Monsters and the Mind

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Noting the incredible success and longevity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Saler and Ziegler ask:

“What is it about the plot and the characterization of vampires in Dracula that make it the most famous example of vampires in English fiction? Why, in particular, has it been more influential than Le Fanu’s Carmilla which preceded it in time and is of equal or perhaps greater literary distinction?” (p.218)

They begin by answering this question with reference to Nina Auerbach, who apparently argues that “Different social orders and different culturally supported sensibilities and sensitivities […] find expression in different sorts of vampires.” (Saler and Ziegler’s words, pp.218-219)

According to Saler and Ziegler:

In contemporary English the word “monster” is used in a variety of ways. In applying it to folk narratives, however, we can productively limit its range. We commonly use it to refer to legendary or mythical beings in narratives that display, to greater or lesser extents, certain family resemblances. The anthropologist David Gilmore has sampled monsters described in the folk narratives of diverse cultures and represented in paintings and sculpture from the Upper Paleolithic to the present. He finds that monsters typically exhibit a constellation of features: great size and/or remarkable strength; a prominent mouth with fangs or some other means of facilitating predation on humans; an urge to consume human flesh and/or blood; and hybridism, for they often combine human and animal features, or mix living and dead tissue, or manifest amalgams of discordant parts of various organisms (pp. 174–89).” (p.220)

They go on:

More broadly with respect to narrative organization, Gilmore maintains that monster tales exhibit “a recurring structure no matter what the culture or setting” (p. 13). That is, in monster tales there is a characteristic three-stage, repetitive cycle. First, the monster emerges from mysterious nether regions, much to the surprise and consternation of some human community. Second, the monster attacks and kills humans, and early attempts of the victims to defend themselves fail. Third, the community is saved by a culture hero who, by his strength [-p.221] and wit, contrives to defeat the monster. This cycle is likely to repeat itself for, if the monster is driven away, it returns, and, if it is slain, its kin may later appear.

We supplement Gilmore’s analysis by noting that the monster-slaying hero is often cognitively advantaged over those whom he saves. He assumes that the monster’s behavior is rule-governed, and he knows or infers the rules and uses his grasp of them to advantage. He thus exhibits admirable metarepresentational skills, for by forming predictive representations of the monster’s thoughts and intentions, he is better able to dispatch it.

We claim that in Stoker’s novel Dracula the characterization of vampires strongly resembles that of typical folkloric monsters. We maintain, moreover, that the plot of Stoker’s novel replicates the threestage structure of typical folkloric monster-slaying tales.” (pp.220-221)

Stoker’s novel Dracula is a self-contained monster-slaying story that provides closure and catharsis. The intrusion of the supernatural into the natural is successfully resisted, in large measure in consequence of Van Helsing’s revelation that the supernatural is rule-governed (albeit by special rules) and that knowledge of the rules appropriate to vampires gives us power over them. Indeed, by the end of Stoker’s novel loose ends are tied and boundaries are restored. But this is not the case for Le Fanu’s novelette Carmilla. As Jack Sullivan points out, Carmilla “does not have a neat resolution in which evil is banished.” […] In Carmilla, Sullivan writes, “Ambivalence is the controlling principle throughout the story” (p. 64). But that is not true of typical monster-slaying narratives.” (p.222)

Gilmore affirms that, “a deep and abiding fascination with monsters is pan-cultural” (p. 135). Why should that be so? David Quammen, the author of a recent book on predators, suggests that we look to our evolutionary past for an answer: [‘]Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the ecological matrix within which Homo sapiens evolved. . . . The big teeth of predators, their ferocity, and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten. Every once in a while, a monstrous carnivore would emerge from forest or river to kill someone and feed on the body. . . . And it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.[‘]” (citing David Quammen, p.222)

Drawing on Pascal Boyer, they write: “Given […] our long history as prey, it is reasonable to suppose that among our ancestors, as in the case of various other animals that were also threatened with becoming “meat,” selection occurred for neurologically grounded dispositions to apperceive, and to respond to, predatory threats. Frequently encountered responses among prey species include flight, fight, or playing-dead.” (p.223)

We fear monsters—vicarious fear is still fear—and we derive pleasure—vicarious pleasure is still pleasure—from killing them. The psychological stress occasioned by our fear is relieved by the slaying, and the reductive process is experienced as pleasurable.” (p.224)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Benson Saler and Charles A. Ziegler (2005) Dracula and Carmilla: Monsters and the Mind  Philosophy and Literature, 29(1), April 2005, pp. 218-227

Reference is to: David D. Gilmore, Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

David Quammen, Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator of the Jungles of History and the Mind (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 1.

Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New
York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 216.

The authors also note: “For some interesting additional reflections on our (incomplete) transit from prey to predator, see Maurice Bloch, Prey Into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).”

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