Spooky Castle

Studying the Monsters in the Mirror

Halloween quickly is approaching and with that comes the rise of monsters. The princes among them: Dracula and Frankenstein’s creature.

Dracula and Frankenstein are two stories we’ve all grown up knowing and have been reinvented countless times across a plethora of mediums: television, movies, comic books, anime and manga, songs radio shows, stage adaptations and even cereals. In just this past year, Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrayed the iconic vampire in NBC’s ill-fated “Dracula” while Luke Evans donned fangs for “Dracula Untold,” released this month. Aaron Eckhart became the creature at the beginning of the year in “I, Frankenstein.”

So, what is it about these monsters that continues to fascinate us?

Jacqueline Lucca ’14 has an answer: They provide a mirror to humanity.

“How people write the identity of monsters seems to have a very close [connection] to how they view the identity of themselves,” Lucca said.

Studying the mirror

Lucca, 22, graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in English and Catholic studies. As part of her work at the university, she participated in the Young Scholars Grant program, which provides undergraduate students the opportunity to spend a summer doing research with a faculty member.

As soon as Lucca heard about the program, she was interested. She’d “had a very nerdy desire” to write a paper on Dracula already, but hadn’t had the opportunity or time. The Young Scholars Grant program supplied both the opportunity and the time: Lucca spent summer 2013 working with Dr. Young-Ok An, associate professor of English.

“The Young Scholars grant was a dream come true as it gave me the opportunity to talk with professors about my research in a way that I normally would never be able and gave me incredible incentive to really explore what I was passionate about,” Lucca said.

An already had been teaching a senior seminar class on heroes and monsters, so working together seemed like a natural fit.

“She was so inspired and curious about the topic,” An said.

Lucca already was set on Dracula, written by Bram Stoker and published in 1897, but only read Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818, after deciding to focus on monsters and identity in specific.

As part of her research, she read other books written around the same time as Dracula and Frankenstein. Nineteenth-century writers were fascinated with the boundaries between humanity and monstrosity, according to An.

“The boundaries were drawn in terms of heroism and humanity and the outlaw, superhuman or monster,” An said. “Issues such as gender, race and sexuality were all bound up with the question of how we construct who belongs to humanity and who does not.”

A large part of Lucca’s research was dedicated to philosophical reading and how the notion of identity has shifted over time.

“Identity is such an important theme, and monsters are so prevalent in our society that I expected the academic field to be inundated with research, but while I found ample sources on monsters and identity, I felt that the crossover between the two was lacking,” Lucca said.

She said incorporating these aspects into her paper was one of the most challenging parts, because it was outside her normal field of study, which Lucca said was like “exploring a new world.”

“She was able to delve into the complexities of interdisciplinary questions,” An said. “That’s one thing I was really proud and impressed with. She tackled those interdisciplinary questions so well and without compromise.”

Lines drawn thin

Lucca focused her paper to explore identity in Frankenstein and Dracula through the lenses of spirituality, sexuality and morality.

“They are major issues that every era has had strong feelings about, so there was a lot of information to explore concerning these topics,” Lucca said.

She rooted her paper in the Victorian sense of identity, explaining first that, in antiquity, a sense of self was rigid; identity was determined by outer sources such as society or religion. The issue wasn’t so clear by the 19th century. Instead, Lucca wrote, there was “an increasing emphasis on emotions and human expression through the arts. The Victorians were in an epoch of moral confusion as the Enlightenment left people unsatisfied, and they struggled to find some answers.”

Lucca launched into her exploration of Dracula and Frankenstein’s creature by explaining how the monsters allowed for exploration of a malleable sense of self and whether that sense of self is monstrous. The identities of both monsters are fluid, she wrote, drawing references to not only the way the monsters are able to change (in Dracula’s case, actually physically change himself), but focusing on how both monsters can alter human identity (the creature has a great impact on Frankenstein’s sense of self while Dracula manipulates those around him).

The physical and spiritual realm blend together in the novels, she argued, pointing out the supernatural aspects of both monsters’ appearances and how Dracula can even serve as a physical representation of the spiritual elements humanity struggles with.

Lucca then turned to sexuality, first explaining the struggle between sexuality and a malleable sense of self. Friction exists between individuals’ desires and the morality of society. This struggle is played out in the monsters, where sexuality represents life, death and power. Frankenstein strives to procreate on his own, eliminating the sexual act, but actually “proliferate[s] death and monstrosity.” On the other hand, Dracula defies death and is arguably a symbol of sexuality, but even as he empowers the women he’s around, he simultaneously victimizes them. Lucca grounded her arguments about sexuality with examples from each of the author’s own lives.

Her final lens delved further into the tension between having a fluid self and morality, claiming that as the fluid self takes over, the border between monster and human becomes blurred. Such a malleable sense of self, Lucca argued, makes it so “vampires like the glittery Edward Cullen or enchanting Damon have moved from inhuman to superhuman.” Monsters now are oversympathized, Lucca wrote.

And, Lucca continued, if we don’t have morals, the line between monsters and humans becomes superfluous. She concludes that morality was what could have saved Frankenstein and what did save the heroes of Dracula.

“As the human perception of themselves morph, we require morality in order to avoid monstrosity,” Lucca argued.

Man or monster?

So, are we likely to see less of Dracula or Frankenstein any time soon?

“They are addressing timeless questions about who we are,” Lucca said. “Perhaps, they are asking questions that monsters in literature today are too weak to challenge. I think that our modern sense of identity is flexible enough and has tried to expand to include the monstrous into human; however, I think these protagonists raise exactly the questions that were stated in my paper. What does that make human identity? How should we be thinking about ourselves?”

She points out that the fluid identity of Dracula in the new “Dracula Untold” movie fits well with her theories.

“He is trying to decide throughout the movie whether he is a monster or man and at one point says, ‘Sometimes people don't need another hero, sometimes they need a monster,’” Lucca said. “It really struck me that monsters have shifted from feared creatures [that] reflect our identity through what we fear [to] almost what we wish to be. We have such a fluid identity that at this point the monstrous can be fascinating to the point of being desirable.”

An emphasized the contemporary and cutting-edge relevance of Lucca’s research.

“We are living in a time where cyborgs, cloning and technologically made artificial intelligence are encroaching upon humanity,” An said. “Those questions about what makes us human, and how we define humanity, that’s really important. Some of the cultural phenomena – TV, film, so much fascination with zombies, vampires, wolf-man, all those things – reflect our desires and fears about being human with all those possibilities and limitations. We project our wishful thinking and fears on these creatures.”

Lucca currently is working as a PCA through LifeWorks in Andover, as a resource counselor in Shoreview, and teaches at Aquinas Roman Catholic Home Education Services in Lino Lakes. She continues to find the topic of identity and monsters fascinating and may one day want to write a book on the topic.