By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Subani Bagga, Senior editor, The Indian Economist
The dark bleak world of horror holds a strange fascination for many people. Even if the paranormal unknown scares the pants off of you, it nonetheless wields a strange charm, captivating you, seducing you into exploring the mysteries of these dark realms. So, even though your heart slaps you with a resignation notice if you dare proceed, you can’t help but continue all those late-night rendezvous under the blanket, nestling a torch in one hand and a Goosebumps in the other. Inky haunted houses still capture your fascination despite warning bells ringing in your ears. And the caw-caw of a crow in the dark sends chills up your spine.
The element of the horror, embodied concretely in the figure of the monster, has been around for a really long time – with the centaurs and the Cyclops of antiquity to the vampires, werewolves, mummies and zombies that inhabit our world now. The word ‘monster’ itself originates from the Latin monstrum, meaning an evil omen, taken from monere, meaning to warn. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth said, “By monster I mean some horrendous presence or apparition that explodes all of your standards for harmony, order, and ethical conduct.” Monsters thus denote the accidental, the incomplete hybrid, the confusion created through a lack or an excess. They are the gross mutated impure abominations which, through their uncultured dark animalistic impulses, are a departure from the easily-understood ‘rational’ behaviour of the humans that stand on the opposite spectrum.
So, Stoker’s Dracula, a gothic horror story, can be viewed as the manifestation of our greatest fears, representing darkness, the demonic, the anomaly, the unknown, the forbidden. However, increasingly, the monstrous has come to inhabit a wider, more colloquial sphere – with anything that deviates from the norm being a characteristic feature of the monstrous condition. Birth defects, mental disorders,and incomprehensible irrationality then take on monstrous dimensions.
Monsters, representations of anxieties residing in society, can be then also understood as social constructions operating along class, gender, and race. Why is it that intelligent clever monsters are usually portrayed as white (Dracula) while the beastlier, primeval brutes clearly depict anxieties about people of colour (King Kong)? Yet, monsters don’t solely embody cultural anxieties, but also become a symbol of the darkness within, a trope made popular by “We stopped checking for monsters under our beds when we realized they were inside us”. Thus, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, along with movies like Psycho, Vampyr, and Peeping Tom, show that “horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious” (Carl Theodor Dreyer).
Nevertheless, there has been prevalent quite an old trend of humanizing the monster – Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and Interview With the Vampire, being some of them. This humanization helps develop, if not an absolute acceptance of the unknown other, a partial erasure of the supposed inherent evilness of these beings. Yet, it does not end here. We now get introduced to a newer set of monsters whom we actively desire. These romanticized images of sexy monsters, made popular by Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, mark a huge shift from the fearsome figure of Stoker’s Dracula.
Whereas the repulsive appearance of gigantic and deformed monsters was supposed to denote a world of chaos, manifesting through the human-being’s fears embedded in a cultural and individual (self) context, we now have pretty monsters who maintain a vegetarian diet and sparkle in the sun. The very act of bloodsucking inherent to the figure of the vampire gets subverted and replaced by a good-looking vampire who harbours a tortured conscience. It is important to note that most of these monsters are engendered by conditions outside of their control. They can’t help being who they are. However, their moral obligations push them to transcend their “evil” existence, emerging victorious through self-conscious acts of goodness. This fascination with the immortal beautiful conscientious monster then leads to the heroine wanting to abandon her human state to move towards the monstrous, all operating under the framework of consent.
Thus, what makes the monster monstrous is done away with. Instead, we have the brooding hero who perfectly incorporates an intriguing darkness, an active conscience, and the most perfect body ever [over the years, visual representations of Dracula and Eric (The Phantom of the Opera) have become more flattering]. This blurring of the “human” and “monster” binary reflects a fascination with the forbidden, with an evil now repackaged into something which is the epitome of physical and mental perfection. However, are we not forgetting that the monster is actually the expression of an anomaly, an unnatural creation? Even though we have come a long way by humanizing these social outcasts, does not prettifying them then indicate an indulgence in a fetishization, where the very act of humanization is then vastly dependent on beautiful and acceptable bodies, with the hideous Other again being relegated to the pits of ignorance and unacceptability?
Harleen is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.