The Varieties of a Monster’s Conception and Interpretation

Last Updated: 17 May 2023
Essay type: Definition Essay
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Audience: consumers of the horror film genre, primarily those in America and China, the largest film markets out there, and thus those whose influence matters the most

I'm Not a Monster: A Look at What It Means to be a Monster

Most of us come to the conclusion that a monster is some scary guy hiding under the bed or someone with a large weapon who could instantaneously kill us. If neither of those fit with your understanding and you choose to define a monster based on an internal conflict or an abstract concept, or maybe even something else, then so be it. Monsters are highly subjective. They are part of a genre whose foundation is questioning reality. In order to even look at what makes someone or something a monster, we must look at what makes something scary to us, and why we associate it with fear or being scary. Some of us find being physically attacked scary while others may find a questioning of self as scary. The issue arises that both "scary" and "monster" are highly subjective terms and both of them create representations of the other.

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Both internal and external dears are valid definitions of scary and are representations of monsters that come up in modern horror films. But a dictionary definition does not accommodate both of these. The top two dictionary definitions in Merriam-Webster for "monster" are: "an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening" and "an inhumanly cruel or wicked person". These align best with classical film monsters. These monsters were part of cheaply made films whose purpose was to make as much of a profit as possible. The definition does not fully describe all current monsters in horror films today because many are either human or have a frightening physical form. Rarely are they both things at once. Placing today's monsters against this definition ignores the root of a monster and does not reflect a modern perspective of monsters, where they describe something that we do not understand.

The definition of monster needs to change to explain that what makes something a monster is that we have created it as a monster based on societal conventions. It is because the person or creature threatens societal norms or widely agreed upon definitions of what it means to be human that the being gets called a monster. What we perceive as monstrous in reality influences our monsters in entertainment. They are highly connected, much like scary and monster are. Even though these horror film monsters are seen as entertainment, allowing marginalized groups and marginalized cultures to be represented as monstrous fuels microaggressions against these groups, and changing the definition of monster will change the representations of monsters, which are currently problematic in how they portray minority groups as monsters. Changing the definition of monster will fix the problems associated with representing minority groups such as Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community as monsters.

To begin the discussion, it is important to know what the first idea of monster was and how the representation of monsters has changed. In both the Victorian Gothic and the Golden Age of Hollywood, monsters represented the things that scared people. These fears could be addressed in some tangible medium, a representation which has become a staple in the horror film genre.

This technique of giving an idea a tangible form, namely a being who could be attacked and blamed for all of the mishaps, was used in literature before it was used in films. The Victorian Gothic included monsters who were monstrous because of their form, as with the creatures Moreau creates, because of their actions, as with Frankenstein's monster, or because of their foreign lineage, as seen in Dracula. All of these ideas are seen in modern horror films, too, namely with a surge of zombie flicks. Universal and RKO were two studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood who specialized in making horror films. They were cheap and sold well.

Many of the monsters in these studios' films would have a deformity, whether it be a heightened feature, such as elaborately styled hair, such as with The Bride of Frankenstein, or completely different colored skin, seen in Dracula, or they'd have a completely different form, maybe scales, as with The Creature from the Lagoon. These monsters could even be completely deformed (Zarka). Yet, many of these monsters tended to have one thing in common: they allowed females to embrace their sexuality or represented females who broke out of societally conventional norms. The idea of females embracing their sexuality was highly feared in the Victorian era, due to a deviation from convention, and has even continued on into some more modern films, many of which are outside the horror genre.

Females embracing their sexuality is feared because of its power. Sexuality is, in this instance, the embracing of their power to seduce or have control to fulfil their sexual needs. This idea began to have prominence in Victorian Gothic stories. When interviewing Catherine Hartmann, a full time faculty member at ASU in the film and media studies department, she pointed out that Dracula's seduction of women relays the current day's fear of female sexuality.

Because anything that alters a woman's role in society, making her less pure in some instance or another, a woman is the pinnacle of society, and anything that could mess with females and their conventional roles was seen as terrifying. Melissa Free, affiliated professor with The School of Social Change at ASU, points out how Gothic monsters "polluted" women, meaning that they would expose women to things that they weren't supposed to see. Changing women and who they are in society makes the character monstrous. This would come into play later in Westerns, with Native Americans having a similar effect on women, having an ability to rid them of their purity and alter their role in a white society. In these movies, the women may then be seen as less.

In many movies, women get punished for deviating from their conventional roles, and this is present in how Mena, who falls in love with Dracula, ends up becoming the female monster which society feared. She is content with and aware of her sexuality, and was followed around by multiple young girls, tying back to the idea of polluting women. She represents the fear that if one woman was able to break free from the norm, then even younger women would. This would ultimately destroy the conventional role of women that society relied on.

Emily Zarka, a TA in the English Department at ASU, with a focus on the Gothic, says that Gothic monsters acted as a policing agent, telling women what they could or couldn't do with their sexuality. This demonstrates society's fear that if one woman's sexuality was explored that she would then spread this to younger generations, corrupting society as a whole. This idea of modern horror films playing with the idea of female sexuality is seen in Black Swan's Nina, who is the main character in the movie (Fisher 59). The narrative follows Nina as she learns how to become the villainous foil, the black swan, to the white swan in the ballet. She is seen as villainous because of her control over her sexuality and the ease with which she uses it. The movie shows her as learning how to become more in touch with her dark side so she can play the black swan. The use of her sexuality becoming more comfortable to her is an extension of the Victorian fear of the female sexuality.

The actions of Victorian Gothic monsters, like female sexuality in modern films and older literature, contributed to their titles as monsters. Dracula would prey on women. Frankenstein's monster accidentally kills a little girl after a misunderstanding of why there is a flower in the lake. He believes that because there is a flower in the lake, which is beautiful, and the little girl is beautiful, that she should be thrown into the lake (Zarka). He is making a fairly logical connection here. Yet, he is still seen as a monster because of this action. In this instance, the monsters themselves are seen as monstrous. But they are not at fault when they believe they are right. They have not learned what societal conventions or ethical actions are. Conversely, the creators, Dr. Moreau and Dr. Frankenstein can be viewed as monstrous because of their actions: manipulating life and reality, playing God (LaMont).

While their creations fit with the period's idea of a monster, the modern view of a monster places the creators as the true monsters because they are actively questioning what makes someone a human and creating humans of their own. Knowing the culture of the time distinguishes one character as a monster and another as a victim. This influence of culture on the representation of a monster would be reflected in the representation of the Native American as a monster in horror. Monica Boyd, a PhD student in 19th century British Literature with an emphasis in Gothic and Queer, says that doctors such as Dr. Moreau and Dr. Frankenstein, who create other creatures themselves, manipulating nature and reality, are the monstrous ones because they don't care about their actions or the pain they cause. This idea will later be paralleled with the idea of a cowboy as a monster in modern views of classic Westerns.

Much like today, with our monsters from countries in the Middle East region, such as in many modern action and war films, monsters in the Victorian Gothic were from another country, portraying xenophobia and hysteria, which both relate to being scared of another culture or people coming into a country or region. This was seen with Count Dracula, who was from Transylvania, but resided in England.

This shows the Victorian British fears of other cultures infiltrating theirs. This is not a new idea in modern horror films, although sometimes it seems like one, with the idea of other peoples, be it aliens or humans, coming in and destroying society. Bram Stoker's Dracula was also based on the actual Count Dracula (Scott). This shows that monsters may be real beings over exaggerated to make a point about society's fears as a whole. In modern films, there may be groups of aliens or "others" who are scary because they come from a location that is unknown and that may be able to overtake the society we have strived so hard to create.

The term "monster" can be used outside of the horror film genre to express the idea that there is a group who threatens society's idealized or customary way of life. Joseph Fortunato, a film, television, screenwriting, and media/popular culture senior lecturer at ASU, points out that even classical monsters were seen as invading the space of the people who lived based on society's standards and norms. Monsters were seen as beings who threatened their way of life.

This group is one who lives differently, has a different set of values and may also have a different culture, one that the surrounding society doesn't understand. Native Americans began as vilified savages in films, which aligned with the ideas seen in the Wild West shows, which pre-dated the advent of narrative film, making it so the first real view entertainment gave of this group was a demonized version. Films "gave moving images to stereotypes," which was problematic to the representation of this group in media (Hartmann). In Westerns, like in Wild West Shows, the Native American was often the monster. This was only the beginning of the problematic representation.

The Native Americans lived differently than the white male cowboy hero and had the power to rid a woman of her whiteness, as seen in Scar's representation in John Ford's The Searchers with John Wayne as the lead cowboy hero, Ethan Edwards. Scar has the ability to rid Debbie of her whiteness by having sex with her. This again ties into the Gothic idea that monsters tell what females can and cannot do sexually. Scar is the chief of the Native American village and, when he captures Debbie, Ethan Edward's niece, the racial conflict, between the White cowboys and the Native Americans, and the portrayal of Scar as a monster begins. Ethan does not care if Debbie is content with her life as Scar's wife because all he can see is Scar's race. The racial conflict is perpetuated by a perception that does not necessarily align with the reality of those affected.

Furthermore, the Native Americans are seen as monstrous because they live much differently than Ethan and his family live. Yet, Jason Scott, an assistant professor of Theatre and Film at ASU, points out that there is not enough information given about the Native Americans to properly judge them in The Searchers. This view is in direct contrast to the common view that many people have, where they automatically assume that a Native American in a Western is the monster or villain.

This has come from the constant portrayal of Native Americans this way in Westerns, creating the links in audiences' minds, showing why these movies ultimately create more harm and are not just entertainment. This also shows that the flaw in representing a stereotype is that it takes away the multiple facets of people that make them human. The narrative of the film portrays the cultural differences as being scary, while an analytical view suggests that the cowboys are the real monsters, coming into a Native American village with guns and killing inhabitants. This is not seen because of the reception context and the intended reading of the film. Reception context calls into account audience expectations, such as the cowboy as the hero and the Native Americans as the villains. This also becomes the intended reading of the film. Furthermore, it calls into question the ethics of vilifying the victim of Bove 8

violence, which ultimately makes the audience believe that the victim deserved the violence. As Joseph Fortunato, a film, television, screenwriting, and media/popular culture senior lecturer at ASU, says, "[monsters are] different but living among us." This calls into question what "different" means and who has the right to define it. Which culture or group has the right to make that distinction? And once that group is chosen, what does it mean for other groups and their representation in the media?

The modern view of a monster now transcends into that a monster can determine who is deserving of punishment or not. Judgement of actions and situations comes into play as a fear. A modern view of The Searchers tends to align with the more analytical view, placing Ethan, the narrative hero, as the thematic villain, showing that modern views of a monstrous character relate to the treatment of others rather than status in society or representation as the societal norm. Joseph Fortunato, a film, television, screenwriting, and media/popular culture senior lecturer at ASU, states that Ethan Edwards is a racist and that is problematic in a modern context, were we to call him a hero when viewing the film today. Jason Scott, an assistant professor of Theatre and Film at ASU, agrees with this idea, saying that Ethan is the villain in The Searchers.

Yet, he says the villainy stems from how Ethan treats the Native American corpses (by shooting their eyes out) and that he judges others as monsters. In this sense, monster now has to do with the treatment of others, connecting back to the idea of Victorian Gothic monsters, in that judging who and what has the right to give or take away life makes something a monster, connecting back to the creators. This also ties to the idea that something is monstrous because it is not like us. Christopher LaMont, an instructor of film and media production at ASU, says that monsters do things that are horrible. The mistreatment of others would be considered "horrible," but now "horrible" needs to be universally defined in order to create a better representation of monsters. Yet, "horrible" is infrequently able to be universally defined, making it so the representation of monsters is inherently problematic. Horrible may be a culture that is not fully understood, an orientation that is not the social norm, or even a set of actions, isolated or repeated, that people do in response to power that they believed they are entitled to or have.

The idea of Native Americans being scary and monstrous because their culture is something American society doesn't understand extends into today's films. More and more, films are portraying Native American spirits, not people, as monstrous. This may be an easy way to scare audiences, as it allows for more jump scares and a marriage of conventional horror film tactics with the newer psychological horror that has emerged. That does not excuse the problems it creates, namely with how it negatively portrays a culutre. A lack of cultural understanding feeds into this portrayal of the spirits while also adding a social commentary that is important.

In The Darkness (2016, Greg McLean), a family goes into a house which was built on a reservation. The movie centers around this family being haunted by the spirits of American Indians, whose graves were destroyed in order to have the house built on that land (Zarka). This speaks to the use of something not understood well by the audience, the Native American culture, as scary. Additionally, it is problematic that Native American culture gets portrayed within the pan-Indian stereotype of there being only one culture for multiple tribes. This portrayal also speaks to the idea that people are scared to mess with things that they do not understand, but continue to do it, anyway. This ties into the idea that Dr. Moreau is a monster because of how he manipulates nature to alter it into something that he is more in favor of and able to control. But now the monster is flipped to the outsiders who don't understand a culture but continue to completely disregard it. The creator of the film could be seen as a monster in this regard because they are manipulating something they don't have knowledge of, in a way that gives them power over it.

This fear of another culture in The Darkness connects to the Northern Dakota Access Pipeline, where a section of land containing graves was razed to create a road. While this may not have been what The Darkness was referencing, it also illustrates the idea that destroying something sacred to another culture will lead to consequences for the person who destroyed it. While this in of itself is a negative stereotype, the flipping of the villain as the person who comes onto the property rather than the spirit who haunts them, in some analytical perspectives, addresses the stereotype and challenges it rather than accepting it. Interestingly enough, The Darkness is Greg McLean's first movie that has dealt with Native American culture being seen as scary or monstrous.

Yet, this film shows a continuation of his arc as a director, again having an abandoned location as the main backdrop of the film. Previous films of his have focused on using Outback landscapes as scary locations, tying into the idea of Native Americans, who will frequently get depicted as being noble savages who are one with nature. While there is not a direct correlation, the relevance of nature as McLean's background and stereotypes of Native Americans shows the flaw in how he has chosen to create a new monster. While there is a clear fear of the unknown in The Darkness, a message of the film could also be that people should not destroy burial grounds of people. While the scare tactic may not be the best, the point is still a good one.

Another Native American cultural aspect that gets portrayed as monstrous are skinwalkers. The Navajo legends of them are most often portrayed, which only furthers the idea that the Native American cultures are scary or terrifying ("Skin-Walkers"), only adding to the problem of microaggression - small comments that communicate negative assumptions about a person's intelligence or characteristics based on race or other stereotyped qualities - that these monsters already create. While this is a scary concept for those outside of the culture which they are a part of, and does tie to the idea that it was a misuse of a transformation power, movies only showing Native American legends and folklore in their most negative light and using their scariest examples shows a disdain for the peoples whose culture it is, essentially saying that the use matters more than the right to it. They are a part of a culture. They are not simply entertainment. However, they are used in that manner. Yet, another idea of the skinwalker lore says that these people simply have the ability to transform into another animal, and may be a high priest(ess) who has lost their humanity (Unknown).

The idea that these people do not have humanity further contributes to the appropriation of a culture as terrifying, rather than the peoples themselves. A 2013 film directed by Devin McKinn and Steve Berg, Skinwalker Ranch, portrays the skinwalker as terrifying and uses it as an explanation for why a little boy has gone missing. There are skinwalkers who, in legends and documented media, such as books and shows, go into houses and destroy the people in them. Skinwalkers are a common monster used in films, and the use of them as a monster stems from a Navajo legend that says that skinwalkers have the ability to steal another's skin, read thoughts, and take over a person's body (Ryan).

This definition makes them an easy character to make the villain of a horror film, especially if the target audience does not know much about them or the culture from which the legend stems. A group's culture should not be seen as terrifying, even if the legend is. While this can create a good film, it strips that group's voice from the film, furthering stereotypes that lead to groups being seen as one trait rather than humans with multiple traits and characteristics, much like the classical horror monsters. Treating skinwalkers as part of a terrifying culture may make it easier to demonize them, but it does not mean that Native Americans and their culture should be demonized in any way.

When looking at monsters, analysis shows that they represent something that the audience doesn't understand. Sometimes people may even call the monster's key difference a "lifestyle," further acknowledging that monsters represent feelings that a society doesn't see as "natural," such as in queer monsters. The term "queer" has been around since the late 19th century and was used as a derogatory term toward those in the LGBTQ+ community (Samuelson-Roberts). For instance, Dr. Jekyll lived on Queer Street and was seen as a freak in society.

Queer individuals have been viewed as monstrous because they challenge heteronormative society and their beliefs. Count Dracula suggests to Harker that he wants to get rid of the other females so he can have Harker all to himself. This suggests that Dracula was monstrous for multiple reasons, queerness being a part of it. When something challenges how society functions and behaves, suggesting that there are other ways to live and exist that will reap benefits, it can be seen as monstrous. For these reasons, queer individuals were seen as monstrous even back in the Victorian Gothic era.

"Queer" has more recently been taken back by members of that community to use for themselves (Samuelson-Roberts). While the term "queer" has itself altered in definition, now seen as a catch-all term for people in the LGBTQ+ community who may not see themselves as a specific label or want to acknowledge that they are part of a letter outside of the initialism itself. "Queer" has played a large role in the shaping of monsters and how people see fear and what scares them. Christopher LaMont, an instructor of film and media production at ASU, references Silence of the Lambs, saying that Buffalo Bill's transgender identity does not make him a monster. Yet, Buffalo Bill is the monster and villain in the movie, even if the queerness does not necessarily make him a monster. He is a monster because he kills women and takes their skin from them.

This is connected to his queerness, and, in the narrative, this is deeply correlated with why he is villainous, even becoming a possible motive for his crimes in the FBI agents' eyes. The character represents a lack of understanding toward and fear of transgender individuals, which only makes it harder to get the truth behind these groups out into the public domain. These films with queer monsters, whose queerness is seen as the reason for their monstrosity and villainy, silence many voices that deserve to be heard because their contribution to the discussion is very valuable and should not be discounted. By discounting their voices, the representation will be stuck in the same lack of understanding that is being done.

Conversely, the idea of queerness takes away the idea of a woman as a monster because it can tie into her fitting into how a male would want her to act. Consider this analysis of Black Swan's interaction between Nina and Lily having sex with each other: "[the lesbian scene] functions entirely for the pleasure of the heterosexual male spectator" (Fisher 60). While society is afraid of homosexuality, the portrayal of sexualized females is used to combat this fear by degrading a sexual orientation into only useful if pleasing to males.

This shows a dilution of characters into fitting into heteronormative ideals. The characters' sexuality cannot be explored because it would be an interesting look at queerness, but rather must be explored in a way that heterosexual white males can enjoy and feel comfortable with. This prevents these characters and other queer characters from getting shown as having the same struggles and multifaceted personalities and complexities as their heterosexual counterparts. Emily Zarka, a TA in the English Department at ASU, with a focus on the Gothic, points out that heighted female sexuality is often associated with bisexuality. This shows an erasure of homosexuality, suggesting that it must be unnatural because a woman must be attracted to a man.

This again shows how queerness is diluted in the nature that it must fit into what heteronormative beliefs of it are. This is a false representation. Perpetuating stereotypes of queer individuals is not much different from the presentation of Native American culture as monstrous in many regards. People are perpetuating stereotypes without even allowing another voice to be entered into the matter. Additionally, there is a greater fear of female sexuality in modern films (Hartmann), and this most likely stems from the conventional portrayal of women in film, which tends to focus on their physicality and places them in the house, often serving men. This shows that the fear of female sexuality stems from them no longer being content with their role as homemaker, possibly even revolting against the conventional role which they have long been a part of.

In other movies, the idea of queerness as being homosexual is represented as bad because it is a stark deviation from society's idea of normal. This is present in the show True Blood, which has queer vampires (Scott). The idea that heteronormativity needs to be challenged led to a different representation of homosexual male characters. Prior to that, heteronormative ideals were pushed in films, and horror films, one of the more conservative in their beliefs (Zarka), will push those beliefs more readily. A widening of networks and viewership opened up the doors to addressing these ideas more bluntly. Having a vampire, a classically strong, masculine character, as queer, which is stereotypically effeminate, shows a challenging of heteronormative ideas and heteronormative perceptions of queerness.

Yet, the issue remained that many of these characters were viewed as different, sometimes even attacking the difference as a psychological issue (Young 63). Doing so allowed the audience to place all their fears about their society being altered onto another group. They displaced the blame, choosing to ignore it. Homosexuality was clinically seen a mental illness in the DSM, a manual used to diagnose psychological disorders, until 2003, when the DSM was updated to the fifth issue. Based on a novel by Thomas Mann, the movie Death in Venice, follows a man as he explores his sexuality, frequently pointing out that the reason behind his sexual orientation is rooted in his psychology (Young 63).

This connects to the view that sexual orientation is a mental illness. This view that a difference must come from an internal flaw shows how society places things that they don't understand as monsters and then doesn't take the time to change their views, which only furthers the problem rather than fixing it in any regard. In many of today's psychological horror films, mental illness will still get portrayed as monstrous. This is not fair to people with those illnesses. While homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, it is not fair to place them as a monster in films. Jason Scott, an assistant professor of Theatre and Film at ASU, again points out that this group has not been represented enough to fairly assess them in media. Much like Native Americans, the LGBTQ+ group is underrepresented in media, further perpetuating the stereotypes of them. This hinders progress for these groups, as putting stereotypes in media makes it harder to fight them.

In today's horror films, where monsters are becoming further and further from physical beings and closer to ideas that can get carried from one being to another, the form of a monster gets closer and closer to becoming fear itself. In Melissa Free, affiliated professor with The School of Social Change at ASU, says that in her favorite horror movie, The Shining, the monster is insanity. This is a concept rather than a physical being, and is an example of the modern portrayal of monsters as concepts. This is also seen in It Follows (2014, David Mitchell), where the monstrous entity is passed from person to person after they have sex with each other. The interesting thing about this representation of the consequences of sex is that there is a push in the horror film into finding the elements of people themselves that scare us rather than portraying the group or culture as a whole as a monster.

Catherine Hartmann, a full time faculty member at ASU in the film and media studies department, quotes Contagion, a 1987 horror movie, "for evil knows no boundaries and knows no guises ... even the innocent who passed this way still reeked... the contagion had contaminated their soul," and this perfectly explains that we are looking more into what scares us internally and portraying that rather than sticking with the physical representation of a monster. Melissa Free pointed out that monsters are scary because of what they represent, what they can so, that they come into our space, and that they often represent society's fears at the time. This shows that monster should be defined more as the fear of an idea that we do not understand rather than the physical embodiment of them. This shows that we need to change out definition of monster because, as the dictionary defines it, monster is a physical being. And that's not how we view it today.

Monsters in today's films are gravitating towards non-physical entities that question our humanity and safety as being a human. In the 2014 movie It Follows, the monstrous entity inhabits teenagers after they have had sex. This ties to an idea that horror films are some of the most conservative films in their messages and ideologies. But this idea that a monster is not a physical being needs to be reflected in a dictionary stance, as well. People outside of the American horror film culture, if looking up "monster", will be met with a definition that current films do not truly accommodate.

Marginalized groups, such as Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community, are not scary because of their physical form, but rather, because of what they represent. They do not fit a definition of "monster" found in a dictionary but are in fact some of the most common monsters in films today. In order to change the perception of monsters, we must first assess what a monster is to us and then combat this by means of showing more media of us being scared internally rather than externally. What we don't know can be terrifying, but it is not a justification for making marginalized groups into monsters. We can fix the presentation of monsters by changing the outcome of them. Rather than killing our monsters, we can and should try to understand them.

One way to understand them better is to allow them to be portrayed in a wider range of characters, within the genre or, better yet and more helpful to the marginalized groups, outside of the genre. Allowing these groups to be seen in movies that present their stories and views will allow them to be better understood. There is audience appeal to see the monster's view, if Wicked proved nothing else, and so why not have marginalized groups give their own views and tell their own stories? It's not like there aren't people who would see that. Doing this, allowing their stories to be heard from them, will break and challenge a problematic representation. It will open up groups classically seen as monsters to a more widespread presence in media overall.

References

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  7. Ryan, Skinwalker. "American Indian Lore Behind the Skinwalker." American Indian lore behind the skinwalker: Hunting the Skinwalker. Hunting the Skinwalker Blog. Published 30 September 2009. Accessed 12 November 2016. http://skinwalkerranch.org/blog/index.php?/archives/5-American-Indian-lore-behind-the-skinwalker..html
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