Introduction: Monsters as a Cultural Phenomenon
The basic concept of a monster has been around in people’s culture since the beginning of time. Over the years of culture evolution, the image of a monster shaped, acquiring specific features, which varied depending on the nation and culture that it was planted in.
However, the basic idea remained the same; instilling fear and panic, a monster was perceived as a creature that is as far on the opposite end of the definition of a man as possible. However, a deeper insight into the issue shows that there is more to the definition of a monster than a typical image of a boogieman.
Thesis statement: Despite the fact that traditionally, monsters are defined as horn-headed, weird-looking creatures, whose only life purpose is to scare people out of their wits and make their existence miserable, the very concept of a monster is often taken to a different dimension.
To be more exact, the concept of a monster is viewed through the lens of ethics, which means that a monster can be defined as the creature, whose moral and ethical values are washed down to pursuing life’s bare necessities, and whose decisions, thus, disregard the basic ethical standards accepted in the society.
Extending the Definition: Additional Features of a Monster to Consider
The existing interpretations of what people of different cultures consider a monster allow for expanding the current definition: “’Monster theory’ must therefore concern itself with strings of cultural movements” (Cohen 17).
Cohen emphasizes that a monster is doubtlessly a cultural phenomenon and, thus, can only be defined or explained as a phenomenon by a human: “The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural movement” (Cohen 15). Consequently, it can be assumed that a monster is the creature that exists outside the moral or cultural dimensions of a certain group of people.
Consequently, what is ethically considered a monster in a certain culture will be seen as a perfectly normal individual in another one. Hence, the definition of a monster can be stretched to a creature or person, whose ethical and moral standards are considered inappropriate in a particular culture, such as the “nineteenth-century Gothic fiction” (Halberstam 124), for example.
At this point it will be appropriate to stress that the possibility of distilling a perfect image of an ethically monstrous creature, which will have the same effect of dread on the representatives of all cultures, is questionable. To do so, it will be necessary to figure out whether there is at least one ethical principle that is common for every culture in the world. Despite the limitations of such study, one may assume that, due to cultural diversities, a common ethical standard will be very hard to find.
The Creatures to Include in the Definition: People as Social Animals
When it comes to discussing social norms, one might mention the fact that, even though people are not the only one kind of social animals, people are the only creatures who have introduced the idea of ethics into their society. Seeing how the definition of a monster provided above presupposes that the breach of ethical and moral norm is the basic characteristic of a monster, animals, as the creatures without the concept of ethics can also be seen as monsters.
One might argue, however, that it is not the inability to define these norms, but the inability or unwillingness to follow these norms is the characteristics of a monster. In this regard, it is necessary to recall the example that Halberstam provides in her article when talking about Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, who is obviously insane to the point where his completely unable to draw the line between the moral and the immoral. Hence, it can be assumed that only a human being can be defined as a monster when monstrosities occur on an ethical level.
A Monster and a Human Being: Where the Two Cross
As some of the ideas in the paragraph above hint at, people and monsters are not as much different from each other as the former would like to be. There are a couple of characteristics that point graphically at the necessity to introduce certain human temper elements into the definition. These characteristics can be interpreted as the fear boosters, i.e., the idea that literally any human being can at some moment of life – or at some point of his/her afterlife – turn into a flesh-eating beast or a blood-sucking creature of the night.
The aforementioned Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, which Halberstam talks about, allows to stretch the definition even further by emphasizing the fact that a monster, either born with genetic deficiencies, or nurtured by the society, can be a “sutured beast, a patchwork of gender, sex, and sexuality” (Halberstam 125).
Therefore, the necessity to sublime the complexes related to one’s social or sexual issues or dysfunctions can lead to the rejection of the existing moral and social norms, whether consciously or not, and to the creation of a monster. As Halberstam stresses, the issues that sublime within a monster’s mind into aggressive behavior can be caused by a variety of factors, including “class-based, racial, economic, national, etc.” (Halberstam 134) ones.
Redefining a Monster: Hellish Nightmare from a Human Perspective
The above-mentioned idea of a monster and a human being having certain features in common, thus, begs a question whether containing certain human qualities, though definitely not the most stellar ones, can possibly add another layer of depth to the definition of a monster. Indeed, the one that was tackled in the previous paragraph has little to do with a human being.
However, considering the nature of monstrosity closer, one will notice that ethical monsters actually suffer from being unaccepted by the society, which turns them even crazier and/or more violent, as Buffalo Bill’s case shows.
Hence, in many ways, a monster possesses such human feature as the need for social acceptance, which is a tad more than merely an image revolving around the fact that “the dead that stopped being dead […] need to eat living people” (Monument 37:21–37:22). In fact, zombies, which are discussed in Monument’s movie, also cause so much fear because of their similarity with real people and the fact that the line between them and a live human being is, actually, pretty thin.
Conclusion: What Lurks in the Closet
Despite the fact that different cultures have different ideas of a monster, there is a common thread with the existing definitions, which allows distilling the one that shows a monster from an ethical perspective.
In that sense, the definition retains the basic idea of a cringe-inducing creature that makes people shudder in fear; the nature of this fear, however, stems not from the need for self-preservation, but from the need to remain humane, i.e., keep the ability to distinguish between the basic moral standards accepted in the society. In other words, a monster can be defined as a creature that thinks outside the existing ethical and moral standards, sublimes his/her need to be accepted into the society into violence and, thus, defies these standards.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” In Andrew Cooper and Brandy Ball Blake (eds.), Monsters. Southlake, TX: Foundationhead. 2012. 11–34. Print.
Halberstam, Judith. “Parasites and Perverts: An Introduction to Gothic Monstrosity.” In Blake and Cooper (eds.), Monsters. Southlake, TX: Foundationhead. 2012. 132–141. Print.
Monument, Andrew (Ex. Prod.). Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. Berkeley, CA: Lux Digital Pictures. 2009. 1 h 32 min. DVD.