Characters capture our imagination. From screen to page to stage, audiences can be swept away by fictional individuals in a matter of hours or even minutes. Charisma, mystery, comedy, heroism, romance, and relatability can all create captivating individuals who stick in the minds of audience members.
I’ve previously written about villains and their appeal to a wide range of readers and viewers with their unabashed embrace of Id over Superego. But there’s another characteristic that can make a permanent impact on the minds of viewers and readers: monstrosity.
Monsters have been around since stories first began. The fear of the unknown is what sparks such terrifying notions. And in ancient times, most of the world was unknown. The first time a noise was heard in the dark, humans began to imagine what is was that was out there, just out of sight. And most often, they didn’t think it was anything good. Exploration across the world brought encounters with new and strange life forms that we now take as commonplace. From this, notions of creatures that both terrify and amaze were born, and they’ve been with us ever since.
Sure, we know a lot more than we did a few centuries ago, but there are still so many parts of the universe that are vast mysteries. These mysteries can be either fearful or attractive, but in either case, they are alluring. Not every monster is a villain, although many are. They can also be friends, lovers, or strange encounters on a hero’s journey. But in any of these cases, it is their unknown nature that makes them so appealing.
The Living Personifications of Fear
Across the centuries, monsters have evolved to reflect what is both known and unknown. Sailors’ encounters with manatees while exploring the seas are said to have given birth to the idea of mermaids and sirens, many of which were dangerous. The Ancient Greek myth of Theseus and his journey to the center of the Cretan Labyrinth created the first instance of the Minotaur – the ultimate obstacle in his journey.
In ancient times, outer space was simply a covering of the sky at night, but discovering of its true, vast nature made man wonder what was out there. The consensus? Nothing nice. From grey and big headed to black and slimy, aliens have been a persistent monstrous threat in all types of media. Sure, there are plenty of nice ones too, but E.T. still falls into the category of monster with his strange appearance and unknown motives.
Monsters do not have to come from without, they can emanate from within as well. Movie serial killers are often representations of the darkest parts of human nature, with some added flair. The 1980s were especially prolific when it came to this type of monster, possibly as a reflection of growing crime rates and the rise of serial killers in the news. Except the ones on film could come back from the dead, invade your dreams, and withstand as many bullets and stab wounds you could throw at them. Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers are the unholy trio at the center of this trend, but there are more forgettable monsters in the archetype of unkillable slasher than you can shake a machete at.
Even the known natural world can be perverted into a thing of monstrosity when it runs amok. Monster staples of the atomic age frequently involved commonplace animals warped into monstrous forms through scientific experiments, most often nuclear energy. Godzilla is the greatest example – a beast from the nuclear age come to destroy Japan, the only nation to suffer the all-too-real wrath of the atomic bomb. But there were plenty of these beasts on American shores as we went through the Cold War. Like the humongous ants from Them!, a silly notion now but a salient threat at the time. On the other side, nature trying to kill us on its own accord is its own special brand of monster, such as the great white shark in Jaws or even the viruses behind modern zombies.
Man’s own creativity run wild has been the impetus behind countless creatures for centuries. Unlike the dangerous side effect monsters like Godzilla, these beasts are intentionally made, but their danger is the result of their creators’ own ignorance. No more classic example can be found than Dr. Frankenstein and his creation – an intelligent but unhinged monster born of reckless scientific ambition. In more recent decades, the drive to push technology further and further has resulted in more monsters of the robotic variety. Like The Terminators and the rogue artificial intelligence Skynet, our fears of technology advancing beyond our grasp, specifically The Singularity, have been a consistent source of fear lately.
And don’t forget spirituality. Arcane mystical beliefs and structured religion alike have equally given birth to some of the most terrifying monsters imaginable. Aliens, giant squids, serial killers, and multi-headed creatures can destroy the body, but not the soul. Monsters of the spiritual nature terrify on a different level. These are beasts that can rend your inner being asunder, without the boundaries time, space, and physical nature. Classically, demons, witches, and the various evil beings found in all manner of religions have spooked people of all ages. In more modern times, creatures beyond our comprehension have become more fashionable. Like H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu and the various spirits encountered in recent horror films, these monsters are equally threatening to physical and mental well-being.
Monstrous creatures can play the hero, too, but are often met with fear and hatred. In these instances, humanity’s fears that are the impetus behind monster fantasies are the very obstacles against which good men and women (or otherwise) must struggle against. Everyone from Frankenstein’s monster to The Incredible Hulk to The Beast to Hellboy have dealt with the shame and scorn of society. In these instances, we the people are the truly monstrous ones.
There’s so much to explore in the concept of monsters and their reflections of our society. I’ve barely scratched the surface. From the creatures found in Greek myth to the twisted mortals terrorizing modern audiences, each type of monster provides many layers of meaning.
In the coming months, I’ll be looking at everything from individual characters to general classifications of monsters to the creatures that define generations.