On Monsters: A Review

Although it might not sound like it, Stephen T. Asma‘s latest book, On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, is one of the most theologically compelling texts I have read in quite a while.  It lends a certain credence to my advisor’s frequent assertions that the genres of horror and the supernatural are the last pop-culture strong holds for spirituality and religion.

I had wrongly assumed that Asma’s book would be limited to an analysis of the “mainstream monsters” (vampires, ghosts, werewolves, etc.) and their origins.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  Asma’s book is an extensive look at not only monsters (for which he refuses to offer a singular definition) but our fears and prejudices as well, reaching back to prehistory for evolutionary developments in humanity that account for our current fears.  Asma considers mythic monsters, the monstrous in nature, the history of physical deformities as monstrous (hypertrichosis for example, as seen to the left), the psychologically monstrous, and the socially monstrous.  All this leads him to conclude that the notion of, and effectiveness of the term, monster is still alive and well in our post-modern, post-Enlightenment, technologically advanced world.

Asma, a secular skeptic, is thankfully not disrespectful to, or dismissive of, the role that religion has played in allaying or increasing our fears of the monstrous, offering critique and praise where necessary.  The thrill of this book, from a theological perspective, has less to do with these now-familiar religious discussions than his in-depth discussions of teleology, nature, science, bioethics, bio-mechanics, and the like.  He highlights the crucial role that teleology has played in the changing notions of what defines a monster.  Quite broadly speaking, at one time a monster was anything that defied nature’s purpose, but now that our notions of said purpose have changed, so too must our ideas about monsters.

As he progresses in his text along something of a chronological route, he arrives at more contemporary notions of monsters as serial killers, suicide bombers, and the like.  This draws him into a discussion of the notions of free-will vs. socially-constructed monsters…the age-old (or so it seems) nature vs. nurture debate.  The theological implications are clear.  Asma’s discussion of what it will mean to be human…and by extension a monster…in the years and decades ahead is simply fascinating.  The evolution in medicine, robotics, science, technology and the blending of all of the above demand deep theological reflection that embraces, rather than rejects, advances in technology and science.

Asma flavors his discussion of the history of monsters and our fears of them with constant references to film and popular culture, even when he focuses on long-ago eras.  Thus, he reveals that even contemporary cinema is still wrestling with monsters, even if it is simply to kill them off and revive them for a sequel.  Asma’s analysis of fear, violence, and the role of the monstrous in contemporary cinema (especially torture porn and slasher films) is especially insightful.  He recounts Eli Roth‘s experiences with soldiers who love his Hostel osseries because it allows them to express fear and terror that they cannot show on the field of battle (196-197).  And lest we are too quick to point fingers at Hollywood as the inspiration for the most extreme images of violence, Asma notes the violent nature of…well…nature.  He recounts the brutal, almost sadistic, ways in which parasites and insects feed on their hosts.

Though Asma’s book has helped me understand, a bit more, our attraction to and disgust with monsters, I doubt I’ll be running to add the Saw or Hostel series to my DVD collection.  Although I can’t get enough of The Host and its ilk.  My fearful contradictions abound!