The Theology of Monsters: Part 2, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Monsters are horror-filled creatures that violently intrude upon our calm and settled existence. They bring chaos and malevolence. And monsters are transgressive, violating our sacred taboos.

It's obvious how we see the Other as Monster. More curious is the recurring theme in monster texts (stories, movies, books) of the fear that we may be or become a monster.

We see this theme in a variety of stories:

The werewolf. Think of Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter series. Lupin is kind and heroic, but he suffers from a bit of a problem at the full moon.

The vampire. The great fear in the vampire genre is that we, via the vampire's bite, will become a vampire.

But my favorite example of the monster within is Robert Louis Stevenson's tale published in 1886: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

In my last post I noted that monsters are warnings. They are omens of a looming threat. Consequently, if we reflect on these "monster within" stories it is obvious that monsters are warning us about ourselves. There is something inside us that poses a threat. Something within us is monstrous.

In the Christian tradition the monster within is best described by Paul in the book of Romans, Chapter 7:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!
This notion of a duplex self appears to be a universal human experience. The rabbis, who likely informed Paul's analysis in Romans, speak of two competing impulses in the human heart. There is an evil impulse, the yezer ha-ra, which struggles against the yezer ha-tov, the impulse for good.

Our modern notions of the monstrous impulses within us (the yezer-ha-ra, the "law of sin") have moved away from religious formulations toward psychological and biological explanations. The most influential amongst these models is Freud's psychoanalytic notion of a tripartite mind.

For Freud, the mind has three competing structures, you know them as the id, superego, and ego. Interestingly, Freud keeps the Judeo-Christian notion of intrapsychic conflict as the basis of his "secular" theory. That is, Freud's conflict between the id and superego is very similar to his Jewish ancestor's description of the yezer ha-ra and the yezer ha-tov.

For Freud, the monster within us is the id. The id is the source of our primal, animal urges. These urges are sexual and aggressive in nature. Further, given that these urges are primitive and atavistic they are experienced as transgressive, as taboo violations. This is most clearly seen in the Oedipus Complex where transgressive sexual desires, because they are intrafamilial, are experienced.

David Gilmore summarizes the Freudian analysis of monsters in his book Monsters:
This mixture of human and animal is a direct consequence of a profound ambivalence shared by all people: a simultaneous terror and fascination with the beast within, the impulsive need to both deny and acknowledge that, no matter how exalted, we humans are members of the animal kingdom and heir to violent instincts.
The relevant point in all this is that we live with transgressive urges on a daily basis. We spend a great deal of time during the day pushing away or shutting down transgressive material in the mind. Most of us, the great majority of us, are very successful at this. (Although we worry about the sick, deviant, and transgressive material that pops into our heads.) Some are less successful and act upon these impulses. These persons move into the monstrous.

But even the "normal" amongst us have a persistent fear. What if, someday, I can't fend off the monstrous impulse? We all know we are one act away from moving into danger. One mistake and I can go from "upright citizen" to "monster." We are generally successful at fighting off the monster, but we sense that the line between me and the abyss is paper thin. Monsters, thus, are warnings and omens to remain eternally vigilant about both who we are and who we may become.

But there is a related fear here, one that we will return to time and time again in this series. Monsters are liminal creatures. They exist "in between" civilization and the abyss. Monsters come from dark unknown places and enter our world. In this sense, they are like angels, the liminal creatures of the good place. Intrapsychically understood, monsters come from the unknown abyss inside us, the dark corners of the id. Should we, then, seek to understand those dark places of the heart? Should we chase those monsters? Seek to illuminate the places from which they come?

Susan Neiman, in her book Evil in Modern Thought, notes the people begin to part ways on these questions. That is, some people feel that to successfully combat evil we must seek to understand it. Others see this approach as a disaster. To understand evil is to become contaminated by it and be influenced by it. To truly understand monsters one would have to become a monster. This sentiment is struck at the beginning of the 2008 Academy Award winning movie No Country for Old Men. It's a movie about a good man, a small town sheriff, seeking to hunt down a "monster." As the movie opens the sheriff muses about evil and the risk of trying to understand evil in order to stop it:
I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.

Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough never carried one. That the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn't wear one. Up in Commanche County.

I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times. There was this boy I sent to Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him loose he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't.

The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips in and go out to meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, okay, I'll be a part of this world.
That's the question. Do you put your soul at hazard if you want to understand monsters? Do we really want to understand why someone commits a heinous crime? Because if we had an answer (e.g., they were abused, broken family, brain disorder) are we at risk of explaining the evil away? Of becoming "a part of this world"?

Monsters repel us. That is how they warn us of danger. But what if monsters are no longer repellent? Without monsters what omens remain to warn us of evil?

It's a two-edged sword. To live with monsters is to sacrifice some people to the monstrous. To throw them into the abyss. To treat them as inexplicable and deviant to the point of alien, epistemologically speaking. Conversely, to live without monsters, where evil is understood scientifically, are we not at risk of losing a sense of evil in our world? Is Hitler best understood as evil or as the product of social and familial forces that made him who he was? In short, should Hitler "make sense" to us? Should we want Hitler to be comprehensible? Because once Hitler is comprehensible, our blame and outrage lessens a bit, if even only a fraction. And that's a slippery slope. We've put "our soul at hazard." Maybe the sheriff in No Country is right. Perhaps it's better to leave evil as alien and inexplicable.

Monsters mark a boundary, they are fences. So where should we place these sentinels, if at all?

Perhaps there are places inside my soul where I should not venture. I should shoo away monstrous impulses but not inquire as to their origin. I should leave the monstrous as liminal, as a signpost that unexplored abysses exist within me. That I should go no further.

Or maybe I should go exploring. Cross the fence. To pull up and analyze the darkness within me. But if I do this, am I at risk of becoming a monster?

Next Post: Monsters & Heros

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7 thoughts on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 2, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde”

  1. It sounds like our animal nature is the "fallen nature" that we must "control", our lower natures. This is Augustine's view, but didn't other Fathers believe that man was not especially bent on animalistic behavior, but was created "good"?

    We do not "win" over our lower nature by continually being told about it and breeding fear and anxiety about our "monsters"...breeding fear and anxiety brings upon us our "monsters', as these character traits breed in the soil of fear.

    Communities, countries or personal relationships are more healthy when the relationship is defined, either through formal laws, social contracts or treaties, or communication about expectations. This atmosphere breeds trust and respect, as there is definition of what is to transpire, and an agreement amongst parties. Monsters don't live in the light, they like the secretive and dark places of our lives, and cultures...

    Although much can be accomplished through diplomatic efforts, there are times when diplomacy does not work for whatever reason, and other means must be chosen to accomplish certain ends. The ends, in the case or terrorists, justify the means, which sometimes means not negotiating with the terrorists...

    These are complex issues concerning human rights, and national interests. Many struggle as to what transpired at Guatanomo Bay, and yet, do not agree with allowing these to go without any means of accountability. Terrorism is a new model of "warfare" that is not easily accomplished through usual means. And I really question the wisdom of those who would limit our intelligence, although I recognize that certain areas need addressing...

    So, addressing monsters, whether within or without need to be accountable, and fully informed of what is to be the end. Terrorists, whough will be hard won unless we "cowtail" to Islam and their understanding of life...

  2. I think it depends on whether you're talking about the monstrosities within, or those people who succomb to the Hyde side. To dwell on or explore a dark inner monster, whether in terms of fantasizing harm or misering cherished hatreds, doesn't seem healthy to me, unless it's a matter of bringing the thing to light in order to dispel it. But in terms of people who act out in monstrous ways, for instance the 11-year-old who recently committed murder -- he's still a child, and truly in need of help. He needs those capable of doing so to venture into his world. But that would be for his redemption, not for curiosities. Left to himself, would the monstrosities consume him? But with help, can the child, and the grownup he will one day be, be rescued?
    2 cents.

  3. I would suggest that the book Monsters To Destroy: Bush's War on Terror and Sin by Ira Chernus offers an excellent, and still continuing exampl, of this very important theme.

    Important because it is also very much related to the universal search and deadly enactment of scape goat politics. The invisible driving force behind all violent conflicts.

  4. Richard,

    My grandson (4th grade) took the TAKS test today and told my wife that his writing question was about telling about a surprise. His essay was about the--surprise!--sneak attack of zombies coming from the local graveyard to frighten the citizens of Frisco. His mother is fearful he'll be marked down. If he is it is simply more testimony to our monsterously crabbed public school curriculum.


    George C.

  5. Richard,

    This review article by Michael Brooks might be of interest.

    In it he states: "Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world."


    George C.

  6. The two-species theory put forward by Prager is sad and ironic beyond measure in that it is structurally identical to the NAZI rhetoric that pained the Jewish people as monsters and the German people as a race above. The greatest cause of massive and systematic atrocity in world history is not the sadistic thrill of causing pain, it is rather the much more seductive thrill of seeing oneself as "pure" and "higher" and the inevitable scapegoating of the other that this leads to. The Spanish Inquisition, witch killings in Europe, the slaughter and enslavement of colonized people around the world, and the NAZI holocaust were all carried out by people who saw themselves as morally pure, as a race above. Compared with the magnitude of crimes carried out in the name of goodness and purity, the crimes carried out for sadistic motives by self-conscious "monsters" are like a drop in the ocean.

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