I am in the Child Studies profile of the Social Sciences program. I wrote this essay in my first year for a Reflections course called Don’t Go There: Trespassing, Transgression, and Taboo in Literature and Film. I look back on this class with fondness because I took it when my cegep experience was just beginning. This essay is something of a time capsule for me, as it contains what was on my mind during this optimistic time. It also includes an interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic piece of literature which became my favourite novel: Frankenstein. After immersing myself in the horror and gothic genres in this first English course, I continued my dark literature exploration by taking courses like Domestic Gothic and Reading the Classic Horror Film.
For the course Trespassing, Transgression, and Taboo
By Jadzia Yersh
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s statement that, “[m]onsters are our children” comes to light in two cultural icons: Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie (Cohen 20). The monstrousness channeled through Carrie White and Frankenstein’s creature emerges from how their progenitors treat them as well as the cultural setting surrounding them. This can be explained using Cohen’s seventh thesis: “The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming”. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, what drives the creature to his monstrosity is neglect from his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The willful neglect Victor exercises is a product of culture—how we abject that which we do not want to associate with ourselves. In Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the predominant force that drives Carrie to monstrosity is her mother Margaret White, who takes religion, namely Judaeo-Christianity, to the extreme by imposing unrealistic, old-fashioned rules and expectations in the raising of her child. The radical, obsessive piety which Margaret White exhibits, as well as culture itself, contribute to Carrie’s becoming of a monster. In these two works, Frankenstein’s creature and Carrie are marginalized because they are incompatible with what is considered socially acceptable in their respective cultural environments. This marginalization makes them feel as though they do not belong in society, thus creating resentment toward everyone else.
The literary classic Frankenstein applies to Cohen’s seventh thesis “The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming” with the neglect and abjection that Victor Frankenstein manifests in regard to his creation. The sentence, “[t]his thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (Cohen 20) from Cohen’s thesis resembles Victor’s description of his creature: “The demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life” (Shelley 84). This similarity is indicative of Victor recognizing that he has unleashed a source of evil into the world. To rectify his mistake of creating a monstrous being, he “ardently [wishes] to extinguish that life which [he] had so thoughtlessly bestowed” (112). The creature would not have become monstrous if Victor had cared for him and provided him with a nurturing environment once he brought him to life, as a parent would do for their child. Victor’s neglect of the creature, whom he describes as “more hideous than belongs to humanity” sets him up to become forever deprived of any sense of belonging (99). This treatment at the beginning of the creature’s life was one of the causes of his eventual “disgust and loathing” of humans (135). The creature has the utmost self-awareness and expresses his situation to Victor by stating: “[Y]ou, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing?” (119). This question shows the creature’s unchanging condition as a wretch, because of all people, his own creator refuses to offer him “affection and kindness” (128). Cohen’s thesis comes into play when evaluating why the creature is seen as a monster by surrounding culture. Frankenstein’s creature demonstrates “our cultural assumptions […] our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression”—revealing the significance of prejudice in monster making (Cohen 20). When the creature meets De Lacey, the blind cottager, he tells him exactly that: “My life has been hitherto harmless, […] but a fatal prejudice clouds [my friends’] eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster” (Shelley 147).
Brian De Palma’s classic horror film Carrie (1976) is also applicable to Cohen’s seventh thesis in its portrayal of Margaret White’s religion as a cultural driving force of Carrie’s evil. Carrie’s monstrosity partly comes from her mother’s cruel parenting and abuse of religion. Margaret has been inculcated with the idea that, “Children are wandering through the wilderness of sin” (11:04). To counter this behaviour, she seeks to save them with “[t]he Teenager’s Path to Salvation through the Cross of Jesus” (10:57). Margaret sees sexuality as a taboo and calls Carrie’s breasts “dirty pillows” (53:32). Her notion that puberty, or human nature itself is sinful, affects her daughter in a way that turns her into an outcast that no one her age wants to associate with—a freak. Carrie even gets teased by a younger child riding a bike, tauntingly singing: “Creepy Carrie! Creepy Carrie!” (9:39). Due to her upbringing, Carrie’s self-esteem is low, making her unable to go out and approach other high schoolers in order to make friends. She is aware of her abnormality, so she tries to communicate it to her mother by expressing: “Mama, please see that I’ve gotta try and get along with people better” (45:29). However, Margaret is impenetrable and will not stop at trying to exorcise “Satan’s power” from her child, even if it takes killing her to do it (47:30). Cohen states that, “Monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place” (20). This passage can be related to Carrie’s mother, since she has a skewed conception of reality and expects her daughter to be uncorrupted and free of sexuality. Thus, Margaret misconceives, misrepresents, and misplaces Carrie. All this mark-missing makes for a vulnerable, insecure girl whose wrath is waiting to be unleashed—as an act of vengeance—upon her schoolmates who have bullied her for her eccentricity.
Marginalization in Frankenstein and Carrie drives the two monster figures of each respective story to the execution of their crimes. Frankenstein’s creature and Carrie are afflicted with the condition of being the ‘other’. With their uncanny appearances—the creature being made of reanimated parts of corpses, and Carrie’s blond hair, blue eyes but bony frame—they unintentionally steer society away from them. The parenting they receive —or lack thereof— as well as being ostracized by their community turns them into fiends. The creature voices this to his creator upon their first interaction: “[E]verywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” (Shelley 119). In this passage, Frankenstein’s creature expresses his yearning to be embraced by society. This confession of one’s wretchedness to their progenitor also happens in Carrie, when she declares: “I wanna be normal. I wanna start to try and be a whole person” (45:57). Carrie is saying that she wants to be like her peers, to be accepted by them and to flourish as an individual; not to be an offshoot of her mentally-ill mother who has a bad reputation in the community. Cohen’s seventh thesis is relevant when studying the words “monster” and “demonstrate” which share the same etymological root: the latin word monstrum. Monstrum means a divine omen, a warning, a reminder, or a sign of impending evil. The link between the words “monster” and “demonstrate” conveys that the role of the monster is to demonstrate or point out a truth. This is what Cohen writes in Thesis VII: “[Monsters] bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge” (Cohen 20).
Frankenstein’s creature and Carrie become the monsters they are renowned for today by the treatment they receive from their progenitors and society, which is instrumental in their transformations. Neglect, abuse of religion, and marginalization are some of the mistreatments leading to monster making in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The monstrosity they embody is a demonstration of culture’s categorization of what is different and unwanted—which is explained in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s seventh thesis of his Monster Theory. The monsters they become reveal the defects present in culture and society, and when we encounter them, we are led to question “why we have created them” (Cohen 20). The monsters are our children whom we have pushed aside because they are reminders of our own deep-seated truths. However, when we transgress to “the forbidden recesses of our mind” and find them, they make us “reevaluate” and teach us about ourselves (20).
Carrie. Directed by Brian De Palma, Red Bank Films, 1976.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press. 1996.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. Broadview Press. 2012.