Monsters and the Moral Imagination

Monsters and the Moral Imagination 1

(image by Melinda Beck)

By Stephen T. Asma

Monsters are on the rise. People can’t seem to get enough of vampires lately, and zombies have a new lease on life. This year and next we have the release of the usual horror films like Saw VI and Halloween II; the campy mayhem of Zombieland; more-pensive forays like 9 (produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov), The Wolfman, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon; and, more playfully, Where the Wild Things Are (a Dave Eggers rewrite of the Maurice Sendak classic).

The reasons for this increased monster culture are hard to pin down. Maybe it’s social anxiety in the post-9/11 decade, or the conflict in Iraq—some think there’s an uptick in such fare during wartime. Perhaps it’s the economic downturn. The monster proliferation can be explained, in part, by exploring the meaning of monsters. Popular culture is re-enchanted with meaningful monsters, and even the eggheads are stroking their chins—last month saw the seventh global conference on Monsters and the Monstrous at the University of Oxford.

The uses of monsters vary widely. In our liberal culture, we dramatize the rage of the monstrous creature—and Frankenstein’s is a good example—then scold ourselves and our “intolerant society” for alienating the outcast in the first place. The liberal lesson of monsters is one of tolerance: We must overcome our innate scapegoating, our xenophobic tendencies. Of course, this is by no means the only interpretation of monster stories. The medieval mind saw giants and mythical creatures as God’s punishments for the sin of pride. For the Greeks and Romans, monsters were prodigies—warnings of impending calamity.

After Freud, monster stories were considered cathartic journeys into our unconscious—everybody contains a Mr. Hyde, and these stories give us a chance to “walk on the wild side.” But in the denouement of most stories, the monster is killed and the psyche restored to civilized order. We can have our fun with the “torture porn” of Leatherface and Freddy Krueger or the erotic vampires, but this “vacation” to where the wild things are ultimately helps us return to our lives of quiet repression.

Apollo Jekyll and Hyde

Any careful reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, will reveal not only a highly sexualized description of blood drinking, but an erotic characterization of the count himself. Even John Polidori’s original 1819 vampire tale The Vampyre describes the monster as a sexually attractive force. According to the critic Christopher Craft, Gothic monster tales—Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—rehearse a similar story structure. “Each of these texts first invites or admits a monster, then entertains and is entertained by monstrosity for some extended duration, until in its closing pages it expels or repudiates the monster and all the disruption that he/she/it brings,” he writes.

A crucial but often-ignored aspect of monsterology is the role those beasties play in our moral imaginations. Recent experimental moral psychology has given us useful tools for looking at the way people actually do their moral thinking. Brain imaging, together with hypothetical ethical dilemmas about runaway trolley cars, can teach us a lot about our real value systems and actions. But another way to get at this subterranean territory is by looking at our imaginative lives.

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