Casting Shadows: Playing in the Realm of Monsters

By Doug Ronning, MFT, RDT-BCT

From coast to coast, zombies have taken to the streets! In Portland, Maine, the stumbling undead suddenly appear amidst a crowd. In a flash, the music of Michael Jackson’s Thriller begins, and the undead, made up of both amateur and professional dancers, recreate the iconic music video (WMTW, 2013).  Across the country in Portland, Oregon, a food bank is the recipient of a fundraising Zombie Walk with the tagline: “We may eat brains, but we do have hearts!” (Oregon Food Bank, Inc., 2009). And it’s not just zombies. Every October, more than 2,500 interactive haunted houses spring up around the world, where local residents dress up to gleefully terrify visitors on country hayrides, in backyard mazes, on movie studio backlots, and in abandoned prisons (Olmstead, 2013).

Zombies, vampires, aliens, and other monsters are prevalent on today’s movie screens, televisions, and book shelves. This may hint at current cultural anxieties, but there is a long history of fascination with these mysterious forms across cultures. Monsters run rampant through folklore, religion, fairy tales, and mythology, and clinical practitioners have drawn inspiration from them since the onset of psychotherapy.

Many don’t understand the allure of monster movies, particularly those pictures designed to horrify and instill dread. Even more bewildering is this impulse to spend days every autumn putting on makeup and terrifying people, even when those people are paying for the privilege to be scared. In an attempt to understand the appeal of horror, film critics, cultural analysts, psychologists, and psychotherapists have examined the genre using various psychological orientations, including psychoanalytic, existential, and postmodern views. For more information, see Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Worst Nightmare, a collection of essays edited by Steven Jay Schneider (2004) and Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-Teachings of the Monster Tale by Kirk J. Schneider (1993).

The first half of this piece will explore a variety of these views. The latter half will explore monster archetypes through more embodied drama therapy approaches.

Beginning in the 1970’s, the popular essays of film critic Robin Wood explored classic psychoanalytic interpretations of monster movies, based in Freud’s linked conceptions of repression and the uncanny (Wood, 1986). Wood states “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is all that our civilization oppresses and represses” (1986, p. 68). Stanley Kubrick, while discussing his film The Shining with film critic Michel Ciment (1980), offered, “In his essay on the uncanny, ‘Das Unheimliche,’ Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the horror genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials” (para. 66).

Many monster stories speak to questions of existential psychology: survival, fear of death, life purpose, somatization, and generativity. In Holy and the Horror: Wisdom-Teachings of the Monster Tale, existential psychotherapist Kirk Schneider (1993), states that any common physical sensation or human emotion can become monstrous in the extreme: unceasing hunger, boundless adoration, and uncontrollable sight – all have given birth to monster characters. These basic fears can be as horrific as the fear of debilitating illness and painful lingering death; all represent an imprisonment within the body. Even good health can be excruciating; for being healthy carries responsibility and freedom, which can even more painfully remind us of the boundaries of our abilities (Ziegler, 1991) which in turn invites the fantasy of extreme deviation.

As in narrative therapy, postmodern interpretations of monster stories cast the monster as “the problem;” the monster is either a catalyst for change, or a staunch defender of the status quo that needs to be vanquished. In the introduction to Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, homosexuality is compared to the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, mad scientists, and vampires – all of whom challenge “the very foundations of society” (Benshoff, 1997, p. 1). Film critic and sociologist Andrew Tudor (1989), identifies the emergence of paranoid horror (widespread confusion as in Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in the 1960’s as the “erosion of the foundations of social legitimacy in many western societies,” going on to call it the “age of delegitimization” (p. 222).

As rich as the view of monster movies is from the (psychoanalyst’s) couch, there is one key element that none account for – why people so often love and empathize with the monster. In Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, journalist Gerard Jones (2002) shares a story about his son crying when the monster is killed at the end of Beast From 2000 Fathoms. His son refused to watch another monster movie until his dad promised him “the creature would survive at the end” (p. 90). Jones goes on to point out that the Japanese filmmakers behind kaiju (giant monster) movies like Godzilla recognized that the monsters were lovable and sympathetic, and they always allowed the monster to survive at the end.

This mirrors my own experience; my first transcendent cinematic recollection is from a revival screening of the original King Kong in the mid 1970’s. The death of Kong marked the first time I cried at a movie. The giant ape was easily the most likable male figure in the picture, and the true villain was the greedy theatre producer who sealed the monster’s doom. Kong was bigger than life and driven by love, and to a thirteen year old gay kid who felt out of place in the world, he was every bit the tragic hero.

In the abstract for Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?, the two authors, both medical doctors, state, “the horror film can be seen as a cultural tale that provides a mechanism for attempting mastery over anxieties involving issues of separation, loss, autonomy, and identity. An individual will identify with narrative elements that resonate in personal life experiences and cultural factors embedded within the film, which carry levels of either stress that will be mastered, or act as a trauma to the viewer” (Ballon & Leszcz, 2007, p. 211).

A number of drama therapists have written about their work employing monsters. Ann Cattanach’s (1996) The Use of Dramatherapy and Play Therapy to Help De-brief Children After the Trauma of Sexual Abuse, offers a potent example of empowering a child by having her face and overcome a dream monster. One of the most noteworthy points in the article was Cattanach’s assertion that the dream monster not be killed – for if it is later resurrected in the child’s dreams it then becomes all-powerful.

The all-powerful nature of the monsters in our dreams and childhood fantasies remains within us into adulthood, feeding our shadows. As Noga Levine-Keini and Brurit Laub (1999) state in the abstract of Dealing with Monsters, “Monsters are a universal element in our inner life” (p. 120). Their work to find therapeutic ways to deal with monsters in the psyche is built on two approaches: Jung’s (1960) work emphasizing the development of the ego, where the inner monsters reside; and the work of White and Epston (1990), who pioneered externalizing and personifying inner problems. By integrating the two approaches, Levine-Keini and Laub (1999) came up with three missions, beginning with creation, moving to confrontation with the monster, and finally, relief from the monster. Moving beyond dialogue, the two therapists employ tools from the various creative arts therapies – psychodramatic scenes, drawing, and sculpting – to experientially explore the conflict between the client and their monster.

Over the past decade, I’ve employed and adapted Levine-Keini and Laub’s (1999) model to work with clients confronting Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), addictions, and eating disorders.

I learned about Levine-Keini and Laub’s work while still in graduate school, while writing a literature review based on their article and developing an idea for a drama therapy workshop employing monster archetypes. Despite the enthusiasm of my cohort over the monster exercises I’d adapted or created, the workshop didn’t happen for several years.

It was when these zombie flash mobs and extravagant haunted houses started appearing in the mainstream that I recognized a cultural act hunger, a desire for enactment, and decided it was time to resurrect my work, and thus the “Monster Movie Salon” was born. In the Salon, now in its fourth year, we explore monster films through psychological, cultural, and personal lenses. Rather than taking the victim’s point of view, we focus on the wisdom in the monster’s story. The distancing device of the monster allows us to explore meaningful material, such as the family shadow, income inequality, anxious/avoidant attachment, and identity politics, in a fun and dynamic way. We watch film clips not just from horror movies, but family films, dramas, comedies, and musicals in which monsters appear, while alternatively engaging in free writing, group discussion, and dramatic play.

This juxtaposition of communal film viewing and embodiment can lead to fresh insights. We transition back and forth between the cinematic realm and that of the participant’s subjective experience, to explore a phenomenology (Blatner & Blatner, 1997) of monsters. For example, one exercise invites participants to consider human somatic experience by manifesting shuffling zombies, floating ghosts, and stomping daikaiju, inviting an experience of constriction and expansion (Schneider, 1993). A sampling of other exercises in the workshop series includes an adaptation of sound and movement transformations called “monster transformations,” a monster role analysis, Famous Monster Sculpture Museum, and a three-part story exercise about an encounter with a monster.

By exploring the monster’s story through human experience, we see beyond the fears they induce, to the wisdom they can impart. The monster characters of cinema give shape to obsessions, compulsions, insecurities, unnamed desires, unwanted emotions, and painful memories – the very things that bring people into psychotherapy! Thrust from the human imagination, monsters are a continuum of us, offering meaningful lessons on what it means to be human.

dougDoug Ronning, MFT, RDT/BCT, is a Drama Therapist with a private practice in San Francisco, CA and an Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is a lifelong fan of creature features, a produced screenwriter (HBO’s Tales From the Crypt), and creator of the Monster Movie Salon.


WMTW, ‘Thriller’ Flash Mob Breaks Out in Downtown Portland, Maine, (2013, October 24) Retrieved March 20, 2015, from–maine-517985778

Ballon B., & Leszcz M. (2007). Horror films: tales to master terror or shapers of trauma?. American Journal of Psychotherapy; 61(2), 211-30.

Benshoff, H. (1997). Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. New York, NY: Manchester University Press

Blatner, A., &  Blatner, A. (1997). The Art of Play: Helping Adults Reclaim Imagination and Spontaneity. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.

Cattanach, A., (1996). The Use of Dramatherapy and Play Therapy to Help De-brief Children after the Trauma of Sexual Abuse.  In Alida Gersie (Ed.) Dramatic Approaches to Brief Therapy (pp.177-187).

Ciment, M. Interview with Stanley Kubrick (1980), Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

Jones, G. (2002) Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. New York, NY: Basic Books

Jung, C. G. (1960). The Collected Works of CJ. Vol 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Levine-Keini, N., & Laub, B. (1999). Dealing with monsters. Family Therapy, 26(2), 121-133.

Olmstead, L. 10 Great Halloween Haunted House Attractions Across The U.S., (2013, September 20) Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

Oregon Food Bank, Inc. Oregon Food Bank, Inc.’s Portland Zombie Walk, (2009, October 24) Retrieved March 20, 2015, from

Schneider, K. (1993). Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-Teachings of the Monster Tale.  Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Schnieder, S. J. (2004). Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Worst Nightmare. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Tudor, A. (1989). Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc. (p. 222)

White, J. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: Norton.

Wood, R. (1986). Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan. New York, NY: Coumbia UP

Ziegler, A. J. (1991). Illness as Descent into the Body. In Jeremiah Abrams, & Connie Zweig (Eds.), Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature (pp. 29-34).  New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam


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