Reading the Monster and its Moment

We kicked off our Halloween content last week with Elaina Frulla’s post about teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This week we are pleased to have a comprehensive text on teaching the idea of monsters from Adam Golub. Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton and the  co-editor with Heather Richardson Hayton of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017).  In the following post, Golub provides an overview of how he teaches his students to approach the monster in his American Monsters course. 

Introduction

I teach monsters.

I tell people this and sometimes they think I’m talking about my students. Not at all, I assure them.

Golub_978-1-4766-6327-2 I teach about monsters. I teach about zombies and werewolves and witches and vampires and Bigfoot and King Kong and all kinds of imaginary creatures. I teach students how to study and learn from monsters, how to analyze and contextualize monsters. I teach students that monsters change over time, that they adapt to our shifting fears and anxieties, that studying monsters can tell us something about what we desire and what we fear and what we can’t bear to imagine. I teach students that studying monsters can, in fact, reveal something about ourselves—about the ways we’ve chosen to organize, categorize, surveil, repress, and, at times, try to escape who we are. Monsters are us, I tell my students. When we study them, we study ourselves.

I teach a course called “American Monsters” in an American Studies department. The course has an interdisciplinary and historical focus. My overarching goal is to help students understand how monsters embody difference and help construct our ideas about what is “normal.” Moving from the colonial era to the present, we analyze monsters from literature, art, film, folklore, music, television, and comics. We strive to locate these monsters in context, to understand how they connect to the historical era in which they appeared and inspired fear. Every monster has its moment, I remind my students. Our goal is to figure out why this monster, at this time, in this place, and to what end?

black-and-white-creepy-ghost-15271

In teaching students how to “read” the monster, I am effectively teaching them a framework for analyzing culture: they must necessarily engage in a close reading of the monster, then contextualize the monster within its broader milieu, and then determine its cultural significance—its cultural work. They must break down the monster into its component parts, situate it in history, and try to figure out what it is doing, to us and for us. I present this framework as a series of questions I encourage students to get into the habit of asking whenever they encounter a new monster, or a familiar monster in a new context.

Deconstructing the Monster

Close reading begins with the monster’s appearance. What does it look like? I tell students to pay attention to size (how big? how small? how proportionate are its body parts?), skin (is it scaly or slimy or translucent or what?), and composition (is it a hybrid, a recombination of things that are typically separate in nature, like a werewolf, or Medusa, or a Sharknado?). In addition, I ask students to consider the monster’s gait, posture, and speed. How does it move? What about its voice, or the sounds it makes? Does it groan, is it eloquent, is it silent, or something else?

Then, we consider the monster’s actions as depicted in the story that is being told. We look at the origin of the monster, its creation or first appearance. We look at the monster’s victims and how it harms them. We look at the hero or heroes who defeat the monster. We also think about the monster’s geography: where it dwells, where it roams. How are these places transformed by the presence of the monster?

Paying attention to the monster’s body, actions, and geography can help us understand how these various elements work together to construct ideas about monstrosity. This, in turn, leads us to analyze the construction of normal. If the monster’s skin is scaly, or hairy, or pale, then what does that tell us about what we consider “normal” skin to be? If a zombie’s lumbering walk is believed to be scary, what does that tell us about our assumptions about mobility? If the film version of Frankenstein groans and talks with simple words, what does that reveal about our ideas about literacy? If King Kong lives on a remote, “uncivilized” island, what does that tell us about how we view nature and savagery? If the monster in a slasher film kills teenagers who are behaving badly, then what does that say about our perception of adolescents?

Night-of-the-Living-Dead

These acts of description and analysis—of breaking down the monster and the monstrous into component parts—become the basis for our next move: reading the monster in context.

Reconstructing the Moment

Context, I remind my students, is the big picture. It is the “real” world around the imaginary monster. It is the set of broader cultural currents that give shape to a particular era and help us make sense of the monster. Context helps us understand why and how the monster’s appearance, behavior, and geography all resonate with its moment. What is it about this monster that might have felt familiar to audiences in a given time period? What about it might have shocked? In Monsters in America, Scott Poole makes the point that monsters are “meaning machines that embody the historical structures and trajectory of the American nation” (21). To this end, my students and I work together to figure out what the monster can show us about history.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)For example, we analyze the 1931 film Frankenstein—about a created being with an “abnormal” brain that ends up being chased by angry villagers—against the backdrop of eugenics, lynching, and debates about religion and science in the progressive era. When analyzing the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), which is set in Haiti and features a zombie master who has a workforce of enslaved undead, we talk about the history of slavery and colonialism. When we read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), a story about the last man on earth contending with neighbors who have become vampires, we look at the Cold War, segregation, and suburbia. When discussing Charlene Harris’s novel Dead Until Dark (2001) and the HBO Show True Blood, which explore themes of “coming out of the coffin” and “vampire rights,” we talk about LGBTQ social movements and debates about marriage equality in the early 21st century. When reading Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), we locate it in the context of globalization, immigration, loss of faith in institutions, and fears about viral infection.

Context helps us understand how the themes of a monster narrative reverberate with larger issues, fears, and anxieties in the culture. Our close reading of the monster helps us build a bridge to related discourses about the “monstrous” and the “normal” when it comes to science, religion, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and the body, for instance. And to push it one step further, I always ask students to think about how these discourses are shaped by power relations: to what extent are monsters speaking truth to power by bringing attention to those who have been marginalized, silenced, and victimized by these discourses? Inserting the monster into its moment challenges us to understand both how the monster was shaped by history and how the monster in turn may have influenced the cultural conversation. Monsters, I tell my students, are products of their time, but they are also productive. Monsters are mirrors and makers of culture.

Making Sense of the Monstrous

This brings us to the third interpretive move we practice when reading monsters: trying to determine their cultural work. The concept of “cultural work” suggests that cultural texts are not neutral, they do not exist in a vacuum. Culture, rather, is a dramatic act. Whether it is a monster or a t-shirt, a novel or a statue, a joke or a song or a game or a gesture, culture makes meaning. The products of culture perform important work on the stage of history. They can reinforce dominant ideas or challenge and undermine them. They can serve as the building blocks of our personal, social, and national identity. They can influence how we see, treat, and expect certain things (or don’t expect things) from others and from ourselves. Collectively, culture can work to construct, regulate, and also subvert “normal.” To be sure, the monster is performing cultural work. It’s doing something besides just scaring or entertaining us, and our job is to try to figure out what that work might be. And we make our best educated guess as to the work of the monster by tethering close reading to context.

When I teach students how to read monsters, I am teaching them how to analyze culture—how to interpret expressive forms, their ideological work, and their resonance with audiences across time. Monsters are figments of our imagination, they are texts authored by our fears and desires. As such, they can be read into a historical context and understood as agents in the construction and maintenance of belief systems. To deconstruct monsters is to deconstruct discourse and representation. Figure out what the monster means, and the work it does to sustain, discipline, and disrupt ideas about what is normal and how we should behave, and you’ve learned something about how culture works, I tell my students. You’ve also, I daresay, learned something about yourselves.

Works Cited

W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunted (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

Contributor Bio

Adam Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, where he teaches courses on literature, popular culture, music, theory and methods, and monsters. He is co-editor, with Heather Richardson Hayton, of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017). His writing has appeared in American Quarterly, Hybrid Pedagogy, The Journal of Transnational American Studies, The Society of Americanists Review, Quarterly Horse, and elsewhere. He also writes fiction and is developing a new course on creative work in American Studies. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, M.A.T. in English from Boston College, and B.A. in English from Vassar College. His academic and creative work can be found at everydayfictions.com and he is on Twitter @adamgolub.

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