We deem all these creatures scandalous and grotesque, the result of an erring nature mixing species.
Titus-Livius, Roman History, 31.12
What is a monster?
Traditionally, it is a fantastical, unnatural, malformed, or unheard-of being - in short, an unconventional entity, often inspiring rejection, disgust, or fear. This "interstitial" being (cf. Noël Carroll (1990)) belongs to an otherworldly world, sometimes apprehended (in both senses of the term) by collective or individual imagination and literary fiction. In The Philosophy of Horror (1990), Noël Carroll offers a simple, manageable description of the phenomena, inspired by anthropologist Mary Douglas's work on notions of impurity.
In her renowned book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), Douglas basically defines impurity by identifying it with a transgression of the conceptual categories of a given society (itself considered the guarantor of social order, an extension of cosmic order). An entity is impure, then, if it does not fall within these categories, belonging instead to an unnamed (and therefore unnameable) in-between state, the combination of two or more presumably incompatible categories, such as living/dead, inside/outside, human/inhuman, etc.
Carroll presents two kinds of monsters: those born of the fusion of several disparate categories or elements coexisting in a single body in the same place and time (like Frankenstein), and those that instead result from "fission" - doubles, doppelgangers, and so on. In the latter case, the body splits up, either from a spatial point of view, duplicated in two or more distinct beings, or from a temporal one, becoming one entity and another by turns (like werewolves, or Jekyll and Hyde).1
All these comments point to one thing: even if they can sometimes be natural phenomena, monsters are first and foremost human creations (conceptions / perceptions). Yet, since the beginning of the modern era, these monsters occupy an ever greater place in our civilization. We are now in a culture of shock value, of transgression and confession - to the point that it becomes harder and harder to speak of repression : it rather seems that the repressed is returning in full strenght, and flooding our world. From the cult of serial killers to the most extreme reality shows, the monsters are now walking the earth, like the zombies in George A. Romero's film trilogy2. It isn't surprising, then, that all this has flourished on the Web, which, tentacular, decentred and uncensorable, has become a prime venue.
From a specifically cultural point of view - that of cultural products, "art works" -, monsters are of course typical of a particular, eminently modern (and now postmodern) genre - horror.
AN EMINENTLY (POST) MODERN GENRE
The horror genre can be defined in the most general terms by the following criteria: 1) the presence of at least one monster (or mutant, extraterrestrial, etc.), and 2) the fact that these monsters are presented and perceived as abnormal, infringing on the natural order (which isn't the case, for instance, in myths and fairy tales, where monsters and other fantastical creatures are part of the nature of things)3. Moreover, the genre aims, precisely, to horrify its readers and spectators: that is, to communicate a sense of fear and disgust, to shock, to disturb, even - in the best (or the worst) of cases - to traumatize.
It is commonly agreed that the genre originated in the mid-eighteenth century with the English Gothic novel. The genre thrived throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in literature, theatre, and then the movies. Obvious factors have been put forward to explain its birth, and then its persistence: its coming approximately coincides with that of the Enlightenment, rationality, and scientific conceptions of nature,4 and consequently with the notion of instrumentality that signalled the industrial revolution, at the root of the technological world in which we still live.
In this sense, horror is always revelatory of the ambivalence in the desires and anxieties sparked by the promises of this new world order: mastery of nature, complete investment of power, unlimited progress. But also by its limits: loss of control of science and its instruments, nature's revenge, nuclear and ecological catastrophes, etc. In particular, from a thematic point of view, one can trace in these works the preoccupations, anxieties, and metaphysical, moral and political obsessions of a given period.5
Thus, along side the modern disenchantment and moral crisis noticeable since the 1970s (what we've called post-modernity), we have seen a resurgence of horror films. The trend, which began with The Exorcist (1973) and continues today, is increasingly marked by an aesthetic of self-referentiality, irony, distantiation, collage, citation - in short, by procedures typical of contemporary art (cf. Brophy, 1983).6 Another important characteristic is that of "gore": dismemberment, exploding bodies, eviscerations, gushing blood. Showing, showing everything, rather than suggesting, has become the rule: and characters are presented less as people than as bodies, and even more bluntly - as meat.7
It is not so much that the modern Horror film refutes or ignores the conventions of genre, but it is involved in a violent awareness of itself as a saturated genre... The gratification of the contemporary Horror film is based upon tension, fear, anxiety, sadism and masochism - a disposition that is overall both tasteless and morbid.
The traditional rules of the genre (where the confrontation of normality with abnormality has a moral outcome) are less and less prevalent - displaced by rampant postmodern relativism.
HORROR ON THE WEB
If the five Web works presented in this issues can be more or less associated with the horror genre (with their various monsters, mutations, and gore, too, sometimes), they probably do not convey a sense of horror, properly speaking, as Noël Carrol defines it ("art horror"), for instance, based on reactions usually observed with readers of horror literature and, especially, spectators of monster movies - that is, a mix of fear and disgust (and consequently of rejection, etc.), along with fascination and curiosity of course. Because, as Carroll points out (1990, p. 18), these reactions are most often based on those of "normal" characters in the fiction who serve as models. In the works selected here,8 however, there are no "normal" characters to follow, no reactions to imitate. Nor do these works produce the same shock effects as those elicited by current horror films through skillful use of photo-realism and special effects (cf. Brophy, 1983).
In addition, of course, these works owe not only to the genre to which they belong, but also to the medium in which they are created and presented, to its history and degree of sophistication. Thus, in literature, works of horror make greater use of description and suggestion, call upon the qualities of written language, while in cinema (especially contemporary), they play on effects of shock and surprise and the "gross outs" made possible by technical advances in the medium.
Works designed for the Web, still limited from a technical point of view (in terms of realistic rendering, for instance, the sophistication of special effects, downloading intervals, as well, at least as far as tools accessible to artists working in the medium are concerned), are characteristically short, presenting discrete and/or serial events rather than continuous narrative (in the traditional sense). Of course, this aesthetic choice is very much a postmodern one: we have just commented on the absence of "normal" or "positive" characters typical of classic horror, where normality (i.e., humanity, or some representative thereof) is confronted with abnormality (the monster) in a narrative cycle following the pattern of discovery-confrontation-morality-catharsis. Besides the usual themes of literary and cinematic horror, the assorted inspirations for the Web works selected here include cartoons, Japanese anime, Grand Guignol and Punch-and-Judy shows, the magic lantern, the films of Méliès, silent movie serials, video games, etc. Their aesthetic has greater affinity with that of collage and citation typical of contemporary art - as do recent horror films, as mentioned above. Furthermore, they are designed for the computer screen, and therefore for a small format presented to one spectator at a time.9
Such a reduced and intimate format will not likely elicit extreme reactions. One could say that the feeling these works convey is therefore less brutal, but more insidious and ambiguous. They are simply a little disquieting, a little strange.
"The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar." (Freud (1919)) Thus the sense of Unheimliche, arising from a private sphere that suddenly become threatening (following the ambivalence of the term in German, in which it can come to mean intimate and strange at once).
The uncanny appears in front of real life events or works of fiction (as the base, precisely, of reactions of horror and terror caused by monster stories). According to Sigmund Freud, this feeling is caused either by the return of the repressed (of fears, desires, or infantile complexes), or by the reconfirmation of overcome childish beliefs (like the belief in the omnipotence of thought, in the resurrection of the deads, or in the existence of doubles (of oneself, or other people's)). Thus, such a feeling comes less from a fear of the unknown than from the sudden recognition of something which is at the same time known and forgotten, denied: Unheimliche, the uncanny, is "something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light." (Freud (1919)).
And the monsters are the metaphorical incarnations (cf. Steven Schneider (1999)) of all this, incarnations which can take various forms over time, reflecting the conflicts, fears, and desires of a given period or culture.10
The works selected here do not "speak" of the Web; but they inhabit it, and arise from it. The Web is first a tool (contrary to television or the movie screen, essentially designed as a venue for spectacle). As such it is an extension of our body - like all tools, allowing us to (inter)react with the world -, a tool nevertheless, a familiar object likely to gain a life of its own, to escape our grasp, to engulf us. Monsters and mutants may well inhabit and invade the Web. Is the latter not already a monster and a mutant, a tentacular entity, in perpetual gestation, expansion and recomposition, menacing, duplicating, imitating the "real world," of which it sucks the life and blood to nourish the virtual one? And don't we know that the Web can potentially offer us everything and its opposite, the most serious, the most horrible, the most grotesque?11 Do we not perceive a disquieting agitation beneath our computer screen?
So the web - attribute of the spider (repulsive entity if ever there was) - is indeed a "horrific metonymy" (cf. Carroll (1990), p. 51). The gigantic spider that lives in this web - the monstrous embodiment of an intelligence that is at once collective and merged into one - may well never exist; we can sense it nonetheless, or anticipate it, or imagine it, awaiting or fearing its appearance, depending on whether we are optimistic or pessimistic, and on whether we lean toward the hope of an advance of collective human consciousness, or toward the dismal scenario of computers taking control.
Let's then consider the monsters that emerge in the five selected works in this issue as nightmares sprung from the Web, from the Web as Id of the contemporary world.12
1 : Interestingly, as Carroll doesn't fail to remark, these two monstrous creative procedures correlate to mental processes of condensation - or of dissociation - derived form psychoanalysis (cf. pp: 45-46).
Besides these two monster-generating procedures, Carroll distinguished three others, which, applied to pre-existing creatures, also contribute to a sense of horror: the 1) magnification (enlargement) and 2) accumulation ("massification") of creatures already culturally stigmatized as monstrous, impure, and repulsive, and 3) "horrific metonymy," which consists of projecting the creature's horror-inspiring qualities onto his environment (cf. for the exposition of these procedures, see Carroll (1990), pp: 42-52).
2 : "When there is no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth." (George A. Romero, Dawn of the Dead, 1978).
3 : "That is, in examples of horror, it would appear that the monster is an extraordinary character in our ordinary world, whereas in fairy tales and the like the monster is an ordinary creature in an extraordinary world." Carroll (1990), p. 16.
In this sense, the debate about "realist horror" (see Schneider (1999)), namely if works centering around a realistic "monster" (i.e. not fantastic) like a serial killer for example (whether inspired by a real killer, like Jack the Ripper, Henry Lucas or Eileen Wuernos, or entirely fictitious, like Michael Myers, John Doe or Hannibal Lecter, can or cannot be classified in the horror genre, and if such a character can itself be regarded as a monster as such, is rather a vain one. It seems to me (as Steven Schneider (1999) among others thinks so, and contrary to what Carroll (1990) says, when he defines monsters as " "any being[s] not believed to exist now by contemporary science" "(p. 27)), that such characters can be, and are indeed, perceived as monsters, and this precisely because, although human, they are at the same time inhuman (this perception is, I think, what distinguishes a serial killer from a "normal" murderer), and thus the product of a fusion which puts them outside the norms, as Carroll himself points out while discussing the case of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (cf Carroll (1990), p:38-39). Witness (whether in reality or in fiction) all the efforts to try to "understand" and to enter the mind of these criminals, to the point of studying the conformation of their brain in the hope to find some malformation which would help to explain their monstruosity, i.e. their "inhumanity". Such efforts are, in the current state of science at least, still rather vain. These monsters thus escape, like the other monsters, the reach of contemporary science. Let us give as an example the (real) case of Ted Bundy:
""People," said Bob Dekle, the Florida assistant state attorney who prosecuted Bundy for the murder of Kim Leach, "think a criminal is a hunchbacked, cross-eyed little monster slithering through the dark, leaving a trail of slime. They’re human beings.’’
But within Ted Bundy that slithering hunchback did exist, residing behind what one eminent psychiatrist termed a sociopath’s “mask of sanity.’’ The mask is a fabrication and nothing more, but it is generally impenetrable. In Ted, the cross-eyed creature lurked on a different plane of existence, and could only be seen by means of a tautology; you had to infer it before it could be found...
It allowed him to hide reality from others, and to deny it to himself. It also conferred on Bundy a preternatural power to manipulate, a capacity whose affect was akin to magic. It was this power that made him such an effective killer, and so impossible to track down."
Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth (1984), p : 4.
4 : "And, in this respect, one might want to suggest that the Enlightenment supplied the horror novel with the norm of nature needed to produce the right kind of monster." Carroll (1990), p. 57.
5 : To give just a few examples, recall the close relationships between the series of American horror movies of the 1950s - like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), or War of the Worlds (1953) - and the Cold War, the paranoia of communist invasions, the witch hunts, and anxiety over nuclear catastrophe. Closer to us - at a time when digital technology has worked itself into every aspect of our lives - we have the Matrix films, in which monstrous computers have conquered the world and enslaved humankind, and the real become virtual.
6 : A pretty remarkable example: in Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), author and director Wes Craven, progenator of Freddy Krueger, puts himself in the film trying to write the movie that we're watching on the screen - and the actors play both their own parts and that of their characters, including Robert Englund who's been playing Freddy from the beginning. Scream 1, 2 and 3 (from the same director) are also filled with citations borrowed form the history of (horror) cinema, self-references, and mises en abîmes (as in the third of the series, in which a film is being on events that took place in the first, etc.).
7 : "Indeed, the 'person-as-meat' could serve as the label for this tendency." Carroll (1990), p. 211.
8 : For the most part, they consist of Flash animations, "toons." Even in Shadows of Computers, where characters are more "realistic," the drawings are very stylized nevertheless, and emotional expression limited.
9 : In fact, as I mentioned in a preceding text (cf. CIAC's Electronic Magazine, no. 17), these types of works recall the first experiments with "animated images," like the pre-cinema image-boxes or devices: Kircher's seventeenth-century "magic lanterns", J.-E. Plateau's 1832 phenakistiscope, the zoetrope (Horner, 1834) , Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope theatre, Marey's chronophotograh (intended for physiological study, and preceded by Muybridge in the U.K, and finally Edison's Kinetoscope (a projector in which, for a nickel, a single spectator could watch one-minute sequences recreate the movement of beings, objects, life - but little more than a toy, the equivalent of our slot machines)" cf. www.adpf.asso.fr/adpf-publi/folio/cinema/01.html) - made for one viewer at the time, and little more than a toy.
10 : It thus seems that a description and a categorisation of monsters in terms of impurity (inspired by anthropology, as Carroll (1990) does) and a psychoanalytic explanation of their origin and their effect are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
11 : Witness www.ogrish.com or encore rotten.com… In this sense, the Web is a prime example of postmodern relativism.
12 : Let's just mention here that It ("Id") is also the title of a Stephen King's novel, in which a shape-shifting monster (Pennywise the clown, the incarnation of evil) can take the appearance of all other monsters. (Stephen King (1986), It, New York : Viking, 1986.
Brophy, Philip. - 1983. - « Horrality:The Textuality of Contemporary
Horror Films », in Art & Text No.11, Melbourne, 1983, reproduit in Screen Vol.27, No.1, 1986, UK.
Carroll, Noël. - 1990. - The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, New York & London: Routledge, 1990.
Douglas, Mary. - 1966. - Douglas, Mary. - 1966. - Purity and danger : an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
Freud, Sigmund. - 1919. - "The Uncanny," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson., vol. XVII, London: Hogarth, 1966-74, pp. 219-252. - Translation of: « Das Unheimliche ».
Michaud, Stephen G. and Hugh Aynesworth. The Only Living Witness. Ted Bundy Story, New York, Ny: Signet Books, 1984.
Schneider, Steven. - 1999. - "Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors: Freud, Lakoff, and the Representation of Monstrosity in Cinematic Horror", in Other Voices, v.1, n.3, January 1999.
Tite-Live. Histoire romaine, Livres XXXI à XXXV, Paris : Flammarion, 1997. 503 p. Introduction, notes et traduction inédite par Annette Flobert.
Translated from French by Ron Ross