Listen to this story
It’s a question worth asking. I should know. It’s one I’ve spent two years trying to answer. Because today, monsters are everywhere.
Sure, science has long dismissed their existence. And sure, the latest vintage of parents, in the name of buffering the sensitivities of their tender babes, have replaced terrifying Grimm’s tales with junior self-help texts. Yet the varied takes on people undergoing terrible transformations and all the ways those around us may not be what they appear to be continue to multiply through our culture.
In the cinema, there are the blockbuster reboots of B-movie beasts (Godzilla), along with their more intimate, art-house iterations (It Follows, The Witch). On cable, the highest-rated show for some years follows the lurching progress of flesh-munching zombie hordes (The Walking Dead), while over on the main networks — unthinkable a decade ago — a prime-time show, which won critical praise and ran for three seasons, features a sadistic cannibal main character who savors pan-seared human organs on-screen (Hannibal). Meanwhile, in the real world, we are repeatedly warned of monsters in faraway lands planning attacks, while back at home, tens of millions accuse fellow voters of having elected one to the highest office in the free world.
Monsters are as much a cultural touchstone today as they’ve ever been. How are they so persistent? What are the qualities that make the Western idea of monstrosity so relevant and socially useful?
The Unholy Trinity
In search of answers, I set about conducting some serious research. Which is to say, I read a bunch of novels.
In the end, I landed on an insight that I’m prepared to argue against any challenger. All of our modern monsters are derived from the 19th century, specifically just three novels, an Unholy Trinity that are rightly taken as the defining pillars of the gothic: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Zombies are a recent invention, you say? Pfft. Shelley defined the rules for the reanimated dead 150 years before George A. Romero had them shoving their grabby hands through the slots of barricaded windows.
Vampires — sparkly, diary-writing, apocalyptic, you name it — are all variations on the romantic, narcissistic bloodsucker Stoker gave shape-shifting shape to.
Then the parade of psycho killers — Norman Bates, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter (him again!), and their siblings, not to mention certain members of Congress — all proceed from the split personality model of the presentable Dr. Jekyll, whose mask slips from time to time to reveal the unfeeling ghoul that is Mr Hyde.
The Undead. The Parasite. The Psychopath.
There are no contemporary monsters you can’t trace back to one of these source tropes.
You might say, “Hold on a sec! What about King Kong? I just saw Skull Island, and he’s none of those things, just a big gorilla.” True. But the monsters in the mythology of Kong aren’t the leftover dinosaurs or the big, softhearted ape, but the human beings who colonize paradise and enslave the animal, switching their roles (as Jekyll does) from scientists to heartless opportunists.
Sometimes, in a monster story, the antagonist isn’t the ageless creature possessed of impossibly oversized teeth. Though I haven’t seen Tom Cruise in The Mummy yet.
The Freedom of Otherness
What’s important here, thematically speaking, is how our fascination with the monstrous stems from two aspects completely unrelated to the fear factor.
The first is how monsters are permitted social transgressions that we are not. These would include disengagement from the law (Buh-bye, rent! So long, taxes!) and indulgence in violence both vengeful and spontaneous. All freedoms that we are forbidden to act on but that are tantalizing to entertain as hypothetical fantasy.
And then there’s the monster’s Otherness. Shelley’s Creature, Stoker’s Count, Stevenson’s Hyde — all are initially present as human, moving among us, observing and charming us, yet all stand beyond the boundaries of humanity. Their outsider status is why we summon monsters in the first place, so we can use them to bear the weight of our most acute (if usually irrational) anxieties. Vampires, for instance, came about during a time of virulent anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation was a response to the worrying overreaches of science. And Hyde? A worst-case scenario for those who indulge in bad manners.
But here’s the funny thing about monsters: They never entirely stay outsiders. Despite our best attempts to maintain their frightening differences, their alienated condition ultimately proves too recognizable as akin to our own.
The gothic has always offered the universal existential dilemma in a nutshell. How do we live knowing we are among others like ourselves yet experience our sufferings as painfully unique? Where is the connection to humankind when we are the only ones to feel the way we do?
This is where monsters come from.
They come from us.