Fearing Medusa: Monsters, Victims, and Horrorism

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


The ancient Greek goddess Medusa is widely portrayed as a snake-haired monster who would freeze anyone she gazed upon. This fear-raising image of Medusa is evident throughout literature and the wider arts – from Hesiod, to Caravaggio’s painting, and from Shelley’s celebrated fragment to the iconic 1981 Clash of the Titans. Medusa’s literary representation and its associated manifestation of cultural fear is so strong and pervasive that Adriana Cavarero uses Medusa’s characterisation within Greek myth to epitomise a theorisation of a new epoch of extreme violence which she terms ‘horrorism,’ whereby violence purposefully targets the vulnerable and the helpless. Cavarero argues that horrorist violence generates excessive fear in that it seeks not just to take lives, but to obliterate and dismember (Medusa’s severed head); and causes us to freeze from fear (Medusa’s deadly stare).

Yet Cavarero’s presentation of Medusa is unnecessarily limited. Medusa is not necessarily a fearful monster but can be interpreted as a victim, mother, and/or apotropaic guardian. This paper turns to alternative literary sources to compose an original reading of Medusa, to argue that 1) Cavarero’s interpretation of Medusa as simply a fear-worthy monster is selective at best; 2) this misrepresentation of Medusa has dangerous implications for the theoretical construction of fear itself, and 3) our alternative interpretation offers a more promising way to responds to the extreme violence that Cavarero has characterised as horrorism.

Horrorism, Cavarero, Medusa, monsters, maternity.

Period16 Apr 2024
Held atUniversity of Lisbon, Portugal
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Cavarero
  • Horrorism
  • Medusa
  • maternity
  • monsters
  • Care