The Ecology of Fear: or, the Plastic Prometheus (Concluding Ghost Light II: Monstrosities)

Scroll this
Editor’s Note: This eighth post concludes the Ghost Light II: Monstrosities series edited by Caroline Abbott. The 2023 theme of this series aimed to problematise the notion of “monstrosity” in the environmental humanities in the interest of illuminating the relationships between other-than-human beings, folklore, and environment.

My start in Victorian literature all but ensured an encounter with Frankenstein’s monster eventually, though I have avoided it for years. For a number of (literary) reasons, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley never felt like my kind of Gothicism: moreover, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster never resonated as the sort of monstrous I felt aligned with in Kinship enough, prepared enough — good enough — to draw parallels to. Our early writing (perhaps our current writing as well) is so often a map of what we fear the most. Environmental history and environmental humanities frameworks demand we rise to those types of challenges much in the same way as Shelleyan monstrosities command a room: directly. Adjectives like “monstrosity,” are, to borrow another nineteenth century reference, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the humanities: at once tremendously volatile and quite helpful, they share an embodiment of tremendous weight. Though the series was never billed as a strict problematisation of linguistics, the co-cultivated thematic space which resulted offers telling interlinkages with this term which can be used to understand current field engagement with “monstrous” other-than-human beings and their histories — and which encourage intersectional growth in existing frameworks.

In the CFP for this second installment of Ghost Light (branching from the original series which we published last autumn), I introduced readers to a 2015 essay in which Natalie Lawrence asked: “what do we mean when we talk about monsters?”1 Branching from Lawrence’s work, I sought engagement with a related but distinct question: what do environmental historians mean when we talk about the monstrous? Our series was able to accommodate six contributors, each of whom approached the monstrous entanglements in their work and lives to better understand the relationships between other-than-human, so-called monstrous beings, history and folklorics, and environment. A global, intersectional scope emerged featuring histories, ecocriticisms, and intersectional methodologies. We encountered a wide range of monstrous beings, with contributors taking readers with them across Canadian, North American, Middle Eastern, and digital ecologies.

An “ecology of fear” refers to frameworks more often seen in life sciences, but which, I argue, are applicable to intersectional more-than-human environmental histories. In its traditional application, Zanette and Clinchy explain in Current Biology, the ecology of fear posits that the “costs of avoiding predation [fear] may additionally reduce prey fecundity and survival, and the total reduction in prey numbers resulting from exposure to predators may thus far exceed that due to direct killing alone.”2 Ecological concepts take root quickly in histories which engage monstrosity. “How do we measure or map the landscape of fear?” Laundré et al ask in their 2010 exploration, “The Landscape of Fear.”3 How did Ghost Light II’s contributors map landscapes of fear? What stalks these histories? Reflecting on the series with this in mind reveals a more-than-human map to the greater fears of the field. It also confirms that, off its edge, here be monsters.

Fig. 1: “Austin’s Best Private Halloween Party / Neff Halloween Party – Austin Texas, 2022.” 29 October 2022. Wikicommons. CC BY 2.0. User: daveiam.

Two essays approached Shelleyan thematics directly and adeptly demonstrate the lasting power of Frankenstein’s monster. Anna Soper’s “Foreign Body: On the 12-Foot Skeleton as Supra-Residential Memento Mori” engages the Home Depot’s viral plastic prometheus. She walks us through the absurdist assembly of its more-than-human bones alongside passages from Shelley’s work, problematising the skeleton’s place in Halloween history. Soper also marks its significance to American and Canadian backyard environments. At once funny and melancohlic, “Skelly” marks for Soper what it does for many who remember its emergence in 2020: a memento mori, a mark of escapism and sublimity, of privilege and of wealth amid a global racial justice reckoning, at a time of unprecedented death, panic, and indeed, fear. Soper’s essay offers a tinge of melancholy for the future of Skelly’s plastic bones, too: “Who will piece these scattered bones back together when we are gone? [/] Who will delight in their presence, as we do? [/] Who will name them, and give them homes?”4

Archeologists and anthropologists of some far-distant future may acknowledge the existence of the ‘Skelly-tecene’ as they pick through the fragments of our time.

Anna Soper, “Foreign Body: On the 12-Foot Skeleton as Supra-Residential Memento Mori,” 2023.
Fig. 2: A teddy bear lies amidst rubble in Gori during the Russian occupation of the Georgian city. 25 August 2008. Detail of original image. Public Domain. Wikimedia.

Sonakshi Srivastava’s essay, “‘Scrap’-ping Humanity: A Study of Monstrosity in Frankenstein in Baghdad” also engages notions of discard, and of the sacred and profane. Offering a timely and powerful read of Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 reimagining of Shelley’s work, Srivastava follows the novel’s protagonists — junk dealer Hadi (Dr. Frankenstein) and his creation, “Shesma” (Frankenstein’s monster, as constructed from the reassembled bodies of bomb victims in United States occupied Baghdad). Srivastava’s writing reminds scholars to acknowledge bodies and their more-than-human entanglements within wartime landscapes as extractable resources for state powers. “Maiming, and not killing,” she reminds us, allows state or settler groups to maintain a supply of people trapped in monstrous cycles. Human and other-than-human lives “considered no more than dregs in events of wars and bombings,” she argues, evidence the means by which “the biopolitics of extractivism” indeed “underlie the pronouncement of settler colonial subjects and their bodies as waste or worth.”5 The fears she conveys are required reading:

“Like Shelley, Saadawi hints at one of the centremost horrors of being human: of being disposable and of disposing others.”

Sonakshi Srivastava, “‘Scrap’-ping Humanity: A Study of Monstrosity in Frankenstein in Baghdad,” 2023.
Fig. 3: Photograph of Fall Webworm caterpillars courtesy of Janice Vis.

Two contributions approach the webs of more-than-human monstrosity in insect or arachnoid form, paying critical mind to more-than-human stories which are still often neglected. In “Unsightly Relations: A Meditation On (Not) Being Disgusted by Insects,” Janice Vis takes us on a midnight walk. She knows every step of the way, and knows, too well, the dynamic history between so-called invasive Fall Webworms and the human co-inhabitants disappointed by their defoliating efforts across her home landscape in the Great Lakes region (territory of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations). Explaining disgust reactions against webworms and other insects, Vis examines disgust alongside monstrosity. Arguing that these reactions reflect other boundary lines around nature space which mark “unspoken rules about who is assumed to belong” in them, Vis explores the way these reactions reach inward, outward, and towards the future. “What is the ‘correct’ feeling to have about a webworm nest?,” she asks. “We are feeling creatures,” she stresses. “[Disgust],” she reminds us, “is more likely than fear to illicit violence in order to restore a violated norm” within nature spaces.6

“While disgust is a reactionary movement that (re)draws boundaries of (un)belonging, monstrosity marks wild knottings: ‘[m]onsters are bodies tumbled into bodies; the art of telling monstrosity requires stories tumbled into stories.'”

Janice Vis, “Unsightly Relations: A Meditation On (Not) Being Disgusted by Insects,” 2023.
Fig.4: 2023 in-game screenshot of The Rewinder 山海旅人, used with permission of MistyMountainStudio, provided by Ian Boes. 

In their essay, “Webs of a Monstrous Spirit: Queerfeminist and Chinese Folkloric Entanglements in The Rewinder 山海旅人,” Ian Boes’s Queerfeminist reading of the 2021 video game,  The Rewinder 山海旅人 sees stories tumble into stories indeed. Boes considers The Rewinder‘s reworking of gendered Chinese folklorics across the game’s multiple timelines. Specifically, Boes considers the game’s representation of a Yaoguai (妖怪) — literally, a strange (or Queer), Monstrous spirit or ghost. Grounding their thought lines in historical context, they approach the monstrous aspects of the Yaoguai’s pain. Boes considers the sites of feminine kinship in the game’s ecologies as a vector for its multiple endings and improved outcomes for the monstrous spirit’s path to liberation. They conclude: “[it] is the game’s interpretation of Chinese notions of monstrosity — and kinship between its feminine characters — which ensures the Yaoguai’s pain will not remain unanswered.”7 Indeed, the monstrous webs of Boes’s Yaoguai entangle with those of Vis’s webworms, and can be read for their similar, emotional frameworks. If “[we] are feeling creatures,” as Janice Vis stresses,8 perhaps the act of “[staying-with]” a monstrous pain, as Ian Boes explains, might indeed reveal “alternative, secret [endings].”9

“The Yaoguai’s (妖怪) cobwebs urge player, player-character and NPC […] to empathize with grief as the cause of [monstrosity].”

Ian Boes, “Webs of a Monstrous Spirit: Queerfeminist and Chinese Folkloric Entanglements in The Rewinder 山海旅人,” 2023.
Fig. 5: Cartoon of La Corriveau by Charles Walter Simpson for Légendes du Saint-Laurent, 1926. Creative Commons via Wikipedia Commons. “Le squelette de “La Corriveau”, dans sa cage de fer, terrorisant un voyageur.” Via Wikicommons, Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}. 

Adrian Deveau also explores these empathetic monstrosities. In their essay, “Consultation with the Devil: Witchcraft and Stolen Land in the Quebecois Colonial Imaginary,” Deveau explores the environmental history of L’Ile D’Orleans through the lens of haunting and settler colonialism — stalked throughout by the tale of La Corriveau, the island’s most infamous witchy specter. Though she is best remembered for her gruesome death by hanging in an iron cage for the murder of her abusive husband, Marie-Josephte Corriveau was an ordinary settler woman, poor and rural, whose only crime was poverty, trauma, and perhaps, ignorance of the law (interestingly, there may even be a paper trail for the murder weapon).10 “Folktales of witches and devils were (and remain) widespread under colonial regimes,” Deveau explains, with “[figures] like La Corriveau [exemplifying] the undisciplined body of the newly formed colony.” Expanding beyond the island’s settler folklorics to regard Indigenous histories, Deveau also explains the reactivity between militaristic settler colonial land clearances and monstrosity. “By tainting the land and its inhabitants with devilish allegiance,” they explain, “Christian colonizers could co-opt the guilt of sin for the profit of war and expansion while blaming devil-worship on the very same victims of their genocide, racism, and misogyny.”11 These are guarantees of terror and of generational trauma. In a prudent reading of white settler femininity’s sustained folkloric action upon these landscapes, Deveau concludes of the “garden” or “gemstone” of Quebec:

“The island is a blood diamond, crystal clear and glimmering; its value extracted from the murderous exploitation of settler women and Indigenous communities. To this day the jagged edge of the gem reflects a woman: dressed in a faded gown, reaching through the bars of her cage. She lingers behind you, just there, over your shoulder.”

Adrian Deveau, “Consultation with the Devil: Witchcraft and Stolen Land in the Quebecois Colonial Imaginary,” 2023.
Fig. 6: Qasr Kharana, photographed John D. Whiting and G. Eric Matson, 1936-1937. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-18430.

Margaret Freeman’s contribution is also a site of haunting and settler-colonial interplay. In her “Something in the Sand: The Haunted Landscapes of Bedouin Nomadic Pastoralists,” Freeman explains the “fear of the otherworldly as a factor in human migration and settlement.” Walking readers through centuries of deeply-stratified history, she examines the relationship between Bedouin nomadic pastoralists and the nineteenth century explorers who hired them as expedition guides to contextualise architecture as a site of more-than-human occupancy across the desert landscapes of the Middle East. Freeman employs frameworks which hinge upon the interplay of landscape and monstrosity to explore story, people, and place. Settler conceptions of “'[forsaken settlements]” Freeman explains, “recorded firsthand encounters with the supernatural at historic sites throughout the deserts of the Middle East.” “[When] taken seriously,” she continues, the belief systems these encounters reveal provide dimensionality to how “nomadic pastoralist lifeways are shaped both by the seen and the unseen, the known and unknown, the real and imagined.” When thinking with fear, what explorers conceived of or reduced to ‘vacant’ sites of haunting, monstrosity, and baseless fear enabled weaponization of those lifeways — “as a means of suggesting the primitiveness of the Near East’s mobile inhabitants,” Freeman explains.12

“Despite not settling permanently in or around expeditionist-encountered sites such as Qusayr ‘Amra or Qasr Azraq, and indeed seeming to insist on spending as little time at these sites as possible, the historical architecture of the desert played an important role in not only Bedouin migration routes but in Bedouin conceptions of their own history and that of the landscape they occupied, animating their built and natural environment as a place still occupied by ghosts of the past and the spirits of the otherworld.”

Margaret Freeman, “Something in the Sand: The Haunted Landscapes of Bedouin Nomadic Pastoralists,” 2023.
Fig. 7: Detail of Abbott family hike. 14 October 2023.

For environmental historians, fear and more-than-human entanglements make maps. Howls made seventeenth century coastlines visible to settler ships in darkness (Coleman 2004);13 “the enigmatic,” “imagined,” even “lost” coasts of Terra Nova can still be engaged by following the concerns of sixteenth century fishermen and their prey (Bouchard 2023);14 and indeed, hyrbid howls still maintain biopolitical boundaries in twentieth century Canada (and reverberate in print and on social media in twenty-first century North America) (Rutherford 2022).15 Effective problematisations of these more-than-human engagements with nature space and historical memory rely upon understandings of both more-than-human populations and human motivations recorded by story. Fear, as anyone who has been up against a deadline knows, is a fantastic motivator. What is at stake in “failing to consider fear,” when applied historically, goes beyond strictly ecological applications.16 This series makes evident that a yearning to engage our own fears often underlies a desire to mobilise them towards change. Each contributor held their monsters delicately, and asks the field to do the same. And we should. Understanding our own feelings as they relate to more-than-human, monstrous histories (as Janice Vis’s incredibly self-reflective introspections remind us) both reveal critical entanglements and improve our own more-than-human relationships.

“The forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms. Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Project Gutenberg.

In Jessica DeWitt’s 2018 essay, “Problems of Place: Place in Three Acts,” she writes of a girlhood not unlike my own. “One girl and her dogs roaming free,” along forest paths, the remnants of other times traceable along them, the confidence of a girl who could see them and would later want them to be seen: “I knew, while I walked those paths, I remembered.”17 The forest paths of my girlhood were similar sites of enchantment (right down to the unique company of a massive, hairy, perhaps-more-bear-than-dog companion to watch the streams go by). They also convey similar realities upon revisitation: the water of my stream (though a few hundred miles from hers), is also now a mirror which asks me to confront the stories I share, tell, and curate, and the ones I let float somewhere else. And why.

Fig. 8: Detail of Abbott family hike. 14 October 2023.

Beside “my” river is a site of human monstrosity (a place I only ever knew then for its peace, and which despite this, still offers as much). The cement enclosure and chain link which remains enshrines the site of a more-than-human experiment which now stands a rusted altar to its failed subject. The acts of community members whose monstrous actions rebirthed this den a monument held no such mirror to themselves. Defiant of the “monster” they found defenceless in its cage, fearful of “apparently innocent” endeavours, they took their however-many pounds of flesh here. I’m not ready to tell you why.

“I wanted people to understand. And I guess, I wanted it to stop hurting.”

Jessica M. DeWitt, “Problems of Place: Place in Three Acts.” Environmental History Now, December 10, 2018.

The weight of this place presses on my conscience in ways I recognise will someday soon need out. My own ecology of fear is still stalked by a potential for failure in service. For many environmental historians, the monstrous provides a companion to that fear. Among other things, monstrosity provides a way to walk old paths again so that such monuments and traces are seen — so that, as DeWitt describes, they matter. The monstrous, I argue, can offer the “loving memorial to a past self, a warm embrace” which she describes.18 It can also offer this to history’s monsters. In asking that scholars account for their fear, monstrosity offers a path by which to calibrate more-than-human histories with care, context, and consideration.

With thanks to these six contributors and the web of scholarship they have shared with our community, I am at once absolved of my need to hide away from Mary Shelley and forced to soon confront that temple in my childhood woods. With thanks to these six contributors, I am reminded that despite the so-called monsters who have met tragic, violent ends, perhaps monstrosity as a framework enables us to approach our own with greater care: to speak through our fears towards mapping clearer histories which leave us on terms both we and they deserve; to greet them with what we, too, may have needed:

“Yes, it mattered, love. It mattered so much.”

Jessica M. DeWitt, “Problems of Place: Place in Three Acts.” Environmental History Now, December 10, 2018.

1 Lawrence, Natalie. “What is a monster?,” Research News Blog, The University of Cambridge, September 7, 2015.
2 Zanette, Liana Y., and Michael Clinchy. “Ecology of Fear.Current Biology 29, no. 9 (May 6, 2019).
3 Laundré, John W., Lucina Hernández, and William  J. Ripple. “The Landscape of Fear: Ecological Implications of Being Afraid.The Open Ecology Journal 3 (March 2010).
4 Soper, Anna. “Foreign Body: On the 12-Foot Skeleton as Supra-Residential Memento Mori.” The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 31, 2023.
5 Srivastava, Sonakshi. “Scrap’-ping Humanity: A Study of Monstrosity in Frankenstein in Baghdad.” The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), November 7, 2023.
6 Vis, Janice. “Unsightly Relations: A Meditation On (Not) Being Disgusted by Insects.” The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 10, 2023.
7 Boes, Ian. “Webs of a Monstrous Spirit: Queerfeminist and Chinese Folkloric Entanglements in The Rewinder 山海旅人,The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 24, 2023.
8 Vis, “Unsightly Relations,” 2023.
9 Boes, “Webs of a Monstrous Spirit,” 2023.
10 Lacourcière, L. Le triple destin de Marie-Josephte Corriveau (1733-1763), (1968), p.230-231.

Footnote 29 reads: “Il est assez pathétique de constater ici que, le 2 février, lors de la vente à l’encan des effets de feu Dodier, sa veuve avait racheté, parmi une vingtaine d’objets, [“]une hache avec son manche adjugée à trente-deux sols.[“] — in English, “It is quite pathetic to note here that, on February 2, during the auction of the late Dodier’s effects, his widow had bought, among around twenty objects, a hatchet with its handle which sold for thirty-two sols.”
11 Deveau, Adrian. “Consultation with the Devil: Witchcraft and Stolen Land in the Quebecois Colonial Imaginary,” The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 3, 2023.
12 Freeman, Margaret. “”Something in the Sand: The Haunted Landscapes of Bedouin Nomadic Pastoralists,” The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 17, 2023.
13 Coleman, Jon T. Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
14 Bouchard, Jack. “Litus Ignotus: Lost Coasts of Terra Nova in the Sixteenth Century.Coastal Studies & Society 2, no. 1 (2022): 14–37.
15 Rutherford, Stephanie. Villain, Vermin, Icon, kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022.
16 Zanette and Clinchy, “Ecology of Fear.” 2009.
17 DeWitt, Jessica M. “Problems of Place: Place in Three Acts.” Environmental History Now: A Platform on Representation, Engagement, and Community, December 10, 2018.
18 Ibid.

Feature image: Detail of Abbott family hike. Connecticut, United States. 14 October 2023.
The following two tabs change content below.

Caroline Abbott

Caroline is a recent graduate of Glasgow University (M.Res. 2019) with interests in the intersections of other-than-human histories, print, gender and environment in the long nineteenth century. She is managed by a small gray rescue Manx and a formerly-feral house panther.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.