Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”

It is a fallacy, yet one that most of us fall into time and time again, that beauty equals goodness. The draw is irresistible—the world would be so much easier to navigate if we could make correct assumptions about someone’s morality based on their appearance. It would be simpler if a person’s inherent goodness or inherent badness precipitated into their outward appearance, if the true monsters appeared, well, monstrous. 

Several myths and fairytales reinforce this myth of beauty equalling goodness, such as Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters being “the ugly stepsisters.” Other fairytale characters are transformed into animals or creatures that better match their characteristics, like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast being transformed after being rude and inhospitable to the passing enchantress. 

Another such myth is that of the first werewolf, who is often cited to be Lycaon, a king of Arcadia. He was cursed by Zeus after trying to see if the god was truly all-knowing by serving him the flesh of Lycaon’s own son at a banquet. Zeus, being the all-knowing god that he was, punished Lycaon for this beastly act by transforming him into a wild beast—a wolf. 

Beyond turning one man into a werewolf, historically the concept of monstrousness has been used to dehumanize groups of people; the concept of monstrousness is not always inherent but often politically motivated. In Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, the poet explained that the story of Lycaon was meant to show the “disgust felt in more civilized parts of Greece” towards the Arcadians’ cannibalistic offerings to Zeus and to prop up the virtuosity of the Athenians’ vegetarian offerings in contrast. 

To borrow a concept from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” monsters police the borders of the possible. In other words, they enforce taboos and societal norms. One taboo that is present in nearly all cultures is that against cannibalism. From zombies to werewolves, monsters subtly reinforce the wrongness of eating human flesh. 

Recently I’ve started watching the show Hannibal. The show follows special investigator Will Graham as he helps the FBI investigate several serial killers. As Will’s work and his technique of emphasizing with the killers to understand and catch them take a toll on his mental stability, Will seeks the help of psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lector, who begins to manipulate Will to his own ends. 

Hannibal, as you might remember from The Silence of the Lambs (which I must disclose I have yet to watch), is a cannibal, yet he is nothing like the wild beast that Lycaon becomes. Instead, he is the picture of sophistication, wearing three-piece suits almost every day, playing the harpsichord and theremin, going to the opera, and cooking multi-course meals for himself and his coworkers, although whether the meat in those meals is animal or human is never quite made clear. While all of this may be in line with the picture of a cold and calculating psychopath, it certainly goes against the grain of what one would expect a cannibal to be like. 

As Will Graham begins to grow wise to exactly what kind of person Dr. Lector is, these growing suspicions mixed with his disintegrating mental state lead Will to start hallucinating Hannibal as a dark, emaciated creature with horns like a stag’s. This desire of Will’s to make his understanding of Hannibal’s inner nature into something physical mirrors the desire for only what is good to appear beautiful, or at least to appear human. 

But in TV and real life, the world is more complicated than fairytales. Many times, the monsters hide in plain sight.

5 Comments

  1. Anna

    Have you ever listened to the podcast Myths and Legends? It is my favourite for its gently cynical humour, but also because the host really digs into a lot of the history of these stories (i.e. primary texts and versions) and deals a lot with how monsters and beauty/lack thereof are portrayed in original texts and such, especially in more recent episodes (circa 2018 and onwards).

    Anyway, there’s a lot of resonance between your thoughts here and that podcast.

    Reply
    • Lauren

      I’ll have to check it out!

      Reply
  2. Josh Parks

    Jeffrey Jerome Cohen!! I read his essay on gray ecology (zombies, rocks, etc.) in a medieval lit class. Such bizarre fun.

    Reply
  3. Laura Sheppard Song

    Love this exploration of what looks monstrous compared to what actually is.

    I watched Silence of the Lambs for the first time this year and it blew me away. Just a really incredible movie in tone and pace. I immediately wanted to watch it again!

    Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    Certainly a Platonic interpretation. We do so like putting things into neat categorizations. “Monsters” standing in for “monstrous behavior” is a neat shift. Very human too. Always trying to shape our surroundings.

    A nice looking at myth and monsters to see what actually makes myth and monster and reality.

    Reply

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