On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

Stephen T. Asma
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 351 + xii pages, hardcover, $27.95.

My interest in all things macabre drew me to Stephen T. Asma's On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, and I was not disappointed. The book lures readers in with promises of demons, witchcraft, mythical creatures, malformed circus performers, and serial killers. Asma traces the perception of monsters from the melodramatic writings of the ancient world to the cutting-edge transhuman philosophers of the twenty-first century, stopping along the way to have a look at demonic possession, Darwinian natural selection, taxidermy, embryonic morphology, xenophobia, and artificial intelligence. With so many diverse fields of study within its pages, On Monsters is a veritable Hydra-headed demon.

But just like the case of the infamous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the monstrous fade of On Monsters is but one side of the coin, the other being a comprehensive historical study that spans the realms of physiology, psychology, and religion. This book is far more than a survey of monstrous phenomena—it is a work that explores the social evolution of humankind.

Asma demonstrates that in every era, perceptions of monsters are colored by historical context. In the ancient world monsters were a tool of patriarchal machismo, ready-made beasts for manly heroes to conquer. In the church-dominated medieval period, everything was viewed through a Christian lens; monsters were either demonic abominations or members of deformed races whose baptism and salvation were a very real concern. The Enlightenment severed the cord between physiology and theology, and folded the study of monsters into the fields of medicine and science. Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung established a new era in human psychology, and introduced empathy and emotional pathology into the equation—both of which are critical in the study of serial killers and terrorists, who bear the label "monster" in our contemporary milieu. And postmoderns, in their effort to deconstruct all categories, make monsters of rationalists and theologians who still cling to outdated philosophies.

Asma explores all these categories in light of philosophy, natural history, and popular culture. He cites a wide variety of historical and cultural sources, from Aristotle and St. Augustine to the films of David Lynch and the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. But he brings his quirky personality to the table, too, which makes On Monsters a thoroughly enjoyable read. His accessible style lends itself well to complex concepts like evolutionary biology and nanotechnology, all of which he demystifies for the benefit of the layperson. Asma also has a keen sense of humor, which is evident in his choice of historical case studies, such as witches who were accused of stealing men's genitalia. He balances this wit with genuine concern and compassion for those who have been persecuted because of their physical appearance or ethnicity or social standing. The book includes a series of drawings courtesy of the author himself, which serve to heighten both the horror and absurdity of the subject matter.

The truth is that On Monsters isn't really about monsters at all. It's a book about us—all of us, throughout history—and how we perceive and react to those creatures, people, and ideologies that we deem to be "monstrous." While our perceptions and technology have evolved over time, Asma is careful to point out that some of the old models still apply. We still enjoy vicarious heroic monster-slaying in video games and comic books, the Catholic Church still employs exorcisms, and the Loch Ness monster continues to draw crowds to the Scottish Highlands. After centuries of trying to tame and "civilize" the horrific, we still haven't succeeded. Asma assures us that the monstrous is alive and well, still breathing its acrid smoke, still wrapping its tentacles around our collective imagination. And no matter how many times we try to kill it, it always comes back for more.

Rev. Seth Ethan Carey

The reviewer is the associate minister of the First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and an occasional speaker at the TS. His interests include demonology, theodicy, and esoteric Judeo-Christian traditions.