'What Makes a Monster?'

Marie Antoinette as a grinning harpy devouring hogs, “Harpie Monstre Amphibie vivante,” engraving (1784) (all images courtesy USC Libraries)

From medical deformities to military enemies, the impulse to turn the unknown and threatening into mythical monsters has endured for centuries. What Makes a Monster? is an exhibition threading through five libraries on the two campuses of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, examining through art, literature, and other cultural objects who or what has been labeled a beast.

“Jo-Jo” known as the “Dog-Faced Boy,” from ‘Side Show’ (New York: Amjon, 1975) (click to enlarge)

“For example, in our political science library we looked at the notion of man-as-monster, which led us to examine how propaganda can cleverly position political leaders as bloodthirsty tyrants and revolutionaries as serial killers,” Tyson Gaskill, who co-curated the exhibition with Anne-Marie Maxwell, told Hyperallergic. “In our science library we really broadened the scope to include everything from deep-sea fish to viruses to black holes, all of which we found to be described in the press as ‘monstrous’ a surprising number of times.”

There are also medical documents dated well into the 1950s on people with disease, genetic defects, and other abnormalities described as “monsters,” and in the main Treasure Room exhibition in the Doheny Memorial Library, themes are framed around mythology, religion, fairytales, unconscious fears, and innate human behavior. The specific subjects of each library offered opportunities to explore these areas further through their respective materials, whether fine art, science, medicine, or international affairs. For instance, in the later 1900s nuclear fear inspired colossal mutations in such creatures as Godzilla, reflecting anxiety about the unfathomable power contained in atomic devices. “As the threat has receded we’ve seen a decrease in such depictions,” Gaskill explained. “However, one can say issues of gender identity and demonizations of the LGBTQ community took their place.” Through the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries, the world’s largest repository for LGBTQ materials, they were able to highlight this more contemporary aspect of the “monster,” while contrasting with the science materials to show different aspects of demonization through the 20th century.

Animation of the digital wall entry for ‘What Makes a Monster?’ by Kurosh ValaNejad

One of the central rare books in What Makes a Monster? is the illustrated 1642 Monstrorum Historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, with drawings of rumored monsters from around Europe. The cross-campus collaborative exhibition led to the involvement of USC Cinematic Arts student Kurosh ValaNejad who created a digital entry wall, where with each step forward a different Aldrovandi monster morphs on the screen, until it goes blank and reflective, with the words “of you” briefly appearing below the show’s title.

Last year the British Museum opened an exhibition on the changing appearance of the witch, and Stanford University organized an exhibition on the visualization of the devil over five centuries. We’re able to look back and recognize the absurdities of human-faced birds or nine-headed serpents existing on some foreign land, but all of these exhibitions demonstrate the power of contorting a misunderstood or feared “other” into a grotesque abomination as a tool of control, degradation, and alienation. As Gaskill put it: “It leaves one to wonder if the real monster is not the snarling, red-eyed beast but rather the far-reaching and fantastic depths of the human imagination.”

‘Astounding Science Fiction,’ vol. 61, no. 3 (May 1958)

Soviet propaganda poster, “Kill The Imperialistic Monster” (1919)

Anti-US “Liberators” poster from occupied Holland (1944)

“Buer” from ‘Demonographia’ (Seattle: Trident Books, 1999)

“Dance of the Sabbath” from ‘Demonographia’ (Seattle: Trident Books, 1999)

“Amon,” from ‘Demonographia’ (Seattle: Trident Books, 1999)

“Garuda” from ‘Demonographia’ (Seattle: Trident Books, 1999)

“Eurynome” from ‘Demonographia’ (Seattle: Trident Books, 1999)

Isidore Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, ‘Histoire générale et particulière des anomalies . . .’ (Paris: J.-B. Baillière, 1832)

Pierre Belon, “Pictura piscis Monachi,” from ‘De aquatilibus, libri duo’ (Paris: Charles Estienne,1553)

‘Le Sifflet,’ vol. 27 (July 26, 1872)

David Wisniewski, “Golem” (New York: Clarion Books, 1996)

Max Ernst, “Une semaine de bonté” (New York: Dover, 1976)

Still from the movie ‘Dracula’ (1931), starring Bela Lugosi

Edward Gorey, “Gorey Posters” (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1979)

Still from the movie ‘Freaks’ (1932)

Promotional brochure for ‘The Wolfman’ (1941)

What Makes a Monster? continues at five library locations at the University of Southern California (3601 Watt Way, Los Angeles) through May 31. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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