At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture

Article excerpt

At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture. Edward J. Ingebretsen. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. 341 pp. $40 hbk. For hundreds of years, people have told much the same tale about monsters. A creature, often physically freakish, comes from nowhere to terrify us and trample all we hold dear. This forces good people to band together to defend their homes. The monster is burned, staked through the heart, or otherwise dispatched. Thus virtue and humanity triumph.

According to Georgetown University's Edward J. Ingebretsen, the monster in modern times is a fixture not only of Gothic cinema and TV entertainment but politics, the justice system, and the news.

News stories depict Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, and other mass murders as "monsters." The term suggests they are supernatural fiends rather than human beings responsible for their acts. Their deaths are reported with glee, while their acts are used to make the case for capital punishment.

Members of the religious right regularly denounce homosexuals as "monsters," which encourages some zealots to torture and execute gays. Exposed as a reckless sexual predator, Bill Clinton is branded a "monster" by enemies who try to drive a stake through his presidency.

Ingebretsen, a professor of English and American Studies, taps great knowledge of rhetoric, mythology, and religion to argue in At Stake that monster talk fulfills deep social needs while at the same time fueling hatred and prejudice.

As the author points out, "monster" is a social construct, a term of rhetoric with no counterpart in nature. "Monster" is applied to those who transgress whatever the prevailing rules of civil society might be-- child murderers such as Susan Smith, killers of Columbine High School classmates, Godless Communists, wartime non-- patriots, exploiters of White House interns.

Each time we expose and dispatch such a "monster" we are reinforcing our rules and civic boundaries, which means monster stories in whatever form bolster the social order. More of us than would ever admit it have imagined throttling the screaming child or machine-gunning the swaggering football star or working our will on the weak. In monster stories, we can experience these thrills vicariously, re-learn that we must never act on such impulses, and then feel justified in enjoying the monster's horrible fate.

As the author puts it, "Monsters, by the violence they arouse, permit us an answering violence, one to which, in the prompting cause, we can give justificatory cover. The monster is dead, but not by our hands; long live the monster, who is so very like us, after all."

What particularly troubles Ingebretsen is how monster rhetoric has slipped from movies and Stephen King novels into the speech of politicians, lawyers, journalists, and others who shape civic discourse. …