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A Monster Problem

By Kim MacQueen

We should be afraid very— afraid. Monsters have escaped popular culture and now lurk through public policy and education.

There are monsters among us. They haunt our books, our newspapers—and to our unending delight, our movie houses.

Not just in the Godzilla vs. Mothra movies, but really among us-infamous fiends from the global stage (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) not to mention from our own neighborhoods (e.g. Manson, Bundy, Dahmer). These ogres could be in the news or around the corner; they could be any of the thousands of official sexual predators whose addresses we now know, thanks to Megan's Law.

On TV, George W. Bush successfully painted Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as monsters, using the same rhetoric to describe America's enemies as we've always used to describe vampires on Creature Feature. And that, says an FSU critic of film and literature is no coincidence.

Caroline "Kay" Picart, assistant professor of English, studies the darkest sides of culture, the gothic realm of humanity which writers and filmmakers find irresistible. She's logged thousands of hours watching horror films from Frankenstein to Hannibal, and has published several discussions of power, gender and the monstrous in a growing list of journals and books in the last few years.

Picart is among a growing number of scholars now writing quite literally on the monstrous side of pop culture, where icons of evil snarl and titillate almost always in a blur of fact and fiction. Although she's versed in many facets of pop culture, Picart specializes in what she calls "the faces of the monster," focusing on monstrosity primarily as depicted in film.

Early in her career, Picart spent a lot of time demystifying the myth of the Frankenstein monster, only to find the elements of classic gothic "monsterism" spreading up through 20th century horror movies and into historical accounts of modern-day evil-doers like Adolf Hitler. She's since found a lot of these same gothic elements in journalism, not the least of which was President Bush's public policy statements vilifying Saddam Hussein.

Months before it was politically expedient for him to identify the now-deposed Iraqi leader as a monster, Bush took pains to identify Saddam Hussein as evil incarnate. It was evident Bush included Hussein's Iraq in his infamous reference to the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.

"We are vulnerable to evil people," Bush said recently. "And this vulnerability increases dramatically when evil people have access to weapons of mass destruction." No one was surprised when Bush stuck close by this analogy of Hussein as monster as his administration marched toward war with Iraq last March.

"I've started looking at the face of the monster in relation to horror themes in film," Picart explains, "and how journalistic and documentary motifs exploit human suffering in order to fulfill some sort of entertainment value and convince people of certain 'truths' by blurring fact and fiction.""

Why do seemingly straight journalists and documentary filmmakers draw on the gothic? Because it works, she says. The gothic inspires a combination of attraction and revulsion that seldom fails to generate interest in either fiction or nonfiction subjects. Even though we're scared of monsters, we're inexplicably drawn to them for their unfailing entertainment value.

A Serious Case for Monsters? "Monsters most powerfully evoke not only our deepest fears ad taboos, but also our most repressed fantasies and desires," say Kay Picart (above)

"Monsters most powerfully evoke not only our deepest fears and taboos, but also our most repressed fantasies and desires."

In the introduction to a paper recently published in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, as well as a forthcoming anthology, Picart and FSU criminologist Cecil Greek write that "the 'monster' or contemporary 'fallen angel' is simultaneously a figure of horror and repulsion, as it is of fascination and charisma; both subhuman and superhuman; and remarkably similar to the 'normal' and strikingly deviant at same time."

Picart and Greek argue that the gothic outlook informs not only public perception of a serial killer but also informs the field of criminology at the same time, helping it to define the very essence of evil and deal with it more effectively.

"The ongoing fascination with the serial killer, both in the Hollywood film and criminological case studies, points to the emergence of gothic criminology, with its focus on themes such as blood lust, compulsion, godlike vengeance, and power and domination," Picart and Greek write.

Gothic criminology likens modern-day serial killers to vampires popularized in the early 19th century by Lord Byron and Bram Stoker, as well as to today's Hannibal Lecter. Pseudo-documentary depictions of serial killers in movies like Ed Gein and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer only take poetic liberties with history; their pretense at reality only enhancing their scare value, Picart said.

As any fan of slasher flicks will tell you, Hollywood directors are superb at exploiting the attraction/repulsion fans feel for grisly murders and scintillating stalking scenes. Film students, trained to see beyond mechanics, know precisely why the shower scene works so well in Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960). As Norman Bates peers through the peephole at the doomed Marion, both the camera and the viewer assume his gaze. We're invited to participate in Norman's voyeurism. We watch Marion suffer in minute detail, and when she's murdered, it's as though we've taken part.

That Picart and other scholars are picking up on these days is evidence that the shock value of such horror flicks is so successful at filling theaters that the same cinematic devices are showing up in films being passed off as either documentaries or something closely akin to them, e.g. "docu-dramas." All the usual pedigreed chroniclers of modern events—documentary filmmakers, journalists and historians-historically trusted to give us the facts and nothing but are using voyeurism and monster-movie techniques to make their subjects scarier or more bizarre than they ever were in life. Critics charge that, at the least, the tactic is distorting the public's notions about history.

No better example is Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's 1993 depiction of the life of Oscar Schindler, the German businessman credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Jews during WWII. The film is widely regarded as a relatively balanced account of the events of the Holocaust, not a horror movie. Teachers use to help explain the wholesale murder of European Jews between 1939 and 1945. Many applaud their efforts, even regarding them as crucial in the face of a small but insistent number of denials that the events ever took place.

Schindler's List set Hollywood machinery in motion to present such a critically acclaimed, moving account of the Holocaust that more than a few sober critics slipped into describing the film as, at the least, a clever pseudo-documentary—a legitimate blend of fact and fiction.

It's not. As Picart and co-author David Frank write in a new book examining both fictional and pseudo-documentary depictions of the Holocaust, Spielberg leans heavily on conventions of gothic horror films in Schindler's List to assure the viewer's gut-level emotional response. The resulting film deviates markedly not only from fact and survivor testimony but also from the novel of the same name by Thomas Keneally, on which the movie is based.

"Schindler's List is more akin to a classic horror movie than a contemporary or postmodern horror film in that like the classic Frankenstein or Dracula films, it presents its fiends as unproblematic embodiments of Evil, which have to be ruthlessly and ritualistically killed off at the end," Picart and Frank write in the book The Holocaust as Horror-Psychological Thriller, under review at Southern Illinois University Press.

Admittedly, viewers—especially Holocaust survivors—might forgive Spielberg a little poetic license. A major problem documentary filmmakers have always faced in dealing with the Holocaust is that this sordid chapter of the last century so defies the limits of people's imaginations that to adequately describe the event they feel compelled to borrow from the vocabulary of the gothic.

The problem with Schindler's List is that in Spielberg's zeal to make the film as frightening as possible, it flies right through the gothic and into the world of pure fiction. In the movie's shower scene, female concentration camp victims are forced to strip and descend into the bowels of a shower they fear is a gas chamber. Audience members are primed, la Psycho, to expect to witness murder.

But Picart says that based on survivor accounts, both Schindler men and women were sent to Auschwitz where they died together. Separating the women in the movie only exploits their victimhood to set up a horrifying scene that capitalizes on and eroticizes their nakedness and vulnerability. Spielberg took deliberate pains to insert this scene-it wasn't in the original script. Why then, if the director meant to make a movie ostensibly based on fact, would he have chosen to play up such a sensationalist victimization of women— la Dracula, Frankenstein and Freddy Kruger ?

"That's the question we're asking," says Picart. "How does one consume these images critically, while at the same time presenting an attitude of sympathy and respect for the victims of the trauma?"

The naked (and unsurprising) truth? It's all about show business, she said.

Increasingly, today's money-and-sex-mad pop culture taints everything it touches, from education to entertainment-and too many of us are oblivious to it. The wholesale borrowing between fact and fiction colors everything from 48 Hours to Hollywood terrorism movies to the front page of the best daily newspapers on the planet.

Picart thinks such fusion is inescapable-filmmakers have never been policed by historians and never will be. But viewers don't have to be mindless victims of filmmakers' manipulative tricks if they choose not to be, she said. They can realize that every time they log onto the Internet, watch TV or settle into a theater seat they are likely to have their emotional buttons pushed so that somebody somewhere can make a buck. If viewers filter everything they see (and much of what they read) through that awareness, in the end they'll be better informed.

"Maybe the question is not so much, 'can we ever absolutely achieve an accurate or absolutely truthful conventional representation of trauma?' but instead, 'how should we respond to all these different representations,'" Picart said.

"For me that's where the ethical response can be better managed, instead of trying to seek this ideal. Perhaps in the process of being critics and self-aware voyeurs, we can rewrite the story."

And in the end, keep our own monsters of ignorance at bay.