because I have a long history looking at other people’s monsters. Historians, psychologists, and anthropologists are always interested in a culture’s monsters, because they are remarkably sensitive and revealing markers of beliefs, values and norms. Monsters are wrong; they are the very essence of alterity, and their perceived “wrongness” communicates viscerally what is “right.” They compel us to question the bounds of the categories around which we organize our world: Shelley’s famous monster, an animated corpse, not only confronts us with something that is profoundly unnatural, but also forces us to confront the question, “what is life?” Werewolves similarly transgress the boundaries between human and animal, provoking the perhaps even more fraught question “what is human?” So we study monsters because they reveal with special clarity the fundamental ordering principles of a culture’s cosmos, as well as which of those principles are under threat and from what. It’s all well and good to study the laws, rulers, wars, literature, or whatnot of a society, but if you want to really understand people, learn their monsters.
Yet my own monsters, however, I left blissfully unexamined. Not that I haven’t engaged with monsters – quite the contrary, I’ve always been enthralled with monsters. Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Cheney as the Wolf Man, The Mummy, the Invisible Man, the unseen Martians of Well’s War of the Worlds, this was the very stuff of my childhood and adolescence. Yet in retrospect I finnd none of this particularly horrifying: Fascinating, yes. Erotically titillating, sure. But even Hitchcock’s The Birds which my mother reluctantly allowed me to watch when I was ten, was more interestingly unsettling than truly awful. What then, did I truly find monstrous?
And I know I’m not alone.
But why do we find some very particular things viscerally disturbing, but can view others with comparative equanimity?
I blame Curious George.
My direct experience with non-human primates when I first watched the Wizard of Oz on a Black and White television in the early 1960’s was limited. I was an enthusiastic visitor to the Columbus Zoo, but never much cared for the primate house – if I recall correctly, a fairly depressing conglomeration of concrete, glass and iron. On the other hand, I was intimately familiar with Curious George, the impish colleague of the guy in the yellow hat, and protagonist of a long series of admittedly unchallenging children’s books.
But winged monkeys ruined it. They were wrong: they had wings, they were evil, they were minions and not in a happy yellow sort of way, and they scared the bejeezus out of me.
The problem, I think, was that Curious George was a proxy child: he delivered newspapers (badly), he learned his ABCs, he did what children either did or imagined that they would very much like to do. Monkeys were us! But these winged things, though, they were not kids: they maliciously unstuffed the Scare Crow; they were an extension of the Wicked Witch but were even less human than she. They were monsters, yet bizarrely also like us.
Monsters have always clustered densely around the borders of the human, perhaps most poignantly illustrated through the sad phenomena of “monstrous” births – children who deviate substantially and disturbingly from what cultures consider normal. In his City of God, St. Augustine felt obliged to address the problem of whether such “monstrous” creatures should be considered human. His conclusion is that no matter how strange and disturbing one’s appearance, humanity is a function of the soul, which all rational living organisms must possess. So if it could speak coherently, it was human and deserved baptism.
Monsters embody dangers to conceptual order, while at the same time they provide us with tools to negotiate the disturbed conceptual space.
The word “monster” comes from Latin, monstrum, meaning “omen,” or “portent,” and ultimately from monere, to warn, and this communicative function has always been near the core of their identity. Prior to the modern age, monsters bore warnings from the gods; like comets (celestial monsters) they portended plague, civil war, the death of princes, religious upheaval, and war. Although their link to the divine has become more tenuous over time, they remain fraught with meanings that every percipient is obliged to decode.
One recognizes monsters as transgressions of natural order. As Georg Stengel, a seventeenth-century teratological authority, put it, monstrosity “is an effect of nature, which deviates from the proper and customary disposition of the species… that which deviates more is more monstrous, and the magnitude of the error is a measure of the prodigy.”[I] Monstrosity was thus a matter of degree. Once upon a time, for example, it was argued that women were technically monsters because they differed from the ideal natural form of man. By Stengel’s day, however, it was accepted that deviations that were common and regular – “normal” – were not really monstrous.
We should note that there is a distinction between “the monster,” and “the monstrous”: the former is utterly ontologically different, its alterity is the essence of its existence; the latter is a quality of wrongness or transgression that corrupts a being in other respects recognizably normal. Victor Frankenstein’s creature was a monster; the scientist’s project and behavior were monstrous. Which is more horrible to contemplate?
Monsters tell us about those transgressions we most fear. In the seventeenth-century, the simultaneous erosion of faith in the absolute integrity of individual species and the discovery of great apes in Africa and Asia, generated lasting anxiety about the unique status of humanity in the cosmos. The sudden awareness of the plurality of worlds and the vastness of space just made things worse, so authors wrote about ape-men, savage hairy boys and girls, and hybrids of human and beasts. Today our monsters provide us with ways to contemplate both nature and technology in revolt against us. Especially troubling and fascinating to our twenty-first-century sensibilities are the distant descendants of Frankenstein’s monster, the artificial monsters of our creation. We imagine machines that become not only animate and sentient, but also horribly approximate the human. Like those of our early modern predecessors, our monsters bridge the conceptual space we have labored to construct between “us” and “not us,” and force us to rethink the meaning of “human.”
[i] Georgius Stengelius, De Monstris et Monstrosis, quam mirabilis, bonus, et iustus, in mundo administrado, sit Deus, monstrantibus (Ingolstadtii: Gregorium Haenlin, 1647), 3.
Hans Peter Broedel received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, and is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota, where he teaches courses on medieval and early modern European history, witchcraft, and the history of science. He is the author of The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft, and has published articles on witches and apparitions in the late middle ages, and on early modern natural history; his current research investigates the place of fabulous animals in Early Modern thought.