Vampires, Werewolves and Ogres

Current pop culture monster craze is nothing new, says GW professor Jeffrey Cohen.

July 20, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

There are probably more connections between former U.S. presidents and monsters than most Americans would be comfortable with. Earlier this year, Seth Grahame-Smith published the novel, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. The movie Night at the Museum 2 features a giant Lincoln ready to rampage. And in “Tree House of Horror III,” the fifth episode of season four of The Simpsons, Homer shoots a vampire George Washington.

Unfortunately for members of the GW community, the university also has strong ties with the monster community. Luckily, the unholy bond is of the academic, rather than the practical, sort.

Jeffrey Cohen, professor of English and director of GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, is an expert on monsters and author of the book Monster Theory: Reading Culture.

Contemporary American society has created “a kind of total fear that saturates day-to-day living,” Dr. Cohen says in the preface of Monster Theory. “This anxiety manifests itself symptomatically as a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desire to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.”

Monsters come in two seemingly different forms, according to Dr. Cohen: “the demonic disemboweler of slasher films” and “a wide-eyed, sickeningly cute plush toy for children,” basically, “velociraptor and Barney.”

In the opening chapter, which has been widely quoted, anthologized and translated (most recently into Portuguese), “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Dr. Cohen outlines a seven-pronged approach to using monsters to understand the cultures that dream them.

Credited with helping create the field of monster studies, “Seven Theses” has also been required reading in freshman writing courses, most recently at Columbia University. Scholars have cited the essay in studies of ancient and medieval culture, contemporary film and science studies; the poet Lytton Smith transformed Dr. Cohen’s essay into a series of short poems titled “Monster Theory”; and the 15th anniversary of the book’s publication was celebrated at a conference.

According to Dr. Cohen, cultures project their anxieties onto monsters, which always manage to escape and reinvent themselves for future generations, thus making them hard to pin down and categorize. As the embodiment of “the other,” the monster “polices the borders of the possible” and warns people that curiosity is more often punished than rewarded. In fact, however much monsters threaten, they reflect cultures’ desires and represent “escapist fantasies.”

Most importantly, monsters are society’s children. “They can be pushed to the furthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return,” Dr. Cohen writes, and when they return they are self aware.

“They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression,” he says. “They ask us why we have created them.”

In addition to writing Monster Theory, Dr. Cohen is also author of Of Giants: Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages and Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: Of Difficult Middles. He writes for the medieval studies group blog, In the Middle, and in 2003, he was hired by Disney as an expert witness to testify in Miller v. Pixar/Disney on the history of monstrosity, particularly one-eyed monsters and the question of copyright infringement in the film Monsters, Inc. His work has also been featured in a History Channel/PBS documentary on the cross-cultural allure of dragons.

Dr. Cohen is not surprised to find so much monstrous momentum in popular culture, from The Vampire Diaries to True Blood, and Twilight to The Gates.

“Vampires are eternal monsters, which appear in every culture at every time. Even cultures that never communicated have all managed to envision something similar,” says Dr. Cohen. “I wonder if that is not us humans wondering about death’s finality – hoping it is not final.”

There are certainly differences between the current pop culture vampire craze and the monsters of medieval times. When he went to a Barnes & Noble with his 12-year-old son Alex, Dr. Cohen says Alex was horrified to see that the store had replaced his favorite section, science fiction, with vampire books. “It had become its own genre of writing,” Dr. Cohen says.

Alex was correct to categorize the works as chick literature, Dr. Cohen says. “It’s interesting that’s what vampire literature has become. It used to be violent and dangerous. Now it’s about celibacy and good morals.”

In the Twilight series, the vampire is essentially a good person, says Dr. Cohen, who used to teach a course on the history of monsters at GW. Vampires of the past have been charismatic – like Bram Stoker’s Dracula – but they have not been portrayed as such ethical characters.

There has always been a “forbidden sexual undercurrent” in vampire tales, according to Dr. Cohen. Fear and desire always go hand in hand.

“We think we monsterize other people, but we end up monsterizing ourselves,” he says.

But even if the centrality of monsters in popular culture and imagination has remained constant, responses to the depictions can change radically.

“It’s funny. When I was younger, I could watch horror movies and they never bothered me,” says Dr. Cohen. “More recently, they’ve started bothering me. I think I’m starting to feel my own mortality.”

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