Where the wild things were

On Monsters is a historical handbook to things that go bump in the night

The Knowledge

With more and more monsters jamming up the multiplexes and other arenas of pop culture, it’s only fitting to find them raking their claws inside the walls of the academy. In his new book, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Columbia College lecturer Stephen Asma lays out a frightful and compelling bestiary. But his main intention, as his subtitle suggests, is to probe our reactions to these creatures, examining psychological, social and cultural aspects from the past to reveal how ‘the monstrous’ has evolved throughout humanity.

So what is a monster? What exactly do Leviathan, Frankenstein, and John Wayne Gacy all have in common, other than their ‘monster’ epithet?

‘I wanted an accurate look at what people from different time periods were afraid of,’ Asma explains. ‘I didn’t want to put down a unifying theory declaring what all monsters represent. I was interested in monsters because they are beyond rationality; reason cannot process them. When you look at a monster, you say, “I can’t understand you.”’ With this fertile intellectual ground for a professor of philosophy, Asma began exploring how scholars throughout history have coped with these irrational beasts of the unknown.

He notes that the word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin root for ‘to warn’, and that monsters often ‘reflect the fears of specific eras… the stuff that gives us human solidarity with the ancient Greeks, the medievals’. From Plato’s hybrid chimeras to the Golem and Grendel, then up through Darwin’s evolutionary mutants, a comprehensive history begins to take shape, with fear being the guiding principle of classification. Freud’s ‘dark cellars of the id’ comes up in a fascinating psychological discussion of Chicago murderers Leopold and Loeb, the rich teenagers who frightened the nation with their nihilistic thrill-killing in 1924.

Asma’s classical title recalls Harry Frankfurt’s recent bestseller On Bulls*** and, like that book, On Monsters brings a casual yet assured tone to a culturally relevant disquisition, never getting too impenetrably academic. His obvious love of the subject matter guides the reader through interesting historical yarns, our favourite being an experiment conducted by Darwin at the Zoological Gardens in London. In it, the father of evolution set a snake in a bag in his monkey cages, to find the monkeys couldn’t resist their primal fears of the slithering creature, always returning to the upright bag ‘for a peep… at the dreadful object lying quietly at the bottom’.

Asma hits his stride talking about today’s culture of monsters. He namechecks Max Brooks’s tongue-in-cheek Zombie Survival Guide to expose an important part of today’s monster entertainment: a sort of rehearsal for your moral imagination. You know monsters are bad, and so you wonder about plans for what would happen when faced with evil. ‘We use “monster” these days as a moral category,’ Asma notes, citing horrific criminal acts carried out by serial killers and terrorists. ‘Monsters are a way now to discuss those desires and drives that are really alien to us.’

Some of Asma’s personal anecdotes that draw this point out have him speaking to lawyers and judges who have seen to the legal cases of these human ‘monsters’, such as the infamous American Jerry Hobbs, accused of killing his daughter and her friend in a fit of rage in 2005. ‘There’s a difference between a person who does monstrous deeds and a monstrous person,’ one judge says.

But our attraction to the monstrous is undeniable. Another of Asma’s anecdotes finds him at the Hunterian Museum in London, carrying out research for his past book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, a survey of natural history museums. Coming face to face with the bizarre taxidermy and bottled foetuses, he wonders why these aberrations of biology had been so carefully preserved, only to see a young boy both captivated and terrified by the freakish exhibit. The author concludes that while monsters do embody our fears, like our ambivalent monkey ancestors, we also have never been able to look away.
On Monsters is published by Oxford University Press.

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