THE RETURN OF THE MONSTROUS
PART 1: THE EVOLUTION OF THE MONSTER
We’re obsessed with monsters. As individuals, and as cultures, monsters have always constituted a phenomenon that has run indiscriminately through the psyches of the world, satiating a human craving for dread and fear. Mutants, demi-gods and beasts pervade religion, creed, and every shadowy nook of secular society. The principal reason for the popularity of monsters is that the archetypal monster story is constructed around the incorporation of the monstrous Other into an otherwise homogenous society, an Other that is easily typified and recognised when given some unworldly physiology by the storyteller. The fascination and horror invoked by monsters is primarily due to the problems of human identity that they arouse in us, acting as catalysts that accelerate our primordial fears and anxieties to new levels. This is largely due to the monster’s traditional, uncomfortable distortion of the contours of the human or animal body: most classical monsters, from the Hydra to the vampire, are perversions of what is already “known” in the universe, or the Symbolic Order.
When confronted with human characters in literature, these monsters of excess are traditionally defeated by a protagonist, or a troop of people led by a protagonist, whose trump card is to outwardly display virtuous human qualities such as valour, courage, camaraderie, even love. These emotive attributes are usually sufficient to trounce the typically dumb, brute force of the excessive enemy, and the manner of victory serves two functions; firstly to heighten the dramatic or cathartic effect of the drama, and secondly to ensure that our own identities as human beings remain intact and, more importantly, superior to those of the monster.
While the “excess” of monsters is a reasonable explanation for the primordial reaction – one of repulsion or horror – one experiences when confronted by the classical monster, it nevertheless fails to account for the monster’s constant state of flux; its need to grow, and alter its fundamental shape and form in order to maintain its power to terrify in the modern age. For, while monsters of excess constitute a wildly violent and/or deviant manifestation of the Other, their physical excess creates a large, even comfortable distance between them and us; they are too blatant in their supposition of the role of Other, and thus become simple targets for elimination. In the cinematic age this distance has been emphasised by the safety barrier of the cinema screen, the lion’s cage, keeping the monster at arm’s length and effectively ‘captured’ by the frame of the screen to be inspected, gawped at and laughed at by the audience. The nature of spectacle carries with it an implicit ‘safety-catch’ ensuring that the gaze involved always is restricted to flowing one way after the introduction of cinema. The result is that the monster is situated as subordinate in the chain of power that exists between humans and monsters; as spectacle, the monster is unable to look back at humans. This mood of the freak show writ-large as an intrinsic part of early monster movies is encapsulated in King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933). With a large slice of irony, Cooper and Schoedsack’s masterpiece demonstrates the self-conscious nature of their medium’s gaze in its portrayal of the giant ape captured by adventurers and then shamelessly paraded by the exhibitionist shysters of Broadway, whose aggressive and unreciprocated gaze changed the way the monster was to be perceived. This undoubtedly stems from the profoundly intimate relationship that people develop with books, which unleash the monster from the page to freely roam the infinite depths of the terrified human imagination. Unlike the cinema, you don’t read a book on a date; there’s no neighbour’s arm to cling to when the monster begins its assault from without. The cinema would keep monsters at a comfortable distance, treating them only as spectacular objects. The reason for this human desire to capture, control and explore the Kongs of the world lay in the attitudes of the modern era of the early twentieth century. The modernist era produced a myriad of works, myths and fictions that were essentially convoluted riddles to be fathomed by the academics, thinkers and readers of the time. The Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek provides a good description of modernism in his book Everything You Wanted To Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid To Ask Hitchcock): “Modernism (is) the irruption of a trauma which undermines the complacency of our daily routine and resists being integrated into the symbolic universe of prevailing ideology… the pleasure of the modernist interpretation consists in the effect of recognition, which ‘gentrifies’ the disquieting uncanniness of its object.”
Logic and reason were the cultural vogue, and the objective of the era was to make sense of the mess, the enormous waste propagated by the First World War. Subsequently, monsters were no longer regarded as irrational creatures that that flew brutally in the face of gentrification and the Symbolic Order, nor as agents of some other perverse symbolic network that embodied the latent trauma that lurked within the individual. Monsters became mere objects to be scrutinised, studied and understood by scholars. It even gave rise to a new field of study: teratology (the study of monsters and marvels). However, as Hollywood has proven to us thousands of times over, only the foolhardy dare write off the monster! And, in a culture dominated by logic and rationality that had only recently digested Freud’s Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920), logic dictated that sooner or later we would long to be scared out of our wits again. The necessity of the human condition to return to that which traumatises us brings us to the true definition of the monster – that of the Heideggerian semblance. Heidegger’s semblance is an entity that does not represent itself in itself per se, but takes the form of an indirect reference to itself, therefore escaping a concretised definition of its contours but retaining its essence. The monster thus needs to remain a semblance, allowing it to metamorphose into a new type of horror that is at odds with its previous incarnations but retains the essence of the monstrous. It is a transformation that did not really come to fruition until the American cinema of the mid-to-late 1970s, when the science fiction and horror genres began to amalgamate to reach new heights of terror.
The groundwork for this metamorphosis was laid by exemplary films such as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975), and too many others to list here. These new monsters were subtler than their cumbersome predecessors, and would attack and appal their victims by sprouting from the internality of the subject rather than launching itself toward the subject from outside. The mystique of the postmodern monsters such as the antagonists of the films mentioned above is that the irreducible core of Real-impossibility, which arouses our terror as spectators, is contained within a symbolically viable shell (in Psycho this shell is a man; in Duel it is a filthy juggernaut; in The Exorcist the demon inhabits a child; in Jaws the shell is a Great White Shark). None of these monsters’ shells are ‘out of place’ yet through their uncanny ability to blend into the symbolic order they become more ‘out of place’ through their imminent threat to unwrap the Symbolic Order from within. This paradox reveals what the new monster was intent on becoming. Reams of papers and essays have been written expressing what the monster in each of these films ‘means’, and perhaps none more so than the Great White Shark in Jaws. There are theories abound speculating that the shark represents Third-World revenge upon American capitalism, or repressed sexuality, or a gross phallic symbol gone wild, to name but a few. The trick here is not to be fooled into thinking that any of these definitions or analyses of the shark is correct; as semblances, these monsters are examples of what Lacan referred to as the point-de-capiton, the point during analysis at which the sliding of signifiers by the analysand is stopped, or “punctured” by the analyst. In other words, it is the signifier (for example, the juggernaut in Duel) without the signified (its gentrified place as a juggernaut within the Symbolic Order), leaving instead an absent centre (the Real), which is how the paradox of these monsters is delineated. In Fig 5 we can see the point-de-capiton in what Lacan called the “Elementary Cell” of his Graph Of Desire. The subject in the Imaginary (constitutes itself as the Split Subject ($) by intersecting with the Grand Signifier (language) twice. The first point of intersection (A) is the first encounter with the signifier. If we reconsider the Mirrorphase, we can interpret this as the first encounter with the Other. This is the endpoint of speech, where references to the symbolic become fixated; it is from this point that everything which was said before during transference retroactively receives its true meaning. The second point of intersection (A’) is the point-de-capiton itself, the “punctuation in which the signification is constituted as a finished product”, or the point at which the analyst punctures the analysand through the revelation of the Real. The monsters such as those mentioned from the films above are examples of this second point of intersection, subverting the Symbolic Order by their uncanny aura of legitimacy.
It is this paradox of the signifier without the signified that gave rise to teratology as an apparently legitimate science, as it sought to gentrify that which resists symbolisation due to its constant state of flux, despite its façade being that of a legitimate signifier. The juggernaut is a juggernaut, but it’s not a juggernaut. The expanse of teratology as a legitimate science came as small surprise to the feminist critic Rosi Braidotti, who in Patterns of Dissonance calls the study the “forerunner to modern embryology” and suggests it “offers a paradigmatic example of the ways in which scientific rationality dealt with difference of a bodily kind.” Indeed, Braidotti’s assertion of a biological and chronological link between teratology and embryology is crucially significant when considering the various power imbalances evident within the social fabric. Her hypothesis offers an equivalence of stature and intent between the exhibitionist ringleader exemplified in King Kong’s Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and the practitioners and researchers of biomedicine. This is a highly credible argument in terms of the authoritative projection of a gaze, which cannot be reciprocated, onto a site of bodily difference in an attempt to unravel the archaic mythology surrounding its (pre)-history. In The Birth Of The Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception Michel Foucault pinpoints the clinical gaze of pathology and biomedicine as necessary in the closing of the gap between illness and disease, and the methods of treating it. For Foucault, pathology caused “the abyss beneath illness, which was illness itself, [to emerge] into the light of language.” The imposition of such a gaze serves to extend the boundaries of the Symbolic Order; that is, to expand upon what is ‘known’. Pathology came into being in the late eighteenth century, intending “a move away from a concern with the place of disease in a family of diseases towards a belief about its location in the organism.” Pathology came to indicate that illness and the human body were not necessarily heterogeneous, as had previously been the assumption. As such, it soon became evident that biomedicine would have to treat both disease and organism as malevolently symbiotic, the disease inseparable from its ‘host’, creating blemishes upon not only the body, but the identity of the patient. Foucault labels this realisation of symbiosis “tertiary spatialization,” an extension of the “field of objects to which [medical] observation addressed itself,” allowing the medic to explore not only surfaces, but also depths. Essentially, pathology ensconced that the body contained a ‘truth’, which was delivered to the exterior by visible signs; if a disease was present and active, it would give away its position via affectations upon the body’s relationship with the corporeal (symptoms).
From these fundamental beginnings it has become taken for granted that the ‘truth’ of the body is perceptual in its essence rather than topographically symptomatic (that is, disease must be perceived through the interface of the body, not necessarily by its surface), and thus is separable from its locality but not its host. These ideas are forever being fortified by the development of prostheses with which to assist the gaze of the medics. These advancements have come in the form of such tools as the microscope, the X-Ray, the CAT scan and, more recently, keyhole surgery and fibre optics. The latter of these prosthetic gazes are significant in that the CAT scan presents a visual field in which the tumour can be can be identified as the unbelonging ‘stain’. Keyhole surgery and fibre optics take the prosthetic gaze to its natural conclusion in that it effectively places the ‘eye’ of the gazer inside of the body of the patient while the doctor operates. The ‘key’ is really a giant optic nerve, transmitting information back to the mind of the medic. The perhaps inevitable conclusion of pathology in the arena of popular thought was that disease, stagnant and afflictive within the body, was derided as ‘evil’, while the penetrative gaze of the medic was represented as a heroic saviour that would locate and extract the spiteful anomaly. Health became the fashionable alternative to salvation. It’s not something we’ve grown out of.
So we return to the monsters, and their quest to rediscover their monstrousness. Foucault’s study had inadvertently (or perhaps not, Freud might have said) offered them a route to a new zenith. If we consider cancer to be among the most maligned of diseases in recent years (with the possible exception of the HIV virus and AIDS, and the more recent emergence of mental illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s) then we are confronted with a disease that seems to defy linear logic through its relationship with its benevolent host, a disease which employs trickery to attain its goal of self-annihilation. For cancer is not a virus, not a poison (though it can be triggered by toxins) and not a regressive or wasting disease; it is borne entirely of the body’s own cloth; it causes a tumour to grow, deceiving the body into believing that that growth is perfectly legitimate until, if allowed to run unchecked, it is too late. Under the gaze of the pathologist, cancer has assumed many sub-divided identities and types relating to the locality of the cancer, and can even be physically described in great detail whilst still inside the body thanks to the medic’s prosthetic gaze. However, cancer refuses to be compartmentalised because of its propensity to spread, and its inability to be spotted via outward symptoms until the tumour has become too powerful a force within the body to be countered. While this plain deception undoubtedly prompts great distress to the general cancer patient (causing such questions as “why would my body trick me so?” “Why did my bodily defences not inform me until it was too late?”), it is a particular type of cancer – that type which triggers the growth of the endodermic sinus tumour – that is of particular interest to the monsters. The endodermic sinus tumour, or teratoma (from the Latin ‘monstrous tumour’) lies at the centre of the link between teratology and embryology suggested by Braidotti above. The teratoma is birthed from the female gamete (germ cell) which divides by mitosis without being fertilised, causing its development to be fundamentally flawed due to the lack of the male gamete. The unfertilised egg cell then tries to compensate for the absent male gamete despite its inability to recompense the new tissue with the material provided exclusively by the male gamete. The authors of Genes and the Biology of Cancer state it thus: the energies of these cells are directed exclusively toward their own proliferation, they no longer focus on helping to rebuild a functional organ or tissue.
While the female gamete is the fundamental growth cell from which all physical traits and features are created, gametes of both sexes are required to produce the zygote, which may then divide mitotically to produce the foetus. If the female gamete divides too soon it is unable to differentiate between the strains of deviant new cells that it is producing and the strain of new cells that it should be producing. This type of tumour is very fast in its growth, metastasises quickly and, as this type of tumour is essentially a demi-foetus – a foetus without the essential male gamete – it can potentially grow to the size of a baby. Resultantly, it is frequently misdiagnosed before surgery as an ectopic pregnancy. In Teratologies, Jackie Stacey remarks that her own teratoma had been “big enough to be baby.” Despite these bizarre characteristics, its most alarming feature is due to its development from the fundamental female growth cell, which means that the teratoma can develop recognisable bodily features such as teeth, hair, nails, small bones, flesh and even organs, resulting in a freakishly disturbing appearance that confronts the patient and their notion of their own identity when the growth is extracted. It is this quasi-human identity that lends the teratoma to modern horror fantasies of the abject self/not-self being expelled from the body qua the excremental lamella of the Real (or, as the Real is impossible, the teratoma possesses the same qualities as something that resists the gentrifying mesh of the Symbolic Order; its amalgamated clump of tissue is heterogeneous to the sophisticated network of the ‘body proper’). A crude approximation is to be found in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, when Veronica (Geena Davis) imagines she gives birth to a giant maggot; but the teratoma is a more subtle, abject creature because it occupies the same space in the Symbolic Order as a human, yet simultaneously irrupts it. The proximity of this monstrous, abject matter to a human identity can and does evoke alarming questions in the patient; “could this mess of flesh and body parts develop a consciousness?” “Could it understand its existence?” “Would it have developed into a completely new me had the mitotic division process not been fatally flawed?” These questions are not churlish; it is not unusual for women to become overcome with (what might appear to be) an irrational and overwhelming emotional attachment to these tumours. Such a reaction is demonstrated in Margaret Atwood’s short story Hairball, in which the female protagonist Kat, after having two abortions, develops an endodermis sinus tumour, has it removed and begins to fantasise that she has ‘given birth’ to the tumour, which contains bones, ‘a scattering of nails… [and] five perfectly formed teeth.’ Kat preserves the abject mass in a jar of formaldehyde and places it upon her mantelpiece, much to the disgruntlement of her supposedly outré husband, Ger. It is the sense of duplication and assimilation of the self from within, rather than without (a la Grosz’s excessive classical beasts) that enables the teratoma to assume the mantle of the basis for the modern monster, allowing modern mythmakers to take the questions posed above to their (il)logical conclusions. The teratoma is the abject writ-large, the halfway point between the benign, mundane ‘shit’ that the body expels to maintain an agreeable sense of its own identifiable contours, and the creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) for which Barbara Creed represents the devastating, seditious progeny of the archaic monstrous-feminine who births the physical actualisation of female desire in the creature.
The creature in Alien is the evolutionary descendent of such monsters as Norman Bates in Psycho, the shark in Jaws, the juggernaut in Duel and the rest. It takes the paradoxical nature of these points-de-capiton to the limit, becoming the ultimate creature qua semblance, endlessly shifting to resist a corporeal definition of itself whist maintaining its horrific essential kernel. In terms of the creature’s spatial threat to the crew of the Nostromo, it exists initially as an external threat (the egg/facehugger) that is internalised via the violent oral rape exacted by the facehugger, which impregnates the victim with the alien embryo, and then externalised again through the irruption of the embryo through the chest of the victim (the chestburster). This state of continuous spatial flux between the internal and the external is complemented by the many physiological changes undergone by the creature during its life cycle, which make the creature very difficult to define as any one ‘thing’. In its profile as semblance, the alien creature stands for partiality. Unlike Jaws’ Great White Shark, or Norman Bates, the Alien has no place whatsoever in the Symbolic Order; it is not a fragment of the Real merely wrapped up in a gentrified shell whose infiltration of the Symbolic Order is based upon subtlety and uncanniness. The alien creature’s act of infiltration into the social order of the human protagonists is orgiastically violent, and its various physical forms (and the manner in which it develops from one form to another) are far removed from the limits of the ‘known’ terrestrial. Much has also been made of the maternal-sexual motifs of the movie, such as the vaginal corridors of the Nostromo; the passive vaginal/fallopian tube-like contours of the walkways and their vulva-like entrance upon the planet of the Space Jockey, where the alien eggs are first discovered by the crew; the gross and aggressive phallic shape of the alien’s cranium; the aggressive testicular glands of the facehugger and the name of the Nostromo’s onboard computer: ‘Mother’. In Lacanian/Kristevan terms, this maternal-sexual theme leads to the generation of the Alien creature as a jettisoned piece of shit/afterbirth (an undisguised piece of the Real) that the maternal planet must eject if it is to retain a sense of its own familiarity after the crew’s penetrative act of invading the vagina/fallopian tubes of the ruined planet. In effect, the creature represents an extreme, sexually violent undoing of symbolisation, unravelling the strands of signification that hold together the symbols of categorised human existence. It remains the monster’s evolutionary highpoint, its terrifying zenith, the perfect encapsulation of the monstrous.
About the Author
Dan Jones works for the UK Space Agency on a space robotics development programme, and has worked in the past on technology strategy in the field of aerospace, cyber security and autonomous systems. All of which has come in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.
His debut novel, Man O’War, will be published by Snowbooks in October 2017. He has had other stories published in the anthologies Journeys, and The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel, and has recently published a second edition of Eat Yourself, Clarice!, a non-fiction psychoanalytical study of popular film, literature and low culture. He is currently working on his second novel, The Hole In The Sky, and a collection of novellas on the theme of urban mythologies.
Dan was born in Forest Gate, east London, and now lives in Essex with his wife and two daughters.
This essay has been adapted from “Eat Yourself, Clarice!” by DG Jones, which is available to buy in ebook and paperback form on Amazon.