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February 12, 2010 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Is there a good article or essay that discusses what fears all the canonical monsters of Western myth & literature represent or symbolize?

For a couple of very brief examples: Frankenstein's monster represents out-of-control scientific experimentation, zombies (en masse) represent nigh-unstoppable forces of nature, werewolves are The Beast Within/lack of self-control, ghosts represent the uncertainty of the afterlife...

I imagine some of these are up for debate or I may misremember what I've seen before; I'm not so much interested in the physical specifics as the primal worries they engage.
posted by kittyprecious to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's been a long time since I read the book but "The Uses of Enchantment" by Bruno Bettleheim has a lot to say about the evil characters in fairy tales.
posted by Sculthorpe at 2:31 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do think that these are pretty oversimplified examples, but I think I understand what you're looking for.

Here's one example, from an interview (self-link) I did with Vampire Tarot creator Robert M. Place:
"The vampire is basically a moon god that’s a representation of the unconscious, which called an Anima if female and Animus if it was male. It takes the form of a person of the opposite sex, who is alluring, who draws you in. But the face of the unconscious is frightening to people, so the first step is that the Anima or Animus will come to you as a femme fatale or threatening figure. But you’re still attracted to them anyway -- that’s the whole essence of the vampire story."
posted by hermitosis at 2:33 PM on February 12, 2010

You seem to be assuming there is a general consensus on what particular monsters represent, and that each canonical monster can be reliably traced back to a single primal fear. I'd argue this is not the case - there is a huge deal of debate over the issue (you say "some of these are up for debate", but it's more like the meanings of all monsters are constantly being debated), and old monsters are constantly being employed in new and different ways. For example, I've heard zombies described as being related to Kristeva's theory of the abject, but equally they are often used as part of socio-historical metaphors about consumerism.

If I were you I would choose a more narrowly defined theoretical angle (psycho-sexual, historical context or whatever) from which to research from, rather than assuming there is a single fear that a particular monster represents.
posted by fearthehat at 2:33 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

George Romero uses zombies as a critique of American consumer culture.
posted by kaseijin at 2:47 PM on February 12, 2010

Also, the nature of monsters changes over time as societies change. I'd say that vampires represent beauty, glamour and youth, now, because of the marketing that the mythology has been subject to (among other things), while their earlier incarnations might have spoken more to male anxieties about female sexuality or anxieties regarding the permanence of death per se.
posted by clockzero at 2:47 PM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: Take a look at Skin Shows by Judith 'Jack' Halberstam (crazy name, crazy gal...) Some essential (ha!) stuff therein. Freud's essay 'The Uncanny' is useful too.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:51 PM on February 12, 2010

Yeah, there's a lot of debate about these, and it changes. Zombies, for example, are nowadays often used as a metaphor for humanity's unthinkingly materialistic lives. Zombies from older times, in films often set in places like Haiti, represented something else. Similarly, I'd argue that vampires have often traditionally represented fears of our unconscious sexual desires. This seems a clearer and more direct simple explanation than Place's (quoted above) if only because much of the vampire "stuff" one sees these days isn't that deeply considered . . . it's more often aping what's come before. Frankenstein's monster can represent "out-of-control scientific experimentation," but on a more basic level, it simply represents the folly of man's consideration of himself as an equal with God. (It's not for nothing that Mary Shelley referred to the monster as "Adam.")
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:54 PM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: A Dragon in the Time Machine: The Gross Anatomy of Horror
posted by Zed at 4:02 PM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: Agreeing with everyone above that there's no single canonical account of what fears each monster represents. As another data point, though, have a look at this, which gives a class-based explanation of fears of vampires and zombies.
posted by inire at 4:02 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah, yes, in my haste I guess I oversimplified; didn't mean to imply that there's a settled consensus for each one, just giving possible interpretations. Thanks for the answers so far! This is merely a curiosity, not a research project.
posted by kittyprecious at 4:35 PM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: Stephen King's Danse Macabre discusses this.
posted by rjs at 9:40 PM on February 12, 2010

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