Where Do Monsters Come From?

by Kathryn Hampshire 

When you hear the word “monster,” what comes to mind? Is it the black-and-white, somewhat blurry image of an undead creature from that horror film your parents didn’t know you were watching from behind the couch? Is it a memory of believing without a doubt that there was something sinister living under your bed or in your closet? Maybe it’s the real monsters like mass murderers or cannibals that come to mind. Or is your first thought of the children in costumes running around at Halloween?

Thinking about monsters can solicit a plethora of images, from the terrifying to the adorable. In fact, this term encompasses such a diverse range of creatures that it can be difficult to see what actually makes something monstrous. What do Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Sasquatch have in common with Jeffrey Dahmer (a serial killer), the Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (the largest spider in the world), and Vlad the Impaler (the “real” Dracula)? How can cute, friendly characters like Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan from Monsters, Inc., belong to that same category?

What they share is not clear from a simple definition of the word “monster.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the meaning of the word is “a strange or horrible imaginary creature; something that is extremely or unusually large; a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems.” The full definition later adds a few more details—that a monster can be “an animal or plant of abnormal form or . . . strange or terrifying shape,” “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character,” “a threatening force,” or a “highly successful” person (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

These connections will become even clearer with an examination of the word’s origin. Over time, the meanings of words evolve as cultures and languages change, and this term is no different. While an early-fourteenth-century definition may have focused mostly on living things that exhibited signs of physical disabilities, the 1500s added such meanings as “animal of vast size” (1520s) and “person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness” (1550s) (Online Etymology Dictionary). The Oxford English Dictionary cites an example from 1522, when a translation of Virgil’s Æneid used the phrase “[t]his fatale monstre,” and William Shakespeare’s King Lear features one of the more well-known first uses of the 1550s definition, when a character named Gloucester says, “He cannot be such a monster” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Indeed, the meaning of this term is inherently linked to its cultural context. Monster theory scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” states that a “monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and place . . . . The monstrous body is pure culture” (4). In other words, the creation of a monster is in response to the cultural and historical context of the society in which it received its genesis; thus, we can look to a “monstrous body” for information and insight into the society itself. Likewise, the slight evolution in definition through time also represents cultural and contextual shifts.

As Cohen notes, the term’s etymological roots relate to the way that these beings serve as text: “[T]he monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ [and] ‘that which warns’” (4); the Online Etymology Dictionary adds that this Latin word also means “divine omen, portent, sign; abnormal shape; monster, monstrosity,” and it has origins in the Latin root monere, which means “warn.” By examining what a culture or individual describes as monstrous, we can read these creatures as artifacts for contextual understanding.

In order to add further nuance to our understanding of the term, we can turn to related forms like “monstrous” and “monstrosity”: the Online Etymology Dictionary adds that these forms come from the late Latin term monstrositas (“strangeness”) and the Middle French monstrueux (“strange and unnatural”) (Online Etymology Dictionary). By extension, we can see that one trait that defines the monstrous is its distance from the self and the familiar, regardless of whether or not it is scary: even though the sight of a five-year-old Frankenstein’s monster would not be physically threatening, the portrayal of a reanimated child corpse is certainly out of the norm, pushing our intellectual boundaries, and can therefore be classified as monstrous.

Historically, the Oxford English Dictionary provides an example from 1558 which states that “a woman . . . exercise[ing] weapons” was a “monster in nature” (Oxford English Dictionary). While this might not seem monstrous to a modern audience more accustomed to seeing images of armed female soldiers, for example, this dated application of the term alludes to the fact that it was a strange sight—an “amazing event or occurrence” (Oxford English Dictionary)—to witness a woman with a weapon. Furthermore, this image serves one of the monster’s main purposes, according to Cohen: the monster is a warning. The image of a woman with a weapon carries implications that threaten traditional gender roles, evoking fear in those invested in patriarchal power structures and warning against the female potential for violence. By looking to the contextual implications of a term’s usage, we can learn both about the contemporary culture of the time and about the differences between then and now, between here and there.

While much of what was monstrous to people hundreds of years ago might be merely mundane to us today, the concept remains the same. A monster is not merely a specific class of mythical being or a descriptive label for that which incites fear; rather, it is an embodiment of cultural meaning that invites us to look beyond the physical realm into the psychological, requesting that we question not just what classifies as a monster, but why those beings are monstrous.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

“monster.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Merriam-Webster.com http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monster. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

“monster (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=monster&allowed_in_frame=0. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

“monster, n., adv., and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2002. OED.com http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/121738?rskey=4vK9BC&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

It Doesn’t Matter If You Love Him or Capital H-I-M: Just Put Your Claws Up

by Maggie Weeks-Foy

Him, a supervillain in The Powerpuff Girls, was one of the first plausibly gender-nonconforming monsters to grace the animated screen. A devil with high, high heels, an effeminate voice, and an adoration for his rubber duck, Quackers, Him strikes fear into the hearts of little kids, not only through his love of pure evil, but through his unabashed expression of a sexuality that differs from the norm.

In The Powerpuff Girls, Professor Utonium, a slightly misguidedbut by no means madscientist, attempts to make three perfect, little girls. However, as seen during the show’s title sequence, he accidentally adds Chemical X to the formula. This black liquid gives the three girls super powers: karate chopping limbs; occasional heat rays shooting from big, bulbous eyes; and some serious passion for fighting crime in Townsville. The redheaded Blossom, the giggly Bubbles, and the tomboyish Buttercup battle various monsters from the rifle wielding Fuzzy Lumpkins to the small-crime Gangreen Gang to the horrendous Him.

Him’s typical appearance features thigh-high boots, a red frilly skirt matched with a cinching black waist belt, a frilled neck piece and, perhaps his most defining characteristic, snapping lobster claws. A similar outfit couldn’t be found at your local H&M store or Macy’s in the mall. Him’s outfit is decidedly him. However, it raises the eyebrows of mainstream culture. A children’s show character dressed in women’s clothing! Scandalous. Horrifying. Monstrous. According to David Punter and Glennis Byron’s entry entitled The Monster in the encyclopedia of The Gothic, “Hybrid forms that exceed and disrupt those systems of classification through which cultures organize experience, monsters problematize binary thinking and demand a rethinking of the boundaries and concepts of normality” (264). In other words, combining two separate, differentiating, seemingly unmerge-able characteristics, causes the viewer a sense of discomfort. Him strikes the viewer as uncanny through his manly form and effeminate voice and clothing, his human features and his lobster claws, and, perhaps, his implied comment on society’s negative view of the abnormal.

In “Telephonies,” Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, fighting crime and the forces of evil, burst into Him’s room. The Gangreen Gang begins the episode by making small-scale prank calls to various citizens of Townsville, asking residents about their fridges and breathing heavily into the receiver. These prank calls get out of hand, however, when the gang breaks into the Mayor’s office and use the hotline to call our little heroines. The Gangreen Gang impersonate the Mayor’s voice and cause The Powerpuff Girls to believe that Him, and various other villains, are sending Townsville higher on the crime-rate scale than ever before. Investigating one such call, the super girls screech in with fingerless fists raised, only to find Him doing aerobics, pinwheeling his legs in green leg warmers and a blue miniskirt, his goatee in an impeccable curl that would rival Superman’s one fallen lock. In this episode, Him was found innocent of any evildoing. Yet, he is still cast as one of the villains in this episode, and, due to his appearance, he is still a monster to many children watching the show..

Him appears in various other episodes more demonstrative of his monstrosity. In “Octi Evil,” he takes over Bubbles’s favorite stuffed Octopus, aptly named Octi. Speaking through the toy, Him persuades Bubbles to set Buttercup and Blossom against each other, making them question who should be the leader of the group. For the duration of the episode, Buttercup and Blossom argue. This shows how Him has earned his position as the ultimate evil. Many villains can wreak havoc, but it takes a true monster to tear apart sisters.

His breaking of physical binaries causes the narrator to define Him in “Octi Evil” as “a villain so evil, so sinister, so horribly vile that even the utterance of his name strikes fear into the hearts of men!” The Powerpuff Girls’s portrayal of the devil as an androgynous character is a commentary on how society views those who step out of sync with the norm. It appears that, according to the television show, those who step over strict, societal lines are immoral. Him is considered the ultimate evil in the show, not simply because of his actions, but because of his blatant refusal to follow gender stereotypes.

 

Works Cited

“Octi Evil.” The Powerpuff Girls, story boarded by Kevin Kaliher, created by Craig

McCracken, Hanna-Barbera Productions and Cartoon Network Studios, 1998.

Punter, David and Glennis Byron. “The Monster.” The Gothic, edited by David Punter and Glennis Byron, 2005, pp. 263-7.

“Telephonies.” The Powerpuff Girls, story boarded by Clayton Morrow, created by Craig

McCracken, Hanna-Barbera Productions and Cartoon Network Studios, 1998.

The Manifestation of the Abject and Grotesque in The Exorcist

by Noah Patterson 

In William Peter Blatty’s film The Exorcist, the catalyst of demonic possession transforms Regan, a young girl, into a prime example of the abject and grotesque. Through reasons unknown (though one posited explanation includes playing with an Ouija board), Regan becomes the target of a powerful demon and is rendered unrecognizable by the end of the film. Facial gashes, discoloration of the skin, yellowed teeth and eyes, a stark vocal distortion, and more afflict Regan in ways that recall the excess of the grotesque. Similarly, the demon causes Regan to abject parts of herself by separating her physical body from her actual identity and personality. This allows her exorcist, Father Damien Karras, to explore the guilt he has repressed regarding the death of his mother. As the film investigates the demon’s strengthening hold on Regan’s body, the viewer is exposed to the ways abjection and the grotesque manifest. Thus, the viewer is able to grapple with his or her own ego by confronting the increasingly monstrous character of Regan.

Throughout the course of The Exorcist, Regan’s transformation into the grotesque is meticulously chronicled. A grotesque body is defined as one that “’protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off;’ it seeks to go beyond” (Hurley 140). In the beginning of the film, Regan is shown as a curious, energetic, and ultimately innocent child, with no visible aspects of grotesqueness. Her relationship with her mother, Chris, is close, and the two are shown playfully interacting: Regan recounts her day, asks her mother if and when they can get a horse, and then steals a cookie from the jar before dinner, prompting Chris to chase her and wrestle with Regan on the floor to get the cookie back as they both giggle (00:16:56-00:17:54). The portrayal of their dynamic is immediately idealized, making Regan’s transformation into a grotesque body—in appearance and behavior—even starker.

The influence of the grotesque is first seen on the night of a party thrown by Chris. Regan emerges from her room in a trance, telling one of the guests, an astronaut, that he’s “going to die up there.” She then begins to urinate on the floor, creating the first display of the grotesque: the lack of control over bodily functions (00:42:46-00:43:28). Through this incident, as well as the later instances of vomiting, an interesting dynamic is created. Vomit and urine are associated with early childhood, and the doctors that see Regan are convinced that her condition has a medical explanation rather than a supernatural one.

Positing Regan’s initial instances of grotesqueness as displays of typical childlike excess creates a moment of doubt about the validity of Regan’s possession; that is, until the excess becomes undeniably grotesque and aspects of abjection also enter the narrative. At that point, Regan’s possession is undeniable; however, it also signals something more for the viewer. As we begin to question our own limitations, we also question the ways in which our own “ego . . . remains threatened by [but] yet attracted to the possibility of dissolution,” or the existential struggle to define our own borders as “a discrete subject” (Hurley 138). Some aspects of this grotesqueness are inherently Regan and indicative of her status as a child, surely; but, as her excess grows, the viewer is both horrified and fascinated by the visceral extensions of Regan and their relation to the viewer’s own body.

Within Kelly Hurley’s article “Abject and Grotesque,” these extensions are defined. She states that the excess of the grotesque is linked to “’images . . . of the corpse, whole and mutilated,’ and of ‘an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears, and putrefying flesh’” (138). Regan embodies these characteristics, developing past a child unable to control her bodily functions and into a form that resembles a living corpse. She claws at her face, creating scratches that turn into deep gashes. She infamously and violently projectile vomits into the face of Father Karras during their first meeting (01:25:45-01:25:57). She further harms herself by stabbing a crucifix into her genitals and covering her body in blood, and in the “spiderwalk” scene, blood dribbles out of her mouth when her contorted body reaches the foot of the stairs. Regan’s head also famously twists around, breaking the limits of what is considered physically possible (01:18:49-01:19:44 & 01:00:54-01:01:05).

While Regan’s grotesqueness challenges what is possible for the human body, her abjectness comes from the actual personality of the demon inside of her. Hurley explains psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject as “a space upon which [the proto-subject] will construct an ‘I,’ the proto-subject attempts to define what is ‘not-I’ and then repudiate and expel it as ‘other’” (144). Ultimately, “one experiences oneself [sic] as the vile matter that must be cast off” (Hurley 144). Throughout the course of the film, there is a clear attempt to differentiate the demon within Regan from Regan herself. Chris exclaims to Father Karras, that Regan’s possessed body can have the “[s]ame face, same voice, everything: and that thing wasn’t Regan. I’d know in my gut. And I’m telling you, that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter!” (01:27:57-01:28:16). This outcry becomes even more fascinating when considering Regan’s symptomatic grotesqueness. While she does display some characteristics of grotesqueness associated with childhood, when accompanied with the demonic excess, they also become a form of abjection, and the characters notice this.

Furthermore, when Karras talks to the demon inside of Regan, they have an interesting exchange; the demon states, “What an excellent day for an exorcism.” When Father Karras wonders aloud, “Wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?,” the demon responds, “It would bring us together,” implying that the two are separate entities at the time of this conversation. Karras clarifies, “You and Regan?,” and the demon now foreshadows its connection to Karras, finishing, “You and us” (01:31:05-01:31:29). To further perpetuate the “otherness” of this demon, it speaks in a deep, masculine register instead of the youthful voice of Regan. Finally, the phrase “help me” protrudes from her emaciated abdomen, both expressing the grotesqueness of her form and emphasizing the abjectness the demon is perpetuating through the division of Regan, a terrified captive of her own form, from the demon, who has gained full agency over her body (01:37:12-01:37:54).

Another critical component of the abject is the presence of repression, or, as Jackie Stacey puts it,  the attempt to“expel those unwanted objects that remind us of our origins or our fate” (qtd. in Hurley 144), which “results in a denial of those objects” (Hurley 144). Throughout the course of The Exorcist, repression can be best exemplified through Father Karras. Regan’s abjection actually becomes a tool for Karras to interrogate his own guilt regarding the fate of his mother, who died in a public institution when he did not have enough money to send her to a better healthcare facility. Regan takes the physical form and voice of Karras’s mother throughout the exorcism, forcing Karras to confront his guilt towards his mother’s death. This mirrors a repression of the grotesque, not in Regan, but in Karras, who confronts the corpse of his mother, verbally blaming him for her demise. This is exacerbated when Father Merin, the second exorcist, reminds Father Karras, “The demon is a liar . . . But he will also mix lie and truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – don’t listen to him” (01:43:05-01:43:40). In spite of this warning, Karras falls prey to the demon’s trap, unable to separate his guilt from the exorcism.

When Karras’s lack of focus causes the exorcism to fail, resulting in the death of Father Merin and potentially the loss of Regan’s soul, Karras makes a heroic decision: sacrifice himself and call upon the demon to enter his body. Fighting the demon’s influence, Karras gains control long enough to fling himself out of Regan’s window, sending himself tumbling down a steep flight of stairs, which kills him and ends the demon’s terror (02:00:29-02:01:44). While the exorcism results in the deaths of both priests, there is still an acting resolution and catharsis to Karras’s repression: through this exorcism, Karras has combated the guilt he is repressing, confronting it in the form of the demon and defeating it for good, all while simultaneously mastering his own fate. This is appropriate, as the demon acts as the agent through which abjection can be conveyed. Without the demon’s grotesque capabilities, Karras would not have been able to meet his mother in a physical form. Furthermore, without the demon transferring bodies, Karras may not have reconciled this guilt. Similarly, if Karras had not called upon the demon to possess him instead, the exorcism would have ultimately failed.

Abjection and grotesqueness surround The Exorcist, undoubtedly to make Regan’s transformation terrifying and effective; nevertheless, these monstrous tropes are also evolved to reveal the power of the demon inhabiting Regan and the repressed guilt of Father Karras, ultimately giving him the agency to defeat it. The catharsis experienced by the end of the film also shows a return to normal; Regan is healing from her wounds, unable to remember the experience of possession. Furthermore, the family is ready to move forward, leaving their home in search of a life away from this gruesome memory. While the impact of the abject and the grotesque may never leave the memory of Chris, there is ultimately the hope that Regan will recover from her experience.

Works Cited

Hurley, Kelly. “Abject and Grotesque.” The Routledge Companion to the Gothic, Eds. Catherine

Spooner and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007, pp. 137-146.

The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut. Directed by William Friedkin, performances by Ellen

Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and William O’Malley, Warner Bros., 1973.

The Home of Fallen Monsters: Purgatory in Supernatural

By Sarah James

“It was bloody. Messy. Thirty-one flavors of bottom-dwelling nasties. Hell, most days it felt like 360 degree combat. But there was something about being there.”

These are the words Dean Winchester of The CW’s Supernatural chooses to describe his experience in purgatory. The idea of purgatory is not new; many religions have believed in its existence for centuries. The Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places defines purgatory as “a realm where a soul will atone for offences it committed in life [if it] did not merit eternal damnation,”  making purgatory almost like jail: a place to wait before final judgment (Bane 122). This concept of purgatory is a part of the Abrahamic religions, but it also can be seen in Pagan mythology. However, the long-running television show Supernatural does something completely different with purgatory; in this show, purgatory is the realm of fallen monsters, a place apart from heaven or hell and reserved specifically for creatures after they die. A distinct departure from the original concept, this version of purgatory is first discussed in Season Six of Supernatural and explored even further in the following two seasons. In the premiere episode of Season Eight, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the audience is provided the first in-depth look at the Supernatural version of purgatory through the eyes of Dean Winchester, who finds himself fitting in with its monstrous inhabitants perfectly.

Season Eight begins with Dean Winchester returning from purgatory, where he was sent after defeating the leader of the Leviathan – ancient monsters and first residents of purgatory. Dean spent a year in purgatory before being able to escape with the help of his vampire friend, Benny, whom he met in purgatory. Through flashbacks in the premiere episode, we see Dean’s and Benny’s first interaction; Benny saves Dean’s life from a vampire attack, and the two promise to help each other get back to Earth. Dean makes a comment on the purity of purgatory during this episode, and Benny brings it up again at the episode’s conclusion, stating that he “kind of wished [he] would have appreciated it more… like [Dean]” (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”).

What does Dean mean by saying purgatory is “pure?” Actor Jensen Ackles, who plays the character of Dean Winchester, has stated that his scenes in purgatory were some of his favorites, saying, “We should just have an entire season of the Winchester brothers in purgatory” (“JIB 7” 26:32 ). Like Jensen and Dean, fans of the show also fell in love with the grittiness and constant fight that existed in purgatory. It is this concept–that fighting to survive is the only way of life in purgatory, that one doesn’t have to justify that killing another monster isn’t wrong, that at the end of the day everyone is on their own–that makes purgatory so pure: no moral conflict, no battle between good and evil, only survival.

Dean embraces the purity he finds in purgatory without hesitation, threatening the first monsters he sees and killing them without remorse when they don’t give him what he wants. Dean thrives in purgatory, continuing to have flashbacks of his time there as recently as Season Ten. After years spent hunting monsters on Earth, Dean was free to hunt without any hint of emotional fallout. Purgatory is a constant battle, and Dean had always been raised a soldier. Does embracing the purity of purgatory make Dean a monster? Translate the things he does to survive in purgatory to the real world and society would label him a psychopath without a second thought; yet, Dean’s experience in Supernatural’s version of purgatory blurs the line between human and monster. This show is built around “saving people, hunting things,” and over the past twelve years, the Winchesters have shifted from killing monsters, to perhaps becoming monsters themselves (“Wendigo”).

At the 2016 Jus In Bello Supernatural Convention, which is held in Italy every summer, a fan asked actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles if the Winchester brothers would go the heaven, hell, or somewhere else when they die. While the actors didn’t come to a consensus in their answer, an argument can be made that they belong in purgatory (“JIB 7” 26:06). After all, for twelve seasons, the brothers have been fighting to rid the world of monsters, but after so many years, they’ve seen themselves turn into the very things they hunt. When two humans work alongside demons, angels, witches, and vampires, all to take down what is perceived to be a greater evil, do they become monstrous themselves? Season Twelve is only beginning, but it’s hinted that the Winchesters will finally have to atone for their sins, perhaps having to pay the price in a purgatory of their own design.

 

Works Cited

Ackles, Jensen, performer. Supernatural. The CW, 2005-2016.

Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

“JIB 7 Jared Jensen Full Panel.” YouTube, uploaded by Jus In Bello Convention, 27 May 2016, https://youtu.be/XjYdYh5ONno

Padalecki, Jared, performer. Supernatural. The CW, 2005-2016.

“Wendigo.” Supernatural, season 1, episode 2, The CW, 20 Sept. 2005. Streaming Service Used, insert link

“We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Supernatural, season 8, episode 1, The CW, 3 Oct. 2013. Streaming Service Used, insert link