22 February 2010


Stephen T Asma. On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford University Press, 2009. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

Monsters, prodigies, ill omens, images of raw wildness and chaotic disorder haunt the human imagination and have done, presumably from earliest period of our humanity. Whether manifesting as huge, lumbering beasts, or physically or morally deformed human beings, they have inspire terror and awe through the ages.
Philosopher Stephen Asma here traces reactions to these monsters in the western tradition from classical and biblical times to the modern period.  The monsters change over time, and have gradually become secularised from signs of God's wrath to either genetic flaws (which are now seen as providing important evidence for evolutionary development theory) or zoological or cryptozoological creatures. Once fearsome beasts such as wolves and gorillas are now re-presented as warm lovable creatures.

Whatever form they take monsters remain however as images of the "other", in which this "other" becomes "the worst thing there is".

Through much of this history there two or three basic types of monster: those which are monstrous in their predation, symbols of the raw forces of wild nature, the leviathans, behemoths and their modern equivalents; and the monsters of disorder, the chaotically deformed foetuses in medical museums (some of which are illustrated here).

These two images of the monster are perhaps best seen as aspects of the wilderness, the zone of primal chaos, as opposed to the ordered habitat of human society, the realm of right and order, whether everything is in its correct place and proportion.

Among those who violate this realm of proper place and proportion are liminal beings such as hermaphrodites (neither male nor female), or the imaginary or semi-imaginary creatures which straddle the human/animal divided such as 'wildmen'; centaurs, and werewolves, which straggle various animal classifications; or those which straggle the line between life and death such as ghosts, vampires and zombies, or between the organic and inorganic such as cyborgs and androids.

Even if these traditional monsters are now either relegated to the realms of horror fiction or popular paranormalism, looked at now as rare and endangered species, or are medicalised, and treated (correctly) as just people of a slightly different shape, our society still has its monsters.

These are the demonized others, who are seen as both monsters of disorder and monsters of predation. the serial killers, the terrorists, the foreigners, the 'terrible others' who are seen as the source of all heartache, pain and suffering in the world. In this way we can distance ourselves from the extremes of human behaviour and relegate these extremes to the realm of the totally anti-human. In doing so we open up the overwhelming temptation to act monstrously towards this unacknowledged other.

Though this a broad brushed book there are areas which are not covered, for example there is little coverage of such modern folk monsters as bigfoot, abducting aliens and other even stranger creatures, or the monsters of the imagination conjured up in sleep paralysis episodes. He might have also comented on the stigmatisation as monsters of groups such as the obese or the poor (the underclass), the role of the voluntary monster from the side-show geek to modern cultures such as the Goths. and those who most of us would not even remotely recognise or regard as monsters, who see themselves such, in various forms of body dismorphia.

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