The Metonymy of Monstrosity

So often, monsters are figured as metaphors. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers a fascinating example of this when he writes, in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (4), suggesting that our monsters are a reflection of culture, abstracted and hideous analogs for real human problems. Cohen writes further that “Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest 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…” (20). Monsters are offspring sent off into the world, detached and disfigured copies that return home to roost. It is exactly this incessant “returning home” that suggests to me that monsters are not in fact metaphors; they are metonyms, chunks (not copies) of us, torn away, but only partially, leaving tough meaty strands that connect us to them. In this respect, horror is not an escapist genre, for there is nothing to (or that we can) escape from; horror does, instead, allow us to explore and revel in these sinews. Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet makes a similar argument when he writes, “for us as human beings, there is no simple ‘going over’ to the side of the non-human,” a relationship he describes as “something like metonymy” (31).

I’ve previous explored the nature of our engagement with horror in a 2011 article published in Bright Lights Film Journal, “Something That Festers: The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the Visual Pleasures of Horror”:

“In ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,’ Linda Williams discusses at length the physicality of our engagement with what she calls the “gross” genres (melodrama, pornography, and horror). She describes ‘the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion’ (703). For Williams, one of the exemplary features of a horror film is its ability to force the spectator to imitate the feelings or physical reactions of the characters onscreen. Hence, in a horror film, when the characters in the film scream, we scream. She relates this also to the genres of melodrama and porn. In melodrama, we cry when they cry. In porn, we get sexually aroused when they get sexually aroused. ‘The success of these genres,” Williams writes, “is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen . . . What seems to bracket these particular genres from others is an apparent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of over-involvement in sensation and emotion’ (704-705). Williams suggests, like Burke, that there is a certain distance at which the emulation of sensation occurs. There is an ideal vantage point for horror, not a lack of distance altogether but a lack of ‘proper esthetic’ distance. To be properly scared, at least in the way that produces concomitant pleasure, we must feel safe but not too safe — we must have room to reflect on what we see, but must not be allowed too much room.”

Noel Carroll touches on many of these issues in his essay “Why Horror?”; however, his hypotheses are almost diametrically opposed to Williams’s. Monsters are metaphors for Carroll and metonyms for Williams. Whereas she explores the ways horror engages us viscerally, Carroll is more interested in the ways horror engages us intellectually: “The disclosure of the existence of the horrific being and of its properties is the central source of pleasure in the genre . . . It is not that we crave disgust, but that disgust is a predictable concomitant of disclosing the unknown” (36-37). Carroll calls this the “curiosity/fascination resolution” (42). He describes a very academic sort of pleasure, which I have trouble reconciling with my experiences of the horror genre. His theory doesn’t explain well enough, for me, why we will often return to the same film (or the same monster) over and over again. Many fans of horror, myself included, will often watch (and be repeatedly scared by) the same films. I still occasionally scream aloud when I watch Halloween or Alien even though I’ve probably seen both films a dozen times. And the horror genre is rife with sequels, remakes, and imitations. A good monster continues to elude us even after we’ve seen him. In the best films of the genre, Halloween, The Shining, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the unknown is never fully disclosed. The monster does, instead, stand just next to us, incessantly brushing our shoulders, but fading into shadows as we turn our heads to see.

For Barbara Creed, in “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” horror appeals to us not because it attempts to disclose the unknown but because it attempts to “eject” the unknown: “The horror film brings about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order, finally, to eject the abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman” (46). These claims make a certain sense given that she spends a good deal of time analyzing Ridley Scott’s Alien in her work, where the alien is literally ejectedfrom the spaceship at the end of the film. And, indeed, I do experience a good deal of catharsis when watching horror films. I’m not so certain, though, that her claims can be generalized so easily to the entirety of the horror genre, or even to the Alien series as a whole. Creed does a fantastic job of bringing the horror film into conversation with Kristeva’s theories of the abject; however, she often sees the horror film as a conservative genre. Many of the best horror films, though, are exactly about disrupting the boundary between the human and the nonhuman, between the monstrous and the mundane, and they don’t always let the viewer off the hook by “redraw[ing]” the boundaries they’ve disrupted. Films like Alien, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, Night of the Living Dead, or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers don’t resolve themselves neatly by the end. Instead, they leave things messy, often making the way for sequels or remakes that further deconstruct the human/non-human binary.

Harry M. Benshoff, in “The Monster and the Homosexual,” offers a take on the question of why horror that seems at first glance to be quite different from Creed’s: “For spectators of all types, the experience of watching a horror film or monster movie might be understood as similar to that of the Carnival as it has been theorized by Bakhtin, wherein the conventions of normality are ritualistically overturned within a prescribed period of time in order to celebrate the lure of the deviant” (98). The horror film is, thus, about celebrating the deviant rather than expelling him. Still, by drawing a comparison to Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, Benshoff reveals that his position isn’t actually all that different from Creed’s. The deviant, for Benshoff, is only celebrated “within a prescribed period.” Once the film is over and the carnival is done, the status quo returns with a vengeance. For me, both the abject and grotesque are inescapable, exactly because they are inextricable from the human. They can’t be put neatly away when we’re done with them. Once they burst forth, they cling to us and spread, leaving the status quo scrambled in their wake.

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel is faculty at University of Denver and founder of Hybrid Pedagogy. He teaches pedagogy, digital studies, and composition. He spends most of his time with his badass daughter, Hazel.

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