Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
“We push off evil into monsters.”
I first heard this on the Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please (thanks, Joshua!). My first reaction was some vague sense of annoyance and oh, isn’t that just typical and cliché. But then as I began to try to come up with something to write about this month on the post, I came to realise that this idea of warding off evil in an externally manifested way was more nuanced than I originally gave it credit for.
We’re fascinated with monsters for an endless list of reasons that critics love to analyze. Most of these reasons and analytics seem to fall somewhere in the realm of interpreting monsters as the taboo and/or monsters as the “other.” As Jeffrey Cohen put it, “through the body of the monster fantasies of aggression, domination, and inversion are allowed safe expression in a clearly delimited and permanently liminal space.”
I don’t disagree with the copious amounts of good and honest scholarship out there, but I want to particularly address a nuance of the “sympathetic monster.” I’m not sure if there’s an official definition out there of the “sympathetic monster,” but consider Frankenstein’s monster: there are hundreds and hundreds of pages about the monster’s liminality, its abject existence, and how the reader is drawn to see things from the perspective of the monster—not of the human. We sympathize with the monster.
I’ve seen Frankenstein’s monster called “the first modern monster.” And I’ve also seen people talk about how modern audiences are no longer interested in the black-and-white good vs. bad. So perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is, indeed, the first modern monster as he lives in a gray in-between. Modern audiences want complexity and nuances because we know that the world is complex and nuanced. We have a hard time taking anything at face value because we want to understand (albeit in a hackneyed sort of way).
In short, we want monsters to be sympathetic. We need monsters to be sympathetic. Sure, they may be explanations and manifestations of all those strange and dark things out there that we hold at a distance, but they are also explanations and manifestations of all those strange and dark things in here. We do not want to feel alone, and there is no loneliness like the loneliness in our own strangeness and darkness. We feel a secret camaraderie in our hearts with these modern monsters—Gollum, Joe Goldberg, Pride the homunculus, the Underground Man, the Joker—because we identify with them.
And already we begin treading in a different territory. While I don’t care to address the sticky issue of defining what makes a “monster,” I do want to take note of the fact that we particularly seek out anthropomorphic monsters and anthropomorphising those that are not already—turning something into someone that looks like us. Yet we still associate fear, horror, and dread with these monsters of our own making.
We push off evil into monsters, but it’s less the evil out there than it’s the evil in here that we all carry, the evil we can all imagine of ourselves. I’d go so far as to say it’s always been about the evil inside, however one cares to define that evil. But it’s easier and more comfortable to analyze and critique the monsters of theory than the monsters of our own reality. People like to talk about monster characters in abstract and sweeping terms as they relate to meta-commentary, but no one seems to want to talk about the underpinning and implications of said monster characters in discrete and specific ways as they relate to individuals. We deny ourselves when we deny the monsterhood. Maybe instead of only asking “but what does it mean for the monster?” we can also start asking “but what does it mean for me?” in order to better understand both ourselves and those around us.