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It is worth noting that in the era of late capitalism, the multifaceted study and comprehension of monsters, as well as the study of their historical hypostases and particular social habitat, have become the recognition mark of cultural theory that dwells upon the query of what is human and what its symbolic signs and limits are. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen wrote an essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” in which he strived for displaying that the study of culture from the point of view of monsters represented there should be declared a new modus legendi (Cohen 3). The purpose of this paper is to provide arguments in support of the position that monsters can be considered a window into certain culture or society and provide evidence from two other sources to justify this assumption.
The author of the writing describes the universals of culture and its local features through a detailed taxonomy of monsters. He determines monster culture as a pure culture and states that it is the projection and manifestation of the collective human intellectual achievement. One of the theses in defense of this position is that monsters represent the decomposition of ideological codes (Cohen 4). The monster, in its interpretation, is an object existing on the border of differences and it signals gender, race, and other differences and constantly refers to them. In addition, the monster denotes the boundaries between the possible and permissible and allows building personal and national, economic, psychological, and other identities (Cohen 12). Thus, a rather large-scale theory of monsters gives creatures the properties of dangerous agents of cultural knowledge; they organize and simultaneously differentiate various identities and role strategies. At this point, it is essential to mention that Cohen addresses the reader’s attention to the issue that not only human beings view the monster but it also perceives humans. That is to say, he wanted to stress that society creates a monster and people cultivate the horrors or distortions in such creatures. Therefore, a monster is only the mirror of the deformations existing within society.
The movie “I Am Legend” centers on vampires. They are perceived as monsters and relate directly to the theory proposed by Cohen. It should be noted that the creatures were shown as unsympathetic and aroused the feelings of disgust and fear. Importantly, the viewer perceives vampires through the eyes of Robert Neville and experiences the same feelings as the main hero does. The creatures have animal instincts, and they contrast the main hero significantly. It is possible to sympathize Neville due to the fact that people experience the same feelings as he does throughout the story and he exhibits the values shared by the majority of human beings.
Nonetheless, the vampires have a symbolic meaning. In the beginning, they emerged as a minority group, but the culture that they represented was gradually shifting towards the other ones. Importantly, many experts in the field have stated that the monsters in the movie correlate directly with the African-American civil rights movement (Quinn 206). In the same manner, the vampires were gaining power though being oppressed and confronted by society. This assumption reflects the idea promoted by Cohen that monsters are depicted in a form that scares humans but the monsters were generated by society and its problems, and they are a reflection of the existing distortions.
Moreover, another assumption made by Cohen can be justified by the movie monsters. The creatures exhibited the increasing public sexuality. It can be linked to the homosexual culture of that time, which reflects Cohen’s idea that monsters uncover the emerging trends and tendencies (Khader 532). Notably, monsters also opened up the behavior of people. That is to say, people often resort to violence when faced with fear or something that they do not understand. The otherness that monsters represented was perceived with fear and harassment. Therefore, vampires embodied the perceptions and typical behavior of people in complex context.
Another example that confirms Cohen’s propositions is the monster from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus”, who represents a deep reflection of the social and political realities of that time. Researchers stressed that despite the link to the theme of the family, this work had a historical focus, which found a vivid reflection in the character of the monster. In particular, the monster was a creation constructed by Victor Frankenstein who pursued his own motives (psychological, scientific, egoistic ones).
The monster was a lonely creature unlike humans, and it aroused horror and disgust but sought to find a soul mate. Nevertheless, the monstrous nature of the creature was a reflection of the revolutionary terror that took place at that time, which was expressed in the troubled relations between Victor Frankenstein and his creation (Wolschak 4). Thus, the story of the monster has not only the narrative content but also lies at the junction of the boundaries about which Cohen wrote in his theses. For instance, the creature was on the border of harmony and monstrosity, as Victor mechanically created it from different parts of dead bodies and this collection of body parts was harmonious.
Thus, the parallel between the monster and the realities of society lied in the revolutionary movement of that time, which acted as a monstrous decomposition of society (Wolschak 17). In particular, a harmonious society was replaced by an industrial one, in which people were interacting mechanically. The idea behind the image of the monster indicated that the society was in a borderline state and the community could be reached through artificial planting in the form of brutal force solely.
In general, the monster personified the horrors and consequences of the French Revolution (Wolschak 4). In addition to focusing on the character and the origin of the monster itself, the author pointed out the contiguity of the character with the culture of the society of this era through a careful attitude to detail. In particular, the scientist created a monster in Ingolstadt, from which the revolution had rooted as well, according to the opinion of many researchers. The ruined state was represented in the image of a monster.
Thus, the political background, which was of paramount importance in the life of society and the state, was transferred to the level of the psychology of an individual (Wolschak 4). In addition, the behavior of the monster and the decisions taken by it reflected the existing inconsistency. In its desire to have a family, the monster began killing other people to whom it felt affection. It reflected the disappointment in values experienced by the monster. In the same manner, the people of this epoch were disappointed in the ideas of freedom and unity.
Overall, the examples described above allow drawing a conclusion about the genealogy of monsters and their potential in mapping the culture in the context of a particular time or society. Monsters that are described in the movie “I Am Legend” and the book by Mary Shelley are the projection and materialization of the injuries that existed in society. They also reflect the suppressed impulses, trends, and fears of people that are connected with what is happening around them (Cohen 5). Monsters invade the human space from the outside and display hostility to the values of civilization and cultural consensus. Due to these reasons, it can be stated that Cohen’s theses are valid and correct since the reviewed examples of monsters were a good window into a certain culture or society, and they vividly displayed its characteristic features through a variety of ways.
Thus, it can be concluded that monsters shown or exhibited in the works of art can be considered a window into certain culture or society. They have a tendency to unfold in a broader context that alludes to the deep issues experienced by people. The application of Jerome Cohen’s theses to the vampires from “I Am Legend” and the monster from “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” made it possible to state that, in each case, the monsters were reflecting the culture of a particular country and the emerging phenomenon or events taking place at that time. They embody the fears experienced by society. However, most importantly, monsters have a potential to turn the attention to another reasoning that the problem does not lie in the monster but in the society or occurrences that have spawned a monster.
Cohen, Jeffrey. Monster Theory. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Khader, Jamil. “Will the Real Robert Neville Please, Come Out? Vampirism, the Ethics of Queer Monstrosity, and Capitalism in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend?” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 60, no. 4, 2013, pp. 532-557.
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Quinn, Eithne. “Black Talent and Conglomerate Hollywood: Will Smith, Tyler Perry, and the Continuing Significance of Race.” Popular Communication, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013, pp. 196-210.
Wolschak, Dorothea. Gothic Elements in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. GRIN Verlag, 2014.