Up Out of the Darkness: A New History of Monsters

By Colin DickeyDecember 11, 2016

Up Out of the Darkness: A New History of Monsters

Haunted by Leo Braudy

WE HAVE ALWAYS HAD monsters in our lives. There is the Bible’s Leviathan (“the mere sight of him is overpowering”) and the fearsome Bull of Heaven from the Epic of Gilgamesh (“When [it] snorted, the ground cracked open and a hundred men of Uruk fell to their death therein”). There are Beowulf’s great foes Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, to say nothing of the Kraken, the Minotaur, and other monstrous beasts of Greek and Roman mythology. They have occupied our imaginations and our nightmares for millennia, lurking at the edges of the known world.

But something changed in the late 18th century: we began to tell stories of these monsters not simply as cautionary or morality tales, but for the simple pleasure of the terrible feelings they evoked. The gothic novel was born in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s exceedingly strange The Castle of Otranto, a novel that opens with a wedding ruined when the groom is crushed under a mysterious helmet, a hundred times larger than any human head, that appears from nowhere. From there it descends into mistaken identities, incest, murder, and sacrilege: all themes which would become common in the burgeoning gothic genre. Walpole’s book was followed by Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), which likewise blended fantasy, realism, and the violation of social taboos, careening between the melodramatic, the picaresque, the terrifying, and the silly.

By the end of the 19th century, ghost stories, gothic novels, and horror tales had become an integral part of popular culture. Leo Braudy’s Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds attempts to account for this sea change in our attitude toward the terrible and the terrifying. At the heart of Haunted is this central question: “Do fears always take the same shapes, or do nations and cultures have distinctive fears that may metamorphose through the centuries?” Braudy wants to know: “what is universal about fear, and what is culturally specific in its images and stories?” And why do monsters “lie quiescent in some ages and in others crowd the imagination”?

Braudy traces the birth of the modern monster to a single major 18th-century event: the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. On the morning of November 1 — All Saints’ Day — a massive earthquake (somewhere in the range of 8.5–9.0 on the Richter Scale, according to modern estimates) destroyed Lisbon, killing somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people. Lasting over three minutes, the quake opened a rift through the city’s center five meters wide; happening as it did on a particularly holy day, in a city known for its religiosity, the earthquake also opened a rift through European theology and philosophy as well.

The Western world had long been ruled by a theology that dictated a stable order and purpose to the world, and that human actions, more or less, were judged fairly and morally by an omniscient and beneficent God. Different religions differed on the particulars, but all agreed that one deity or another was in control and had a plan for us. The great earthquake confounded this theology: the people killed did not deserve to die, and they could not be labeled sinners deserving of their fate — Lisbon was no Sodom or Gomorrah. Europe had seen other damaging earthquakes, but Lisbon, Braudy argues, was different: “The numbers of the dead, their notorious piety, and the destruction of so many obvious innocents stretched to the breaking point the providential interpretation of personal misfortune as God’s test of belief.” Seemingly without rhyme or reason, the Lisbon earthquake, Braudy explains, “forcefully implied the possibility that perhaps God is not good, or that his power is limited, or that his purposes for the world included death and destruction.”

The Lisbon quake likewise confounded science, which was no better equipped to predict or mitigate such destruction than religion. It was only recently, after all, that the two had split into different, competing methods for understanding the world. Formerly, to understand the natural world was to understand God’s mind. But by the 18th century, these two disciplines had separated into two separate camps, creating a nascent disagreement that drives so much discourse and debate today. The science of seismology was still in its infancy, and in no real shape to provide a coherent, scientific explanation of the Lisbon Earthquake. But even an understanding of plate tectonics would provide little succor by the 18th century’s end. Science, after all, was based on rationality and empiricism, and while it had promised “to shake off the cobwebs of supernatural explanations,” within four decades of the Lisbon Earthquake the terrors of the French Revolution proved that reason offered no more of a moral compass than did religion. Enlightenment, Braudy notes,

had a dark side. The mysterious and the unexplainable, seemingly banished by the bright light of reason, began to erupt everywhere. Terror was in the air, and, appropriately or paradoxically, Maximilien Robespierre, the impresario of the French Revolution’s Festival of Reason, became the central power in the Reign of Terror, where for eleven months denunciations and executions jammed the Parisian days.

If religion failed the test of the Lisbon Earthquake, reason failed the test of the French Revolution, and this twin failure of belief and reason shook Europe to its core. What the 18th century revealed to the great minds of Europe was that the world was filled with terrors that simply could not be explained or prevented. The modern monster crawls out of this fault line, this crack in the earth and in ourselves, out of the abyss between faith and reason. A figure that is both terrifying and unknown, it resists easy classification, emerging from a dark netherworld where our usual explanations have no power.


Take, for example, two of the most durable monsters born in the 19th century. One is Frankenstein’s monster, who has a scientific origin but soon escapes the control of its creator. The other is Dracula, who in many iterations is cursed to an afterlife as an undead monstrosity for profaning and cursing God in life. Both of these nightmares spring from the same anxiety: what if the thing we expect to explain and provide order to the world is somehow insufficient? The monster is a vision of our hubris, and the arrogance to which our religious and scientific authorities lay claim.

This is why characters like Frankenstein and Dracula have become ubiquitous in our cultural imagination. “A story or a character achieves the status of a myth not because it never changes but because its supernatural essence can respond to the change that occurs around it, as the basic story metamorphoses in reaction to new particulars,” Braudy writes, and this was never more true than for the author of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley did not foresee cloning, organ transplant, or the science of robotics, let alone the possibility of recreating through genetic engineering the prehistoric monsters of the past as in Jurassic Park. But the story she created has easily mutated to embody them all, including the “Frankenfoods” of genetically modified crops, and any other product brought to the world by advancing science and technology that arouses general anxiety and hostility about the impure and the ersatz and the conglomerate — the monstrous other.

The same could be said for Stoker’s Dracula. His was not the first vampire novel: during the same summer competition in which Mary Shelley conceived of her masterpiece, Byron’s physician John Polidori wrote a short novel called The Vampyre. But Stoker’s book, at once gothic mystery and modern-day detective novel, has become iconic precisely because of the way his monster manages to function all at once as an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases, urban and technological anxiety, and a xenophobic fear of immigration.

This helps explain not only why we fear monsters, but also why we’re drawn to stories about them. “Popular art may be escape for some, but it also does crucial cultural work,” Braudy argues. “Like fairy tales for grownups,” the gothic novel “both expresses and then tries to allay the emotional conflicts and contradictions of modern life, where so much of the world appears open and so much is actually closed.” We love a good ghost story, a gruesome horror film, or a baroque gothic novel because it allows us to face these anxieties obliquely, engaging them at a remove. Embedded in these stories is the reassurance that, no matter how terrifying the experience may be, we remain fundamentally safe. In the words of the 18th-century poet Edward Young (which Braudy likes so much he quotes them twice): “We love to be at once, miserable, and unhurt.” So, too, with the horror story, which brings us to the edge of a primal fear while reminding us that there’s no such thing as monsters.


Having tracked the monster to its historical lair, Braudy then proceeds to taxonomize the various kinds of creatures that we seem most drawn to, each with its own niche. There are those that embody the terror of the natural world, like King Kong or the murderous simian in Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The “most ancient examples of the feared and worshiped,” they represent our fear and misunderstanding of the world around us, and its resistance to our attempts at domestication. But not every natural danger will qualify as monstrous; rather, the “process by which the unnatural or just peculiar becomes the horrifying requires an interpreter who sees it as a portent of doom, rather than something merely happenstance or pathetic.” Most of all, they reflect our desire to render the natural world as legible: a birth defect in the Middle Ages, poorly understood medically, could still be interpreted as a sign from God so long as it had some kind of meaning.

Our attitudes toward monsters tend to change depending on our current attitude toward our environment: when nature is a deadly thing to be tamed, monsters are equally threatening, but in a more modern, industrial world such creatures may evoke scorn or pity instead. “The preoccupation with the natural monster therefore has distinct stages in its evolution,” Braudy notes,

The early fascination with the monstrous births of humans and animals as objects of wonder was intricately connected to the desire to interpret them as God’s messages to the world. By the eighteenth century this religious and philosophic wonder at the variety of the natural world was being transformed into popular entertainment.

By the end of the 19th century, this attitude too had changed: a figure like John Merrick, the Elephant Man, whose condition might once have been interpreted as a religious omen, could move in the course of a lifetime from a circus sideshow attraction to a man deserving of sympathetic treatment.

Then there are the monsters of technology, from Frankenstein to the giant atomic ants that run amok in the movie Them! to the Terminator. Rather than play to the fear of a natural world beyond the reach of our reason, the technological monster plays to our fears about reason itself: that it might exceed its own scope, that the creatures we create may eventually overtake us. (In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein worries at one point that if he creates a mate for his creation, the two might reproduce and grow to overpopulate the world.) But this fear also stretches back earlier, since embedded in the fear of the technological creation killing its creator are all such stories about rebellious offspring, from Goya’s painting of Saturn eating his own children, to Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost.

From here, Braudy makes a bit of a detour to the detective. It’s something of a non sequitur, since the archetypal literary detective, originating with Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and reaching its epitome with Sherlock Holmes, is a thoroughly human, decidedly unmonstrous figure, and nothing if not rational. But both detective and monster grow out of the emerging modernity of the 19th century, which for Braudy encompasses “the growing awareness of the complex organization of society, the pressure on individual nature of large-scale institutions, the possibility of increasing political freedom,” engendering a “greater sensitivity to whatever represses freedom — from both outside and within.” In this new milieu,

the monster and the detective constitute a Janus-headed response to otherwise meagerly articulated problems in the nineteenth-century idea of both civilized society and personal nature. Horror embodies a hidden culture, often rooted in past belief and “superstition,” that has been otherwise repressed by the daylight world of official culture and society, while the detective represents the urge to delve into that darker world and clarify its seemingly intractable mysteries.

But while this digression into the world of the detective doesn’t fit with the book’s other chapters per se, it does set up Braudy to move into his next archetype: the doppelgänger, the monster who is by definition Janus-faced. The doppelgänger is both monster and detective together in the same body. “Instead of a monster like Frankenstein’s that is actively created as a separate being who appears metaphorically as a conjoined self,” Braudy writes, “the doppelgänger can be a ghostly double fleetingly glimpsed outside oneself […] or another self that is discovered within, which then comes forth fully bodied, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Rather than focusing on external horrors of nature or technology, these stories reflect the rise of psychology, capturing our inability to understand our own selves. But Braudy also cautions against psychoanalyzing such monsters, which maintain their power only to the extent they remain a perpetual blank slate. Stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, he writes,

use the trope of the mysterious and ineffable not primarily because of some social reticence or veiled purpose, but because it embraces a whole range of dark possibilities. To reduce such an all-encompassing secret to a personal pathology, predilection, or passion limits the allure of the story, psychoanalyzing the author through the story. To read, say, Dorian Gray through the lens of Wilde’s biography and his later trial and imprisonment for sodomy reduces the power of a story that invites the reader to imagine what he or she might sacrifice to remain forever youthful and unchanged. Whatever the individual psychic drama that fueled his work, art allowed him to touch a universal chord.

Like Frankenstein’s creation, these monsters only have power once they’ve slipped the bonds of their creators and run wild.

Finally, there is the monster from the past: exemplified, for Braudy, by Dracula. It’s no coincidence, he argues, that both Bram Stoker and another vampire popularizer, Sheridan Le Fanu (author of the first lesbian vampire tale, Carmilla), were Irish: “Perhaps more than any other European version, Celtic Christianity seemed to be able to weave together old practices and folklore with the new religion, simultaneously hospitable to beliefs in elves and leprechauns as well as in the calendar of saints.” The spiritual world that these Irish writers grew up in, then, was one in which myth and religion intertwined, along with a pre-Christian past and the coming technological future. “The gothic period,” Braudy reminds us, “embodied a double sense of the past: in gothic horror, it was the monstrous place from which we must escape, as well as the benevolent site of a unified experience of nature and spirituality that has been lost through the rush toward the modern future.” Dracula, with his roots in an ancient, pre-Christian Eastern Europe offers perhaps the clearest form of this tension between past and future that defines the gothic. In Stoker’s novel, as the media theorist Friedrich Kittler points out, the heroes are only able to combat the vampire through the latest of technological devices: the typewriter, the gramophone, and the telegraph. “At a time in the late nineteenth century,” Braudy concludes, “when European and American society seems to be more in motion than ever before, moving forward technologically, politically, and economically, Dracula represents the inexorable pull backward into a terrifying past, ready and eager to take its revenge.”

At some point, inevitably, these beasts begin to blur and the distinctions strain, given Braudy’s ability to marshal so many different examples and draw so many conclusions from each. If anything, one wants more of Haunted; Braudy’s earlier book on masculinity, From Chivalry to Terrorism, runs to over 600 pages, and his treatment of terror could easily have merited a similarly expansive treatment. Each of Braudy’s monsters is fascinating in its own right, and each might have warranted its own book, or at least a longer section in this one.

But what we do have is filled with various nuggets of insight that reflect Braudy’s acumen with close readings. In a few short pages, for instance, he parses the difference between Stephen King’s novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, seizing on seemingly minor differences to reveal larger differences in worldview. “In the film,” Braudy synopsizes, “Danny draws upon the shining to send Hallorann on a long, laborious trip from sunny Florida to the snowbound Overlook. Hallorann walks into the hotel, intent on helping Danny, and is quickly killed by the ax-wielding Jack.” As he goes on to note, “Despite the name of the film, despite the bond between Danny and Hallorann, as far as Kubrick is concerned the shining finally doesn’t work, and the only point of Hallorann’s visit is to bring a working Sno-Cat.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that King seems to hate this adaptation of his work more so than any other film. For in the novel, by contrast, “people do connect, things do work out, and the shining is effective. Even when the Jack of the novel is trying to kill him with a roque mallet, Danny’s shining manages to find the core of loving father beneath Jack’s mania and for the moment stops him.” Film and novel each use the same basic story to reach drastically different conclusions, a reminder that the social purpose of the horror story is endlessly malleable.

Horror, Braudy concludes, “is an unending conversation about irresolvable fears.” Without a doubt, the central tropes that he’s identified here — the beast from nature, the technological monster, the monster from within, and the monster from the past — have proved more or less durable, appearing and reappearing in different guises in a thousand different horror films and novels since 1755. Do they thus represent some totality of all our fears? Unlikely. There’s always some new terror in the darkness, waiting for its time to strike.


Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

LARB Contributor

Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


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