Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear

By Marina Warner. 2007. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 472 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8131-9174-4 (soft cover).


Reviewed by K. A. Laity, The College of Saint Rose

[Review length: 891 words • Review posted on January 9, 2008]


Originally published with the evocative (if less transparent) title, No Go the Bogeyman; Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock, Warner’s volume delves into the fraught relations of pleasure and pain associated with fear. At a time when fear seems to be the major marketing tool of the twenty-four hour news channels, it can be difficult to remember that fear can provide exhilaration as well as anxiety. But the sudden resurgence of horror films--albeit primarily in the limited subgenre dubbed “torture porn”--points to the valuable (and controlled) frisson fictions of fear offer.

Despite the American and academic-friendly re-titling, the book is the same one, even including the original title on even numbered pages. Fortunately, this means, too, that the wealth of images, including the two sections of color plates, remains. Warner has an impeccable eye for choosing pictures that leap straight into the subconscious and weight her arguments with the power of the mythic. While as a medievalist I would disagree with her assertion that “scariness…is perhaps a modern affect, a symptom of the late twentieth century” (fear after all served as the primary form of rhetoric in the Middle Ages from visions of hell to tales of devilish temptation), Warner nonetheless follows the threads of fear through history with a delight and infectious curiosity. The central mystery of our desire for that which terrifies us still confounds many who would do anything rather than attend the latest horror film.

The book is divided into the three chapters of the original subtitle. The initial section, “Scaring,” jumps into a discussion of the bogeyman himself. “The question ‘Who eats and who gets eaten?’ reverberates in the material of bogeydom,” Warner argues (12). She uses this motif to explore the cannibalistic tendencies in figures as diverse as the ogre, the vampire, and the werewolf. The metaphor of food as survival allows us to understand both the threat involved and the ease with which we appropriate the monster’s hunger. Warner recognizes, too, that “fear is the child’s bedfellow,” for the world is unknown, the dark night is long, and the protection of parents limited. Stories like Goethe’s Erlking and David McKee’s Not Now Bernard suggest that both death and monstrousness result directly from parental neglect. The bogeyman’s frightening familiarity also lends an extra layer of horror, Warner argues, as she details the mythic source of Kronos/Saturn, the original devouring father.

Part Two, “Lulling,” investigates the ambiguous power of the lullaby. It evokes at once the safety of childhood and all its dangers. The terrors put to rest in their steady rhythms have as much to do with women’s fears as with children’s. “Early lyrics are saturated in apprehension or even dread: fear writes or speaks the boundaries, and the phantom of death, always just around the corner, defines the life” (200). Warner offers the example of blessings spoken over the Norse god Baldur to demonstrate the way “lullabies obsessively spell out such dangers, attempting to encompass every possibility” (201). In Baldur’s case, mistletoe gets left out and becomes his bane. Warner weaves a connection to nightingales and the gruesome story of Philomela, touching on “the doubled and contradictory nature of lullabies which express aggression and even terror toward infants” (not all mothers are happy) as well as its practical connection to language acquisition (228). The ambiguous relation between parents and children comes vividly to life in Warner’s free-ranging connection between stories and songs from different eras and geographies.

The final section, “Making Mock,” explores modern “fascination with the monstrous and the grotesque,” which Warner argues “has become the dominant tone in representations of fear and its objects” (246), and she links this to the figure of the chimera. Whether we look at Goya or the Goosebumps series, the imagination conjures up the fearsome and then makes it palatable and controlled. At the heart of this power is the recognition that “the monstrous are not strangers, after all, but the appalling potential of human evil” (261). But the greatest weapon against fear, Warner shows, is laughter. Shaped by the same impetus toward grotesquery, humor allows the monsters to take shape but also to be shrunk down to manageable size, blown away on the breath of gaiety.

Toward the end, Warner’s narrative seems to lose a little of its coherence. The banana chapter still feels a bit out of place and it’s a bit irksome that the release date of the Dickies’ 1980 song “Banana Splits” hasn’t been corrected from 1968, which is the date of the original children’s televisions series (355). One cannot trumpet the importance of popular culture and then neglect to afford it the same rigorous scrutiny. Her new afterword, however, brings the narrative up to date with the post 9/11 plunge into Manichaean moral divisions and a return to a “mood of credulity and attendant generalized fear” that has made both the underhanded conspiracies of The Da Vinci Code and the childhood traumas of Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera successful narratives (not to mention the battles against evil fought by a certain young wizard). “Contemporary myths,” Warner discovers, “are replacing the ogre with the zombie, the vampire with the android, the sandman with the techno-terrorist” (393). A quick look at the current slate of films confirms this diagnosis. Fear is alive and well--it’s just changed its masks again.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.