Spectral Perspectives: Eilís Phillips

In this series of blog posts, members of the Supernatural Cities project at the University of Portsmouth outline their own research, introducing their different disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the urban supernatural.

Eilís Phillips is a PhD student and Tutor in the Centre for European and International Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth. Her research explores the concept of monstrous citizenship in Britain from 1780 to 1850.

In Search of Monsters

Throughout my postgraduate studies, my goal has been to understand why and how people and societies create stories about monsters. Within the remit of my PhD research, I’m interested in seeking out monster narratives in late eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century British newspapers, periodicals and printed ephemera. More generally, I look for monsters in everyday life: in contemporary fiction, folklore, urban legends, the news cycle, or even in street art and music.

Detail from a stained glass window in the church of Saint-Martin in Florac (Wikimedia Commons)

‘Monster’ is a capacious and potentially problematic term, tasked as it is with encompassing a vast menagerie of imagined beings. Any attempt to homogenise such beings – frequently exotic hybrids in form – under a single definition risks stripping them of their inherent heterogeneity.[1] The monstrosity of monsters is not only physical, or tangible, however, but can be noncorporeal and hermeneutic as well.[2] Our readings of monsters are monstrous – problematic because the monster, as “that which should not be”, should theoretically cease to become monstrous the instant we gain an understanding of it.[3] Usually within academic study, this involves a feat of reverse engineering, a deconstruction of the monster’s appearance in society and an unravelling of their creation story in order to discover the cultural anxieties which spawned them.[4]

Slender Man street art (user mdl70 on Flickr.com)

The etymology of the word monster is consistent with this process, implying something which entails a voyage of discovery: “that which reveals, that which warns, a glyph that seeks a hierophant”.[5] Those who seek out monsters to reveal their secrets are their decoders. Part of the job of the monster scholar is to try to decipher the warnings, forbidden desires, or repressed emotions locked within the monsters of every society studied. There are, of course, familiar overlaps, shapes which loom large across multiple time periods and cultures. The bogeyman is a monster who, like the figure of the vampire, may be vanquished individually, but as a collective mythic form refuses to be completely eradicated, instead returning time and again.[6] Not only that, it is one which evolves with each encounter, or each telling of the monstrous tale. Thus, the bogeyman as a beast created to scare children into good behaviour might take the form of Krampus in Continental Europe, or Tonton Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack) in Haiti.[7] More recently, Slenderman has come to haunt our children – a horror of stretched proportions who exists in so-called ‘creepypasta’ nightmares on the internet but is real enough to incite violence and moral panic.[8]

Krampus c. 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

Concerning myself primarily with historical monsters, in my daily research I encounter domesticated goblins, demons with savour-faire, seductive fairy queens, and spirits which haunt the depths of mine shafts. What interests me most are the spaces which such monsters occupy or are associated with. By spaces, I mean the lairs of monsters, or the environments they exist within, which in many ways influence and enable their monstrous identities. Mines as liminal, underground cities of labour are a prime example of monstrous spaces with their own brand of folklore.[9] They have been depicted as dark, damp, hellish, treacherous holes in the earth where noxious gases billowed to confound miners, and which were blamed for ghostly sightings as a result. Sounds are amplified too, and made to seem otherworldy: Victorian miners talked of experiencing ‘knockers’, mining spirits which made taps underground, sometimes helpful, sometimes malicious.[10] Within the context of the Supernatural Cities project, I am interested in muddling the distinction between urban and rural folklore, questioning what makes a monstrous space particularly one or the other. I recently gave a paper at the Urban Weird conference exploring this overlap, examining the urban-rural cross-overs in nineteenth-century newspaper and pamphlet stories of arson and arsonists as demons.[11]

Finally, when I said I was interested in spaces of monstrosity, I also meant the space which monstrosity occupies within our imagination. While it might seem rational to suppose that monsters (especially supernatural ones) exist only in the world of fiction, to my mind, they are more present than that. That just as we conceptualise aspects of our real life as elements of daydreams, or fantasy, so monsters creep into those conceptualisations and become embedded in our understandings of the ‘real’ world. The practice of imagining monsters can make the tangible world indistinguishable from the fantastical, doing so in a fashion which appears both ‘second-nature’ and affective. As Cohen argues, “monsters are our children”, they are a part of us.[12] They are not true representations of the outside ‘other’. Instead they are conceptualisations of emotions and ideas which originate and reside as the phantoms of uncertainty within each of us. Seeing the monster prompts us to ask the question, what does it mean to be human?

‘The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania’ (1849) by Joseph Noel Paton (National Gallery of Scotland)

Notes

[1] These hybrids might be a splicing of animal parts, perhaps most famously found in Greek mythology such as the Chimera (lion, goat, and snake), or an amalgamation of human and animal, such as the Minotaur (head of a bull, body of a man). See: Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, “Chimera” and “Minotaur” in The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (Ashgate Publishing, 2014).

[2] Lawrence D. Kritzman, “Representing the Monster: Cognition, Cripples, and Other Limp Parts in Montaigne’s ‘Des Boyteux,'” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 181.

[3] Jeffrey Weinstock, “Introduction: Monsters are the Most Interesting People,” in The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters.

[4] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory, ed.  Cohen, 4.

[5] Cohen, “Monster Culture,” 4.

[6] For more, see: Sam George, and Bill Hughes, eds. Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present Day (Manchester University Press, 2013); Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock (Vintage, 2000); John Widdowson, “The Bogeyman: Some Preliminary Observations on Frightening Figures,” Folklore 82, no. 2 (1971): 99-115.

[7] See for example: Maurice Bruce, “The Krampus in Styria.” Folklore no. 1 (1958): 45-47; Robert Lamb, “The Krampus Gallery of Holiday Doom!How Stuff Works; Amy E. Potter, “Voodoo, Zombies, and Mermaids: U.S Newspaper Coverage of Haiti.” Geographical Review 99, no. 2 (2009): 227 [note 1].

[8] See for example: Shira Chess, and Eric Newsom, Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slenderman: The Development of an Internet Mythology (New York: Palgrave, 2015); “Episode 1: Slender Man – with guest Dr Andrea Kitta.” The Folklore Podcast (2016).

[9] Eilís Phillips, “Ghosts, Angels & Death Omens: The Seven Whistlers in Mining Folklore,” Folklore Thursday.

[10] James C. Baker, “Echoes of Tommy Knockers in Bohemia, Oregon, Mines.” Western Folklore 30, no. 2 (1971): 119-22.

[11] The paper was part of our third Supernatural Cities conference, kindly hosted by the University of Hertfordshire’s Open Graves Open Minds project.

[12] Cohen, “Monster Culture,” 20.

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