Understanding Monsters: How Monstrosity is Constructed

Today, 30th of August in 1797 Mary Shelley (Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft) was born. She gave us one of the most beautiful and important books ever written: Frankenstein.

This month Generally Gothic hosted a discussion on Monstrosity (if you have not heard about her website please visit and see by yourself how interesting, well researched and amazing her posts are, you will become a constant reader of her content and would not like to miss any post). In August, Hannah delighted us with a read along on The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Monstrosity was one of the main themes of the reading but not exclusively. I invite you once more to check out her posts to know more details for I am not going to spoil you the fun. As a collaboration, in this post, I am going to share with you some of the most accepted theories on monstrosity in literature.

Monster Studies on literature have focused on analyzing and understanding the possible significance the monster present in a narrative might have. But also, these studies try to answer what type of information a monster can give us regarding the historical period when a book was written.

Where does the word “monster” comes from? The word “monster” comes from Latin monstrum a word that stands for “showing”. It designates something that stands out of the norm.

In this post, we are going to revise seven theses on monstrosity that have been proposed in Monster Studies. In other words, we are going to find out the qualities that can be generally found in monsters. These theses are recompiled by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his chapter “Monster Culture (Seven Theses” from the book Monster Theory.

Thesis I: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body

The monster can be understood as the anxiety or fear of the culture where it was created:

“The monster is born only at its metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place” (p.4).

For this reason, to understand the monster in a novel it is necessary to know when such novel was written, in which context and time.

Think of Mr Hyde in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, how was the Victorian Era, what was acceptable as good and what was seen as misbehaviour in society.

Thesis II: The Monster Always Escapes

The monster always vanishes or dies. This is because a monster represents a contemporary problem of the society in which it was created. For example, despite we can find vampires in many novels, such as in Dracula, Carmilla, and The Vampyre, they are not necessarily similar creatures. For this reason:

“Monsters must be examined within the intricate matrix of relations (social, cultural, and literary-historical) that generate them” (p.5).

In Dracula, Bram Stoker gives his readers an insight on sexuality in his times. We readers are told about Jonathan Haker and his anxiety towards her fiance Mina Murray. It is a context when sexuality was being more openly explored in contrast to previous texts. The vampire, Count Dracula, lures the fiances of men that were going to get married, a heterosexual relationship. In contrast, Ann Rice‘s The Vampire Chronicles gives her readers another type of vampire where homosexuality is explored as an optional way of living. In her novel Interview with the Vampire, Lestat has a fascinaton for Louis and turns him into a vampire to make him immortal. Here the vampires can be seen as the marginals for their sexuality.

The qualities of a monster do not necessarily stand in time. As society changes so do their fears, concerns and horrors. As we saw in the previous example, Stoker was concerned with heterosexual relations, whereas, Ann Rice being more contemporary to us is open about homosexual relationships.

Thesis III: The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis

The monsters always escape because it embodies an impossibility of categorization. They demand a rethinking of boundary and normality. This allows them to be understood as hybrids that do not follow any systematical structure.

We can think about Frankenstein, the creature seems to belong nowhere, he seems to lack a place. He, in fact, tells Victor, his creator that he needs a companion in order to belong somewhere.

Thesis IV: The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference

The monster can be understood as being inspired by someone different from us. It is the personification of what Edward Said identifies as “the other”, we embody the differences from another culture or sexuality, someone who we might not understand because it has a different cultural background from us, into a monster.

But this construction is not necessarily based on a specific being but it may combine multiple characteristics. The most common differences that are portrayed are: cultural, sexual and economical.

For example, think about Carmilla, was it acceptable that a woman could be lesbian and independent in Sheridan Le Faun’s times?

Thesis V: The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible

The monster stands as a warning that prevents mobility (intellectual, geographic, or sexual). They represent what cannot be committed. But at the same time:

“Monsters are here, as elsewhere, expedient representations of other cultures, generalized and demonized to enforce a strict notion of group sameness” (p.15).

Society creates monsters to not loose their own ideas and defend them from others and to try to justify them. Cohen supports this idea by giving the example of how women have been portrayed as monstrous in a patriarchal society so men can maintain their authority. Think of popular legends with witches, almost every single witch is female.

Thesis VI: Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire

Monsters represent repressed desires. This idea is explored in deep in the other book I have shown in the photo at the beginning of this post called Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors by David Gilmore, he suggests:

“Monsters are sources of identification and awe as well as horror, they serve also as vehicles for the expiration of guilt as well as aggression… the monster is the incarnation of self-punishment” (12).

Gilmore adds that by creating a monster we expose what is not allowed and what we know that is not correct but we somehow might enjoy it. But at the same time, this monstrous and aberrant being is ourself punishment because we know that is not right.

A good example is Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, who embodies behaviours that are identified as evil in society but somehow the conscience might want to explore.

Cohen explores the myths from past cultures such as the Norse and Anglo -Saxon.

Thesis VII: The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming

Monsters ask us to reconsider our world and to understand it:

“They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, or our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expressions. They ask us why we have created them” (p.20).

Monsters are there to question our society and our representation of the world. They call us to reconsider whether the ideas that are widely accepted are correct or if really understand them.

As we have seen so far, monsters are not simply literary devices for entertaining or scaring readers but the reflection of our own culture in a determined time and space. Monsters make a call to reconsider different themes that are embodied in them, such as gender, sexuality, culture, and how they are represented.

I hope you have enjoyed this introductory post on Monster Studies in Literature. The next time you watch a horror film or read a novel with a monster as a character, think about these theories on monstrosity.

✶⋆ As Spooky Season is getting closer, I would love to know which is your favourite monster, you can answer here or on Instagram.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam Cardy says:

    Love Cohen’s “Monster Theory” — I used some of his concepts for an essay I wrote on vampire literature during my first year at uni! 🧛‍♂️

    1. Inia Gwath says:

      That sounds very interesting! Vampires are fascinating characters. If you ever share your essay, it would be a great pleasure to read it!

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