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Monsters and Wild Things

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he holds the title of Distinguished Scholar.  His newest book, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst 9780195336160Fears, is a wide-ranging cultural and conceptual history of monsters-how they have evolved over time, what functions they serve, and what shapes they are likely to take in the future.  It is with this monstrous perspective (sorry I know it is an awful pun) that Asma looks at Where the Wild Things Are in honor of its release this weekend.

With hindsight it seems fitting that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) first appeared in cultural space somewhere between Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Where the Wild Things Are is a rock’n’roll story, about being misunderstood, rebelling against authority, letting your hair down, and generally indulging in the Dionysian rumpus. It’s not surprising, then, that the new film version (Warner Brothers) is brought to us by skateboarding music-video director Spike Jonze and literary mega-hipster Dave Eggers.

As the movie’s trailer reminds us, “Inside all of us is a wild thing.” And in our therapeutic era, we generally accept that it is good and healthy to visit our wild things –to let them off their chains, let them howl at the moon. You can also taste some of this Romanticism in the recent relish of the Woodstock anniversary, with its celebration of noble primitivism. But the hippy view of “the wild” is quite sunny, whereas Sendak (who lost family during the Holocaust) wanted to acknowledge some of the darker aspects of uncivilized life (even, or especially, through the eyes of a child). Despite these darker notes, however, Where the Wild Things Are still affirms the idea that danger, at least in small doses, is good for you. And this latest fascination with beasties, together with the approach of Halloween, reminds us that we have a love/hate relationship with monsters generally. We are simultaneously attracted and repulsed by them.

Sendak’s monsters are just repulsive enough to be alien, foreign, and mysterious, but they’re also vaguely cute and familiar enough for us to identify with them and recognize our emotional selves in them. Sendak claimed in later interviews that the monsters were based loosely on his boyhood perceptions of his frightening aunts and uncles. Like a distant relation, our uncanny monsters are alien aspects of our own identity –they are parts of who we are, unfamiliar aspects of our psyches. This common way to read monsters –as primitive, uncivilized versions of ourselves –is obvious in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the forthcoming Universal Pictures remake The Wolfman, starring Anthony Hopkins and Benicio del Toro. Monster stories have a cathartic function, in the sense that they give our tamed, repressed impulses a brief holiday of Bacchanalian revelry. And after these virtual trips to our own hearts of darkness, we can better return to our everyday social world of compromise, accommodation, and compliance. On this account, the monster story is the favorite genre of our reptilian brains (the real home where the wild things are).

However, every era has its own uses and abuses of monsters. The lesson of Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, is often taken as a liberal lesson in tolerance: we as a society must not create outcasts, or persecute those who are different. Or consider that the medieval mind was obsessed with giants and mythical creatures as God’s punishments for the sin of pride. And the medieval period also began the Church’s long fascination with demon possession. For the Greeks and Romans, monsters were prodigies –warnings of impending disaster.

Besides the cuddly monsters of Where the Wild Things Are, our present day fascination seems dominated by zombies, vampires, and serial killers. Why are we so entranced by these specific creatures –why do we love to hate them?

Not only are there more zombies around these days, but they seem to be getting faster and more aggressive. Gone are the slow lumbering goons of the George Romero-era zombies, and in their stead we have lightning fast undead predators. Zombies, just like vampires, serial killers and most other monsters are terrifying because you cannot really reason with them. Unlike your other enemies, you cannot appeal to monsters to recognize that you’re a good hearted person, or you’ve got kids, or you really understand their pain, or you only want to understand them in the name of science. They’ll pummel you and eat you anyway. There’s not much common ground, in terms of rationality or emotional solidarity. One suspects there is a link between a decade of American fear of terrorists, and a rise in zombie monsters that do not respond to negotiation.

But zombies also have unique qualities that trigger the dynamic of love/hate, attraction/repulsion. Everybody wants to live forever. That’s a given. If you can’t remember wanting to live forever, then you’re probably a successful and functional adult. But the inner narcissist –the one that thinks he’s God and wants to live forever –is still in you somewhere, buried deep. The zombie, like the vampire, is a kind of immortal: chop his leg off, he’s still coming; blow a hole in his chest, he’s still coming. His life span is indefinite and he’s indestructible. So the little narcissist inside us really likes the immortal aspect of the zombie and the vampire. We unconsciously crave that kind of staying power and durability, but our narcissistic desire to cheat death is impossible to sustain in the face of mature experience. Reality regularly reminds us, as we are growing up, that we will not cheat death. No one actually cheats death. To carry on in the fantasy world of the narcissistic inner-child is impossible given the brute facts of our animal mortality. So the universal urge to live forever must be repressed, as we grow up. This repression means that the desire must be transformed from positive to negative –from something we like, to something disgusting (just like in potty training).

We love to hate zombies because they simultaneously manifest our craving for immortality, and our more mature realization that the flesh always decays. As “living dead,” all zombies elicit those conflicting impulses in our psyche. The more disgusting they are, the more we are reminded of our inevitable decomposition, but the more they keep getting up and chasing, the more we are delighted by the promise of immortality. The psyche seems to carry out an unconscious vacillation: the zombies live on forever, those lucky sods, but wait…they’re disgusting and repellent and…and…run!

Vampires are a much more glamorized and sexualized version of the attraction/repulsion dynamic. From Polidori’s original Vampyre, to Stoker’s Dracula, to today’s teen vampires of Twilight, the blood drinkers are, generally speaking, totally hot. The play of sexual taboos in vampire stories is well appreciated. But in addition to the always titillating presence of neck-kissing and the exchange of bodily fluids, we have to recognize that vampires are romantic monsters. They are incarnations of the irresistible but damaging femme fatal for boys, and the “bad boy” or cad for girls. A vampire is frequently an archetype of the charismatic, handsome, man, who seduces women by his very indifference toward them. Women find him alluring and seek chase, only to discover too late that they are broken upon his heartless unmovable nature. The vampire holds out the promise of love, but alas lacks even humanity.

Vampires and zombies share another well-spring of horror: you could easily become one. You or your loved one is just a little bite away from contracting the disease. In the age of AIDS, swine flu, SARS, and myriad pandemic anxieties, it’s easy to see why monsters who transmit their monstrosity through bites (both sexual and gustatory) are especially frightening. In the medieval mind, monsters and demons were metaphysically different from you and I, and in the unlikely event that you were transformed into one you could be sure it was the result of serious sin. Nowadays, however, casual, accidental contact can make you “one of them.”

One suspects that losing one’s humanity, or becoming one of them, is also at play in our dread fascination with serial killers –real and imagined monsters. We have extensive media coverage, and corresponding public appetite, for real serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, as well as the popular fictional characters Norman Bates, Sweeney Todd, Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Michael Myers, and so on. Why are so many of us repelled, disgusted, and morally outraged, but also willing to lay out cash to see psychotic murderers hang people on meat hooks, sever limbs, and of course eat their innocent victims?

Before the 1950s, very few people would have suggested that a serial killer was anything like you, or I, or churchgoing folks. And yet, now it is commonplace for people to think of psychopaths as just slight (albeit horrifying) deviations on the otherwise normal brain or psyche. A murdering psychopath is not a demon-possessed creature or an offspring of Cain, but a guy who failed to develop normal levels of human compassion. Most of us believe that the exact causes of monstrous serial killing will be found eventually in brain science or developmental psychology or some combination, but we don’t think that Gacy, Dahmer, Hannibal Lecter, or Leatherface, are metaphysically different from us. We have secularized the evil of such psychopaths only recently, and maybe this is one reason why we love to hate them.

Just as Sendak’s monsters give us a kind of Rousseauian view of going “back to the wild” (wherein the authentic self is discovered, uncorrupted by society), so too Leatherface and similar monsters of “torture porn” give us a kind of Freudian view of going native. We’re attracted to serial killers because they lack conscience, hurt their enemies with impunity, and feel very little. They do the stuff we might do, if we had not been socialized properly. We’re attracted to their animalistic primitive powers. But we’re simultaneously repulsed by them because they lack the precise qualities that make us human.

If Rousseau and the hippies are right, then our inner primitive monsters will be more like Sendak’s beasties; weird, a little dangerous, but ultimately helpful. If, however, Freud is right about the kinds of monsters inside us, then we shouldn’t go too often or too long to where the wild things are.

Like rock’n’roll, the wild primitivism of monsters is tempered by bourgeois (and simply human) needs for security, safety and stability. Howlin’ Wolf is sanitized into Elvis, the “long haired” Beatles have to wear suits, the mud-soaked Woodstock kids are ready to go home after the weekend, and Sendak’s little “Max” misses his mom and leaves his monsters to return to “his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him, and it was still hot.”

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  5. Charles S. Weinblatt

    This author had close relatives perish during the Holocaust. One can only wonder how much this darkness influenced the new work.

    We live in an age of vulnerability. Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews (and others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany – most in gas chambers. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect future generations from making the same mistakes.

    I wrote “Jacob’s Courage” to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

    Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny’s only hope.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, “Jacob’s Courage”

  6. […] Stephen T. Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago, weighs in on the cultural significance of Where the Wild Things Are qua our recent cultural and pop-cultural […]

  7. […] Monsters and Wild Things (oup.com) […]

  8. […] the Oxford University Press blog, philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma ties our love for Where the Wild Things Are to our fascination with other monsters–”zombies, vampires, and serial killers”: […]

  9. […] Speaking of zombies, the Oxford University Press blog discusses our culture’s obsession with the dark and monstrous […]

  10. […] our craving for immortality, and our more mature realization that the flesh always decays.” (“Monsters and Wild Things,” OUPblog, Oct. 15, […]

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