Where do monsters come from? They lurk in every dark corner of our minds and culture.
We all encounter them as children, terrified of what might be waiting under the bed; or see gruesome creatures in horror films. We try to show that these things don’t exist: we grow up and see there are none living under the bed; or once the film ends and normality returns, the fear of them passes out of mind.
Likewise, we think that the pushing back of the boundaries of geographical and scientific knowledge over history, has shown most monsters to be fabulous. We assume that the spaces in which they might exist, or the biological possibilities of their existence, have shrunk. But nevertheless, monsters persist. They can be political figures like Middle Eastern dictators, organisations like Monsanto, or organisms we fear such as mosquitoes or GM crops. Even substances like sugar can be made monstrous, that we fear are going to kill us, make us age faster, or worst of all, make us fat.
Really, monsters are whatever we make them. We delight in consuming monsters in media at all ages: there is a big market for new monsters and re-makings of old ones.
Why is this? What is it that monsters still do for us that makes them so popular and so persistent? Yes, monsters scare us, but why do they scare us? We make monsters that highlight our personal and social values by embodying their frightening antitheses, and thereby bolstering these values. This is what makes monsters both terrifying and self-perpetuating: they have powerful effects on audiences, and they can be continually re-imagined for new purposes.
The creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien films has been described as ‘the perfect monster’. But how can a monster be perfect? Surely they are monstrous due to their deviation from idealised social norms. I suggest that a monster seems most monstrous when it inhabits numerous borderlands and simply refuses to be categorised. Scott’s ‘alien’ is at once insect-like, reptilian and mammalian; simultaneously organic and almost machine-like; both living and corpse-like. Monsters cannot be put neatly into any box.
We make monsters because we value their ability to overstep boundaries. We characterise them as uncategorisable forms that are impossible to pin down, so that we can use them to suit different purposes. Monsters are the things we make to help challenge and reinforce the structures of our world views.
Early modern monsters
Looking at how monsters were used historically shows how little has changed in the making of, and functional roles of monsters, even if we believe that we have undoubtedly moved on.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was filled with an influx of new peoples, plants, and creatures from distant lands, many of which were made into monsters.
Monsters appeared in all sorts of publications in this period. This included medical monstrosities such as the births of deformed calves or Siamese twins, or monstrous races described by classical authors such as Pliny, like the Sciapodes or Dog-headed men. It also included new things that had been brought to Europe from overseas that were depicted as monstrous, including bizarre animals such as armadillos, possums and sawfish.
Monsters could act as portents and omens, signs of Godly wrath, or could be deformed beings that dwelt on the outer edges of the known world. They always inhabited the margins of normality; they were always abnormal ‘others’ as a result of geographical distance or their deviation from accepted norms of appearance and behaviour.
These prolific monsters had long histories and spawned many new monsters. Why was this? For one, early modern monsters sold very well: there was a roaring trade in monstrosity literature and freak-shows.
Conceptually, monsters were frequently used to represent political upheavals or social issues in cheap mass-produced leaflets, similar to today’s newspapers. When social or political boundaries were under contention, monsters embodying these conflicts arose. For example, Protestant clerics used representations of the chimerical Whore of Babylon to make the rival Catholic church look morally debased.
Further afield, new peoples encountered in colonial locations like the Americas were often deemed to be cannibals, and cannibalism was thought rife amongst exotic ‘primitive’ peoples. Yet, ironically, the only recorded cases of cannibalism are in Europe, especially in the corpse-medicine that was used widely at this time.
So, making exotic monsters was a way of projecting the darker elements of society elsewhere. And in so doing, to reinforce the values held at home. Far from being chaos-creating things, as we might expect, monsters actually helped to create the social and natural boundaries that they seemed to flout.
Something like an armadillo, with scaly carapaces as well as fur and warm blood, seemed to be at once lizard-like and mammalian. It could be interpreted as a monstrous hybrid cross between a tortoise and a hedgehog. It highlighted the accepted distinctions between these kinds of animals, rather than blurring the boundaries.
Similarly, a human born with extra limbs, joined to another person or being of extraordinary size, highlighted what it was to be a ‘normal’ human. Monsters were notable exceptions to rules. Transgressing the boundaries in the natural order, they reinforced what that order was meant to be.
Today, in the West, our definition of ‘normal’ humanity is much more inclusive. We are far more likely consider people who try to exclude different groups as monsters. Take for example, the recent criticism of Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao for his homophobic comments.
We look back and feel like we have dismantled historical monsters and made them obsolete. We have filled in the gaps on maps where they used to exist. We’ve incorporated strange creatures into taxonomies, and medically explained monstrous births. We have naturalised them, and thereby neutralised them.
Yet, monsters have a way of forever re-emerging. They still percolate through our culture. We watch films and read books with monsters in them, and the reported media also makes figurative monsters for us to fear or revile. These are all kinds of fictions. They might be entirely fabulous, like cinematic monsters. Or they might be heavily distorted views of reality, like the portrayals of people that become publicly vilified for some perceived breach of social boundaries.
One example of this was the media-lynching of the dentist Walter Palmer, who killed ‘Cyril the Lion’ in 2015. He not only lost his career but received death threats, so strong was the social backlash against what he had done, and so vehemently did certain individuals feel that he embodied some evil to be obliterated. Indeed, he remained under scrutiny.
This ‘monsterification’ is certainly not limited to human figures: we still make different organisms into monsters. Just as in the past, we still tend to see animals and plants through a lens of moral and anthropomorphic attributes.
One of the clearest examples of this is the resistance to genetically modified organisms. No only the plants or animals themselves, but those doing research on and marketing them, are vilified by some groups. This is on the grounds of perceived health, ecological and moral threats, despite the much-needed benefits that such breeds could offer. These are mosters of our own making, both literally and figuratively.
So what are these monsters used for? Arguably they still perform similar functions to those that they have done historically. In all of these examples, monsters exist on the boundaries between reality and fiction: they contain just enough realism to frighten us. A monster with no recognisable features would not be scary, nor would it serve any other purpose.
The most pervasive figures in Gothic literature, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, act as distorted mirror-images to the protagonists. They are inextricably linked to us, the readers, and we come to realise that we are afraid of them because they show us elements of ourselves we would rather not encounter.
One of the central functions of monsters is to represent the darker parts of our society or our own minds. We make our own monsters, not simply in order to be scared by them, but because they embody the elements of ourselves that we wish to deny or defend against, as individuals or collectively.
Psychoanalytic theory has a great deal to say on these kinds of monsters, essentially suggesting that they are projections of parts of our own psyches. This process of projection allows us to symbolically rid ourselves of these parts. The monster is killed, banished or destroyed, and thus the inner evil expelled. Dracula is vanquished; the lion-murdering Dentist is hounded out of social and professional circles; just as seventeenth-century exotic ‘cannibal natives’ were civilised and Christianised. Evil is externalised and excised.
By acting as scapegoats for our own darker elements, monsters also allow us to define boundaries within our society. We make monsters out of individuals or groups who seem to transgress moral and social rules. In this way, monsters act to help us negotiate these rules, even as they appear to disrupt them.
The political history of all kinds of minority groups: racial, medical and sexual; offer plentiful examples of the flux of social identities. They have all been invariably stereotyped at some stage as ‘other’, and imbued with all kinds of negative qualities at some point, often used as justification for persecution.
This making of groups into monsters involves a tension between exclusion and acceptance. The debate over Islamic refugees has resulted in monsters on both sides: both images of Islamic terrorists trying to infiltrate Europe and destroy it from within; and right-wing Nazis trying to deny refugees a home and a future on the basis of their race and religion. The fate of such ‘monstrous’ figures depends on where the social boundaries, and indeed the porosity of our national borders, are fixed.
The taxonomic boundaries that seem so concrete in science can still produce monsters too. In-between forms, like Scott’s ‘Alien’ are certainly unnerving. Likewise, apparently uncategorisable creatures like velvet worms or egg-laying echidnas undoubtedly still fascinate people. Beasts crossing the categories with which we have divided the natural world serve as monsters that help us to redefine these rules as well.
Our monsters say a great deal about us as individuals and as a society. A clue to this lies in the etymology of ‘monster’, which comes via a Latin root, monstrare, ‘to demonstrate’, and monere, ‘to warn’. In the early modern period, these terms referred to the revelation of divine messages or designs. Modern social or psychological monsters are, rather, demonstrative. Instead of disrupting cultures and psyches, they reveal their internal workings.
Monsters blur the boundaries between the internal and external; excluded and included; the self and other. In Alien, new creatures spring from the bodies of parasitised humans; vampires immortalise their prey; and Isalmic extremists brainwash new recruits within our own society. Monsters frighten us because they cannot be escaped, and in fact, because we sometimes need them.
Based on a TEDX talk I gave in March 2016