The Ghosts of Halloween have Struck! ….and some reflections on monsters

Well folks, it looks like the tricky spirits of Halloween struck today during our second radio episode of This Anthropological Life – and the recording malfunctioned. Thus, our conversation has entered into the etherial realm – heard once and gone forever.

I wanted to offer a bit of reflection on a few things that were said today.

We did a segment on monsters, asking the question what about them fascinates us so much? Why the focus over the past few years on zombies and vampires? How about Frankenstein’s monster or an army of killer robots? Or aliens from outer space? I began by drawing our attention to the anthropological concept of “othering” so famously captured by Edward Said and his discussion of Orientalism. Basically othering is the process by which one group devalues, dehumanizes another group because they don’t conform to the cultural values of the first group. This can also happen on the level of individuals. Another key component of othering is the projection of often negative qualities onto the “othered” group that are seen as bad, unwanted, negative from the group doing the othering. For example from Robin Anderson and Bob Connolley’s excellent film “First Contact” about the first time Paupa New Guinean highlanders (PNG) came into contact with white Australians in the 1930s (Which someone had the foresight to film! – check it out here) reveals an absolutely fascinating story of cultural contact. In short, the highlanders were absolutely stunned at the arrival of the ‘white man’ – the looked different, smelled different, acted and moved different. Some of the highlanders thought these men were ancestral spirits returning from the dead. There’s a great quote from the film in which some contemporary member of the PNG group are interviewed and reveal that once they realized that the Australians defecations smelled the same as theirs that these strange beings were not spirits but humans.

The short point is that each group upon coming into contact approached the other, very different group from only the lens of their cultural understanding. While at first the PNGers were unsure of the ontological status of the Australians, the Australians in turn thought of the PNGers as ‘primitive’. Each group associated the other with negative qualities that they themselves sought to not be – either spirits because they are no longer living or as ‘primitive’ because Australia (to the Australians) represented ‘civilization’. Since each group was different and potentially threatening, they were each seen in some ways through negative characteristics.

A second theme that inspired our conversation on monsters on this All Hallow’s Eve is the human fascination with death. Death affects us all, the finality of death (for this world at least) gives for some an existential sense of urgency – to live now, because…who knows what’s next, if anything? Indeed, there’s no shortage of religious, spiritual, atheistic, scientific (and more) answers to this question. But the big mystery death that we all face helps set the background for our fascination with monsters.

Zombies have enjoyed a popular resurgence in popular culture in the United States thanks in large part to the films of George Romero and more recently the comic book-turned-TV series The Walking Dead. Zombies represent an “other” to the living, breathing human who values their consciousness and freedom to be in the world as they are. The Zombie, which actually has a fascinating history in Afro-Caribbean traditions of voodoo or vodu (or vudu) and West African spiritual thought. (Some great resources on zombies here.). In some ways still tied to their historical roots, zombies can represent the ultimate living hell – the husk of a person with no free will, no consciousness. In Haitian tradition, zombis are poor laborers who have been given a power (though there’s some debate on the efficacy of this) which makes them appear ‘like dead’ and have a desire to serve the master who gave them the powder. In the US tradition, zombies are the undead, returned from the grave with only one thought of devouring whatever living beings remain. No consciousness, no person. Just braaaaaains! Either way, pretty scary. Thinking a bit more anthropologically about this, then, zombies represent one of the possible undesired outcomes of our deaths. We don’t just die – but in fact our bodies which are indeed what makes ‘us’ up are transformed into ‘not-us’, and we in effect cannot pass on to an afterlife or nothingness. And, when a zombie bites you, you become one too. This in some ways speaks to the anxieties we share as humans about death. If we must live, let us live as beings with free will and a sense of personhood, and if we must die, let us die in peace. Zombies interrupt this. So the desire is to live forever…right?

Which brings us to vampires, the other end of the post-death spectrum. Of course, popular instances that come to mind include Dracula and True Blood. What if we had the chance to never die? But what is this came at the cost ever feeling the sun on your face and an insatiable thirst for blood? Still doesn’t sound too bad, huh? How about losing your soul in the process? I suppose that depends if you subscribe to that idea. Well, being a vampire may not sound so bad because unlike zombies, the mass horde of undead, vampires have personalities and free will. According to True Blood, and Dracula actually, they can even be sexy. Nonetheless, immortality comes at the price of, in fact, being human. Vampires occupy an interesting spot in the human psyche because they both offer the security of being on the top of the food chain, but also at the cost of living, feeling, and loving as a human being. Vampires treat humans like food in a macabre inversion of most culture’s aversion to cannibalism. Unlike zombies, I imagine a number of people find vampires both repulsive and attractive. The allure of another kind of undead, at least until someone drives a stake into your heart. Perhaps, vampires represent another side of what we could be after the big mystery of death – out of control because of a blood thirsty rage, damned forever to live in the pale moon light. Vampires represent the other after death, an other we cannot obtain – immortality – without sacrificing our very souls. And the worst part, is often times we don’t even have the choice.

A third monster type that speaks to both a possibility of what we could become after death as well as through birth is represented by Frankenstein’s monster and robots. The abominable creature, human’s creation of the human, represents teh danger and horror of what might become of our own creation. When we try to play god, whether through reanimating a body composed of corpse pieces, as Frankenstein does, or by cybernetically engineering a Terminator or other robot. These creatures have the capacity to turn on us. To turn our act of creation, our triumph, into destruction, havoc, and death. They represent the other in ourselves. our capacity to create, but our inability, our faultiness at creating something truly good. The danger inherent in our limited knowledge but unlimited ambition.

Finally, aliens – perhaps the ultimate living other. Aliens are the ultimate outsider, they are neither us nor of our creation. The point towards our anxiety of the unknown, and of the power of the unknown to overwhelm us. Aside from a few episodes of Star Trek, aliens in film and books tend to be on the dangerous side. Of course they can be good, as our friend ALF showed us in the 80s and early 90s. But generally threatening. I am thinking of alien from Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece “Alien”. This terrifying being, the ultimate hunter, stalks a crew about a starship on their way home from a mining operation. The alien costume itself is modeled after the shape of a human fetus, a discomforting aberration to our notion of what counts as human. In a wonderful scene mixing gender and sex, birth, death, the human, and the alien, the baby alien ‘births’ itself out of poor John Hurt, who dies in the process. The scene is one of the most famous and breathtaking in cinematic history (at least in the humble opinion of this anthropologist). Thus aliens ride in the weird interstitial space between the ultimate outsider from elsewhere but also within our own bodies.

Monsters are fascinating creatures. They speak to our imaginative capacity to think about beyond our mortal horizons, to what else we might be, or what we might not be. Or what we want to be, or don’t. To what we can create and let loose upon the world. Our triumph and our faults. They operate in a strange space in this life and beyond death.  They are the ultimate “other” and in so being, they are, in fact, an imaginative (or nightmare) version us. To be human in this way is to share the fact that we are born and we die. Our existential drive to make something of ourselves in a world that constantly seeks to make us, to strike a balance between being an actor and being acted upon, is imaginatively reconstructed into other possibilities. In this light, monsters are one of the best ethnographic subjects for study. I’m reminded of a quote by anthropologist Michael Jackson:

“Ethnographic understanding simply means that one may glimpse oneself as one might be or might have been under other circumstances, and come to the realization that knowledge and identity are emergent properties of the unstable relationship between self and other, here and there, now and then, and not fixed and final truths that one has been privileged to possess by virtue of living in one particular society in one particular moment in history” (Jackson 2013: 10).

Ultimately anthropologists seek to understand ourselves as other, and in this way come to see the other in ourselves. This is the ethnographic understanding we seek. With monsters, we recognize that what one’s self might be under other circumstances, may in fact, take us into the imaginative horizons of fiction. But the real draw here, I think, is that whether or not vampires or zombies or aliens are empirically real, we often have visceral reactions to them because they do offer us an uncomfortable glimpse that these “others” that seem to be impossibly different from us, are perhaps, not so different after all. Monsters will probably remain villains, or at least misunderstood, for the time being, but I think for now, on this Halloween night, monsters can help us rethink our own fears of the unknown and that if we simply stop at the notion of the other as something monstrous, to deny the humanity of the other, we might in fact become the monsters we so fear.

Happy Halloween to you all!

~ Adam