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Geek U, Radio/Television/Film, Sociology

The Monstrous Other: The Things That Bump In the Night

 

Fear of the other remains a consistent figure in the horror genre, media devoted to the gruesome and dark. These stories explore humanity’s innate dread of the unknown and unwelcome. Stories about ghouls and goblins, told around campfires, evoke this primal reaction to the unknown. Renowned director John Carpenter reasons these stories seek to label evil and commonly place it outside the light of the campfire.1 This ideology presents itself in stories such as Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy. However, the Frankenstein Monster, as Mary Shelley describes, stands as the original archetype for the monstrous other.

In the 19th century, the Other evolves into something to fear. The Monster in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein symbolizes this dread. In the novel, Frankenstein abandons his creation upon its birth, rushing from the laboratory repulsed by the monstrous otherness. The Monster left alone, a composite of dead tissue brought to life; attempts integration into society. Society responds to these attempts with alienation.

The Monster represents the inhuman but from the perspective of the outcast. Shelley giving the Monster awareness and the ability to think counter balances the outward appearance. Possessing this ability to reason resembles the concept of the ‘noble savage’ Orientalism evokes.

In the novel the Monster describes how evil and monstrous acts were not innate, but learned behaviors. The consistent narrative from the monster states he receives only aggression for attempts at integration and ultimately reacts in kind.2 His decision to retaliate because of his ostracism becomes Shelley’s warning to society. This decision brings him into the role of the monstrous other, embracing society’s view of his otherness. Shelley presents this cautionary tale regarding the removal of Others from society. The Monstrous Other one-day rises up and wreaks havoc upon its maker. Even though the Frankenstein Monster remains the archetype for the Monstrous Other, in modern media we see other examples of representatives of “normal” society striking out against the monsters in the dark.

This black and white mentality is most prevalent in Supernatural, which features the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who hunt monsters that prey upon regular society. This show represents a unique take on the Monster dynamic. Rarely throughout the series are we as the viewer placed into a situation where we empathize with the monster of the week. Very often, our perspective is from the side of the protected. We empathize with the victims or even the brothers, but rarely with the monster. We do not bat an eye when the brothers kill vampires, ghosts, demons, or any other form of monster they face. Something to think about, every time the brothers kill a demon either with The Colt, a gun that will instantly kill any creature (minus angels), or Ruby’s knife the show does not linger too much on the fact that the innocent hosts also die in the process. Chalk it up to collateral damage; they are fighting a war after all. We do have to ask, what kind of subtext is this showing us?

There are some situations where the show does turn the point of view to the other side of the proverbial tracks. In the second season episode, “Bloodlust,” we meet a group of vampires led by Lenore (Amber Benson of Buffy fame) who claim to be reformed and only feed on cattle. This drives a schism between the brothers where Sam is inclined to believe them but Dean views the world only in black and white. In the middle of it is another hunter, Gordon Walker who does not care to distinguish between intentions. Gordon’s credo is a monster is a monster regardless of who they are, which we learn that he had no qualms dispatching his sister as she was turned. In the episode, Sam and Gordon stand at opposite ends of the spectrum and Dean must choose a side. He chooses to trust Sam and admits that maybe their world has more shades of gray than he originally thought. A line we see crop up again in the later episode “Heart” and in exploring Sam’s storyline of having Demonic instilled powers.

Another example of the lines of morality blurring when it comes to the Monstrous other comes in Supernatural’s sixth season. Here we see the Winchester’s maternal grandfather brought back to life by the demon Crowley and charged to round up every monster they can find. We slowly learn this truth and in “Caged Heat,” the fact that the captured monsters are being tortured for information. Now, if you have seen the episodes you will remember that Dean and Sam do not blink at the Monsters being tortured, what they are most concerned is why Crowley is doing it. This sets a precedent that Monsters really have no rights in the eyes of the Brothers. This precedent is dangerous because the line so easily blurs that whatever we consider monstrous would also possess limited or non-existent rights.

Stepping into the world of Joss Whedon, we look into the Buffy universe that does tend to take a more forward thinking look into the Monstrous Other. In this universe, the line between good and evil is never absolute. We see characters travel on both sides of the fence. Whedon creates a world where the Monstrous is defined by action and intent and not solely origin. It also presents the possibility of redemption. We see this primarily in the characters of Angel and Spike. Both vampires and both part demon. The story begins with Angel on the side of good, cursed by gypsies to be the vampire with a soul and atone for a hundred years of evil and atrocity. In a tragic turn he falls in love with the slayer, Buffy, who is literally his opposite. Her mission is to kill all vampires and demons. Already in the first season, we see the waters muddy.

Further muddying the waters, Angel loses his soul and seeks to torment and torture everything that was dear to Angel and he was really good at it. As the viewer, you wanted him dead, you wanted him to get what was coming to him. We even felt okay with Buffy torturing a vampire or beating up Willy the bartender for information on how to track down Angel.

Wait, what?

That’s right, even in Buffy we find instances where those labeled as Monsters receive treatment less than human. Is this right? Within the concept of the story and narrative, we as the viewer see it as an acceptable risk. The ends justify the means and it is for the greater good. How far does that take us though? How much can we justify what would normally be considered anti-social or aberrant behavior when it is directed at what we view as less than human?

Our other example is Spike. Spike started off evil and had no problem showing it to everyone. But in season three we begin to see a semblence of Spike’s humanity is his reaction to being dumped by Druisilla. After he is rendered incapable of attacking humans we begin to see a change in him. He chooses to fight evil, first because it is the only thing he can fight and in season five he continues to do so because he has feelings for Buffy. This course of action ultimately leads him to regain his soul. The big difference between he and Angel, which he points out in Angel’s fifth season, is that he fought to get his soul. He wasn’t cursed, he sought it out because he wanted to the man that he thought Buffy needed. This stands as the prime example in Whedon’s universe that redemption was an option for anyone, even the most depraved.

What if we placed that label on people who we feel behave as less than human, as monsters? Would that justify putting them down like animals? Would that justify giving them limited rights?

These are some of the questions that maybe we should be asking when we watch these shows. I’m not saying that just because we watch these shows or enjoy these stories that our moral compass will automatically be skewed. However, the more we do see these instances of what we label as monstrous be treated inhumanely the more likely we react in kind when we are facing something truly monstrous. So when that time comes, what will our reaction be?

What do you think of this article? Do you agree or disagree? Do you think that popular media has the ability to sway the masses opinions? Let us know what you think.

Next month we will look at the Inhuman Other and the world of cyborgs, machines, and Artificial Intelligence.

 

 

Notes

  1. Zombiemania, Dir. Donna Davies, Prod. Kimberlee McTaggart, Sorcery Films, 2008, Dvd.
  2. Chris Bond, “Frankenstein: Is it Really About the Dangers of Science?” The English Review  20.1 (2009): 28, Literature Resource Center, EBSCO, Web, 17 Nov. 2010.

 


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