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Caitlin Irwin | University of Sunderland

English and Creative Writing BA (Hons)

A Talk On Monsters

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you don’t come to one of Dr Alison Younger’s talks, you are truly missing out. On December 1st, at Café Culture in Newcastle, once again, we were all enlightened as Alison took centre stage in talking about the things that go bump in the night. In other words, monsters.

For century’s these creatures of the night have taken over the pages of our books, and scared us silly on our TV screens and according to Dr Alison Younger, they’re not leaving us any time soon. Because gothic sells, monsters sell.

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But why do we enjoy them so much? The things that frighten us at night, it seems strange that we’ve formed an attachment to such creatures. But, when you look at the evidence, it’s overwhelming. In her talk last night, it was said that we need monsters to make us healthy. In her words “We love our monsters – we need them”.   We are joined together against some evil force, it gives us a sense that we are normal, because our monsters are against everything we know, they are everything we are not – or everything we shouldn’t be, at the least.

They are a true reflection of society’s anxieties, which is exactly why the face of the monster is ever-changing. We need only look at Shelley’s Frankenstein, to see how societies fears are reflected in the creatures we create. In a time where science was quickly advancing, not to long before the first surgical transplants – we get Frankenstein’s creature. Made from being put together by various people, the fears of people losing their humanity, of losing what makes them human, is reflected in the very face of this monster. He is totally unacceptable, scapegoated by all of society. But we all know who the real monster is in this gothic-tale.

If we go back further, to the medieval period, we see monsters that are made through spiritual damnation. Society’s fear of the all mighty God was ripe, and this is undoubtedly reflected in their own monsters.  This, is why monsters are so important. Dr Alison Younger claimed “we can learn about the fears, interests and anxieties of that culture through the monster”, and I whole heartedly believe her – and not just because puts on a great talk. It was very often a woman’s fault we saw these damned, evil, creatures, whether they had conceived at the wrong time in their cycle and given birth to a red-head who would emit poisonous fumes from their eyes (which is a comical concept now) or whether a witch had cursed a poor man to be a werewolf – for me, this only shows their fears of female sexuality. This leads to the femme fatale, a seductive woman, who can more often than not be deadly. We can see examples of the femme fatale in poetry, such a Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. The message being, avoid these sexually confident women, they are monsters, and could be the death of you – literally.

The femme fatale is just an example of one our human monsters, and these, according to Alison, are the ones that scare us the most. “They make us look at ourselves, they are a profound mirror”, “They are everything we’d like to do, but we daren’t”, – again, I completely agree. My favourite example of a monster like this is Dorian Gray, he shows societies fears of sin, sexual promiscuity, – basically, a whole host of crimes. But, he, looks just like us – he is human, and this is one the reasons he is so dangerous. We have seen a movement away from abhorrent looking monsters to monsters which have become attractive, in film Dracula has become a lover, in twilight, vampires sparkle.  Our monsters are no longer ugly creatures of the night; they walk with us, talk with us, and even live with us. It was predicted last night, we may see a wave of novels about infections spreading, a reflection of the ebola crisis. We will may even see a return to foreign monsters (such as Dracula), those not from our culture, mirroring the current immigration fears (although they are fears I personally don’t understand, not the point). Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, monsters are not going away, they will continue to plague us and we shall continue to embrace them.

If you are interested in hearing more about Dr Alison Younger’s talk, you can here the entire thing here: https://soundcloud.com/cafeculture-northeast/episode-38-cafe-culturel-our-monsters-ourselves-alison-younger

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The talk was amazing – as expected. Personally I was able to learn a few things, and some new areas I would like to research. For me, the talk was particularly beneficial as in my writing I am interested in exploring how monsters live along side us, and how they are created – nature versus nurture.

After the talk we went down to Newcastle’s beautiful Castle Keep to take some photos, and then to the pub. The little society that has been created, thanks to University of Sunderland’s ‘Spectral Visions’, and Cafe Culture, who allow us to put on talks such as this, is a wonderful one. It’s a place were discussion and debate is encouraged, and everyone is accepted. If you ever get the opportunity, I strongly recommend you get involved.

Peace,

Caitlin x

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