New U of T exhibit shows what classic tales of monsters can teach us today
De Monstris, a new exhibit on monsters, is on at U of T until Dec. 21
David Fernandez has spent the past five years learning about something that has a special connection with Halloween but isn't often the subject of serious inquiry these days: monsters and why they scare us.
The rare-book librarian at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher book library has a new exhibit called De Monstris, which takes a detailed look at how modern concepts of monsters and monstrosities developed over the past 800 years.
"I think in a way we have trivialized them and they have lost some of the value of their history," Fernandez argues.
"Monsters evoke our most basic of emotions like fear, fascination or disgust."
One of Fernandez's favourite books is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was first published 200 years ago. His exhibit features a rare 1831 edition, which contains the first illustrated version of the monster. He's depicted just after he's been brought to life, when the man who created him, Victor Frankenstein, flees the room in fear.
Fernandez thinks the story's message about pushing the limits of science still resonates with today's audiences.
"It is about the warnings of using technology without thinking of the ethics or limits of technology, and how they will and can affect humans and how we see the world."
He says throughout history, monsters were also used to shape how humans saw the world.
During the Protestant revolution, monsters were used as propaganda, with critics of the Catholic church depicting Rome as a type of monster, using the same kind of exaggerations we might find in today's political cartoons.
The exhibit also features a section on so-called human monstrosities.
A collection of medical textbooks, some dating back to 16th Century, features disturbing anatomical illustrations of conjoined twins, or patients with birth defects or diseases.
"They're using the term 'monstrosity' to describe real people with conditions that we know now have actual names and in some cases, treatments."
Fernandez says as he traced the origins of monsters over the centuries, he's found many that can be explained through misunderstandings or lack of scientific knowledge.
Many of the sea monsters first depicted on maps or early travel books may have been misunderstood sightings of sharks, seals or the Steller's sea cow, an extinct relative of manatees and dugongs.
He's found medieval descriptions of manticores, that describe the beasts as being real animals, with the body of a lion and a laugh like a human. He thinks the authors confused it for a hyena.
"It is interesting to find the stories that to us are so fantastical, but the more you read or learn about them you realize there's this level of truth in all of them."
De Monstris: An Exhibition of Monsters and the Wonder of Human Imagination is on at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library until Dec. 21.