Monstrous class part of course catalogue

Ghouls, graves, and … grades? Tom (Flicker)

RLST 201 takes a look at the ghoulish side of academics

We’ve just dragged ourselves through midterm season, and if you’re like me, you’re already thinking about what classes you’re going to sign up for next semester as you reconsider your course load. I’ve recommended RLST 201 (Ghosts, Monsters and Demons) in the Carillon before, but I think that the Halloween issue is a great place for me to lay out what’s so special about it – or rather, what it represents.

This course is cutting-edge and exciting to have at the U of R, because it’s one of the first in Canada to seriously dip a slimy, clawed toe into the emerging field of “monster studies.” Such a topic is perfect for this time of year, and for this writer’s own very heartfelt interests – to be honest, the whole subject makes my little heart grow three sizes.

The study of monsters is not an officially recognized field of research in academia – yet – but I genuinely suspect that as time goes on it will only become more and more popular among both faculty and students in universities everywhere. The textbook for RLST 201 is Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters, one of the first comprehensive looks at the intellectual theories we can use to consider monsters as a serious cultural phenomenon. The function and status of monsters is examined from a variety of angles by Asma, but the one I will highlight in this article is the idea that monsters breach our categorical conception of reality. Dr. Bill Arnal, who co-teaches RLST 201 with Dr. Kevin Bond, says that this is the angle he has become most attached to when teaching to his students.

Human beings, say theorists such as Asma (and this is the extremely short and simple version), tend to like organizing things into categories, to the point that it may be inherent to the way our brains process information. After all, from an evolutionary perspective, we need to be able to sort out in our minds which wild animals are cute and fluffy and which are out to eat us if we are to survive long-term. Monsters are the things that arise when we come across creatures (or even just ideas of creatures) that do not fit neatly into one category or the other. Asma calls them “liminal beings,” liminal meaning they are on a limit, or straddle a boundary. The more fundamental that boundary is to our sense of reality, the more horrific it is to imagine a monster defying it.

Take, for instance, the border between life and death, one that marks the beginning and end of human existence on earth . . . or does it? The presence of ghosts, zombies, and other undead beings make us confront the possibility of things that are neither alive nor dead. The idea that the distinction between a living person and a corpse might not be so rigid is unnerving – it brings us closer to the taboo and innate fear of death. It’s also interesting, though, and presents us with new possibilities and opportunities. This means we might be able to interact with the dead, or that life and death might have some overlap. Media depictions of the undead and the afterlife will likely never end, because those uncertainties will never stop mattering to us as long as humans live and die.

Consider also borders between humans and animals, male and female, good and evil; borders that are themselves constructed or imagined by us – monsters, or sometimes, regular human beings who are called monsters because they are seen as too strange for society. This is just one of the things that makes Shrek (I say this both genuinely and as a meme) a very important film: it takes a monster, or an ogre, and reveals him as what all monsters really are: outcasts who are ostracized to emphasize who the dominant groups in society are. If ogres are monsters, human beings with non-green skin and fewer layers than an onion are “normal.”

RLST 201 covers a delightful variety of monsters across mythologies from around the world, examining what kind of boundaries are being broken and for what purpose. The second part of the course that Dr. Arnal emphasizes is that monsters, like religious structures and ideas, have a social purpose – they do some kind of work. Yes, we acknowledge that ghosts are scary, but what’s the point of having people be afraid of them? What lesson is being reinforced every time we tell a ghost story, and why does that lesson need to be taught in its cultural context? Is it a warning, an enforcement of conformity, a political statement? These questions are a lot more important than many give them credit for, and while there is always an element of advertising to offering new courses at a university, I don’t think it’s just a superficial fad to want to explore them. A trend of horror-related classes at the U of R still exists that reflects a serious scholarly interest; the English department’s Horror Fiction, Horror Film in the Film department, and the class on the witch hunts, for example.

I myself am something of an aspiring “monsterologist.” My current honours research in Religious Studies focuses on the systems of organizing yokai creatures of Japan – a very broad spectrum of beings ranging from animal beasts to animated objects to ghosts and even gods and demons. Not all of them are what I would consider “monsters,” but these definitions are still murky. It was during RLST 201, in any case, that I realized I cared enough about yokai to study them seriously. I also had the chance through the course’s assignments to write about another kind of monster that interested me – the monstrous killer robot or evil AI present in movies like The Terminator. This paper was the longest I’ve ever written for any class, and ended up going so well that I later presented it at an academic conference. In other words, the intellectual freedom I gained from thinking about monsters, once I was given permission, led me to make new and exciting academic connections.

If you’ve ever given a ghost story or a scary movie more than a second thought, take that interest seriously and consider flexing some of your scholarly muscles in a spookier frame of mind. You might be surprised how quickly you’ll find it to be true that monsters live – and take classes – among us.

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