Monster-Making: A Politics of Persuasion

By Ingebretsen, Edward J. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Monster-Making: A Politics of Persuasion


Ingebretsen, Edward J., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


[F]ear is a social act which occurs within a cultural matrix. "To fear" and "to be afraid" are social events which have social consequences.1

"The reason you caught me is that WE'RE JUST ALIKE." (Hannibal Lecter to the police officer who identifies him)2

Spurious certainties and terror support each other.3

1. Common Weal

How does one make a monster, and why? What are the civic uses of scandal? However ugly and morally repulsive they may be, monsters are nonetheless political beings. Scandal, by definition, is never private, and so the political fantasies enacted in the name of a monster are quite public in intent. That is the point of Gothic politics-the establishment of a hermeneutics of fear. This essay studies the civic, political, and pedagogical uses of a range of contemporary social monsters: how do Gothic formularies of deviancy and criminality, derived largely without reflection from a genre of commodity horror, and registered in the body of the monstrous person, help script the politics of the ordinary and the normal?

Monsters, like the poor, we have always with us. Indeed, the ongoing stability of any society depends upon the presence of monsters-those unfortunates whom social regulatory systems fail, and whose monstrosity, however marked, can be pointed to precisely as demonstrations of that failure. For this reason, the creation of the monster is as important a civic duty as the ritualized spectacle of its exorcism, an orgiastic scene constantly iterated in horror film and pulp narrative. But monsters appear in other, less obvious sites, as well. They are created as civil agents by media and in daily politics; at the polls and on the evening news; in church rhetoric and in state polemic. Why make a monster? The monster-located, decried, and staked-reconfirms the virtues of the normal for those who, from time to time, need persuading.

Social categories of the impolite and unspeakable are powerfully persuasive tools, and monsters are their agents. Not to put too fine a point upon it, this essay concerns the relation of the uncivil (rhetorics of fear and rituals of terror) to the civil (the polite and the normal) which these enforce. Fear is a powerful teacher, and its pedagogy is never more insistent and ubiquitous than when those who suffer it do so unawares. Ordinary and quotidian fear escapes our attention; thus, it becomes an almost perfectly moderating force, precisely because it is unrecognized as such. This is the case, for example, in the narrativized formulas of terror that come to us each day in newspaper and on TV and to which we give credence as "news." How do we know how to be good mothers? The story of Susan Smith, failed mother and therefore monstrous, tells us how. How is one a good neighbor? The story of Jeffrey Dahmer is exemplary in warning us how not to be.

For a moment consider Jeffrey Dahmer: My original proposition-the monster must be stakedunderscores the terrible inevitability of Dahmer's death in prison. Anyone who thought about Dahmer's prospects knew what would befall him. Indeed, his death in prison-an extra-legal solution to a complicated public drama-was narratively determined, and its gruesome inevitability generally conceded, long before Dahmer's legal imprisonment. Why? Because the narrative of the monster dictates that, of course, the monster must die, and it can never be our fault. So by framing Dahmer as some creature from a bad pulp film-indeed, as a "monster"-we are excused from complicity. Dahmer died at the hands of another prisoner armed with a broom and a determined belief in God's will. The unnamed prisoner's spurious mandate to kill enables us to rest in peace as well. The monster is dead. But not at our hands, and besides, that's what monsters are for.

However, the latter half of my proposition-the monster must be created-reflects the urgent fingerpointing frenzy that developed around Dahmer following his arrest. …

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