{Book Review} Willful Monstrosity by Natalie Wilson

The horror genre contains many examples of monsters as a form of resistance. Take the Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester), for instance. In James Whale’s brilliant 1935 film, when she’s told by the scientists to wed the Creature (Boris Karloff), she laughs and then shrieks at the men. It’s not only an iconic scene, but a powerful act.

In Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in the 21st Century (McFarland & Company), Natalie Wilson analyzes the role of monsters in film, television, and literature, giving a close analysis to some genre heavyweights, including Get Out, Let the Right One In, The Girl with All the Gifts, among many others. In doing so, she explores how the contemporary monster has enough agency to confront patriarchy, racism, and economic inequality. Though Wilson’s book focuses on horror in the new century, her work engages with the history of horror.

In the preface, Wilson recalls the first time that she watched Jaws and the epiphany she had about the power of the monster. She links the massive great white to the primordial female and the fear of femininity. Shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), on the other hand, is a “macho braggadocio, toxic masculinity in captain form.” After watching Quint’s brutal demise, bitten in half by the classic vagina dentata in shark form, Wilson realized how powerful this scene is because it frames females and femininity as able to “kill the patriarchal beast.”

Photo Courtesy of Universal

From there, Wilson gives a generally comprehensive overview of the monster, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Grendel, Caliban, and voodoo zombies. In doing so, she makes clear that her text will be in conversation with horror history and the way that the monster has evolved, while pointing out subtle ways that acts of resistance have always existed.

Wilson’s book is not overly dense on academic theory, and the language and research are quite accessible to fans of the genre. That said, Wilson does establish some important terminology from the outset, specifically the terms ‘willing subject’ and ‘willful subject’. She uses Jordan Peele’s films Us and Get Out to flesh out the definitions. Get Out’s Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is a willing subject who abides by the expectations of her privileged family and the white supremacist mindset they represent. The tethered in Us are the opposite. They, like other monsters in the 21st Century, refuse to stay in their place. Such subjects, Wilson writes, “will not abide by cultural norms and expectations.”

In a fascinating premise, the author connects both films to the history of the zombie film. For example, she casts Get Out’s Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) as a 21st century voodoo priestess determined to hypnotize and enslave the black men that her daughter brings home. If you follow Wilson’s theory, then it’s easy to see how Peele’s films are influenced by early zombie movies, like White Zombie. Instead of Bela Lugosi acting as a voodoo priest, we have a wealthy white woman in Missy, who sends Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to the sunken place.

Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal

In general, Wilson analyzes four types of monsters: zombies, vampires, witches, and women. Her examples in each section are plenty. For instance, in the first section about zombies, she gives a deep analysis of “The Walking Dead,” both the comic and TV show. She notes that TWD frames perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence as “more rotten than the ever-present walkers.” She points to characters like Shane (Jon Bernthal) and the Governor (David Morrissey) as prime examples of toxic masculinity. Their behaviors only escalate the violence.

In the section on vampires, Wilson holds up the monsters in Let the Right One In and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others, as champions of the oppressed. These characters are a counterweight to what Wilson sees as Dracula’s conservatism. For example, the vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, simply named Girl (Sheila Vand), attacks bad men, including a hyper-masculine pimp. Additionally, Wilson theorizes that Ana Lily Amirpour’s film has anti-imperialist implications, especially considering it was produced in an era concerned with the end of oil. A giant refinery spews toxic fumes, while other swathes of the world are literally being sucked dry to feed oil consumption.

Eli, the vampire in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In and the 2008 film adaptation, is a complex character who helps a boy, Oskar, not only accept gender fluidity but also forgo his dreams of violence and tormenting his bullies. Wilson sees each character as queer and notes how they’ve formed an ethical relationship as outsiders. Her read on the well-known text and film is insightful.

Photo Courtesy of EFTI

The rest of the book includes hefty analysis of media well-known to horror fans, including Netflix’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Stranger Things,” “Penny Dreadful,” among others. Too add, Wilson gives literature its due, and it’s likely a reader will come away from Wilson’s book with a few novels to add to their reading list. I am now looking forward to picking up some of the historically-infected novels that Wilson analyzes in the section on witches, including Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, Colleen Passard’s Diary of a Witch, and  Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (I, Tituba).

The monster has long stood as a representation of Otherness. Willful Monstrosity shows how the monster continues to evolve in the 21st Century into a willful subject, one increasingly ready to challenge oppressive norms and succeed. Wilson’s text is a nice balance of research and a close reading of popular horror media. The result is a book that is a comprehensive analysis of the role that race and gender play in 21st Century horror.