The Theology of Monsters: Part 1, Omens & Warnings

Last fall I taught a class at my church entitled Monsters: The Theology of Frankenstein, Werewolves, Vampires, and Zombies. It was great fun and very successful. Mainly because I had some help from three colleagues from the Art/Design and English Departments at the university who were gracious to do some guest presentations for us. After the series was over I also found out that a friend teaching in the Music Department has taught a class on monster-theme music from TV and film. Apparently, my school is flush with monster scholars.

Now you might be wondering, did you really do a class on Monsters at church? Yes we did. And it went really well. It went well because monsters are a wonderfully fun and intellectually surprising location for theological reflection. This series will introduce you to my personal discoveries in thinking theologically about monsters.

To start, let's use this post to introduce the category of "monster" and hint at the theological fruits tucked away in the world of Frankenstein, werewolves, vampires, and zombies.

The word "monster" has its origins in the Latin monstrum, meaning "omen" or "warning." The question is, as a sign and omen, what are monsters warning us about?

A start of an answer might begin by considering the anthropological literature concerning monsters. David Gilmore in his book Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors notes that monsters are cultural universals. All peoples have their monsters. This seems to imply that, whatever the omen/warning monsters provide for us, the threat is common to us all, shared across time, place, culture, and creed.

This observation about monsters already reveals the richness of the construct. Monsters appear to reveal something about the universal human experience or predicament. If so, can we figure out what monsters are trying to tell us?

Gilmore's analysis of monsters worldwide, across time and cultures, reveals that monsters appear to share some common characteristics. Gilmore's list of common monster characteristics includes:

Aggressive
Gigantic
Man-eating
Malevolent
Hybrids
Gruesome
Atavistic
Powerful
Violent


The list is rich. Some of these characteristics seem obvious. Fear dominates. Fears of predation. Fears of evil. Fears of impotence. But there are some odd things in the list as well. Take hybridization. Why, exactly, do monsters tend to be hybrids, ontological mixtures? What is the nature of that omen/warning?

My hope, in this first post, is simply to peak your curiosity about monsters as locations for theological reflection. And to further peak your curiosity here is a sketch of some of the coming posts:

Frankenstein:
Monsters are often a odd mixture of being both victim and victimizer. That is, monsters enter our world and inflict harm. This justifies the crowd in taking up torches and heading out after the monster for some mob violence and vigilante justice. Thus, monsters are ways of hiding the scapegoating functions of social and religious violence. Monsters are interesting locations for reflection upon the work of Rene Girard.

Werewolves:
We are fearful of becoming monsters. We fear the "monster within" that we are barely able to hold in check. I am the monster. Or, at the very least, I fear that the line between me and the monster is very, very thin and fragile.

Vampires:
We are both repulsed by and attracted to monsters. And sometimes the attraction has an erotic twist. Think of Anne Rice's books or the Twilight series. Monsters can be cool. We can desire to be monsters. How are we to make sense of this? Mixture of horror and desire?

Zombies:
The monsters of the undead embody our fears of death. In agrarian eras we confronted death more directly. Nowadays we have to wait for the dead to come to our door once a year at Halloween. Or we can go to zombie movies. Either way, we feel a need to use monsters to confront our bodies, their gooshy vulnerabilities, and their ultimate demise. Monsters are existential.

So, welcome to the world of monsters!

Next Post: Jekyll & Hyde

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13 thoughts on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 1, Omens & Warnings”

  1. I was sorry to have missed this series, so I'm excited to see some of it will get translated into your blog.

    Don't know if this came up when you did this, but one of my favorite TV shows - Buffy the Vampire Slayer - was practically a weekly exposition of the metaphor of monster within our culture, particularly youth culture. They did some pretty clever things over the course of the show - and it wouldn't surprise me if you end up riffing on some of the same themes as the producers of the show.

  2. Frequent reader, rare poster, but as a big monster-movie fan I'm thrilled to be reading!

    /geek on

    As an especial fan of zombies, I want to add an additional category: Zombies as a fear of Apocalypse. The modern zombie flick is a meditation on the shallow fragility of human civilization: what is left when it all collapses and humans turn to devouring each other? In zombie movies, that's the fate of both the living and the dead -- and it's why the genre flourishes when paired with urban settings. "Dawn of the Dead", set against a shopping mall -- a symbol of civilization and consumption alike -- is the contemporary archetype.

    /geek off

  3. I've never had the least interest in monster movies. Have not understood the fascination with them. But others do, so the topic must be important and we or rather I can all learn from it.

  4. Matt & Adam,
    Thanks. Your comments remind me of the experience I had during my class: It surprising how much thinking people have done on this topic, a lot of it driven by cultural texts (movies, books). There are tons of monster theorists walking around.

    Steve,
    Just a clarification. My focus in this series is less on monster movies than upon the category "monster." Movies and books help illustrate certain aspects of that category, but I tend to stay with the category in an analytical way. A particular interest of mine is thinking through how the mere existence of the "monster" creates problems, most of them ethical. That is, we tend to use the word "monster" to label persons we'd like to eliminate. Calling someone a monster is an excuse to kill. So we need to think through the psychology of monster attributions to make sure we aren't using the label in evil ways. Or, as the werewolf idea suggests, become the monster ourselves as Nietzsche warned.

    The point is, we won't be talking a lot about movies. We'll be in the regular topics of this blog--ethics, psychology, and religion--just coming at them in a quirky and fresh way.

  5. Those whose views of "difference" is connected to "god-forsakenness" are the ones who are fearful of the "other".

    At the same time, "civilized" or educated people fear the "uncivilized" and I think rightly so, because the "uncivilized" are prone to react in fearful appeasement of what they deem as "god's will".

    Where in the past, it was the unbelieving revolutionary, today, it is the believing revolutionary. God has become the "scape-goat" for doing 'terrorism", demanding absolute allegiance. You have done a good job in the past on writing about terrorism and I'm sure I cannot improve on that...

    Indeed monsters "happen" because as children we all have horrifying experiences. The vulnerability and size of the child becomes the "womb" for these experiences. These expereinces are ordinary in every way, but are experienced in a terrifying way. How many times has anyone seen a child at a circus crying over the "clown"? Or crying and terrified over the "monster" of the "unknown"? We learn as adults to suppress these feelings of vulnerability, but we are still very vulnerable. And any crisis, whether personal or national breeds the anxiety that are the "ghosts of monsterhood"...It is when we are faced with the little control we do have in life, that adults find themselves fraught in terrifying anxious thoughts and questions. This is normal, but the Christian is taught to suppress or reject these realities, with "hope" for the "next life", when we really don't know about the next life...but it is nevertheless, in the human heart to "create hope" for oneself, as it does away with the monsters...so, whether one is a "responsible adult self", or a Christian, the civilized are taught that "monsters" don't exist, as we can control these "things"...But, much is beyond our control...that is a terrifying thought to most...

  6. This sounds like a fantastic series. I'm still reeling from the brief bourgeoisie one, having been unable to participate in the fun. I'm happy I'll be around for this one.

    It's good that you clarified how you'll be coming at this, not necessarily through media/art. But, if you are looking for intelligent explorations in this area, check out Romero's classic Zombie Trilogy (now technically a quadrilogy) of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. (The fourth and most recent is Land of the Dead). Each was made in a different decade, and each addresses in profound and surprising ways social questions of race, materialism, violence, and scapegoating, among others. Highly recommended, and certainly pertinent to this kind of analysis.

  7. Experimental theology and monsters: right up my alley. Thanks for entertaining these ideas, and for putting them together. You might be interested in my academic exploration of the cultural, social, and theological aspects of monsters and the fantastic in pop culture at www.theofantastique.com.

  8. This'll be interesting. For you and your readers the recent remake of Beowulf is, imho, both one of the best re-makes and brings the complications down to where a modern person can grasp the essence. In the legend both Grendel and the Dragon are hybrids of human/monster mating.
    This runs thruout history and Campbell suggests that this is partly our fear of the natural darkness and the uncontrolled forces of nature. The underlying subconscious that lies within all religions and got translated into modern religions by their absorption of the Dionysic rites and thru the Orphic practices. Or as both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn
    pointed out evil is not out there but the line between good and evil runs smack thru the heart of man.

  9. I surprised myself in college when I found that my favourite book  was 'Frankenstein' -- just got so absorbed in it and it took me to such great literary and psychological depths.  Great fun!  I'm easily scared (suspending my disbelief often crosses the divide between fiction and reality) so I have always avoided the 'horror' genre whether in film, tv and books but I'll never forget that experience and so I'm happy to have come across this article.  I always knew there was more to it than blood and gore!

  10. I've been taking a class on Mythology, and right now we're learning about monsters. They're so interesting! Really, a monster can show things about a person, an author, a culture, or a civilization that are not as obvious. They may not even realize some of these things about themselves until analyzing their monster(s)! Monsters can show the fears, values, virtues, downfalls, flaws, and desires of a civilization quite easily. A clever author or storyteller can also weave a bit of satire into their monster to poke fun at themselves or their audience, without being blatant or offensive. Though I don't really enjoy being scared, I do enjoy analyzing monsters. I find them so fascinating! 

  11. I hate to sound like a grammar nazi (the irony…), but I think the typical phrase is "piqué your curiosity".

    However, I imagine most of your readers couldn't care less about the é - despite a few years of French in school I still can't remember what accented vowels sound like…

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