The scariest monsters in our society are not fiction. They are not covered in scales, they do not have claws, they do not bear fangs, they are not supernatural or fantasy. The most frightening monsters are very real and live in great numbers among us. One of the most terrifying of these monsters is one known as addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “every year, illicit and prescription drugs and alcohol contribute to the death of more than 90,000 Americans.” In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that in the United States, “approximately 21.5 million people aged 12 or older… had a substance use disorder (SUD).” And countless more are deeply affected when that addict is a loved one or they are the victim of an addict’s crimes. But how does something as abstract as addiction qualify as a monster? George Washington University professor, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s published work, Monster Theory delves into exactly what and why a monster is. He details seven theses to examine when analyzing a monster which can be applied in this scenario as well.
Looking at monster theory, addiction is embodied in at least four of the seven theses outlined in Cohen’s work. Thesis II: The Monster Always Escapes states, “we see the damage that the monster wreaks, the material remains… but the monster itself turns immaterial and vanishes, to reappear someplace else” (4). Addiction is not something that can be eradicated, at least not in this present day and age. Even with millions of people in recovery, new life is born and chosen by circumstance to be prey to the monster addiction. Thesis V: The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible explains, “the monster prevents mobility (intellectual, geographic, or sexual), delimiting the social spaces through which private bodies may move.” For a century, media and government has warned of the dangers of drugs, discouraging people not to cross the addiction border. But even more appropriate of an analogy for this thesis is once a person crosses the border of addiction, they are subject to “attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous oneself” (12). Thesis VI: The Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire says, “the monster is the abjected fragment that enables the formation of all kinds of identities…” (19). Engaging with addictive substances or behaviors makes it possible for individuals to escape mentally (stress, anxiety, sadness, fear), fulfill emotional desires (euphoria, confidence, relaxation), and allow for certain behaviors that they are unable to accomplish otherwise (social interactions, sexuality). Finally, thesis VII: The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming asserts, “these monsters ask us how we perceive the world… They ask us why we have created them” (20). For those fortunate enough to survive the monster of addiction, they must meet thesis seven. Persons in recovery must challenge their self image and the their world perspective. They must delve into causes and conditions of their addictive behaviors in order to avoid meeting the monster again. The monster addiction is found heavily throughout society in the form of alcoholism, drug abuse, and compulsive behavior (sex, food, gambling). Consequently, addiction can be found in every form of media and art that exists. The evaluation of three such representations follow.
Requiem for a Dream (2000) is a tale of obsession, compulsion, despair, and demise at the suffocating hands of addiction. Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is a sad, lonely, widow living on her own. She spends her days watching television, eating sweets, and constantly longing for her late husband and absent son. When she receives a phone call that she has been selected to be a contestant on a game show she is filled with happiness and purpose again. She becomes intent on wearing the red dress she wore to her son’s high school graduation and that her husband adored. Alas, it no longer fits and she begins dieting. Quickly discouraged, she visits a weight loss doctor who prescribes her amphetamine based diet pills. Sara builds a tolerance to the pills and begins abusing them. This leads to disturbing hallucinations, confusion, and paranoia. As a result of her drug induced psychosis, she is hospitalized in a psychiatric facility where she is restrained and force fed. When conventional treatment methods to do not return her to a normal mental state she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, commonly referred to as shock therapy. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) is Sara’s son. He dreams of opening a business, finding the right girl, and having a good relationship with his mother. Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) is Harry’s girlfriend. She dreams of happiness with Harry, financial independence away from her parents, and turning her fashion designs into real clothes. Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans) is Harry’s best friend. He dreams of pulling himself up from poverty, moving out of the ghetto, and making his deceased mother proud. The three friends are frequent drug users: snorting lines, popping pills, smoking joints, and most often, shooting up heroin. In the summer, they concoct a drug dealing plan to make money and ultimately reach their goals. Initially, they are successful and accumulate a large savings for themselves. Unfortunately, in the fall, a drug war breaks out on the streets between competing cartels and heroin becomes scarce. Tyrone is arrested and Harry must use almost all of their money to post his bail. As time goes on, the money dwindles, withdrawal symptoms take over, and the friends start to turn on each other. In the winter, desperation for relief takes over and they make bad decision after bad decision in a misguided effort to eradicate the monster they are fighting. The film leaves its audience feeling hopelessness and helpless.The last glimpses of its characters: Sara confined to the psych ward, her friends crying at the sight of her, as she smiles from her delusional TV fantasy; Harry sobbing in a hospital bed, his arm amputated due to an infected abscess from injecting heroin; Marion prostituting and performing degrading sex acts to an animalistic crowd, later smiling eerily as she holds her earned bag of heroin; and Tyrone incarcerated, mistreated by the racist and cruel guards, and sobbing in his prison bunk while he longs for his mother.
Requiem for a Dream is heartbreaking and difficult to watch. But it is a must watch. Because the story it tells is not a hallucination or a nightmare. Its story is a portrayal of realistic people with realistic lives and realistic dreams. Normal people who just want love and joy and friendship and success like everybody else. But their dreams are crushed and their lives are destroyed by the insidious monster, addiction, like so many before and after this film. Every actor cast in the film phenomenally embodies the pain and suffering that drives these characters. Director Darren Aronofsky excels at sucking the viewer into the unnerving world of drug addiction. From beginning to end, the audience is thrown into utter chaos, just like its characters. Scene after scene provokes anxiety in the viewer through speedy montages of drug use, fast forwarding, slow motion, unusual camera movement (choppy, spiraling), extreme camera angles and close ups, dramatic music and intensified noises of actors’ actions (chewing, teeth grinding, footsteps). Visually and auditorily the film is enough to create an unsettling feeling in the viewer. However, when used in conjunction with its tragic story line, Requiem for a Dream is not just a movie but a true experience of the human condition.
Thanks for Sharing (2012), a comedy drama, is an exploration into the world of addiction recovery. It takes its viewers into the somewhat secret realm of twelve step groups. The film primarily focuses on sex addiction but is also intertwined with recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction as such overlap often exists. Mike (Tim Robbins) has been sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for fifteen years and has been sober in the unnamed sex addiction group the film portrays for several years as well. He sponsors Adam (Mark Ruffalo), acting as a mentor and guiding him through recovery. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Katie (Joely Richardson). As a result of his compulsive sexual behavior, he has contracted hepatitis c and transmitted it to his wife. Their son, Danny (Patrick Fugit) has struggled with drug addiction. In the past he has stolen from his parents and when he arrives in the film he has been missing for years. Danny informs his parents that he has been clean for almost a year. Katie is overjoyed to have him home but Mike does not trust him and treats him with disdain. Adam has achieved five years of sexual sobriety. This includes abstinence from behaviors such as masturbation, viewing pornography, excessive one night stands, strip clubs, and paying for sex with prostitutes. Mike prods Adam to start dating seriously and he meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow). As they date, Adam awkwardly navigates their relationship as he has not disclosed his sexual sobriety to her. After Phoebe discovers it, their relationship faces new problems like suspicion and lack of intimacy. When their relationship ends Adam relapses, returning to pornography, prostitutes, and casual sex. Neil (Josh Gad) is sponsored by Adam. He is court ordered to attend meetings for being convicted of sexual assault (non-consensual touching in public). Later he is fired from his position as a doctor in an emergency room after he is caught recording video under a coworker’s skirt. This leads him to begin taking recovery seriously and he declares, “I’m out of control. I’m scared. I need help.” Dede (Alecia Moore) is instructed to go to sex addiction meetings by her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. She explains, “the only way I know how to relate to men is sex” and details her long history of sexually inappropriate behavior and traumatic sexual experiences. The film ends on a hopeful note with each character continuing their journey of healing.
Overall, the film greatly struggles as a comedy. The serious topic of sex addiction makes for an uncomfortable dichotomy with humor. The monster that is addiction ends up looking like Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. Although it does emphasize characteristics of addiction like obsession, anxiety, preoccupation, restlessness, and continued use despite negative consequences, it fails to provide enough background for the viewer to truly understand why exactly sex addiction should be taken seriously. Without that perspective, the characters’ extreme actions to stay sober (i.e., a flip phone instead of a smart phone, no laptop, no television, no public transportation) can come across as overly dramatic and unnecessary to the viewer. In addition, without presenting the severity of addiction the twelve step jargon, slogans, and rituals seem shallow and have a sense of fakeness. However, the film unapologetically tackles an extremely difficult and controversial issue. Despite its shortcomings it is an earnest attempt to accurately depict a world that not many people understand. In addition, it effectively incorporates the complicated dynamics of family post-addiction. Perhaps comic relief creates a space for sex addiction to become an easily digestible concept for the masses. Hopefully, viewers will walk away from Thanks for Sharing remembering the poignant words used by Adam to describe addiction, “it makes you do things that violate everything you believe in.”
“If Winter Ends” is a song by Omaha based indie band Bright Eyes from their second album, Letting Off the Happiness (1998). The song chronicles the deep emotions of a troubled man, consumed by alcoholism and depression. The first forty seconds of this three and a half minute ballad consist of an unsettling combination of noises: ringing, honking, inaudible conversations and laughter of children, banging, and white noise that creates a sense of impending doom. Slowly, light hearted guitar strumming overtakes the chaotic introduction but a white noise always remains in the background. The lyrics are as follows:
I dreamt of a fever
One that would cure me of this cold, winter set heart
With heat to melt these frozen tears
Burned with reasons as to carry on
Into these twisted months I plunge without a light to follow
But I swear that I would follow anything
Just get me out of here
But you get six months to adapt
And you get two more to leave town
And in the event that you do adapt
We still might not want you around
But I fell for the promise of a life with a purpose
But I know that that’s impossible now
And so I drink to stay warm
And to kill selected memories
‘Cause I just can’t think anymore about that
Or about her tonight
But I give myself three days to feel better
Or else I swear I’ll drive right off a fucking cliff
‘Cause if I can’t learn to make myself feel better
How can I expect anyone else to give a shit?
And I scream for the sunlight or a car to take me anywhere
Just get me past this dead and eternal snow
‘Cause I swear that I’m dying, slowly but it’s happening
And if the perfect spring is waiting somewhere
Just take me there, just take me there, just take me there
And say, and lie to me, and say, and lie to me, and say
It’s going to be alright [x9]
Its frontman and primary author, Conor Oberst, describes the hopelessness and utter despair of being trapped by alcohol and one’s own mind. His raw, unconventional voice presents a gut wrenching narrative with pure, unfiltered emotion. Listening to this song is being exposed to and immersed in the emotional and physical pain of addiction, if only for three and half minutes. Conor’s song is a an excellent example of how powerful the monster of addiction is. And last year, in November of 2016, his older brother, Matt died of the monster he sang about so many years ago. Of his death, Conor said in an interview with Vice Media’s Noisey, “he basically fucking drank himself to death.” Matt was only forty-two and left behind two children. Conor went on to say in regards to suffering, “but everybody has so much of that stuff in their life…” His ability to have such a perspective has enabled him to tell the tales he so eloquently illustrates in his music.
In conclusion, Cohen’s Monster Theory provides tools for evaluating monster representation in media and art, the heart of current culture. His chapter, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” can be applied when analyzing even abstract monsters like addiction, whether it is in a film about drugs, a movie about compulsive sex, or a song about alcoholism. To end, a final thought from the book’s author, “do monsters really exist? Surely they must, for if they did not, how could we?” (20)
American Psychiatric Association. “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5, 5th ed., American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013, pp. 481–589.
This book is the basic text for the diagnoses and classification of mental disorders. It is used for reference by clinicians, researchers, and others in the healthcare profession and the social sciences. It is compiled by the APA, the largest psychiatric organization in the world and is used worldwide. It is used in this essay to present a general understanding of addictive disorders from a scientific, evidence based perspective.
Bright Eyes. “If Winter Ends.” Letting Off the Happiness, Saddle Creek, 1998.
This song is from the second album of Omaha based, indie band, Bright Eyes. Its frontman and primary author, Conor Oberst, was named the Best Songwriter of 2008 by Rolling Stone magazine. The song’s lyrics tell a story of emotional and physical pain revolving around alcohol. It is used in this essay as one of the texts for the monster representation of addiction.
Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FRR1-2014/NSDUH-FRR1-2014.pdf. Accessed 24 Nov. 2017.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 3–25.
The chapter of this book breaks down the literary theory of monsters in seven key points. The text thoroughly explains how and why the concept of monsters in our culture exist. The author received his PhD in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University and is a professor of English and the Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University. It is used in this essay to analyze, define, and understand the chosen monster subject.
NIDA. “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 Jul. 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction. Accessed 21 Nov. 2017.
This source comes from the United States’ National Institutes of Health. It explains what addiction is, why people abuse drugs, the effects drug abuse can cause, and treatment for drug abuse and addiction. It is used in this essay to present a general understanding of addiction and alcohol and drug abuse from a scientific, evidence based perspective.
Ozzi, Dan. “Conor Oberst’s Long Few Years.” Noisey, Vice Media, 10 Aug. 2017, https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/evv4an/conor-obersts-long-few-years. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
This source is Vice’s music website, Noisey. It is an interview with musical artist Conor Oberst, frontman of the band Bright Eyes. It presents a personal look at Oberst’s struggles over the past few years and provides insight into analyzing the song “If Winter Ends” in this essay.
Requiem for a Dream. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, performances by Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Artisan Entertainment, 2000.
This film is a highly acclaimed, psychological drama based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. It follows four main characters from Brooklyn, New York as their lives deteriorate due to their drug addictions. One of its stars, Ellen Burstyn, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role. It is used in this essay as one of the texts for the monster representation of addiction.
Thanks for Sharing. Directed by Stuart Blumberg, performances by Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lionsgate, 2012.
This film is a comedy-drama centering around the lives of four people addicted to sexually compulsive behavior. It examines their sexual, romantic, and familial relationships and follows their journeys through 12 step recovery. It is used in this essay as one of the texts for the monster representation of addiction.