Monstrous

© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum  

© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
 

Can’t tell if it’s a blessing or a curse…but once I recognize a theme, I seem to find it over and over again. My mind seems easily to adopt a pre-sensitivity to certain ideas, and then I find them echoed in reality and stories and movies.

Two weeks ago I watched a powerful documentary about photo albums of the people at the Auschwitz death camp, photos of both the captors and the victims. The story of the documentary went on about how the photo album of the German soldiers showed “plain people living regular lives.” Officers and soldiers and their families were gathered at picnics and relaxing and singing and even lighting their Christmas trees. Rebecca Erbelding, a Holocaust Museum archivist, characterized it this way, “Without the context of what they’re doing in Auschwitz, this is an album of fun.”

The second album, photographed on exactly the same days, examines the process by which the Jews were delivered by train, “selected,” dehumanized, and marched off to death…mercifully for us, the murders aren’t depicted in the albums. Seeing the albums, I found myself realizing completely how individually “human” each person was. What must have been the terror in the hearts and souls of the victims…husbands separated from their wives, parents (young and old) separated from their children?

Just as frightening was the question posed by the makers of the documentary: the album showed the soldiers to be humans…not monsters from whom we would expect only horrors…but humans who somehow were capable of monstrous things. “Why do people kill? Why were so many people able to do this in the heart of such a civilized nation?” asks the narrator. The narrator says that thinking of the soldiers as “monsters” makes the answer too easy: monsters kill. But realizing that human beings can do “monstrous” things is terrifying.

In the weeks since then, I’ve come across the same theme in very different contexts; but the question is clear: what evil lives within each human? And how do we overcome it? I watched Fredric March play Dr. Jekyll in the 1931 movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some of it was as corny as we expect a 1930s movie to be…but at its core, and central to Fredric March’s Oscar, is the question of a monstrous evil within. March does an excellent portrayal of both Dr. Jekyll—intelligent, respected, and polished; and the monstrous Mr. Hyde—unrestrained, lecherous, and dangerous. Stevenson examines the question in his novel in 1886 and we continue to be fascinated by the theme…movie versions retell the tale in 1912, 1920, 1931, 1941, 2008, and 2017. It occurred to me that this is a similar theme that brought us The Wolfman (1941) and maybe even Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk. Beware the kindly Lawrence Talbot and Bruce Banner when the inner monsters are released!

The Temptation of St. Anthony (Detail) c. 1502.

The Temptation of St. Anthony (Detail) c. 1502.

I’m reading a book about Hieronymus Bosch (c.14501516), an artist of “nightmarish details and fantastic painterly schemes,” and I’ve come across the same theme again, what evil lives within each human? And how do we overcome it? In this case, the examination of the theme is 500 years old! At the turn of the 15th Century, Bosch populated many of his paintings with grotesque representations of half-human/half-animals, disfigured humans, and humans doing bizarre and monstrous behaviors. He constantly portrays the evil—in 1500’s terms, the “sin”—of which we are capable. In his world and in his art, Bosch specifically shows the redemptive power of faith to overcome the evil. In his world and in his art, Bosch clearly shows the beauty of the angels and saints in contrast to the “beast in man” that haunts us all.

From 1500’s art through 1800’s books and 1900’s movies, the theme of “an evil within” is continual. More terrifying, though, is finding it demonstrated so readily in reality. From the massive genocide of the Nazis to the current genocide of ISIS and down to the smaller, more personal attacks in Quebec and Charleston…the question remains, “Why are people able to do monstrous evil in the heart of such a civilized world?”