One of the consistent themes in monsters is hybridization. That is, monsters are often ontological mixtures, blends, and composites. A quick tour through the world of mythology and legend shows us this:
Minotaurs: Half human & half bullSome blends are fun and fanciful. For example, Pegasus is a horse with wings (horse/bird blend) and a Unicorn is a horse with a horn.
Centaurs: Half human & half horse
Fauns: Half human & half goat
Mermaids: Half human & half fish
But some blends are scary. For example, Medusa had snakes for hair. Freaky.
Fans of the X-Men see lots of these hybrids. For example, Archangel is a man who has wings. Wolverine is a man/wolverine hybrid. And Beast is a man/beast hybrid (which is kind of funny as "beast" isn't an animal but is a kind of generic atavistic category).
Past the X-Men, lots of superheros get their powers through hybridization. Spiderman is a man/spider mix and the Thing from the Fantastic Four is an odd man/rock mix.
Now, reflecting on all this, it should be clear that hybridization is a source for the monstrous. Even if we identify with and cheer for the superhero, comic book lovers know that persecution of the hybrid (as a freak, mutant, or monster) is a constant source of material. The X-Men movies were built around that theme.
But many of these hybrids are monsters-lite. They are freaky, otherworldly, and uncanny (in fact, the X-Men were initially "The Uncanny X-Men") but don't seem to be "monsters," strongly understood. Pegasus, despite being a hybrid, doesn't seem like a prototypical monster.
In short, monsters are not simply hybrids. They are a certain kind of hybrid. If so, what kind?
Well, I'm new to this literature, but based upon my reading I'm going to offer up a little theory. The basic insight, which I'm borrowing from my ACU colleague Kenny who spoke about monstrous hybrids at our Bible class, is that the hybrid must be experienced as transgressive. That is, we must be offended or repulsed by the mixture found in the hybrid. The mixture must be illicit.
That is a good start, but it tends to put off the deeper question. What makes a mixture illicit or not? Why am I not repulsed by angels but find a man with a bug-head monstrous?
(And let's pause a bit to note that when I say "angels" I'm talking about glowing people with wings. Which, strangely, has little to do with biblical descriptions of heavenly creatures. Take this example from Ezekiel:
...and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings...Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle...I've never seen a Living Creature figurine at my local Bible Bookstore...)
So what makes a hybrid transgressive? Let me offer one hypothesis.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested that as we move through social space one of the dimensions we move through is a Divinity space. That is, when I hear a beautiful symphony, enter a magnificent cathedral, engage in acts of charity, or watch a glorious sunset we tend to move "up" on the Divinity dimension. We feel, to use Haidt's term, "elevated." Transcendence is a movement upward on the Divinity dimension. By contrast, we can also come into contact with behaviors, people, or experiences that move us downward on the Divinity dimension. There is an experience of feeling degraded, debased, polluted, dehumanized, or profaned. Charles Taylor in his book The Secular Age has argued that in Western cultures we've lost an acute experience of the Divinity dimension. We think in terms of justice and harm rather than pollution or purity. Regardless, even in Western cultures we retain notions of degradation and "appropriateness." Civic and public space are protected from vulgar, profane, indecent, or illicit material. Our civic spaces are not religious but they retain a notion of decorum and dignity. These are symptoms of the Divinity dimension still at work.
My argument about transgressive hybrids is that the hybrid becomes monstrous when the mixture combines the two poles of the Divinity dimension. What maps onto these two poles will, obviously, be culturally relative with lots of room for individual differences. But, broadly speaking, within a culture there is some general agreement about how facets of existence map onto the Divinity dimension. For example, in the West wings are high on the Divinity dimension. Perhaps because flying is a symbol of transcendence. Thus, attaching wings to a human isn't illicit. It fact, it might be elevating (e.g., angels). By contrast, bugs, rats, and reptiles are lower on the Divinity dimension (in Western cultures). Thus, combining these features with humans seems more illicit and, thus, moves us closer to monsters.
Now you might be asking, "This is all very interesting, but does it have any practical implications?" I think so. Consider this:
Religious traditions and persons tend to vary in how much they emphasize the Divinity dimension. Religious traditions/persons who do strongly emphasize the Divinity dimension will see their religious existence as the pursuit of "holiness" and "purity." This means that they will have strong notions of pollution and defilement. These notions of pollution or defilement can be applied to the Self or to Others. These religious persons will have a kind of obsessive-compulsive faith, a faith aimed at staying "clean."
This means that, if these reflections about monsters are correct, that a purity-based faith will create more monsters. By emphasizing the Divinity dimension these persons are more offended by what they regard as "illicit mixtures," the clean and the unclean coming together.
This perspective allows us to come at the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding contact with the "unclean" at table fellowship from a new angle. For the Pharisees, the "unclean" at table was a transgressive mixture, an illicit hybrid, a "monster." Jesus, by contrast, saw the mixture as holy, as being high rather than low on the Divinity dimension.
In short, hybridization in monsters allows us to approach the issue of mixing or blending in our world. When is the blend illicit? When is it holy? What is or is not a monster? And this connects with the issues raised in the last post: Is the Devil on the side of the monster or the hero?
On such questions rests the fate of the church in the world.
Next Post: Monsters & Death