October 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma

Every human being has a worst fear, or two, or eighty. As a kid, mine was “kidnappers and rapists,” a faceless, long-fingered crew of predatory men who tooled around in black cars looking for pretty little girls to seduce with offers of candy. In first grade, I was shown a film where a perverted “kidnapper and rapist” put his hand on a girl’s shoulder as she was looking at puppies in a pet store window. I wasn’t sure exactly what “kidnappers and rapists” wanted, but I knew I had it in spades. As a grownup, I’ve stayed scared of rapists (although my mental image of what they looked like changed), but the books and movies that chill me most aren’t about rape. For some reason, Ramsey Campbell’s Nazareth Hill got me, and so did the campy Karen Black movie Burnt Offerings

I was scared because familiar characters were overtaken by some kind of mysterious force, and they turned creepy from within. Yet, the seeds of whatever made them scary -- the seeds of their evil -- were already there inside them. Maybe there was never a mysterious force at all. I’m a very Freudian scaredy-cat these days -- scared of heights, because I don’t trust myself to balance. Scared of whatever I might be repressing. Scared of frightening myself. And of course, like most people, I accidentally-on-purpose try to scare myself all the time -- reading about the Freikorps, watching David Cronenberg movies multiple times, getting close to the railing and looking down.

Stephen T. Asma has had a lifelong fear of “deep murky water… the behemoths and leviathans rising up to gnaw off my extremities.” Even though he used to live in Cambodia and swim in the Mekong, where catfish can grow to be eight or nine feet long and weigh between six and seven hundred pounds, even though there are twelve-hundred-pound freshwater stingrays and fifty-foot snake-like oarfish, he writes that “these real monsters are nothing compared to the nefarious beasts that live in my head.”

A monster, etymologically, is a warning, derived from the word monere, to warn. In Asma’s survey of monsters in Western culture, he shows that the monster “is a product of and a regular inhabitant of the imagination, but the imagination is a driving force behind our entire perception of the world. If we find monsters in our world, it is sometimes because they are really there and sometimes because we have brought them with us.” 

Unlike most writers of Western (natural) history and mythology, Asma is a scholar of the East -- readers of his memoir The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Towards Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha will happily remember his statement: “It is my mission in life to take the California out of Buddhism.” He’s a die-hard Chicagoan, the son of a steel worker, and he was a successful musician before becoming an academic. Unlike most philosophy professors, he illustrates his work (or at least On Monsters) with his own fantastic pencil drawings.  

Asma’s survey traces the transition from ancient monsters (who were often freakish hybrids, deformed by nature) through medieval monsters (usually the minions of some demon or henchmen of an evil god) through the criminals, cyborgs, and pathological societies of modernity. There are threads of continuity that unite what constitutes the monstrous through time and space -- we are xenophobic, fearing alien races. People possessed by dark passions (either via demons and body-snatchers, or their own twisted psychologies) who lose control are scary. People (or other creatures) who have a cold detachment and no empathy are probably even scarier. The idea that we could be overtaken (killed, consumed, possessed) by monsters from within or without seems to have been a part of human consciousness from the very beginning. 

Some sections of Asma’s history are fun and funny -- Pliny the Elder (always one of my favorites) had no problem believing that there were 300-foot-long eels in the Ganges and that King Pyrrhus’s right big toe was immune to fire and could cure someone’s inflamed spleen and that a 700-foot-long tree-climbing octopus could only be caught by hunting dogs, but he became suddenly disdainful and incredulous at the idea of werewolves. (“It’s astonishing how far Greek gullibility will go.”) Other sections are sad -- on lynching, on genocide, on the sickening ways that whole societies will dehumanize each other. Of course, these subjects demand discussions of social construction and moral relativism, and I find some of Asma’s material disquieting in and of itself -- too many generalizations about Al-Qaeda and anti-U.S. ideology, too much of what he calls “neo-Enlightenment liberalism.” The book ends up being richer as an anecdotal historical survey than as a study of psychology or ideology, but that isn’t necessary a bad thing. And, great pictures.

One thing that’s oddly missing from On Monsters is sections that give me a visceral thrill of real, in-the-moment fear -- but then again, different people have different terrors. I’m relatively laid-back about the slimy creatures that might lurk in deep, murky water. Although, it turns out that, while he surely exaggerated the tentacled mollusk’s size and the hunting dog thing, Pliny was right: octopi can climb trees.

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 019533616X
368 Pages