On Movie Monsters

One of the articles assigned for you to read this week features the ideas of Leo Braudy, a noted English literature professor who has published widely on ghosts and monsters.  In a recent study, Braudy outlines four major types of monsters:  1)  The “monster from nature” who reflects our fears of losing control over the natural world.  2)  Monsters that reflect human concerns with science and its power.  3)  The “Jeckyll and Hyde monster,” doppelganger figures that represent the ways that many people live double lives, or have more than one “true” self.  4)  Monsters (especially those that somehow return from the past) that serve to interrupt our modern developments and changes.  For part one of your blogpost, I’d like you to discuss how a monster you viewed during your filmwork for this week fits within one of Braudy’s four over-arching categories.  Whether you choose a creature from a horror film or a “classic” monster movie, I’d like to explore how/why your chosen monster fits into one of these categories and thus works to “indulge our fears and desires” (to quote Braudy).

It is sad to say, but this will be your final blogpost of the semester.  Therefore, I thought this would be a good opportunity to make some final connections and draw some over-arching conclusions about your work this spring.  So, for part two, I’d like you, again, to discuss a specific movie monster you screened in preparing for class this week – but preferably a different beast than you considered in part one.  For this section, I’d simply like you to connect your monster to certain creatures, themes, and ideas we have covered previously this semester, and see what broad conclusions you can draw about movie monsters through these connections.  Since this is your last blogpost of the semester, how does your selected cinematic beast tie into some of the key ideas of the course, and what overall conclusions does it point to with regards to monsters and monstrosity?  That is the question I would like you to answer here.

Horror and Empathy in Gothic Literature

In a recent study, scholar Ardel Haefele-Thomas suggests that Gothic horror developed as a place “in which to explore ideas about race, interracial desire, cross-class relations, ethnicity, empire, nation and ‘foreignness’ during the nineteenth century.”  Gothic horror of the kind under consideration in class this week serves the complex function of giving rise to our fears, while also exploring and critiquing them.  As Haefel-Thomas comments, “these texts transgress monstrosity in the sense that they help interrogate the very idea of what is mon­strous, opening up spaces where we can read sympathy for others who are queer, who are multiracial, who live outside of the” norms of society.

For part one of this blogpost, then, I would like you to pick a character or scene from one of the excerpted works assigned for this week – ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Ligeia,’ ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ – and focus on the horror embodied in/through that character or scene.  How, specifically, does the author create horror in the audience, and use it to play with the reader’s darkest fears? What ideas are in question here, and what social issues – or fears – are rendered problematic and indeed horrific?  For part two, I want you to flip that script and consider the ways in which gothic horror does not necessarily reject but sometimes welcomes the horrific monsters and their problems.  To borrow Haefele-Thomas’s words, in this section I would like you to consider how a given character or scene does NOT create horror but quite the opposite, opening up a space “where we can read sympathy for others” who are different.  In other words, how does this character, or textual moment, “transgress monstrosity” and view the monster with empathy, and to what end is this sympathy established?  If we are meant to embrace the monster somehow, why so — and how so?  What does this teach us?  I will be curious to see your responses to the ways in which Gothic horror creates fear and promotes horror, while also (sometimes) embracing those creatures that lead to horror and panic in the humans that encounter them.

Perspective(s) and Premodern Monstrosity

We have seen this semester that, in simple terms, monstrosity lies in the eye of the beholder, and one group’s monster is another group’s beloved master (or family member, etc.).  A number of scholars over the years have considered this issue of perspective, including the influential critic Umberto Eco, whose late work ‘On Ugliness’ explores the monstrous things that repel us. Eco examines what the attraction (and repulsion) is to the gruesome and the horrific, and asks:  is ugliness also found in the eye of the beholder?  With such ideas in mind, for the first part of your Blogpost I’d like you to address in broad terms the ways in which monstrosity is, in essence, “in the eye of the beholder” as it pertains to one of our recent creatures.  I would prefer that you address one of Shakespeare’s characters in ‘The Tempest’ for this part, but if you want to consider the impact/influence of perspective on an ancient or medieval monster studied before spring break that would also be OK.

The second part of your Blog is related, but will be a bit more narrow and specific in its focus.  In his novel ‘The Counterlife’, renowned American author Philip Roth (speaking through the perspective of the writer who is the central character in the book) writes that “The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker – we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.”  What Roth is subtly getting at in this passage is the fact that we all construct our own reality, and we all perceive the world as we will, serving as the “author” of the truths around us.  For class this Thursday, you will be reading excerpts from John Gardner’s masterful novel ‘Grendel,’ which tells the well-known ‘Beowulf’ story from the perspective of the monster. Next week, you will be writing a longer account where you explore and consider the point-of-view of a specific monster, so as a kind of practice for this kind of thinking – and also to fuel some preliminary thoughts about monstrosity and perspective that we can consider in class Thursday – I’d like you to consider how the view of a particular monster changes if he/she is seen from a different perspective – from the point-of-view of another character or person from his/her world, or through the vision of him/her themselves.  Lately, we have considered this in the form of the ancient Greek Idylls that offer us the view of Polyphemus the cyclops, and you will obviously be exploring Grendel for class today.  So, I’d like you to pick another monster that we have studied of late, and offer some insights about what they might say if they (or someone else from their world) got to tell their story, about how their understanding of certain actions and “realities” would differ from those around them.  Feel free to be creative here, if you wish.

Ancient/Medieval Monstrosity and the “Act of Fear”

In Michael Chemers’ brief account of the “act of fear” (found on pp. 10-13 of the Introduction to ‘The Monster in Theatre History’), he mentions the scientific view that fear is “a neurobiological response to certain stimuli” and then goes on to note that “not only what we fear but also how we conceive and define what we fear” varies from time to time, place to place, and person to person.  For the first section of your blogpost, I’d like you to quote something interesting that Chemers says about “the act of fear” as it pertains to literature, and apply this quotation to one of the monstrous characters and stories from ancient Greece and medieval Europe assigned for class this week. Elaborating on your thoughts, you might consider:  How does Chemers’ idea about fear connect up to the story in question?  And in this story, which character is afraid, what are they afraid of, and how does it impact their behavior? Furthermore, what does this representation of fear suggest about the writer or society that spawned this particular story?

In recent class discussions we have mentioned several times that Unit Two will simultaneously move us forward into the realm of imaginary monsters, but also backward in that we will make frequent connections between our make-believe creatures and the various historical ideas and “real life” monsters we examined in Unit One.  So, for some early practice using this kind of thinking, in the second section of your blogpost I want you to connect an imaginary monster assigned for this week with a specific “real life” figure or idea from our studies of these periods during Unit One.  In other words, what are some of the links you can identify between the creative and historical monsters of the ancient and medieval worlds, and what larger ideas or issues can we discover through these connections?

On Witches and Witch Hunts

On Thursday (2/8), you are going to be reading about the witch hunts that exploded in Europe and America during the Early Modern period. These were officially-sanctioned searches, inquisitions, and trials of individuals (mostly women) who were quite literally accused of being witches. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a witch hunt is “a searching out for persecution of those accused of witchcraft.” Key to this definition is the implication that those who were accused were, in turn, persecuted – typically because the accused were generally assumed to be guilty in such cases. Since the time of these historical witch hunts, the phrase has taken on a slightly different connotation in colloquial English usage. The dictionary also defines witch hunt as “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.” For this blogpost, we are going to try something a little different, by having you work with our assigned sources about real-life witch hunts and then seeking to connect them to some modern-day “witch hunt” (in the non-literal sense of the term implied by Webster’s second definition).

In your post, then, I’d like you to draw out an interesting idea, a statement, or a quotation from your assigned sources on witch trials for Thursday. Explain why you think that notion is important to the understanding of the persecution of witches, who are some of the most famous human “monsters” of all time. Then, I’d like you to use/apply your chosen idea to some twenty-first century “witch hunt” that you know about, whether it involves a controversial politician, a fallen celebrity, or something from your own experience. The idea here is to carefully consider some of the ideologies and “group thinking” that defines witch hunts, and to connect the real-life inquisitions of the Early Modern period to certain closed-minded events and activities from our own day.

Connecting the Monsters of the Middle Ages

Our work this week is all about exploring the wonderful monsters of the Middle Ages. We started with a thoughtful overview of medieval monstrosity and its understanding, and then took a close look at the monsters found on a variety of premodern maps. For Thursday (2/1), we will take a look at a variety of monsters from a variety of contexts – travel writing, literary manuscripts, bestiaries, and different kinds of statuaries (gargoyles and Sheela-Na-gigs). Thus, I thought it would be useful and interesting to do some comparing/contrasting of some of these monsters, and see what comes out of it.  For, it is a truism of comparative analysis that by comparing different things, it enables the viewer to see these things in a different and more nuanced light. It is in that spirit that I want you to complete your comparisons for this blog post.

In general, I want you to complete two separate comparisons for this assignment.  For the first, you should compare the monsters of medieval maps to some form of monstrosity assigned for class on Thursday. Try and be as specific as you can here, perhaps even identifying a specific monster from a specific map (as opposed to some other, specific creature assigned for class) so that you can really hone in on the details and their implications. For your second comparison, I’d like you to compare a monster from Gerald of Wales’ ‘History and Topography of Ireland’ with a monstrous beast (from the medieval bestiary), gargoyle, or Sheela-Na-Gig. Again, try and be as specific as you can in your comparisons. Whatever monstrous entities you choose to compare, your analysis should amount to at least two in-depth paragraphs in which you explain your comparison, offer some observations about the monstrous entities you have selected, and then attempt to draw some conclusions about them.

On “The Plinian Races” and the Monsters of the Natural History

For your first Blogpost of the semester, I’d like to do a few simple things to get you thinking about the assigned reading for 1/25, and also to do some additional work with the important “monster theory” of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.  So, for this first test-run on the course blog, I’d like you to do two specific things (which should amount to at least two robust paragraphs overall):

1)  In his chapter on “The Plinian Races,” John Block Friedman makes some interesting comments about the (supposed) monsters of the ancient world, particularly from the perspective of the Greeks.  He includes a variety of examples of human groups (from India and Ethiopia) who are understood (or, rather, misunderstood) by ancient authors as having mysterious, monstrous qualities.  He also offers some analysis of these beings, and draws some interesting conclusions about them.  For part one of your Blogpost, then, I’d simply like you to offer a specific quotation from Friedman’s discussion that you feel is especially interesting or important.  Then, discuss it by explaining what, specifically, is so intriguing about your chosen quote?  Why does it seem so noteworthy as a window into the culture (and monsters) of ancient Greece and Rome (or India and Ethiopia)?

2)  For part two of your response, I’d like to do a bit more work with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s influential essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”.  Here, I’d like you to apply ONE of Cohen’s theses to ONE monster outlined by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History.  If you apply and use Cohen’s ideas as a way to explore or understand Pliny’s varied discussion of monsters found both on land and in the oceans, what connections or ideas arise by using Cohen’s model?  The point here is to further enhance your understanding of Cohen’s complex essay by working closely with it and using it to help you understand another complex piece of monstrous writing.

I’ll be curious to see what you all have to say for this first Blogpost of the semester!!