We are exploring the dynamics of horror in various disciplines and cultures, ancient to contemporary, with special attention to monsters as cultural dark-side manifestations. What does a particular culture label as “monstrous” and why? What makes a successful monster in a given culture at a given time? What exactly have certain authors and filmmakers captured (or unleashed)? Towards answering such questions, we are exploring myth, literature, pop culture, and film, with particular attention to the most successful monsters in Western culture: vampires, werewolves, the Frankenstein monster, mummies, etc. In the process, we find ourselves questioning the objectivity of paleontology, suggesting original cures for lycanthropy, ruminating about Frankenberry cereal, and deducing what’s next.
True horror monsters are not explained by atomic mutation, neglected childhood, or “schizophrenia.” They represent repressed fears contorted and projected externally. Delving into these matters is not “escapist,” but rather an entry into real psychocultural issues. [For further, and brilliant, words on this, see Melissa Alles’ commentary: “Horrors!“]
Horror monsters, like Grendel in Beowulf, are “mearcstappa” (border-steppers).
The anthropologist Mary Douglas has written eloquently about the apparently universal human horror of the anomalous. In her dissection of the Book of Leviticus she concludes: “Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holinessrequires that different classes of things shall not be confused.” The animals which are described as “abominations” in Leviticus,and which the Children of Israel were forbidden to eat, are thosewhich cannot be fitted into the three great divisions of created beings — feathered birds, scaly fish and furred, four-footed mammals. Pigs, snakes, mice (whose forepaws look like hands), — “anything in the seas that has not fins and scales” — anything, in short,which is neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring — is unclean. The proscription of these abominations (which include many creatures still the object of common phobias) is a powerful expression of a human fear of the uncategorizable, of that which is betwixt and between. (Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Cleopatra: Histories,Dreams and Distortions. NY: Harper and Row, Pub., 1990. 146-147).
“By monster I mean some horrendous presence or apparition that explodes all of your standards for harmony, order, and ethical conduct.” So says Joseph Campbell for a cross-cultural and mythological approach (The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988. 222). James Twitchell’s psychosocial analysis of horror, Paul Barber on vampire mythology, and Douglas Adams on wolf vilification are other valuable critical resources for this subject.
Ancient monsters often represent little more than obstacles to be removed by the hero. From the Gothic period onwards, with successful monsters we forget the hero and the victims and remember the monster (which is partly why Mary Shelley’s “creature” ends up with the name “Frankenstein” in popular culture).
In the nineteenth century, Gothic horror — especially represented by Frankenstein — devolved into shockers (or “penny dreadfuls), much like the horror films of the 1930s devolving to the thrillers of the 1940s. The late 1800s saw a second round of horror fiction in Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.
“Horror stories, like nightmares, never end; they are just re-dreamed” (Twitchell 72).
Dr. Michael A. Delahoyde
Washington State University