Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”

September 5, 2017

Unfortunately, I was unable to blog immediately after our class on Thursday, which focused about on Thursday  Last week students read Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” as a theoretical framework for the entire course. I was thrilled to see students not only enjoyed the essay, but actively engaged with its major tenets.

Throughout our discussion, I reminded students of the major questions the essay was addressing: What does the monster do? What function does the monster serve? What effect does it create? and Why have we created monsters?

We also addressed the etymology of the word “monster” and its reverberating effect on our daily use of language: “Monster,” as Cohen explains is a “warning,” as can be seen in words like “demonstrate.” Students were asked to keep these questions and the origin of the word in mind as they read through the semester: If the monster is a warning, if the monster is pointing-out something to us, what is he pointing to, what is he warning us of?

In our discussion of Cohen’s essay, I rewrote the main theses for clearer understandings:

  1. The Monster is a Cultural Mirror: This thesis stipulates that monsters are a reflection of their culture and mirror to contemporary zeitgeists. The monster, therefore, is not just what it is (i.e.: a wolf-man), but it is also what it signifies, what is projects, represents, reflects. For example, Godzilla is more than the reptilian monster that terrorizes Tokyo, but also a reflection of the Japanese post-nuclear experience and fear of physical transformations (deformations, mutations) because of nuclear fallout.

2. The Monster is a Temporal Mirror: This thesis is the most enticing to me, and the one students found the most intriguing and the one we focused on the most. Asserting that monster are elusive and shifty creatures, this thesis upholds that our creations are difficult to pin down and, therefore, must be examined within specific time periods. That is, the monster is always a reflection of its time; it always escapes the a static final embodiment. In other words, vampires (an example Cohen uses) are not static beings that always signify the same thing, but project different anxieties that reflect, for example, a culture’s shifting view of sexuality. Bram Stoker’s original nineteenth-century novel, Dracula, could be read as an indirect way to address deviant forms of sexuality. I showed students various images of vampires throughout popular culture in order to reflect this point:

Nosferatu

The 1922 silent film represents vampires as a way of seeing homosexuality as plague-like: a form of self-loathing in the face of fascism.

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Anne Rice’s vampires such as in Interview with the Vampire could be read as a celebration of different modes of sexuality.

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Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Dracula can be read as a medium for discussing (through subtext and indirection) the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A similar phenomenon can be seen by tracing different manifestation of Batman through the decades. For example, take the Batman from the 1966 television show and compare it to the depiction of the same superhero in the 1980s and 2010s. The campy and countercultural Batman of the 1960s (perhaps an escape from the gritty reality of the Vietnam War) is transformed in the 1990s to a reflection of post-Cold War anxieties and a focus on corporate America and its gritty/darker pitfalls. Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s 2012 The Dark Knight Rises reflects a humorless, bleak Batman and a film obsessed with the dangers of terrorism and the destruction of the nation:

3. The Monster as Challenger of Categories: The monster resists any easy categorization by mixing and mingling different categories that challenges the neat distinctions we make as a culture; challenging us to stretch and rethink our rigid understanding of categories (i.e.: the werewolf is an aberrant amalgamation of wolf and man, being both and neither). By refusing easy categorization, the monster demands us to question the labels and frames that we’ve used to make sense of the world. As such, the monster brings crisis to binaries: “the monster’s very existence if a rebuke to boundary and enclosure” (7).

4. The Monster as Justification/Excuse: Because of the freedom the monster presents, its ability to surpass boundaries and call question to fixed definitions, the monster manifest transgressions in cultural, racial, political, and sexual categories. We apply the label “monster” on those who we wish to exclude, those who wish to harm: To “monster” someone is to drape a veil of simplicity (X = evil) on that which we refuse to confront in all its complexity. Cohen touches upon the history of Native American genocide in the U.S. as an excuse for Western expansion, but this point can be extend to other populations as well (Jewish people in Europe, other indigenous populations in the American hemisphere).

5. The Monster as Border Patrol: The monster also serves as a warning against exploration and transgression. The monster “polices the borders of the possible” (13). As such, the monster culturally prevents mobility (intellectual, geographic, sexual) and acts as a border patrol to keep a society intact, stable, static, etc. Therefore, the monster is created as a bogeyman by conservative forces that wish to prevent change–the monster is a vehicle for normalization. For example, what is the moral of Jurassic Park or Frankenstein but “this is what happens when you play god with science!”?

The monster also acts as a lock on specific doors: do not go play in the woods alone because you know what happened to little Red Riding Hood; if you have sex a man wearing a hockey mask will kill you (or any variation of anti-sex morality of 1980s horror films); do not let women own property or they will become witches, etc.

6. The Monster as a Gateway Drug: The monster is, finally, an escapist fantasy. As a form of repulsion and desire/attraction, the monster acts cultural catharsis: a safe way to release some of our pent up rage and dissatisfaction without rocking the boat in any serious way. The monster is a cultural  safety valve; our repressions are channeled by culture into the monster (we “purge” ourselves) so we can go back to work on Monday morning as a nice, docile, compliant members of society. The monster can also be a form of “sublimation.” Instead of acting on our dark desires, we  we watch a football game, for example, and release our energies vicariously. The monster, therefore, becomes a form of drug, an “opium of the masses” that makes us “feel better” (i.e.: Carnival, Halloween, the monster as happy hour).

Finally, I showed the class a video from the opening episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which depicts ex-sherif Rick Grimes killing a child-zombie after awakening in the postapocalypse.

We discussed the following questions: Why do we like zombies? Why has film, literature, and television seen growing interest in the zombie? Do we find the killing of a child (zombie) satisfying, and if so, why? What “release” does the zombie provide? Onto who’s body are we projected when watching this scene?

The Walking Dead clip led to a fascinating discussion about Kristeva’s notion of “abjection” and our recognition and repulsion of figures of the corpse. We spoke about the ways the zombie exposes those things that should be neatly enclosed (jowls, intestines, brains, etc.) and how this produces a senses of fearful recognition and repugnance. Finally, we spoke about how the zombie enables viewers/readers to experience the joy of the forbidden, such as killing a child.

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