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“Every monster is in this way a double narrative, two living stories: one that describes how the monster came to be and another, its testimony, detailing what cultural use the monster serves.”

-Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory

In Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s article Monster Culture (Seven Theses), he speaks on literature that engages with Monsters as a way of examining cultural identities that engender difference from the norm. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he traces a literary tradition of monstrous figures that operate as societal allegory. Cohen writes that the monster “is a body across which difference has been repeatedly written,” further arguing that by examining attributes demarcated as monstrous, one can interrogate the hierarchies of institutional power these characters work within.

Cohen views monstrous figures as culturally symbolic, as characters or creatures placed into a narrative in order to examine and interrogate cultural assumptions of social and personal identity.  Cohen’s literary theory posits the monster as both a cultural signifier and disrupter; monsters then, become a double narrative.  For Cohen, these marginalized figures are “two living stories: one that describes how the monster came to be and another, its testimony, detailing what cultural use the monster serves.” These figures are centered around the perceptions of categorical identities, articulating and sometimes challenging the cultural assumptions of race, gender, sexuality, and difference of both the creator, the creator’s’ intended audience, and the texts actual audience.

Cohen frames his article around seven central theses: that the monster’s body is a cultural body; that the monster always escapes (destruction, through a process of societal transcendence and transference); that the monster is the harbinger of categorical crisis; that the monster dwells at the gates of difference; that the monster polices the borders of the possible; that fear of the monster demarcates desire, and that the monster stands at the threshold of “becoming.” It is within this last thesis the poignancy of his article coalesces.  When Cohen states that the monster stands at the threshold of becoming, he is claiming that the monsters in these texts are on the threshold of becoming human. He is not suggesting that these fictional characters possess sentience, but that they provoke a dialogue in which the very nature of humanity is challenged.  He writes that monsters “are our children…they always return…and when they come back [they] ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what they attempted to place.”

He ends his text by saying, “[monsters] ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we have created them.”  It is an apt point, and beseeches one in return; if we accept the thesis that societal norms call monsters into existence, which such norms are at work in the books, movies, and other such texts dealing with the monstrous and mythical that have resurged recently to such prolific success. What are the allegories that can be found within the characters of these texts? What has called these specters of the past into being once more?

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