By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
ON MONSTERS: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY OF OUR WORST FEARS
By Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $27.95
Quiz time! A monster is:
(a) A psycho killer.
(b) A seven-headed hydra.
(c) Under the bed.
(d) All of the above.
Stephen Asma is a Distinguished Scholar at Chicago's Columbia College, teaching philosophy and history of science, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he'd ask such a question on one of his exams. Particularly now that his new book about monsters is available.
Asma — who has previously explored the topics of Buddhism (The Gods Drink Whiskey) and natural history museums (Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads) — would give you an A if your answer was (d). In his new spelunking adventure through the caverns of world history, culture and thought, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Asma explores not only what frightens us and why, but also how our individual and group minds have learned to deal with scary new concepts by labeling them monstrous, from Alexander's "enormous beast" and the Bible's Behemoth and Leviathan ("God's lackeys," Asma describes them) all the way to terrorists, zombies and Cylons.
But it's more than beasts and behemoths. "Monster is a flexible, multi-use concept," Asma writes. "The concept of the monster has evolved to become a moral term."
Q. Why now? Is there something about this moment in history that makes an examination of the monster concept worth pursuing?
A. Well, we're seeing every day now the kind of demonization happening in the political sphere. We're led to believe there's this clash of wild-eyed jihad monsters vs. the civilized West. That's how the "war on terror" has been cashed out. The more paranoid part of our culture has been dredging up this monster archetype. But it's not just a one-way depiction. Some corners of Muslim culture demonize us, as well. One of the goals of this book was to provide examples of how we've done this many times in the past and how it relates to what's still going on.
Q. And the uptick in horror movies lately must be an indication of something.
A. You always see more monster movies when the culture is feeling stressed. Film scholars show a huge explosion of horror [movies] in the wake of the Vietnam war, from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to David Cronenberg's stuff, etc. There's a similar correlation between post-9/11 and the new hunger for paranoid, frightening films. This stuff really taps into universal human fears.
The guy who made the "Hostel" films, Eli Roth — I talk about this in the book, about these "torture porn" films and how they can actually take something away from your humanity. But Roth defends them this way: He says he gets e-mail from soldiers, and they love this stuff in Iraq. You might not think that an incredibly scary, violent movie would be great relaxing, popcorn stuff for soldiers, but after they've spent all day repressing fears and anxieties in order to do their jobs, it's a big relief for them to let it all out in the safe moment of a movie like this. That doesn't really defend them for me, but it makes some sense of why we love these movies. They're little holidays from our worst fears.
Q. Is it as simple as that — a catharsis, a release valve?
A. Yes and no. It's slightly more psychologically complex. We enjoy monster stories because they allow us to imagine what it's like to meet our enemies. It's a rehearsal. "How would I react if ...?" That's why people sometimes can't help but yell at the screen: "Don't open the door!" So a monster movie, or even to a degree the depiction of another person or another culture as "monstrous," allows us a fictitious buffer zone to practice and maybe even work through our fear response.
Q. Have you read Pride and Prejudice With Zombies?
A. [Laughs] No, but isn't that funny? I have read Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide. That's something really interesting, culturally speaking. It tells you in plain terms how to handle a zombie attack. It's serious, but it's funny. It's that same rehearsal idea.
Q. How does "monsterization" differ when we apply it to just one person, like the perpetrator of a heinous crime?
A. We now understand that serial killers and the like are not actually that different from us. We all have aggression, but they have more. We have empathy, they lack it. Twenty or 30 years ago, we never would have thought that if you pick on someone as a child, you could trigger monstrous events. If you take a kid, submit him to all this abuse and disconnect him from family and other support, the violence is not predictable but there is a pattern. In the medieval era, they'd say you were possessed. The devil did it. Now we understand that your immediate social circle can make you a monster. That's a new way of thinking about monsters, as products of social processes.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.