Anyone who reads the papers or watches the evening news is all too familiar with how variations of the word "monster" are used to describe unthinkable acts of violence. Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh and O.J. Simpson were all monsters if we are to believe the mass media. Even Bill Clinton was depicted with the term during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But why is so much energy devoted in our culture to the making of monsters? Why are Americans so transfixed by transgression? What is at stake when the exclamatory gestures of horror films pass for descriptive arguments in courtrooms, ethical speech in political commentary, or the bedrock of mainstream journalism? In a study that is at once an analysis of popular culture, a polemic on religious and secular rhetoric, and an ethics of representation, Edward Ingebretsen searches for answers. "At Stake" explores the social construction of monstrousness in public discourse - tabloids, television, magazines, sermons and popular fiction. Ingebretsen argues that the monster serves as a moralizing function in our culture, demonstrating how "not" to be in order to enforce prevailing standards of behaviour and personal conduct.
The boys who took aim at Columbine High School, for instance, personify teen rebellion taken perilously too far. Susan Smith, the South Carolinian who murdered her two children, embodies the hazards of maternal neglect. Andrew Cunanan, who killed Gianni Versace, among others, characterizes the menace of predatory sexuality. In a biblical sense, monsters are not unlike omens from the gods. The dreadful consequences of their actions inspire fear in our hearts and warn us by example.
Edward J. Ingebretsen is an associate professor of English and director of American studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King and Robert Frost's Star in a Stone Boat: A Grammar of Belief.