It’s that one time of year when it’s acceptable to put decomposing gourds on our front porches, strew fake cobwebs across our office doorways, cut eyeholes into our bedsheets and encourage our children to ask strangers for candy, while wearing creepy costumes that are against everything we’ve ever told them at bedtime.
Sure, Halloween is a great excuse to cast aside our rules, judgement, health and values for a night of spooky shenanigans with ghouls, witches, vampires and zombies. But, as these four CofC faculty members will tell you, real monsters don’t need an excuse to come out and play: They’re always with us, and it’s not all fun and games.
Monsters and Pop Culture
“Monsters, nightmares and haunting legends are where we find the historical memories that human societies try to bury,” says Scott Poole, associate chair and professor of the Department of History and author of Monsters in America (2011, revised 2018), Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (2014), the Bram Stoker nominated In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft (2016) and Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror (2018). “The study of history is in some respects the effort to rescue history’s victims from cultural amnesia. We find them among the monsters.”
Poole has taught several courses on horror entertainment in various historical contexts – and, he says, they have a lot to teach us.
“Monsters are the viral codes of political and cultural life. If we fail to understand our monsters, they become vague psychological metaphors, literary tropes or simple entertainment,” he says. “Monsters often subvert our expectation of the normal and create both empathy and a sense of unease with the world our social conditions have made.”
Take, for example, the unease created by social media.
“Don’t we see the monster in the bot, the digital dead that haunts social media and invades our politics, threatening the democratic process itself?” Poole asks.
Monsters in Society and Culture
“Monsters are part of what makes us human – they’ve been a part of culture and society from the beginning. What changes is what is considered monstrous,” says Kathy Béres Rogers, associate professor of English who taught the English course, “Monsters and Monstrosity,” in 2015 and the English/women’s and gender studies interdisciplinary course, “Gender and Monstrosity,” in 2018. “It is a timely topic. One of the things that we discuss is the question of what power structures exist to allow for people to act in monstrous ways.”
And often, it’s the unknown or unfamiliar that drives our ghoulish behavior.
“We talk about the monsters born of ‘otherness’ – for example, transgendered individuals, ‘dis’-abled individuals and people of a different race, ethnicity or culture,” she continues. “Then there’s the idea of the hybrid – they are neither/nor. We like to put things in boxes. If we can’t, they scare us. I think my class is a lot more understanding when they are done – it is about acceptance, whether that’s mental illness or gender roles or disability.”
The class also looks at contemporary events – like the Larry Nassar case or school shootings – and the “monsters” at play.
“It’s easy to identify Larry Nassar or the shooter as the monster in these cases, but there’s a whole lot of complex and long-seeded factors that allows these things to happen – and allows for them to happen again and again,” says Rogers, who is currently working on a book titled, Scorpions in the Mind: The Romantic Construction of Obsession. “I am interested in the ways that we participate in and allow for monstrosity to live and even flourish in society today. Our biggest ‘monsters’ are the power structures that determine what’s accepted and what’s ignored.”
“I think there is a fascinating contradiction within our conceptions of vampires that helps to explain their timeless appeal: They are imagined as bodies frozen in time, free from the ravages of nature to which we are all subject, but in everything else they are incredibly changeable, constantly evolving with the times and taking on new associations that reflect the particular desires and anxieties of each age,” says Irina Erman, assistant professor of German and Russian studies, who also teaches a course on vampires. “In my class, we study this evolution of the vampire myth in order to better understand the social and cultural contexts it reflects.”
Putting themes within place, time and circumstance is key.
“We have to teach students about these historical processes,” she continues, “and to help them analyze the rhetoric they come across, particularly when that rhetoric tries to take advantage of people’s tendencies to fear what they don’t understand by offering the demonization of racial, religious or sexual differences as an easy solution to complex social problems.”
There’s an important life lesson that we can learn from vampires, too.
“Vampires started to narrate, to tell their own stories, in the second half of the 20th century, and their portrayal also became more nuanced, less overtly negative and frightening,” says Erman. “The lesson here is that if we let ‘others’ speak and tell their own stories, we might learn that there is, in fact, nothing to be afraid of.”
Monsters Within: Edgar Allan Poe
“Edgar Allan Poe had a talent for creating intense stories that symbolize parts of human experience that are otherwise hard to express,” says Scott Peeples, professor of English and a leading scholar and Fulbright Specialist on Edgar Allan Poe. “Poe wrote about things that worry all of us: What happens when you die? Or what happens when the person I love dies? What do I do? He explores these questions by using Gothic tools or devices, so the situations aren’t exactly realistic – maybe someone comes back from the dead, maybe a bird comes to my house to remind me that I’ll never get over my grief – but it’s really about the anxiety and sorrow people live with in real life.”
And that’s why Poe’s tales resonate even today.
“Guilt, grief, revenge and fear of death are always with us – so Poe’s stories have that jolt of recognition whether it’s 1840 or 2018,” says Peeples, who wrote The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe (2004) and teaches English courses on both Edgar Allan Poe and Gothicism.
But, he says, it’s not just that Poe plays into the plights of human existence – he also offers a certain kind of advice.
“Reading Poe in the ‘Age of Terror,’ we learn (hopefully) about the danger of exaggerating actual threats, becoming consumed with fear and making bad decisions as a result,” says Peeples. “I know that might sound strange, since Poe’s stories induce fear, but they’re also often about how to deal with it, and how not to. For instance, in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ you’re not going to keep death or danger out by hiding out in a gated community or behind a wall. But that’s exactly what Prince Prospero does – and, if you’ve read the story, you know that, well … let’s just say it doesn’t work.”
Photos by Mike Ledford and Heather Moran. Video by JW Beatovich.