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Monsters: The Social-Unconscious Life of

‘Others’ and a Note on the Origins of Group
Martin Weegmann

Monsters are curious cultural products, at once indicative of human

fears but equally characteristic of how humans envisage and con-
struct preferred identities at a group level. Drawing on contempo-
rary social and ‘monster theory’, the article argues that the study of
‘the monstrous’ is a fertile one for group analysts. Significantly, the
late 19th century origins of group theory were linked to fears about
monstrous forces at work in society, whilst contemporary ‘human
monsters’ continue to preoccupy the imagination.
Key words: monsters, intimate strangers, social unconscious, race/
ethnic identity, group theory
Then was this island – Save for the son that she did not litter there, A freckled
whelp hag-horn – not honour’d with a human shape (The Tempest, I.ii 281–4)
The monster speaks (Popular newspaper heading, following Josef Fritzl’s decision
to talk about his crimes)

At the Margins of the Social Unconscious

Monsters have been around a long time, and they show no signs of
abating, even if their contemporary forms and functions differ from
those of old. At some stage, ‘freaks’ overtook monsters, at least in
the last century, but in these days of supposed liberal democracy
(for some), ‘deformity’ and non-perfection continue to haunt our
dreams. The body is a common site of such anxieties. According to

Group Analysis. Copyright © 2008 The Group-Analytic Society (London), Vol 41(3):291–300.
DOI: 10.1177/0533316408094904

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monster theory, the monster is understandable also in relation to a

cultural body which ‘contains’ monstrous fears, even desires, warn-
ings, portents and category problems/limits. The monster ‘shows’ as
well as scares, deriving from the Latin monstrare, to demonstrate
and monere, to warn; hence, ‘the monster watches at the gates of the
human’ (Cohen, 1997: 9). This proximity is an important feature and
Cohen uses the Lacanian notion of ‘intimate alterity’, or extimite, to
capture this – monsters travel with humans, in haunting tandem.
‘Fiends from hell’, monsters are larger than life and inhabit borders,
beyond the village, in woods, fens and other far-off lands and as such
play a defining role vis-à-vis official human groups. There is consider-
able literature on the potent confluence/influence between individual
identity and historical/ideological group patterns, from which power-
ful positive and negative forces emerge (e.g. Hopper, 2003; Volkan,
2001). Dalal’s (1998: 212) definition of the social unconscious as a
‘discourse that hierarchically orders other discourses’ is particularly
salient and monsters do tell us rather a lot about the shaping of group
identity, power, bodies and the polarities of ‘us’ versus ‘others’. The
social unconscious is one obvious ‘site’ of the monstrous; however, as
an extreme/limit phenomena is it hard to pin down, having, as it were,
a ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ nature (a form of words suggested, in
a context examining gender, race and class, by Erica Burman; personal
communication). Monsters lurk in the holes and shadows of a given
foundation matrix.

Modern Monsters: A Whole Lot of Fears

Modern monsters fall into two types: the scary-but-safe and the posi-
tively forensic. The scary-safe populate countless popular films, com-
ics, computer games and Gothic/science-fiction. The reader or viewer
enjoys a safe encounter with terror, frightened but thrilled by suspense
and the stimulation of the imagination. Regular on-screen visitors,
like the Daleks of Dr. Who, continue to work their magic and arouse
safe anxiety, epitomised in the cosy story of watching from ‘behind
the sofa’. A newer monster, or an old fairy-tale one re-born, is the nice
and friendly/be-friendly one who forms a special relationship with a
child or other privileged subject; these are the ETs, Grinches, Ness-
ies, Jar Jar Binxes, Monsters Inc.’s., etc. Raol Dahl’s image of ‘BFGs’
– Big Friendly Giants – is particularly heart-warming and time and
time again, it is narrow or vindictive adults, or other, dark monsters,
who stand in their way, before being exposed and overcome.

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Weegmann: Social-Unconscious Life of ‘Others’ 293

The seriously forensic is never far from the public imagination and
media. Insufficient for ordinary words, people use those reserved,
exceptional terms to describe terrible acts and beings, terms like ‘mon-
sters’ (e.g. ‘I married a monster’ – the wife of Ipswich ‘red light’ killer
Steve Wright), ‘animal’ and ‘beast’ (e.g. the ‘bus stop’predator, Levi
Bellfield), ‘psycho’ (e.g. the ‘country-side walk’ double-murderer,
Michael Stone), to use three infamous UK examples. We are fasci-
nated by the ‘backgrounds’ of such men, the making of monsters, and
astounded by the discovery of super-monsters, men like Fritzl, who
exceed anything previously thought possible. These are moral monsters,
distinguished not by some strange anatomy or appearance – indeed,
being of ‘ordinary appearance’, wearing slippers, popping up on coun-
tryside paths, enjoying exotic holidays, etc., heightens the fear they
arouse, but by an unbelievable depravity. Davidson (2001) suggests
that this speaks to a realm beyond the simply bad, triggering the need
for a special category of depiction. Some political rulers or discontents
earn the moral monster epitaph, often slid into that other, contemporary
catch-all phrase, ‘terrorist’. In group terms, these beings take us to the
very edges of humanity, to those places where ‘in-humanity’ intercedes
and ‘evil people’ roam. Protection is paramount as such beings might
inhabit ‘our community’ and certainly threaten ‘our way of life’.

Monsters of Old: Groups and Counter-Groups

It is tempting to use the word ‘fantasy’ to characterize human interest
and fear about monsters. Yet, in many contexts, such ‘fantasies’ had a
considerable role and extensive meaning vis-à-vis the social. We might
therefore be wise to reserve judgment when it comes to assessing the
concepts and categories of earlier times. In his penetrating study of
heretics during the medieval period, Cohn (1975) observes a process
of increasing ‘monsterization’. As is known, by the 13th and 14th cen-
turies, the rise of European absolutist governments and a centralizing
Church lead to widespread intolerance or persecution. Some groups
became effective persecuted minorities for the first time, including the
poor, lepers, Jews, heretics and so on. Marked by fatal differences, such
groups were maligned, great trouble and symbolism being attributed
to them. As for activities attributed to heretics, Cohn (p. ix) writes:
The essence of the fantasy was that there existed, somewhere in the midst of the
great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatening
the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices that were felt to
be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of literally anti-human.

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Cohn rightfully notes how, once a prototype of heresy is created

(‘precedents’), it is reinforced by subsequent stereotypes and is
often extended to other dangerous beings and forces. Rubin’s (1999)
account of the medieval anti-semitism, for example, analyses the
creation of the malevolent theme of host desecration, in which Jews
were increasingly associated with unforgivable acts and assaults upon
the very symbol of Christian community and identity. Decline in the
persecution of religious heretics was followed by the great witch per-
secutions, some of which, particularly in Europe, drew upon parallel
fears of a malevolent ‘counter society’ and perverse Sabbaths. It is
tempting but misleading to label such processes as ‘medieval’, as
though the Middle Ages were some special period of ‘dark time’, as
the Victorians would have us believe (note also that the witch perse-
cutions were post-medieval).
In the Middle Ages, ‘monsters’, like human heretics, had many
cultural and symbolic uses, demarcating spheres, bodies and valued
practices (such as Christians, humans, saints, rulers, certain gendered
subjects, obedience, etc.) from their denigrated counter-parts (such
as non-Christians, demons, animals, rebels, subservient beings, etc.).
In a centuries old representation, women, for example, were seen as
possessive of monstrous appetites, linked in Christianity to the idea
of original sin. As intimate strangers, monsters lived close-by, even
inside the body (e.g. ‘carnal women’) or else inhabited presently
unknown regions of the world and in this way, monsters constituted
an army of imaginary others, members of a ‘deformed discourse’
(Williams, 1999).
Far from products of the ‘dark ages’, monsters proliferated during
the Renaissance. In one remarkable contribution, the French surgeon
and chief surgeon to Charles IX, Ambrose Paré, penned On Monsters
and Marvels (1634 [1982]). At once a scientific and literary docu-
ment, it details and illustrates an infinite variety of natural wonder,
with captions such as ‘half-man, half-swine’, ‘a very monstrous ani-
mal known in Africa’, ‘counterfeiting hedge-whores’, ‘demons who
live in quarries or mines’, ‘two-headed child’, ‘flying monsters’ and
‘celestial monsters’. A devout Christian, Paré posed that frequent
theological question, to what extent do monsters and other marvels
reflect the glory or the wrath of God? Although the medic Paré mainly
scrutinized the body and reproductive mishaps, his work is not dis-
similar to those who journeyed to new lands, finding cannibals and
monstrous hybrids in those unfamiliar places. Treatises on monsters
became a genre.

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Weegmann: Social-Unconscious Life of ‘Others’ 295

The link between domination and expansion into the New World
and the monstrous is important, reflecting the requirement by ascen-
dant human groups (e.g. dominant religions, conquering countries,
new professional groups, etc.) to classify heathen ‘others’ or ‘mon-
strous races’. A European ‘grid’ of wonder was applied throughout
the world, with pygmies, cannibals, Amazons, mermaids, wildmen,
the land of arcadia, earthly paradise and so on, merged together. Such
phenomena continued to create theological dilemmas, as in the dis-
pute between those who saw a Godless, fearsome world and those
who defended the rights of those living in a natural, even if ignorant,
paradise (Elliot, 1970). Interestingly the word ‘savage’, which was
initially applied to inanimate objects, as in a ‘savage landscape’, was
later applied to humans (see Pagden, 1993).

The Fragile Body of Early England

In the story of the united/disunited kingdom of England, the chronicler
Gerald of Wales has significance. Gerald is a curious figure, insofar
as he identified with the Francophone English, in the aftermath of
the Norman Conquest, but is also known for his pro-Welsh stance. In
this and other respects, he had a mixed, not to say contradictory iden-
tity. Add to the mix the fact that the Welsh cleric and ethnographer
wrote Topograhia Hibernia (‘History and Topography of Ireland’)
in 1187. To those interested in how peripheries are represented, we
have, in Gerald’s text, one (relative) marginal, a Welshman, living in
the Welsh March, a borderland region vis-à-vis England, depicting
Ireland, a ‘remote island’ further still to the west; from one margin to
another! Gerald sets out to explain ‘its peculiarities … so long hidden
under the veil of antiquity, and seeking out both the qualities and the
defects of almost all things that nature has produced there’ (p. 5).
In a brilliant exploration, Jeffrey Cohen (2006) analyses how the
book, with its peculiar blend of chronicle, anecdote, natural, human and
monstrous reality, contributed to the formation of an English, superior
identity, thus British mainland could thus be shored up, as it were. It is
inseparable from Henry II’s project of conquest and through a combina-
tion of image-building and stereotype, Gerald depicts ‘Irishness’ in a
way that would become all-too-familiar, through tropes of barbarity and
bestiality. The Irish, according to Gerald, do not build towns, mint coins
or codify laws, living instead in a state of depravity. There are often links
between monsterization, perverse sexuality and animalization (think of
the various medieval accusations against heretics, Jews and Moslems)

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296 Group Analysis 41(3)

and the Irish of the Topographia are no exception. Here, wolf-men and
ox-men demonstrate the consequences of a sinful crossing over to the
animal world: violence, vile transgression and eroticism coincide.
Cohen (1999) explores the processes by which ‘communities’, like
that of early England, imagine themselves and how, through violent
exclusions, they build their collective identities; the tragedy being, that
once a particular representation gains credence and circulation, and
suitably reinforced by historical repetition, it becomes part of a com-
mon-sense. Said (1978) refers to the process by which a ‘familiar’ cat-
egory is created and with that its transmission down the years ensured.
Gerald’s representation of Ireland, for example, found many imitators,
even if his curious monsters and hybrids were replaced in time by
entirely human forms, as in Edmund Spencer’s notorious renderings
of the Irish during Elizabethan times and so on, up to and including
the modern era. Much has been written on the racialization of the Irish
and the links between early colonial rule, subsequent derogations and
later traditions of romantic, nationalist backlash (Lentin and McVeigh,
2002; see Dalal, 2002, for a further analysis of the social unconscious-
ness and semiotic reality of racism). Interestingly, the expression
‘beyond the pale’, to typify unacceptable conduct, originates in the
British project of creating defensive enclosures and boundaries of
rule, ‘the pale’, in and around Dublin. ‘Irish’ has come to act as a com-
pressed signifier, containing multiple dimensions of meaning, which,
from the hegemonic position of England, were frequently derogatory
or patronising; to use an idea from Foulkes and Anthony (1957: 245),
‘words are old and so carry layers of meaning’.

A 19th Century Monster and Origins of Group Therapy

Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by man’s double being
and spent years searching for a literary vehicle that might embody
this. As for his background, several aspects might help to explain
this, including a strict Calvinist upbringing with its emphasis on
sin, the chosen and the condemned, his long physical confine-
ments due to ill-health, his awareness of class-divided popula-
tions in his native Edinburgh, his rebellions against middle-class
respectability and accompanying feelings of guilt. In the confines
of his hated Bournemouth existence, where he had moved for rea-
sons of health and, ‘trapped like a weevil in a biscuit’ (Stevenson,
1988: 240), he drafted the novel in a matter of days. He had found
the perfect literary vehicle. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and

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Weegmann: Social-Unconscious Life of ‘Others’ 297

Mr. Hyde (1886) was born. The classic novella, subsequently

published as a ‘shilling shocker’, is a remarkable example of the
monster within, an ‘ab-human’, whose ability to usurp a weakened
host subject, Dr. Jekyll, creates a particularly chilling effect (Hurely,
1996). Ape-like and depraved, Hyde is indeed a figure hideously lurk-
ing within the very skin and soul of a gentleman, scientist and ‘man
about town’. There are few direct sightings of Hyde and it is his very
elusiveness to visual representation that creates suspense and fear:
Enfield: ‘He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appear-
ance; something displeasing, something downright detestable’ (p. 24).
Utterson: ‘Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish; he gave the impression of deformity
without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile …’ (p. 40)

The reference to malformity and things ‘out of place’ has an over-

determined significance and monstrosity in the 19th century context
and has a tangible, anatomical ‘factness’ about it. This was an era of
new science, such as criminology, as well as new efforts to police
– in the widest sense of that word – the new disciplinary societies
(Foucault, 1978). Beyond the individual, however, the figure of
Hyde also represents those shadowy, degenerate forces that might
tear society asunder. Several commentators (e.g. Mighall, 1999;
Showalter, 1990) have explored links between Stevenson’s story
and late 19th century concerns, not only with the prospect of double
consciousness/personality (Stevenson’s book appeared during the
heyday of Janet’s great work on dissociation, but a good ten years
before Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria), but with a veritable
range of social fears, regarding increased criminality and anarchy, the
spread of degenerate classes and racial groups (e.g. East European
immigrants, addicts) and erosion of conventional masculinity; indeed,
some believed that the whole era was becoming dangerously femi-
nised. Not only the ‘individual’ body, but the very social body could
be subject to degeneration, from within and without. To some, the
survival of nation and manhood were at stake.
A variety of racism was in evidence, hinted at in the very descrip-
tions of Hyde. The presence of ‘dark’, foreign elements was merged
with a discourse about social class. Davidson (1995) talks about
the possibility of Stevenson referring indirectly to Irish agitators
as source of social threat (Hyde is an Irish surname). We know that
Stevenson was concerned about the growing Fenian attacks, sweeping
England during the 1880s and in this regard, Hyde’s frenzied murder
of MP, Sir Danvers Carew, has additional salience. The witness to the

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298 Group Analysis 41(3)

murder, describes Carew as ‘an aged and beautiful gentleman with

white hair drawing near along the lane’ (p. 46), whom the ‘madman’
Hyde clubs to death. Read in terms representing the Irish, or other
foreigners, what better way could there be to counterpoise English
civility versus barbarism?
The origins of group theory (and ultimately group therapy) are
also to be found in this end-of-the-century cultural mix. Recall that
this was a time in which races, classes and nations were thought of
as expressive of ‘types’; types had a particular character, as so mix-
ing and crossovers were regarded with some fear. The unruly crowd
and passionate mob were the phenomenon on which thinkers like
Le Bon, Tarde and others, constructed notions of contagion, sugges-
tibility and primitive behaviour. Such thinkers encapsulated many of
the fears of their well-to-do contemporaries: ‘Their crowds loomed
as violent, bestial, insane, capricious beings whose comportment
resembled that of the mentally-ill, women, alcoholics, or savages’
(Burrows, 1981: 5). Barrows identifies a notable misogynistic strand in
Le Bon’s theory, with woman as symbolic of instability, suggestibility
and emotion, the very qualities he ascribes to crowds (this was equally
true of some of the distinguished pioneers of psychiatry, who reflected
upon ‘degeneracy’ or race suicide, such as Henry Maudsely; see
Showalter’s, illuminating analysis [1990]). That our venerable group
theories have origins in such a past, within highly racial, patriarchal
and class-based formulations, is an overlooked fact (see Pick, 1989).

Monsters are interesting for at least two sorts of reasons. Firstly, by
definition, monsters are beings at the edges of the social, liminal
creatures who haunt boundaries but who, ultimately, tell us a great deal
about whom we are and how we like to envision ourselves – whether
this be the respectable bourgeois gentlemen of Victorian Britain
(e.g. Dr. Jekyll in Stevenson’s novella), the properly constituted,
natural family/body of Renaissance times (e.g. as in Paré’s medical-
cum-moral observations) or the civilized centre looking over, as it
were, the barbarous places and peoples of the earth (e.g. as in the New
World ‘discovery’ art and literature of early colonialism, of which
Gerald of Wales’ text was a precursor). Secondly, there is the curious
and neglected story about the correlation between group theories
and group fears. In the late 19th century at least, the coincidence
of the two helped to create ‘feared groups’ or ‘dangerous classes’

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Weegmann: Social-Unconscious Life of ‘Others’ 299

(e.g. immigrants, anarchists, women’s activists) who, from the

dominant viewpoint, represented monstrous possibilities within
By looking around the hazy margins, perhaps one can glimpse
more about the story of ourselves, our positive constructions, but
also our racisms and desires to dominate and derogate others.
Perhaps humans need to exaggerate their fears, as with the forensic
examples, and so we cannot do without monsters? In this regard,
the monster continues to be a source of considerable wonder as
well as fear.

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Martin Weegmann is a group analyst and psychologist. He is currently

researching a book that draws on history and cultural representation as con-
texts for understanding modern forms of therapy, including group analysis.
Address: 35 Greyhound Road, Kensal Green, London NW10 5QH, UK.

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