On a critical examination of how the “monstrous” is constructed by various societies or social milieu.

Study of horror and the monstrous onscreen has taken many routes, from the philosophical, the psychoanalytic, and beyond. Recent volumes like The Monster Theory Reader and Robin Wood on the Horror Film (the late critic’s writing on the genre finally available together) have offered comprehensive approaches and paths to future study.

With the release of the edited collection Monsters, Law, Crime: Explorations in Gothic Criminology (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2020), Caroline Joan “Kay” S. Picart continues the groundbreaking study of gothic criminology on- and offscreen with a much needed component to the study of horror and the monstrous in society. As Picart has noted in a recent interview with Film International (see below), the collection focuses “on both real/reel life monsters and monstrous discourses or monster-talk in thinking through questions of power, justice, equity, and truth/s, often invisibly embedded in narratives or rhetorics or visualizations of the monstrous.”

This is an insightful follow-up to your earlier edited collection from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Framing Law and Crime (2016). What angles from the earlier collection did you aim to develop in this one?

Gothic criminology has always been conceived as a genuinely interdisciplinary endeavor…it is possible, many times, to “dance across different worlds,” to borrow a metaphor this time from Nietzsche.

Framing Law and Crime, co-edited with Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Cecil Greek, in some ways was a more traditional extension of Law and Film, as established by law professors like Richard Sherwin; Michael Asimow and Jessica Silbey; Steve Greenfield, Guy Osborne and Peter Robson; among many others. Thus, that particular edited collection began with, for example, a review of the history of the Law and Cinema movement, written by Stefan Machura, and proceeded on to a critical survey of a variety of genres and media, as well as television, integrating descriptions of technique with theoretical tools derived from different disciplines, incorporating historical and socio-political critique. Gothic criminology, as a theoretical framework to analyze law and crime in film and television, was simply a section in that earlier edited collection.

Here, in Monsters, Law, Crime, a gothic criminological lens is front and center. Some of the elements that flow from Framing Law and Crime and are further developed in this new edited collection are the following. First, a focus on the complex dynamics between lived experience in the real world, and imagined experience in the “reel” or mediated world (on film, in t.v., or in media), and their porous linkage to each other, while remaining distinct. Second, a focus on how law and crime are connected, which, as a gothic criminological lens illustrates, demands a critical examination of how the “monstrous” is constructed by various societies or social milieu. 

Since this is a multi-disciplinary collection, which connections between the wide-ranging disciplines of criminology/legal studies and film/literature, and others, were you interested in developing? 

Gothic criminology has always been conceived as a genuinely interdisciplinary endeavor, and by that, I mean a more rigorous and scholarly attempt to wrestle with what Thomas Kuhn called the problem of “incommensurability” – the issue that perhaps, different disciplines, having different paradigms and thus having “no common measure” tend to “talk through or to” each other rather than genuinely communicate. Such an endeavor must begin with the acceptance that different disciplines have distinct “model problems and solutions” or, using a Wittgensteinian model, different “language games.” Nevertheless, with mutual respect and a common goal, it is possible, many times, to “dance across different worlds,” to borrow a metaphor this time from Nietzsche.

As the book’s title points out, the emphasis on the three intersecting themes of monsters, law and crime is the common thread that runs through – or an even better metaphor, an intricate web that bridges – these diverse disciplines. In addition, there are four themes that the edited collection explores: 1.) Of Myths and Monsters; 2.) Contagion, Monstrosity and Ethics; 3.) Monsters in Reel/Real Life; and 4.) Law, War, and Monstrous Discourses. To address your audience specifically, arguably, all of these themes have a spontaneous affinity with themes associated with the moving image. First, myth, as a form of cultural “dreaming,” has resonances with film, and its power of narrative, particularly when focused on monsters, who are both less-than-human (beastly/animal) and more-than-human (god-like; similar to forces of nature); this is a theme that both John Morton’s chapter and Jon Frauley’s chapter, despite their differences, converge upon. Both of their chapters also examine the issue of origins and the role that monsters play, in the generation and maintenance of a totemic culture (for Morton), and genesis and propagation of a strand of criminology as a scientific/medical field, grounded in Cesare Lombroso’s theory of the “atavist” (the born criminal with a “wrong brain”) (for Frauley). Second, the themes of contagion or infection are certainly some of the most defining features of film, and in particular, the horror genre. Orit Kamir’s and Michael Hviid Jacobsen’s chapters approach the visualization of contagion in opposite trajectories: Kamir focuses on a hyperbolization of moral panics amplified through media depictions of “Lilith” figures; Jacobsen focuses on a monstrous freezing of morality partly due to the media’s contribution to “compassion fatigue” and the everyday consumption of “distant suffering.” Third, the theme of the fluctuations between the “reel” and the “real” is perhaps the easiest to connect to film. I shall reserve discussion of some of the germane chapters for a later question, which analyzes in particular the chapters that actively reference or use film in the development of their arguments. Fourth, there is a natural connection between the spectacle and tragic depth of war that naturally lends itself to cinematic visualization; yet, there are various “wars” – some more subtle and banal, and others, more overt and on a grandiose scale. DW Duke’s chapter captures the complex and poignant plight of human trafficking, a contemporary version of slavery; Duke deconstructs the “monstrous” image of human trafficking victims in the media and argues for a constructive and empathetic educational approach to combat human trafficking.

To close, there are other disciplines that are also represented in this edited collection: Sociology, Anthropology and Communication, for example. Nevertheless, there are striking resonances that spontaneously emanate from these diverse chapters, and the organization of the chapters, the overall introductory chapter, and Cecil Greek’s postscript, help clarify and amplify the nature of these resonances. Paraphrasing briefly, Greek summarizes some of the key expansions of this edited collection in the following way: 1.) the incorporation of new theorists whose work includes Gothic elements crucial to reflecting upon law and crime; 2.) the expansion of Gothic character types and historical figures to analyze contemporary processes of monstering; and 3.) the deepening of the Gothic fixation on milieu.

How important is film/the moving image in the study of Gothic Criminology?

Film/the moving image was crucial to the inception of a gothic criminological framework and continues to be central in its expansion or diversification, as illustrated in this latest edited collection. For example, a chapter by Film International co-editor Matthew Sorrento, titled “The Purge, or the Universal Monstrous,” reads the three Purge films as a progression – part one as a siege film (a take on the home invasion film); part two as a hunt in the urban jungle; and the third as an attempted political assassination; in doing so, the chapter aims to illustrate how the series uses an extremist take on horror (ironically in its threat/terror rather than overt gore) to present capitalism-cum-fascism as the ultimate source of terror for the genre. 

The Purge (2013, c/o Universal Pictures): the series uses an extremist take on horror (ironically in its threat/terror rather than overt gore) to present capitalism-cum-fascism.

Additionally, Steve Greenfield’s “Contrasting Depictions of Medical Serial Killers: Doctors Pétiot and Shipman from the Manic to the Mundane,” uses a gothic criminological lens to compare and contrast two different moving image depictions of two serial killers: the French film Docteur Pétiot (1990) and the British television film Harold Shipman: Doctor Death (2002). Greenfield concludes that Pétiot seems to fit squarely into the standard depiction of a dramatic cold-blooded killer, motivated purely by greed; in contrast, Shipman, Britain’s most prolific serial killer, is a very different, and more horrifying breed because Shipman defies traditional classification, and his motivations are unknown/undramatic and unsubstantiated/defy rational explanations and his killings, mundane/banal. Using a rhetorical lens, Marouf Hasian Jr.’s “Visualizing Monsters and Just Wars in Legal, Military, and Public Analyses of Eastwood’s American Sniper” argues that Clint Eastwood’s film, by visualizing the acts of particular terrorist or counterterrorist “monsters,” provides diverse U.S. communities with vernacular ways of understanding jus in bello (justifications for going to war in the first place) and jus ad bellum (the methods that we use during war) issues.

Along a different track, my chapter (Caroline Joan “Kay” S. Picart), titled “Monstrous Discourses, Jihadi Cool, and Emergent Counter-Terrorist Narratives: The Case of Ahmad Khan Rahami (a.k.a. Ahmad Rahimi) and the 2016 New York/New Jersey Bombings,” discusses the significance of the use of surveillance footage (among other forms of evidence) at trials in tracking the movements of the Tsarnaev brothers and Rahami; these collated moving images, served functionally as “witnesses,” attesting to the premeditated nature of these bombings – in a manner analogous to the way in which footage of the numerous atrocities that the Nazis had committed “witnessed” against them at various international military tribunals. In a parallel investigation, but using ethnographic tools, John Edgar Browning and DJ Williams’ chapter, “Vampire Fictions and the Conflation of Violent Criminality with Real Vampirism: A Practical Overview,” begins with an analysis that builds upon Picart and Greek’s earlier work on the conflation between mythic vampires and mythologized serial killers in various cinematic depictions; as Browning and DJ Williams argue, the power of these reel life narratives results in unfortunate real world consequences for real life vampire communities. Browning and Williams’ project aims to deconstruct the power of these cinematic myths through ethnographic work that undermines stereotypic narratives regarding violence and real vampire communities. It is thus very clear that the study of film remains central to the genesis and evolution of Gothic Criminology, albeit in dynamic, non-reductive ways.

Fig. 9.1 (Photography by Deborah Landis). (1)

That said, for me, the moving image, significant and influential as it is, must be analyzed in relation to other forms of mediated discourses, as film (in its numerous genres) is always and already embedded in an interconnected flow with these, as, for instance, in an analogous manner, the history of copyright in relation to choreography has demonstrated. This is discussed more fully in another scholarly monograph, Critical Race Theory and Copyright in American Dance. Briefly and simplifying the case to get to the relevant points, in Horgan v. MacMillan, Inc., 789 F.2d 157 (2d 1986), the appellate court reversed a lower court decision, finding that 60 still photographs of Balanchine’s Nutcracker ballet choreography constituted copyright infringement because a visual snapshot communicates a great deal of information about the protected choreography (a “before” and “after” can be inferred; the placement of bodies on the stage is revealed at that moment, etc.). The difference, therefore, between a moving image and a snapshot, is essentially flow through time (and a narrative, when this is relevant). Thus, one can infer, from a still shot, an embedded flow or narrative, both backward and forward. Thus, to illustrate, from the edited collection, Deborah Landis uses still shots of graffiti, alongside Kenneth Burke’s Dramatism in order to concoct a fantastical beast, the Redactosaurus, to visualize and ironically deconstruct the grotesque absences and violent silences that underlie a city’s War on Graffiti (see Fig. 9.1 and 9.2). Although a moving image is not overtly a part of the chapter’s subject matter, the moving image’s dynamic in relation to time and narrative (and in this context, the visualization of the “monstrous” – that to which one “points” in order to “warn against”) is implicated, albeit in frozen form. In an analogous manner, the chapter co-authored by Lucy Williams, Sandra Walklate and Barry Godfrey creatively work across numerous newspaper depictions/visualizations (and patient case files) of criminal lunatics at Broadmoor Hospital at Berkshire, Britain’s first and until the 20th century, the only criminal lunatic asylum from 1863-1913; the chapter deconstructs the processes of monstering engaged in by Victorian newspapers, which fed upon and exploited the monstrous portraiture of criminal inmates, particularly if they were women, as morally and mentally degenerate.

You co-edited a foundational collection on Gothic Criminology in 2007. What newer developments in the field were you most interested in addressing? 

Fig. 9.2 (Photography by Deborah Landis).

That’s truly kind; thank you. For your readers who may be unaware, “Gothic Criminology” refers to a theoretical framework that I and Cecil Greek initially developed. Noting the proliferation of Gothic modes of narration and visualization in American popular culture, academia and even public policy, we proposed a framework, which we called a “Gothic Criminology,” to attempt to analyze the fertile synapses connecting the “real” and the “reel” in the flow of Gothic metaphors and narratives that abound around criminological phenomena that populate not only popular culture but also academic and public policy discourses. It is interesting to return to this framework now from the standpoint of a practicing lawyer (and law scholar/academic), as opposed the perspective to a professor of philosophy and film, which constituted my initial scholarly grounding. This is not to say that I have completely foregone or discarded these disciplinary moorings; rather, they equip me with a variety of “tools” or heuristics. The principal challenge has been creating an organic bricolage that is persuasive, cohesive, and understandable to a number of scholarly communities – a project that is obviously only possible when there are colleagues, such as yourself, who are willing to go the proverbial extra mile to attempt this.

If I were to compare Monsters In and Among Us: Towards a Gothic Criminology to this newest edited collection, Monsters, Law, Crime: Explorations in Gothic Criminology, I would say that in terms of disciplinary representation, the earlier edited collection was more predominantly populated by scholars in the humanities, while this latest edited collection features, more predominantly, scholars in the social sciences. Film has always been a natural medium to which many disciplines gravitate, and it is a continuing thread, particularly with Gothic Criminology’s emphasis on the complex connections binding the real and the “reel.”

Part of the reason for the inception of this new edited collection was my noticing that unlike the humanities, where monster theory has long flourished and developed as a critical framework, in the social sciences (and particularly in law scholarship), this area is largely under-theorized. This is partly because, for one, monster theory has been stereotyped as linear dynamic of fear, or more complexly, as a form of moral panic running amok. Another reason is that “monster theory” is often construed as the binary opposite to what is “reasonable” or “enlightened” – which often informs the analysis of how law (and society) operate. As the edited collection illustrates, monster theory is also a fertile framework in the social sciences, such as law, criminology, sociology, communications, and anthropology precisely because it unsettles these easy binaries and opens up new avenues of thinking through representations of power, truth, justice and equity in grappling with “difference” or “othering,” as historically contextualized and culturally grounded. This is not to take the thorough-going view that there is no such thing as “reason” or that there is no need for “order” or “law,” but rather that, to paraphrase and adapt Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s theses on “monster culture,” it is the monster’s presence that defines the outer limits of the city state, and the idea of the “monstrous” is always constructed against its counterpart, the Good Citizen. To reflect deeply on the nature of the “monstrous” is to grapple more deeply with what “crime/s” is/are and why these are constructed as such in relation to law/s.

In this collection, you have contributed a chapter on “Jihadi Cool,” which has been a focus in your other research. How important was the theme of terrorism in your overall scope for the book? (I see that the cover directly addresses it, as well.)

For the benefit of your readers, “jihadi cool,” as expounded on in prior work (American Self-Activating Terrorists and the Allure of Jihadi Cool/Chic (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017); “Jihad Cool/Jihad Chic”: The Roles of the Internet and Imagined Relations in the Self-Radicalization of Colleen LaRose (Jihad Jane), Societies, 2015, 5: 354–383), is a crucial factor in the genesis and evolution of self-radicalizing individuals (along with a host of other factors as there is scholarly consensus that the process of radicalization is neither reductive nor linear). Briefly, the rhetorics/narrative of jihadi cool (or chic, its feminine counterpart), creates an imagined Brotherhood of Warriors whose lives are totally dedicated to global jihad and the eradication of the Kafir (“infidels,” roughly translated), who are transmogrified as non-human and deserving of inhumane treatment. It romanticizes the status of being a “Badass” and appeals to disenfranchised young men by promising them glory and glamour. Part of jihadi cool’s rhetorical appeal lies in its mastery of Hollywood film techniques of narration, as well as appropriation of the aesthetics of gaming virtual reality; even more significantly, although there is a master narrative that underpins jihadi cool, there are also tailored micro-narratives, propagated through the internet, which appeal to different audiences. Thus, for example, material intended to target American young men tend to be overtly less savage or violent, and tend to stress the human-ness of the jihadi warrior (such as tenderly holding an infant astride a tank with a gun; enjoying skittles and Nuttela; or posing with kittens). The chapter I wrote for this edited collection is the latest offshoot in an ever-expanding research program on the proliferation of images and discourses linking the monstrous with terrorism in various media, and the evolution of counter-terrorism’s narratives both in the media and the evolving jurisprudence. The thesis that my chapter in this edited collection explores is: 1.) that the culture/rhetoric of jihadi cool remains a powerful force (interacting with other factors) in the self-radicalization of U.S. citizens; and 2.) that a template for a counter-narrative against jihadi cool is emerging through U.S. jurisprudence. This thesis is tested through a comparative examination of Ahmad Khan Rahami’s (the New York/New Jersey Bomber) self-radicalization compared with the self-radicalizations of the Boston Marathon Bombers (Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev); as well a comparative analysis of the media coverage, procedural and substantive legal elements of the trials of Jahar Tsarnaev and Rahami, and the jurisprudence that flow from both.

The study of terrorism (and counter-terrorism) is spontaneously connected with the contemporary evolution and visualization of what can be considered utterly “monstrous” and irredeemably “criminal.” This is not to say that Gothic Criminology’s focus should be solely on terrorism, but that in a sense, it is an “outer limit” or at least a significant spoke to Gothic Criminology’s critical examination of how the reel and the real intersect in the visualization of the “monstrous” in relation to crime and law. But as the edited collection shows, akin to the manner in which Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” can expand beyond its initial conception, Gothic Criminology’s fertility as a framework precisely relies on its ability to form meaningful networks across communities, both scholarly and popular, and its adaptability, as a heuristic for posing questions; proposing methods or model solutions for answering these inquiries; and generating new questions and answers in a moving spiral, like a DNA double helix.

Regarding the cover, I am reminded of the choices that were available to Franz Kafka during the first publication of “The Metamorphosis,” which, simplistically summarized, is akin to a stream of consciousness of an ordinary man who wakes up to find himself inexplicably transformed into a giant “creature” (some scholars say a cockroach; others, a beetle; others, an insect of unspecified type; others, something utterly “other”). Like Kafka, I initially leaned in the direction of either not having an image at all, or simply showing something evocative or blank, such as an open door, with the horrified reactions of others looking at the “unvisualizable” through the door as the principal focus. However, both possibilities were unsatisfying to me: the first seemed sterile, and the second, sensationalistic. There were, of course, other possibilities: images of menacing masked figures; vampires, other mythic beasts or horror film creatures; photographs of actual real life “monsters.” All of these struck me as stereotypic and reductionist. Thus, after a great deal of reflection, I chose an abstract image generally alluding to 911 because that image, particularly to audiences in the U.S., but also globally, is one of the most concrete and vivid visualizations of where the realms of the monstrous, law, and crime intersect, seared into public cultural memory. The choice of an abstract image is crucial, as it exists liminally between the spheres of the “real” and the “reel” – one of the defining attributes of a Gothic Criminology.

I know that, with edited collections, you begin with a blueprint of sorts but may end up finding many surprising details in your contributors’ work. Can you discuss any new avenues of interest for future publications or collections? 

I am reminded of how Mary Shelley, upon the publication of Frankenstein, bid her monstrous progeny to go forth. And there is a sense in which any study of the monstrous inevitably diffuses beyond; reflects upon liminality; refracts what seem like seamless and linear logics. There are many brilliant chapters in this edited collection which have spurred me on to ask more questions. One of the key issues that spontaneously emerged was a certain aspiration for something beyond mirror imaging and competing narratives of monster-making, whether that be through an appeal to an ethical imperative or a notion of social justice or a grounding on lived and pragmatic experience. As such, while appreciating the heuristic value of a framework of social construction, and a critique of invisible power relations, there is a sense in which the edited collection resists a mere relativistic revolving door of warring fictions regarding monstrosity and monstrous discourses. I think this is one area that cries out for further development.

There are many other possible directions, as the edited collection illustrates. Speaking specifically in relation to the study of the moving image in relation to the themes of monsters, law and crime, some approaches, perhaps closer to the initial formulation of Gothic Criminology, could stay rooted in a critical analysis of the mechanics/techniques of film and the narratives generated by the moving image, and in genre studies. Others could explore that complex interplay between the “real” and the “reel,” attuned to how the moving image moves the narrative, or how an embedded narrative/politic dictates both which images are chosen, and how these are “naturally” placed in conjunction with each other to form a coherent narrative. Others could focus on deconstructing popular cultural myths about “monsters” propagated by film, by cross fertilizing and grounding an imagined reel world with (auto-)ethnographic experiences in the real world. These are only a few possibilities, and are humbly offered as proposals for further discussion, experimentation, collaboration and critique. Thank you for engaging in this discussion with me, and for collaborating with me on this project.

Endnote

  1. Both figures originally published in: Deborah Landis, “The Redactasaurus Chronicles: Fear, Consumption and Graffiti Regulation in Capital City,” Monsters, Law, Crime: Explorations in Gothic Criminology, Caroline Joan “Kay” S. Picart, ed. (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2020), pp. 183-202. Permission granted by Deborah Landis; copyright license granted by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and Rowman and Littlefield.

Caroline Joan ‘Kay’ S. Picart is Attorney at Law practicing in criminal and family law and is Adjunct Professor of Law at Florida A & M University, Orlando, Florida. She is the series editor of Law, Culture and Humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and was a former professor of Philosophy, Humanities and Film.

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