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From zombie parades to Stranger Things: why is our culture obsessed with monsters?

“A monster is a fear assuming a form” is a pretty neat definition with which to embark on a whizzy cultural history of fiends and ghouls in the contemporary imagination.

There’s something kind of hot about monsters. They’re so dumb and hungry, with their big hairy mitts and gleaming fangs, leaving a trail of gore in their wake. And they’re soulful, too: Cocteau’s melancholy Bête, a tear spangling his fur; Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s lonesome Creature, mumbling, “Alone: bad. Friend, good!” Monsters plunder unconscious terrors about dangerous homes and unsettling bodies; hardly any wonder we’re all fixated on what Charlie Fox calls “monstrous entertainments”, from zombie parades to Stranger Things to the 2015 exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s spectral waifs and hybrids at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“A monster is a fear assuming a form” is a pretty neat definition with which to embark on a whizzy cultural history of fiends and ghouls in the contemporary imagination. The beast, the freak, the oddity has provided many artists with inspirational material, from Diane Arbus to John Carpenter and David Lynch, but isn’t the artist also a type of monster: a vampire or del­inquent, like Arthur Rimbaud loaded on absinthe, stabbing Verlaine in a lesbian bar? The monster’s stock-in-trade of transformation, catharsis, revenge, is, as Fox notes, “something like art’s task”.

Or what about the fabulous appetites of Rainer Fassbinder? The German film-­maker overdosed in the summer of 1982 on cocaine and sleeping pills, the last perilous fix in a life consecrated to ­pharmaceutical and erotic excess, matched only by his knockout propensity for movie-making (40 icy, voluptuous, wounding films in 18 years, exquisitely reanimating the tired corpse of heist, sci-fi romp, melodrama). Drugs bolstered his manic production schedule (Germany in Autumn went from conception to completion in ten days). Born in 1945, Fassbinder was a member of an uneasy generation whose punkish exploits were a way of exorcising or savaging a monstrous past.

This Young Monster is a hybrid animal in its own right, suturing biographical essays with stranger things: a “dumb fan letter” to the Beast, a meandering confession from Alice, bombed out after her many years in Wonderland, and a deliriously stagey conversation between two knowing ghouls, one-upping each other with cultural reference points and corny jokes (“putting the fact back into ‘putrefaction’”).

There’s not enough of this sort of playfulness and frank enthusiasm in art criticism. Fox is endearingly terrified of sounding earnest, dude, affecting a mumbling slacker’s voice instead, like his touchstone, River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. As he observes, “Wonder and fascination are forms of tribute, too, which don’t preclude or mark the absence of deeper feeling.”

Get deeper with the monster and you inevitably uncover cultural unrest. Fox connects the bloom of late-1980s and early-1990s vampire movies with the Aids panic and a ratcheting heroin epidemic, linking the explosion of horror in mainstream millennial entertainment with the lingering ­aftermath of the Iraq War, “a manifestation of mourning displaced on to our dreams . . . a decade of brutal memorial censoring causes corpses to appear everywhere”.

It wouldn’t be much of a monster project if it didn’t leave the reader feeling at least a little queasy. An essay on the photographer Diane Arbus revels in the transgressive pleasure of looking at deformed bodies. Fox mimics her estranging, horribly fascinated gaze, enjoying the spectacle of deaf-mutes, giants and bearded women. Cele­brating “the horrors and thrills of looking a monster”, he skates perilously close to freak-show aesthetics.

Like Arbus, he shifts tack at the last minute, giving an extraordinary account of her final project, Untitled: a sequence of photographs taken at two mental institutions between 1969 and 1971, the year she killed herself by cutting her wrists in a bathtub. These bewitched, sun-dazzled images capture the sheer psychological strangeness of being embodied, whatever body you happen to be in. “The big conundrum of being here,” Fox writes, “is not so much what the self is supposed to be but how to interpret the luscious material supplied by the earth.”

There’s something to be said for refusing sentimentality when it comes to the short and riotous life of Leigh Bowery, who ricocheted through 1980s London clubland like a comet, scattering sequins and firing glitter from his rectum, before dying of Aids at 33. Fox is not up for hagiography, quipping slickly: “You could write ‘et in Arcadia ego’ in Liquid Gold and cum, that would be a  smart tribute.” Cute, but there’s a very good historical reason why it wasn’t, if you’re old enough to remember the ­monster-making that Aids occasioned, or the effort it took to undo the malignant belief in the triviality of gay lives.

And yet as Alex in A Clockwork Orange reminds us, youth always has a monstrous aspect: sweet children transformed overnight into hoodlums and deviants, not to mention the body-horror aspect of hormonal change. Sprouting hair and pustules, made feral by desire, the adolescent is a nightmare in his own right, as Larry Clark’s grimy waster movie Kids made clear way back in 1995.

Speaking of the 1990s, how’s this for an origin myth: Fox traces his own ghoulish affinities back to his mother having haemorrhaged, while he was in the womb, just as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed on that night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

The monster takes on a rather different cast in the current political climate, with its witch-hunting executive orders and demonising rhetoric. But Fox hadn’t foreseen “this other kind of hideousness or horror”. “My monsters,” he writes, “like some radical opposition force, are embodiments of everything such toxic ideologies wish to exclude: they embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention – that’s heroic.”

“This Young Monster” by Charlie Fox is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (200pp, £12.99)

Olivia Laing’s latest book is “The Lonely City” (Canongate)

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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The Back Half #19: Sting & Shaggy, Annihilation and the bumbag

The NS culture podcast with Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman.

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the unlikely musical collaboration of Sting and Shaggy on the album 44/876 (out on 20 April), review the new Alex Garland film Annihilation (with special guest Helen Lewis), and celebrate the noniversary of the bumbag (or fanny pack, if you're American).

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Get in touch with questions or noniversary suggestions on Twitter via @tom_gatti or @ns_podcasts.

Further reading:

Kate's interview in New York with Sting and Shaggy.

Helen's review of Annihilation.

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.