Dr Alison Younger, senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland, gave a talk at Newcastle’s Café Culture on Monday 1st December. Speaking volumes of Dr Younger’s talent and reputation, the usual café arrangement of the venue was set out for a more formal talk to accommodate for the interest in Dr Younger’s research.
The talk was entitled Our Monsters, Ourselves, and it was at its core an exploration of how monsters are made and why we need them to be made. The entire transcript can be heard here, thanks to the Café Culture podcast.
Dr Younger made reference to some of the most enduring staples in Gothic characters: vampires, werewolves and Mr Hyde to name a few, but countless others to illustrate her points. She outlined some ancient and folkloric beliefs in what makes a monster—in most cases it seems it was simply a case of bad seed—and fascinated the audience with historical tidbits. For example, did you know that a medieval belief was that a child conceived by a menstruating woman would either be a redhead with poisonous fumes coming from their eyes, or else be a werewolf? Or that the first recorded English vampire was from Bedlington in Northumberland?
Another interesting point made was how we have tamed our monsters in to something more desirable and less horrific. A shining and glittering example is that of the alluring-to-some Edward Cullen. Edward Cullen is a vampire, but he sparkles and abstains from drinking human blood. Dr Younger talks briefly about the censorship for the sake of religious propaganda, but reminds us that the Cullens are not isolated incidents. Bram Stoker’s Dracula creates a romantic Dracula to seduce the English women; Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies has tamed the zombie in to a love interest with a cloying message of a love that makes us feel alive; the Byronic Hero has existed in many mediums and forms, and these paranormal and supernatural revivals are nothing unexpected.
Points of debate were raised. Who is the real monster: Victor Frankenstein or the Creature? Perhaps more controversially, who is the real monster between Edward Cullen and Isabella Swan? If you have a response, leave a comment!
The monster has been there since the beginning of our histories—both our personal history and our societal history. They are fearful, they are obscene and we cannot codify them despite how we want to. Despite this Monster Theory, a relatively new field of study headed by Jeffery Jerome Cohen, attempts just that. Dr Younger evaluates this with a critical eye and concludes that Monster Theory is not only interesting, but it is vital to our understanding of the monster.
One point raised which the admin particularly enjoyed was the role of the female monster. Dr Younger illustrates with the idea of the werewolf. A male werewolf is a poor, wretched soul who is cursed to endure indescribable pain. He is reluctant and sympathetic, a la The Camp of the Dog or Remus Lupin. The female werewolf is a PMT joke and nowhere near as sympathetic, like White Fell or Ginger Snaps. Dr Younger attributes the popularity of the femme fatale figure in Victorian Gothic literature to the societal anxieties of the shifting roles of the woman.
There is plenty more to say about the talk. It was tragically short at 35 minutes and the audience was demonstrably infatuated with what Dr Younger had to say. The Q&A session that ran after the talk, which was regrettable not recorded, included questions of domesticated monsters, Irish horrors and the ending of Carrie. Everyone was desperate to learn more.
Society loves our monsters. This is fact. And the audience loved Dr Younger’s take on them. This, too, is fact.
To read the response of a student in the audience, see this post over at Writing North East. And please do listen to the podcast. It is both educational and entertaining, delivered with a flair that only Dr Younger has. To see more of her lectures, please see the Media Gallery on the navigation bar.