A good beginning to understanding the roles monsters play in their stories is to understand a theoretical framework. You’ll hear a lot of terms in monster theory, like semiotics, that are hard to define and often harder to read about, so as we explore these theories and theses, we’ll keep them grounded and tangible with examples from the Spirit World of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.

We’re going to dive into Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, which offers a fluid look at ways to read monsters and understand the cultures that produced them. Cohen shrugs off some ideas that are pretty well-accepted in monster theory: historical specificity and locality. By these, he means that we can’t always be sure that just because ATLA was made in the 21st century, the badger mole is serving the same role as it does in other 21st century works, for example, because ATLA had centuries of monsters to draw from and may have a badger mole that works in the story more like badger moles from hundreds of years ago, or completely differently from both time periods. Not that I have any other badger mole texts to send you off to read, but you get my point. Cohen just isn’t a big fan of tying the monster down to any one thing – as you’ll see in his not one, not two, but seven explanations of how the monster should be understood and how culture should be read from the monsters.

If you’re ready to face these demons, follow along with me into the first thesis…

Thesis One