A Monstrous Distinction: Monsters vs. Monstrosity
I’ve been thinking a lot about the words we’ve been using throughout the course of the semester to discuss monsters. Looking back through my notes, there are a few words that repeatedly pop up on every page I’ve written: monster, monstrous, and monstrosity.
Now, our course is called Literary Themes: Monsters/Protean Figures, and, as was to be expected, each of the novels we’ve read so far has featured a monster that is physically present (be it a vampire, werewolf, or shape-shifter) and that poses a legitimate, physical threat to proximate people. We’ve spent a lot of time identifying monster archetypes and determining which of these archetypes are applicable to each of the monsters we’ve read about; we’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine what makes a monster.
And while each of us may by this point have our own opinions about what makes a monster so monstrous, I would like to try to make a distinction between monsters and monstrosity.
Something we’ve been thinking about in class is whether or not monsters can exist without humans. Do monsters exist independently of humanity, or are they societal creations of human beings? Can a human being be a monster? And while I would argue that a human being can be a monster and that all other monsters are cultural constructs, I would also argue that monstrosity can exist beyond the human realm.
When I was searching my brain for a monster to write my first blog post about, I realized that the bulk of what I fear are not objects, but events; events precipitated not only from the actions of human monsters, but also events that occur independently of human intention, events that have monstrous effects.
For example, in the summer of 1993 when I was five years old, a tornado destroyed several homes near my family’s. I knew what tornadoes were and that they were an inevitability of living in Wisconsin, but it wasn’t until I climbed safely out of the basement with my parents, sister, and pets after the storm, our own home still intact, and went out into our yard that I realized what tornadoes could do. Among the broken tree branches from our own yard we found siding, shingles, and insulation from somebody else’s house. But what really struck me as a child was something else I found in our yard: a birthday card addressed to Samantha. I didn’t know who Samantha was, but I remember thinking that that card had probably been sitting on her fireplace mantle or displayed on her refrigerator and for it to be laying in my yard now, her house must have been directly in the tornado’s path. For someone’s home to be destroyed so quickly and so completely is a monstrosity.
That was the first time I remember being conscious of disaster, of monstrosity. Events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, my uncle’s losing battle with cancer, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina were monstrous, and they persist to terrify me. As monstrous things continue to happen, my fears continue to be of events, of occurrences past and occurrences possible, rather than any individual monster.
These events, which are bigger than people, bigger and more far-reaching than mere monsters, are monstrosities. While monstrosities are sometimes perpetrated by people, by monsters, the effects they have on humanity (panic, fear, anger, grief) are what create the greatest terror.