On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds
- ISBN: 9780300239997
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: October 2018
From long-dormant beasts to werewolves, zombies to vampires, the monstrous continues to enamor Western society. But from where do its particular apparitions arise? What lurks in the human psyche that projects one monster or another into the forefront of our collective imagination? In Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds, Leo Braudy employs engaging and insightful prose to unearth the historical roots of how and why the dark figures we fear have taken the particular forms we recognize today. Braudy identifies what he calls a “basic taxonomy of fears, the times in which they arose, and their perpetuation down to the present” (xi). He frames his taxonomy with fascinating excurses that relate horror and fear to specific developments in literature, religion, and technology.
Braudy’s taxonomy connects sources of fear to four archetypes of monstrosity that developed out of Western literature and art during and after the 18th century. Each archetype has its own chapter. There are monsters from nature such as King Kong, monsters created by humanity like the Frankenstein monster, monsters from the past like Dracula, and monsters from within such as Mr. Hyde. These archetypes project human fears into monstrous figures and gives them shape and color. As he takes each archetype in turn, Braudy associates it with the historical developments that exacerbated the specific source of fear underlying it. Drawing from a wide variety of cultural sources, he shows how each archetype manifests in various guises and under various names.
Interspersed among the chapters dealing with the archetypes, Braudy examines the relationship between religion and horror, the development of the detective figure, and the popularization of the visual reproduction. After an introductory chapter, which lays the groundwork and frame for his argument, he comes first to horror and religion. His goal is to compare the two cultural categories and highlight their many similarities and connections while distinguishing one from the other. Our modern understanding of horror, he argues, is largely an outgrowth of the religious turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. Later, he introduces the anti-monster, the detective figure. Detective characters serve to reaffirm and reinforce reason over and against the irrationality of monstrosity, a task often accomplished by pulling back the curtain and exposing the monster’s true understandable form. He concludes the book by exploring how film provides monstrosity a new venue to haunt, enabling us to bring our monsters to life in ways previously impossible.
The breadth of Braudy’s narrative is simply astounding. Page by page Braudy whisks readers from literary works known only to experts to pop culture media, from obscure history to dime-store horror novels whose pages have not had the chance to yellow. Shrek appears on the same page as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dracula shows up alongside the characters of the Twilight series. One notable paragraph opens with the Odyssey and the Aeneid before landing deftly on the contemporary horror film Ju-On: The Grudge. Haunted displays its author’s sharp intellect coupled with a keen sense of observation that takes in all aspects of human culture.
Yet, despite its brilliance and, dare I say, fun, I am left with one lingering question. Is monstrosity a category big enough to contain a full taxonomy of human fear? As Braudy himself explains, monstrosity is fundamentally a natural category with only secondary connection to the supernatural. This leads me to wonder, is a taxonomy sufficient without allowance for strictly supernatural objects of fear? Braudy himself offers up an entire chapter and countless scattered comments about strictly supernatural objects of fear, but he seems to assume history has transformed them into one of the archetypes of monstrosity.
I wonder if it is necessary to retain a place for things like Satan and demons in an attempt to categorize fear, to say nothing of the fear of the divine? Might staying within the category of monstrosity unnecessarily rule out fear of what lies purely behind the unbreachable curtain of the supernatural? Braudy claims a religious view of evil has gradually become subsumed by psychological understandings of reality (72). I find this point to be an inaccurate description of Western culture based on an assumption that the Enlightenment secularized most, if not all, of society. Here I side in what is an ongoing debate with Peter Berger and others who have argued that the classical secularization theory does not hold for the majority of Western society, except for Europe as a whole and American intelligentsia. I think a full taxonomy of fear still requires a religious and, therefore, purely supernatural category in light of the way religion continues to occupy such a prominent role in the American consciousness. In the end, however, I must admit my critique is couched within the framework of a contentious debate and is imminently arguable.
Braudy’s work has broad appeal. I have no doubt that the average reader will find the connections with pop culture delightful and his writing style captivating. While some of the more specialized references might pass them by, the writing is clear enough that most readers will not struggle to understand even the more complicated points. That said, I do think academics will be able to gain the most from Haunted. Without any hint of being dull, it can be a bit dense at times on account of how much information it packs into a small space. That density enables the kind of perceptive connections that will benefit scholars of emotion, literature, religion, and history. All readers, however, stand to gain from what Braudy exposes about our shared terrors, and will hopefully find reason to be a bit less afraid even in a cultural moment seemingly dominated by fear.
Joshua Caleb Smith is a part-time Lecturer in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.Joshua Caleb SmithDate Of Review:November 26, 2020