In new series, ASU's 'monster expert' explores how scary myths and legends serve to reflect the evils and fears in human life
Monsters exist across time and culture, from the infamous Count Dracula to the more obscure Filipina vampire creature, the Manananggal, who is said to sprout giant bat wings and fly through the night in search of pregnant women whose blood she greedily sucks with her proboscis-like tongue.
Arizona State University faculty associate and resident monster expert Emily Zarka is well-acquainted with these and many other frightening beasts, both living and undead, though the latter are her favorite. With a pathologist father and a horror-fanatic mother, Zarka likes to say that she was born for the job.
“My dad is the person who does autopsies at the hospital, and some of my earliest memories with my mom are of watching terrible B-science-fiction-movies,” she said. “So I’ve just always loved horror and gothic and monsters. I think those things speak to everyone, but for me, I guess that voice was just a little bit louder.”
Zarka, who earned her doctorate in British Romantic literature from ASU, recently embarked on a project with PBS Digital Studios called “Monstrum.” As part of the Great American Read, the six-episode series that airs on the network's Facebook page explores monsters, myths and legends from a literary perspective. Each episode focuses on a particular monster, delving into the history and theories behind its origin and looking at its meaning in a cultural context and throughout time.
“Monsters show us who we are under the guise of normalcy and civility,” Zarka said. “Monsters are both our greatest desires and our biggest fears. They educate us and police us. … Monsters occupy the dark corners of human culture, defined by their ability to inspire fear or terror, revealing the anxieties of any given society at the moment of their creation.”
The concept for “Monstrum” came out of a visit to Washington, D.C., where Zarka gave a presentation on why monsters matter at ASU’s new Ambassador Barbara Barrett & Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center in March. She was there as one of three ASU graduate students nominated to participate in Knowledge Mobilization, a movement that encourages scholars to share their research with the broader community.
While sharing with colleagues that one of her life goals was to contribute commentary about monsters on networks like PBS, National Geographic and the History Channel as “Dr. Emily Zarka, monster expert,” one of them asked her, “Why just be the expert when you can be the show?”
She pitched the idea to PBS and they bit (no pun intended).
“I like to say that I’m trying to do with monsters what Anthony Bourdain did for food,” Zarka said. “Showing that it’s a way we can unite as a people and that we’re actually not that different because creating monsters, though specific to our different environments and regions, is something that as humans we’ve always done, which I think is very powerful.”
Since filming of the series began, Zarka has learned of even more fascinating creatures, including the aforementioned Manananggal; the Jorōgumo, a Japanese shape-shifting female monster who seduces and eats men; and the Yara-ma-yha-who, an Australian monster that resembles a giant red frog with blood-sucking suction cups for fingers.
ASU Now met with Zarka at the Tempe Center for the Arts, where the “Monster Stories” exhibition she contributed to is on display through Jan. 5. Amid life-size depictions of Dracula and an authentic recreation of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, she displayed an uncanny knowledge of a menagerie of foul beings and chilling tales, and why they continue to fascinate.
Question: What have you learned about humans from studying monsters?
Answer: My dissertation looked at representations of undead characters in literature from about 1800–1850, so earlier than some of the other classic texts. Definitely before Dracula. And I actually identified what I believe to be the first female vampire in English literature in an unknown text by an anonymous author, and the first male vampire actually, I think was written by a woman: Charlotte Dacre, in her poetry collection “Hours of Solitude.”
Then I started looking where I could find any tangible reanimated corpse in literature in the Romantic period. And I noticed that women were a very huge thread that ran through everything. Either the women writing about undead monsters or the undead monsters being written about were women. And I came to realize … that, I think, Romantic writers were using the undead to sort of police different cultural values and boundaries. Especially concerning ideas of revolution; you literally had the uprising of living bodies circling the globe at the time. And I think that really permeated what the British were trying to do with their construction of national identity, thinking about how they could be different and avoid a revolution — which happened in their territories — on their own soil. And I think women played an important role in the construction of that. And the gothic genre was stereotypically assumed to be written mostly for women. So I think that gave both female and male authors freedom to play with some ideas of what is and is not acceptable.
When I look at monsters in general, I like to say that monster history is human history. It’s a really approachable way to connect with lots of different groups of people across different eras and continents and backgrounds. It’s not as scary to talk about racism or sexism or even holocausts if we can put a sort of placeholder figure that we can project our anxieties onto and talk about it a little bit more freely when there’s not an actual person or figure behind it.
Q: What is your favorite monster?
A: The undead. One hundred percent. And the undead as broadly as possible. But my definition of the undead is that it has to be a life that existed before it died and was then reanimated. So I don’t think that Frankenstein’s creature is undead. If he didn’t exist before all those parts were combined together, then for me, he can’t be undead. It’s his first chance at life.
But there’s something very scary and powerful about the undead. From the cultures I’ve seen so far, across time, everyone has some kind of undead thing. We seem to have this common fear or anxiety that there isn’t an afterlife or that it won’t be a good thing, that we’ll literally be cursed to walk this Earth forever, usually with some terrible side effect, like having to drink blood or eat flesh. Even reanimated mummies are usually tortured or cursed in some way.
Q: Do different monsters represent different things?
A: Oh, absolutely. There are some prototypes that exist, like the undead exist in every single culture throughout history that I’ve been able to explore. The Haitian zombie is a good example of a monster with a very, very specific background. The Haitian zombie is directly linked to slavery in Haiti. Because what’s the only thing worse than death? Being enslaved in life. So it was their greatest fear. There’s this idea of a Bokor, sort of a dark magic-practicing priest, who could enslave both your soul and your body after life. So you would never be able to go to the afterlife you were promised. Instead, you were forced to toil for a master for all eternity. The Haitian zombie pops up in American Western literature in the early 1900s I believe, right around the American occupation of Haiti. So there’s definitely a clear link to slavery in zombies.
Q: Do you believe in monsters?
A: I do. I use the word “monster” as a very broad term. I think that it would be naïve of us to look back hundreds and even thousands of years at different societies and cultures and say, “What you believed isn’t true.” Because for them, it 100 percent existed and was real. Of course, (if) you didn’t know what a dinosaur was, you were going to think it was a monster. I define a monster as any creature or being meant to inspire fear but also educate in some way. It has to have some kind of mythology around it. That could be a living human person. Hitler is a good example of someone we conceptualize as being monstrous. And part of that is because of the stories and the myths that we connect to him. Some being true, some not. The monster blends fact and fiction, and in that sense, yes, I believe monsters are real. I mean, do I necessarily think that vampires, like blood-sucking humans, actually exist? No. But I think that the concept of the monster is a very real entity that does exist, yeah. And I think that humans can be monstrous as well. Don’t get me started about like, the Kraken and all that. … There are parts of even our world that we haven’t explored yet. So maybe things that we think are monstrous now will be explained in the future.
Q: What is your favorite scary story or novel?
A: I might have to give you top three. “Frankenstein” is probably one of my favorite books of all time. Shelley just did so much for sci-fi and for gothic. She very eloquently addressed the question of "What is a monster?" Can humans be monsters? What conceptualizes a monster? Because I don’t see Frankenstein’s monster as being monstrous. I think that he is more of a victim of nurture rather than nature. And I think that in itself is a really powerful lesson about how we should educate our children and the life-forms that we do create.
I also love “The Shining.” It touches on themes that the movie doesn’t. And “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson. A "Twilight Zone" episode was based on it. It’s the one where this man is on a plane and he’s already nervous about flying and he looks and he sees this hairy creature pulling off parts of the plane wing. But every time he gets someone to look, it’s not there, so no one believes him. It plays with the idea that flight is unnatural for humans. The fact that we can fly, that we have the technology to do it is scary and frightening.
Q: What’s your favorite scary movie?
A: Favorite scary movie of all time probably is “Halloween.” It’s one of the first slasher films. “Black Christmas” I think was the first, but “Halloween” definitely solidified the genre. I came to “Halloween” when I was a teenager, so there’s something very scary about being alone in your home, sometimes for the first time, and the idea of this masked man. Because he’s male; I don’t think “Halloween” — or most slasher movies for that matter — would be as scary if it wasn’t a large man threatening to attack a young girl. Obviously there are sexual assault allusions. And we see that even in some of the ways that slasher villains kill their victims. It’s usually very penetrative, so there’s very phallic imagery there. There’s a lot about violation of the body, which actually, vampires do as well. Their fangs and the sexuality associated with them. But I think “Halloween” is like a slow burn. The music is great. I teach film classes as well, so for me, I love the camera angles and the cinematography and the sound and Jamie Lee Curtis. And the one scene where she looks out and he’s right by the clothing line, and then he’s gone! That terrifies me. But I think maybe I really like “Halloween” because it feels like it could happen. That’s a real thing that does happen. Stalkers and killers are out there; this one just happens to be wearing a mask.
“Night of the Living Dead” is my second favorite. Because Romero introduced the Romero zombie. He was the first one who really — at least on film — depicted a zombie different from the Haitian zombie. Although there’s still definitely some allusion to it. But before that, it was movies like “White Zombie” or “I Walked With a Zombie,” which were usually set on some sort of colonized continent. Usually zombies were either beautiful white women being controlled by evil foreign men or black people being turned into zombies. So Romero did something different. I also really liked “Get Out.” I think what Jordan Peele did with that movie is astounding because not only is it a movie that is specifically about the black experience in America, but his symbolism is both so obvious and so covert. I’ve watched that movie probably seven times and I see something different every time, like with the paintings or the colors the characters are wearing and that kind of thing.
Q: Some people argue that “Get Out” isn’t a horror film, that it’s more like a social commentary film.
A: I think all horror is social commentary. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, like with “Get Out.” But even “Rosemary’s Baby” is social commentary. And again, I think part of that is because the monster or monstrous characters give us a fictional evil that we can sometimes vanquish on screen, and that gives us hope that we’ll be able to vanquish the real demons that exist in our own world.
Top photo: ASU faculty associate Emily Zarka poses for a portrait in front of the Tempe Center for the Arts on Oct. 4. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now