Monsters: A film that shows the American Dream sinking into archetypal psychosis

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A still from Monsters, by Gareth Edwards.

The word "monster" comes from the Latin monstrum, which refers to a warning or judgement that traumatically breaks into this world from the realm of the divine. It is in this sense that British director Gareth Edward's 2010 film Monsters is well-named.

In the tradition of movies like Gojira, Edwards uses a giant monster invasion as an allegory for serious real-world dangers. This allegory stands atop an ancient mythical subtext underlying all monster stories. If the allegory deserves interpretation, the subtext demands exegesis. Monsters is both a commentary on the violence inflicted by an imperial power on an impoverished nation and a depiction of the religious horror the violence unleashes upon the world.

The movie begins six years after a fallen NASA probe scattered alien organisms across Mexico. Gigantic tentacled creatures have conquered an "infected zone" encompassing the northern half of the country. The United States has erected a colossal wall along the border and launches regular airstrikes against the invaders.

Two Americans are trapped in Mexico during the creatures' migratory season. Unable to escape by sea, they're forced to travel overland through the infected zone. After surviving the massacre of their travelling companions, the couple reach the wall. Gazing upon it, they talk about how America appears from the outside looking in. They pass through an unattended checkpoint to discover a lone madwoman wandering through a devastated American community: the monsters have crossed the border, leaving Katrina-level carnage in their wake.

Produced for under $500,000, Monsters takes a minimalist approach to the invasion. Rather than focusing on the creatures, the film highlights the human cost of the war against them. We learn that a Mexican peace movement condemns the airstrikes, which annually kill thousands of civilians. Cartoon infomercials tell impoverished children to put their gasmasks on when the aliens come to town. When asked why he doesn't leave his alien-trampled city, a taxi driver explains that he has nowhere else to go. The American couple are merely hooks for the domestic audience: the real protagonists are the Mexican people themselves.

In an interview with MSM Movies, Edwards said "The allegory I was interested in was: You have a monster or an enemy or evil that you don't like, and it's like... at what cost is it worth destroying that monster? If you're doing it because you're worried it will kill people, but in the process of getting rid of it, you kill even more people, is it worth doing still?" He denies that he was specifically addressing Mexico's predicament, but he is contradicted by the movie's iconography. Artists sometimes fail to grasp all the factors that influence their creations. Works of art express the historical, cultural, and social forces that shape their creators' lives, regardless of their conscious intentions. There is more to Monsters than a simple critique of excessive military force.

Monsters' imagery speaks with its own voice, a voice that mourns the violence consuming Mexico. By depicting this violence as a titanic clash between monsters and the military, the movie imbues it with an aura of transcendent fear, the kind of fear that shatters our psychological defences and undermines our sense of reality. Such fear is rightfully called religious horror.

Like other religious experiences, religious horror is provoked by encounters with a simultaneously awesome and awful presence that evokes fear and desire, repulsion and attraction. It takes us outside of ourselves into ultimacy, into the abyss of the Real. Chaos monsters like the Babylonian Tiamat, the Biblical Leviathan, or Monsters' Octopi from Outer Space are all metaphors for the terrors of this abyss.

In Religion and Its Monster, religious scholar Timothy Beal writes that chaos monsters represent "radical otherness appearing within the order of things, the otherworldly within the worldly, the primordial within the ordial. They lurk on the thresholds of the known, at the edges of the cosmological map, revealing deep insecurities within a cosmos that trembles in the balance between order and chaos." They reveal the fathomless depths of insanity beneath the surface of our supposedly secure and meaningfully ordered cosmos.

Monsters infect us with their madness. According to Beal, "Monsters are in the world but not of the world. They are paradoxical personifications of otherness within sameness. That is, they are threatening figures of anomaly within the well-established and accepted order of things. They represent the outside that has gotten inside, the beyond-the-pale that, to our horror, has gotten into the pale... They stand for what endangers one's sense of security, stability, well-being, health and meaning. They make one feel not at home at home. They are figures of chaos and disorientation within order and orientation, revealing deep insecurities in one's faith in oneself, one's society and one's world." So, what is the real-world horror beneath Monsters' alien invasion? The answer, I suspect, is market fundamentalism, an ideology that has inflicted unimaginable harm upon the Mexican people.

Market fundamentalists believe that the free market will always achieve a state of equilibrium that provides the greatest good for society, so long as it's unencumbered by government intervention. For these intellectual heirs of economists like Milton Friedman and Freidrich von Hayek, the ability of governments to intervene in the market is a monster that must be destroyed at any cost.

Theirs is an unhistorical perspective. Unrestrained free markets are aberrations. Capitalism needed government intervention to transform serfs into proletarians and corporations into persons, and it still relies on governments for countless services. Governments, meanwhile, have always been compelled by necessity to temper capitalism's socially intolerable consequences. Market fundamentalists ignore this history in favour of an idolatry that can only be imposed through sustained social violence. This violence rivals the excessive military force used by imperial powers against celestial cephalopods in Monsters and against anti-imperial insurgencies in the developing world.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein documents the damage market fundamentalism has inflicted on countries around the world. Besides producing staggering levels of political and economic corruption, market fundamentalism also leads to the selling-off of public resources at a fraction of their true worth, the creation of a permanent underclass composed of 25 to 60 per cent of the population, widespread ecological devastation, and the growth of militarism and state repression.

Market fundamentalist reforms are often instituted in the aftermath of national disasters and financial meltdowns, when the populace is too frightened and confused to defend itself. Klein compares this strategy to torture. The goal of torture is to drive prisoners into an infantile state where they are too confused and frightened to think rationally or protect their own interests. Market fundamentalists use the same strategy on entire populations. They orchestrate or exploit national crises to send populations into states of deep disorientation -- that is, into religious horror. With their familiar worlds destroyed, people submit to policies they would have opposed before the crises.

Modern capitalism benefits from constant crises and insecurity. Corporations reap massive profits by providing private contractors for services previously carried out by publicly funded military, police, or emergency services, by protecting the wealthy from the social disorder created by capitalism, and by containing the legions of people excluded from meaningful participation in the economy. This is creating what Klein calls global apartheid: the wealthy rest easily inside heavily guarded and ecologically well-positioned gated communities while growing masses of "surplus humanity" are herded into impoverished, dangerous, intensely monitored, and ecologically marginal territories. The middle ground between these two extremes is crumbling.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was a crisis orchestrated by market fundamentalists that crippled Mexico's ability to contain capitalism's social and ecological costs. The country's social fabric has since disintegrated. Its drug war alone has claimed over 22,000 lives in a little over three years. Market fundamentalism is turning Mexico into an ultra-violent narco-state.

Like the creatures borne from the fallen probe, market fundamentalism crosses the mightiest walls with impunity. The forces ravaging Mexico, and indeed the entire Global South, are spreading across the Global North. The worldwide financial crisis, the product of market fundamentalist policies, only accelerated the implosion of the developed world's economic and social infrastructure. Consider the example set by the world's leading exporter of market fundamentalist ideologues, the U.S. America's middle class is disappearing into the same pit that swallowed America's manufacturing sector and its welfare state. The panicked masses convulse while the imperial plutocracy erects a police state on the ruins of the body politic. The outside has gotten inside, and the cosmic order colloquially called the American Dream is sinking into archetypal psychosis. Edwards could have shouted this story with typical Hollywood bombast; instead, he told Monsters with a whisper. If you listen closely, that whisper will deafen you.

Michael Nenonen is a social worker and freelance writer who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His work has appeared in The Republic of East Vancouver,, and Information Clearing House.


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