Of Humans and Monsters

Posted by Monica Germana on March 18, 2010 in Dr Monica Germana, Guest Blog tagged with

Gothic draws attention to the monstrous, the horrific, that which exceeds the limits imposed by moral taboos, the so-called laws of nature, as well as cultural inhibitions. The Gothic subject is typically one in a state of excess – excessive desire, excessive fear, excessive weakness; challenging the boundaries of normative acceptability,  Gothic self-consciously interrogates definitions of humanity. Frankenstein and his creature, Jekyll/Hyde, Dracula, Dorian Gray all point to hybrid models of humanity, all coexisting in the multiple simultaneity of a split ego.

What is human? The Oxford English Dictionary entry reveals the elusive character of this category of being: as opposed to ‘divine’, ‘human’ suggests notions of imperfection and fallibility: we talk after all of ‘human’ error, with some kind of empathic resignation, when a fatal mistake –performed by a sentient human being – is behind an unintentional man-made disaster. But ‘human’, too, bears the advanced intellectual abilities that distinguish, in varying degrees, the human race from other representatives of the animal kingdom.  Being human therefore welds together irrational and rational, emotional and intellectual faculties. The ‘human condition’ is, as the Dictionary reminds us, ‘the state or condition of being human, […] regarded as being inherently problematic or flawed’. Significantly, the English language has a separate word, ‘humane’, to define more specifically, the positive qualities that may distinguish a ‘civilised’ human being from a brute; ‘humane’ is that which is ‘characterized by sympathy with and consideration for others; feeling or showing compassion towards humans or animals; benevolent, kind’ (OED).

If being human is to be imperfect, when do such flaws enter the realm of monstrosity? Originally used to describe a mythical creature (frequently hybrid and sizable in shape), the term monster has entered our language to describe human beings whose actions are deemed to be ‘of repulsively unnatural character, or exhibiting such extreme cruelty or wickedness as to appear inhuman’ (OED). Jack the Ripper. Adolf Hitler. Saddam Hussein. Pol Pot. Josef Fritzl.

Closer to home, Jon Venables. Last week, in an on-line forum hosted by the BBC website, the general public were called to share their views on the necessity to protect the re-offender’s identity. Predictably, the monster rhetoric pervades the debate: many use the m-word to deprecate Venables’s crime and violently reject the right to protection: ‘John Venables is a monster. I am not even sure if I am opposed to a death penalty in certain cases any more’, writes ‘MrSelfrighteousnesshimself’; others, such as ‘1welshbloke’, condemn the idea of executing children, on the grounds that Venables and Thompson were, after all, children, when they committed their initial crime; others still, such as the user called ‘socialworkstudent1’, overtly resist the monster rhetoric suggesting that ‘the media are creating a swirl of moral panic over this issue. Calling a human being, “a monster” is degrading and untruthful – he is not green, breaths fire and has 6 heads!’

The monster discourse is, however, much more complex, as is its rhetoric in its frequent use for the aberrations that may affect human behaviour.  In The Inhuman Jean-Francois Lyotard advances the notion of permeability between human and inhuman conditions: ‘what if human beings, in humanism’s sense, were in the process of, constrained into, becoming inhuman […]? And […] what if ‘proper’ to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?’(2); Lyotard further interrogates the innate essence of being human: ‘what shall we call human in humans, the initial misery of their childhood, or their capacity to acquire a ‘second; nature, which, thanks to language, makes them fit to share in communal life, adult consciousness and reason? (3)’. In his recent cultural study On Monsters, Stephen Asma draws attention to the complex origins of monsters, revealing the converging – and still, in many ways obscure – biological and psychoanalytical stratifications underpinning the cultural and ideological construction of monstrosity. In the chapter dedicated to Criminal Monsters, Asma discusses instances of monstrous criminality from recent history – John Wayne Gacy, Columbine, Fritzl – and fiction/film – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner.

In relation to the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Asma focuses in particular on the crucial question of differentiation between humans and replicants, based on the principle that advanced empathy distinguishes human beings from other creatures (animals, for instance) capable of other, less sophisticated emotions, such as fear. The Voight-Kampf test used to detect such levels of empathic responses, however, fails to give any definitive answers, revealing, instead, varying degrees of empathy even amongst replicants: ‘This reflection takes us beyond the film,’ Asma continues, ‘for we can legitimately ask this same question of the people around us. There appear to be levels of empathy in human beings, from highly sensitive individuals to cold-blooded psychopathic killers. Does having less empathy mean being less human? When we talk of the emotionless individual, we say that he is “cold,” perhaps even “inhuman”. Is compassion for other beings a defining feature of what it means to be human? Does the inability to feel someone else’s suffering make one less of a person and more like a machine or a monster?’ (222-23).

I haven’t watched every episode of Being Human, but I would argue that the series offers some relevant points for discussion. Revolving around a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire sharing a flat in modern-day Britain, the story-line, as its title suggests, interrogates what it means to be human. At one point in the second series, George (the werewolf) claims that his condition is closer to humanity than his flatmates’ status: the life/death divide is the ground on which George makes this judgement. But does a human being ceases to be human after death? Towards the end of series two, Annie (the ghost) feels the need to move beyond the limbo of her situation ad embrace afterlife; what drives her desire to complete the process of her death is the notion that with Mitchell (the vampire) battling with and frequently re-lapsing into his own habit and George going for treatment against his own curse, she would not be able to be seen or interact with anyone else: besides the medium, who can only hear her, only humans exceeding the boundaries of normality – should we call them inhumans? – are allowed to see Annie. Ultimately, what Annie clings on to, is the façade of normal domesticity that she can still perform; without that, she may as well be dead. But this is also what, in fact, Mitchell and especially George aim for: to share an ordinary life, have a family, friends.

Significantly, whilst exposing the ordinary normality of the inhuman, the series reflects on the excessive desires of other characters, who, in the name of humanity, are prepared to kill, torture and cause harm: the most disturbing characters, in this respect, are the representatives of scientific and religious authority: Professor Lucy Jaggat and former Anglican priest Kemp; their drive to rid the world of the evil threat of werewolves and vampires is in itself an ambivalent manifestation of humanism. More frightful than any of the graphic scenes depicting George’s monthly transformations or Mitchell’s human banquets, their experiments in the hyperbaric chamber produce authentic horror.


Oxford English Dictionary

‘Should the public be told why Jon Venables has been recalled to prison?’

Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (Stanford University Press, 1991)
Also available online at:

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Being Human


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