onster narratives help us share an experience of horror and address our real anxieties, from wars and economic disasters, to insane political situations, climatic ruin and other issues in the news, according to David Schmid, associate professor in the Department of English and author of several books on the “monsters” living among us, both real and imagined.
“Monster tales tell us the ‘truth’ about things—evil is afoot, you can’t trust what you see, the future is grim, you’re going to die. In a narrative, that permits resolution or catharsis.”
Schmid says the concept of “monster” has been used in many historical, geographical and ideological contexts to dismiss and demonize that which is considered marginal, deviant and abject.”
While the names and characteristics of specific monsters will vary, their deviance is a given.
Schmid says monsters are not simply our opposites or exist outside our homes and communities. In some cases, “real” monsters arise and abide among us.
Americans’ fascination with Hannibal Lecter as a literary and cinematic anti-hero led Schmid, who is British, to study serial killers—a type of cultural monstrosity—and their place in our cultural imagination.
He authored the critically acclaimed “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture.” Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are among the serial killers who became iconic figures in America and are considered in the book. Schmid also has written articles on noir novels, Dracula and murderabilia. A book on murder culture is in progress.
“In my ongoing study of the monstrous, I never want to lose sight of the fact that the most distinctive monsters in any culture are the ones that we don’t immediately recognize.”
“My aim at this point, however,” he says, “is to use the limitations of symptomatic monsters to truly rethink the monstrous itself.”
Schmid quotes film historian Kyle Bishop, who wrote that horror films serve as barometers of such anxieties, and that zombie movies in particular, which have proliferated since 9/11, “represent the inescapable realities of unnatural death while presenting a grim view of the modern apocalypse through scenes of deserted streets, piles of corpses and gangs of vigilantes.”
Schmid says: “In my ongoing study of the monstrous, I never want to lose sight of the fact that the most distinctive monsters in any culture are the ones that we don’t immediately recognize, those whose apparent normality makes them no less destructive and murderous than their fictive counterparts: the serial killer, the terrorist, the child murderer, the abusers of Abu Ghraib, the banks that are destroying lives while reaping record profits and the corporations that are poisoning the planet to benefit their bottom line.”
ven before coming to UB as a doctoral student in American studies, John Edgar Browning had co-written a number of books and authored many journal articles about vampires in general and Dracula figures in particular.
Monsters, he says, are “cultural constructions of the terrible that define what it is we subconsciously fear and what it is we’re told to hate or love.” Definitions of the monster, he adds, change over time and with each generation.
Browning’s research, including extensive field work in New Orleans, has uncovered a subculture of “real” vampires, people who drink blood or absorb what they call “psychic energy.” There also are “real” donors who voluntarily, and perhaps compulsively, supply the blood or energy consumed.
Contemporary vampires may be sympathetic, or even figures of humor or mockery. Take Sesame Street’s “The Count,” who represents a variation on the cultural belief that one way to disarm vampires is to make them count something because they can’t stop counting.
“The vampire of today’s popular culture may or may not inspire terror,” Browning says. “He or she may provoke empathy or pathos, forcing us to recognize its monstrosity as our own, to embrace what once we were taught to loathe.”
Next summer, Browning will lecture on the Holland American Lines’ vampire-themed cruise to Alaska, which will feature a vampire movie festival and an appearance by Dacre Stoker, great-grand nephew of “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. Dacre wrote the official Stoker family-sanctioned sequel to “Dracula” in 2009.
John Edgar Browning is a UB doctoral student in American studies, part of the Division of Transnational Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. He spent nearly two years conducting an ethnographic study of self-identified “vampires” living in New Orleans, a project that has become the focal point of his doctoral dissertation.
Castillo is a specialist in the Spanish Baroque, an era that produced unusually grotesque, terrifying and fantastic literature.
In his latest book, “Baroque Horrors: Roots of the Fantastic in the Age of Curiosities," Castillo curated a gallery of horrors from early modern literature. Shocking and spectacular, it has been praised by scholars across the nation.
His work considers the historical literary roots of supernatural visitation, terrifying visions, haunted houses and man-made horrors not unlike the worst of what we read about online or in the tabloid press today.
Take Maria de Zayas’ “Desengaños amorosos” (“Disenchantments of Love,” first published in 1647), in which a woman who has lost her honor is sealed up in a wall by her own family in their house. They keep her alive for six years until “her very flesh was eaten up to the thighs with wounds and worms, which filled the stinking place.”
Why do we love this material? Why do we keep visiting or imagining the other side of our tranquil world?
“Doors that do not stay shut are among the most common props in the theatrics of mass-consumed horror,” Castillo notes. “The door ajar proves irresistibly dangerous; it frightens us while simultaneously awakening our curiosity about the lurking monsters that might inhabit the other side and their ‘excessive enjoyment.’”
These tales of mutilation, mutation, monstrosity, murder and mayhem, Castillo adds, “offer a way for us to understand our own modern fears and their monstrous offspring, and new ways to think about broad questions of political history and relate them to the modern age.”
he witch is a familiar cultural monstrosity. We dress up like the critters on Halloween, cast films and television shows about witches with cunning and attractive women, and refer to the official stalking of the innocent as a “witch hunt.” We sometimes despise and sometimes have sympathy for the witch.
Phillips Stevens Jr., associate professor of anthropology and a noted scholar in his field, has published dozens of scholarly articles on witchcraft, as well as on divination, distance healing, zombies, rites of passage, magical thinking, religious thought and the dark side of humanity.
He has a special interest in the evil witch—not to be confused with modern pagans, like wiccans, who call themselves witches and are emphatically not evil. Although associated with pre-Christian Western culture, he says, the belief in witches continues to exist in societies throughout the world.
Stevens calls witches “a distillation or an articulation of many forms of cultural monstrosity, including, but not limited to, vampirism, incest, child sexual molestation, bloody murder and cannibalism—repugnant behaviors that viscerally disgust people.”
He says more than a century of research leads anthropologists to believe that, over eons of evolutionary development, a common response to certain basic fears was useful to the development of cohesive, cooperative societies.
“Shared fear is functional to the social order and in many cultures it has become institutionalized,” he says. “In the great majority of cultures throughout history and throughout the world, the most terrible of human fears became embodied in one terrible being: the witch.”
The evil witch, he adds, is the prototypical, nefarious ‘other,’ “the focus of the original conspiracy theory. It causes whatever havoc it can in human society, from individual misfortune to mass epidemic, to stealing children from their beds and flying with them to meetings of witches, called the ‘sabbath’ in medieval European folklore.”
“In the great majority of cultures throughout history and throughout the world, the most terrible of human fears became embodied in one terrible being: the Witch.”
Cross-culturally, Stevens says, witches constitute the sum total of negative social values, often killing their victims, dismembering them, eating their flesh and drinking their blood.
On the other hand, he notes that witches, like all cultural monstrosities, also serve positive social functions.
“In pre-scientific cultures, they explain misfortune and evil and disease and infant mortality,” he says. “They unite people in opposition to the imagined ‘other’ and, because in many societies witchcraft is believed to exist in people without their knowledge, such beliefs persuade people to mind their social manners, lest suspicion fall upon them.”
Expert in serial killers in mass media and pop culture.
Expert in the literature, myth and culture of vampires and Dracula.
Expert in the Spanish Baroque, and the theory and politics of horror.
Expert in West African spiritualism, Satanism, witchcraft and magic.