Why Are We Fascinated With Monsters?
It's what goes "bump" in the night
Did you ever pick at a scab?
No, really. I’m not trying to be disgusting about this. Have you ever had the irresistible urge to pick at a scab? People look down at an old cut and see where the drying bits are just flaking away and they try to get rid of them. In some respects we do this because we want to see less “ick” and speed the healing process along – because we know the possibility of it just falling off on its own just won’t happen. So we pick. After we get everything we know to be the dry dead cells, part of us tries to find the very border of dead and “healing”. That’s when we find the part that hurts.
Some people like that. And they keep picking until they lift the healing part away and wait for a brand new scab to form.
I equate our love of monsters is very much like that.
We, who are the lovers of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clive Barker, sit back and read these bone-chilling stories, risking almost certain nightmares and sleepless nights. And when we finish stories like Salem’s Lot, The Call of Cthulhu, The Pit and the Pendulum, or Hellraiser, we’re almost instantly ready to begin another.
Why? We know they're no good for us, but we read them anyway.
I, being a crazy comic book freak, cannot resist an EC Comics Tales from the Crypt reprint. Those stories and artwork were so vivid and horrifying I can remember waking up from a dead sleep (induced by chamomile tea – notorious for producing nightmares) with freakishly disturbing thoughts of ghouls, freaks, psychopaths, and all variants of the paranormal etched perfectly in my head.
I shiver even as I type this.
Yet we continue to be fascinated with all the things that go “bump” in the night. If we had any sense at all we’d consign ourselves to a strict diet of unicorns, rainbows, and pink fuzzy bunnies. That’s where the safe stuff is.
But we human beings are not wired like that. We find a dull life or a tame story written by Walt Disney or cast entirely of Care Bears and "princesses to be", on many levels, as repugnant as the slime coating on top of a cold, mysterious, black lagoon.
Let’s examine the world of ghosts, goblins, and monsters. I’m going to write this article and then continue throughout this month to write more of the creatures that scare us. Why? Well, because it’s going to be Halloween soon and when the veils between this living world and the paranormal one are really thin, it gets the blood pumping just thinking about this stuff.
Ghosts? Goblins? Monsters? They are the most INteresting people.
Okay, tell me when you read the title section you thought of Rudolph, the Warner Brothers’ red furred monster with tennis shoes, with Bugs Bunny.
I mention this only because as humorous as it is, it strikes at the very heart of why we watch monster movies or read a good horror novel. We not only want to be scared, but we want to see the best that humanity has to offer against a monstrous force. In the case of Bugs Bunny (okay, rabbit – not humanity), initially, he’s frightened of the monster. He sees himself in a dark castle, surrounded by a freaky mad scientist, a robot that needs a rabbit brain, and a red furred monster who only wants the reward of a spider goulash.
To quote Bugs, “Think fast, rabbit.”
In typical Looney Tunes style, Bugs does all of the classic gags on the monster. He adopts the hairdresser persona of getting the monster to be very “unmonster-like” by telling him he got that awful hairdo that doesn’t become him at all and then tells him that he has to fix the hair with a “permanent”. The permanent has explosives in it – which Bugs sets off. After a few more gags, he’s able to use “vanishing fluid” to become invisible and then uses reducing oil on the monster to defeat him.
In the end, that’s what we really want to see in all the stories. We want the horror. We want the thrill of a life threatening force out to kill us. We also want to know we’re smart enough to beat the monster… or at the very least, smart enough to escape it so that someone else can battle it on another day.
Every monster has a strength. Every monster has a weakness. So, when we have a hero (or heroine), it’s important that we know that the monster can kill the protagonist in the blink of one of its bloodshot eyes.
The monster has to be seen killing or maiming someone. His power must be demonstrated. We need to see the victim’s failure. There are consequences for stupidity and a monster will exploit a stupid move the instant it’s made.
More than anything else, the monster has to create fear for every character in the book. It needs to be present and it needs to be palpable. This is why many of the B-movie horror films from the fifties and sixties fail so miserably. The two that I can instantly think of is Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World (1951) and Roger Corman’s Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). Both movies have monsters that present an incredible threat. In the case of The Thing from Another Planet (eventually remade by John Carpenter as The Thing (1982)), the monster takes its form as contagion. The concept should be terrifying because it’s something you can’t really physically fight. In Attack of the Giant Leeches, people are missing. In both of these films, the protagonists are more concerned over drinking coffee and being nonchalant than actually being concerned over the monster. When the things are finally defeated, one is more likely to yawn rather than find relief in their deaths.
How is the audience or the reader going to empathize with victims without appreciating an actual threat from a monster?
This is why a movie like Alien or Aliens is good film making. When it’s established that the monster can be anywhere, the audience is tense. In Aliens, we see that the aliens are everywhere and it’s a matter of nuking the planet to be sure of containing the threat. When we get to that point, the audience is in full agreement and the protagonist is happy to get away from that horror.
We live because a victim dies
All good monster stories need a victim.
As I mentioned before, victims are stupid or clueless. The stupid ones are the ones that run around Camp Crystal Lake and, although there have been several grisly murders within the last two hours, there will be a guy with some clueless bimbo who thinks, “I know Billy and Cindy were dismembered just ten minutes ago, but wouldn’t it be a great time to make out with Sally?” The two remove their clothes and start humping like monkeys in heat. And, just when they are both about to climax, the guy gets an axe right to the head while the bimbo, covered in her lover’s blood, screams wide eyed just before she’s impaled.
That's when we cut to the protagonist and her boyfriend. These two people seem to be the only two people in the story that have not suffered a head injury from childhood and can think logically. They are working with logic and intelligence on their side and while they may or may not be smarter than the monster, they will almost certainly be craftier than it.
If you don’t believe me, think of all the more classic heroes or heroines from either horror movies or any of the horror novels. Sigourney Weaver in Alien (or Aliens) consistently makes the right decisions. “Don’t allow the guy with the parasitic life form in the ship”, “If the alien is trapped on the mother ship, blow up the mother ship”, “If you have a parasite trapped inside you, kill yourself.” All of these are good decisions based on logic and practicality. Each of these choices is almost always thwarted by the monster or forces working for some other villainous power.
How about Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf? Each month, there’s a new victim. Sometimes, the werewolf does the right thing and kills the general jerkwad in the town. However, the community has no idea what they’re dealing with. An entire barroom full of idiots decides to hunt and kill the “wild animal”. They all get slaughtered. King creates a protagonist (Marty) who’s a paraplegic. While he’s by himself, enjoying a nice Independence Day evening of lighting off some bottle rockets, the werewolf comes to attack him. He fires a rocket into the werewolf's eye. This doesn’t kill the creature, but it makes werewolf easy to identify once it turns human. As the hero is so much weaker than the werewolf and has physical limitations, he seems to be doomed. However, Marty does his research and is prepared for the monster with a real silver bullet.
The hero is almost always weaker than the monster but he’s also almost always craftier than it. And by the inverse, the victims are almost always dumber than the monster and will, by definition, find their way into the monster’s digestive tract.
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Some monsters can't be killed
Yeah, what about those?
Some authors create monsters so huge and powerful that there is no way to defeat them. While beauty killed the beast in King Kong, we know that Godzilla almost always returns to the sea. Where a force like Godzilla has unimaginable power and that no individual person can defeat the monster, it’s a matter of how a country can pool its resources to fight such a monster.
In Godzilla’s case, with the exception of the first movie, the monster is too powerful and somehow has a connection to children. Like Gamera, Godzilla became an almost cartoonish character that comes to fight more monstrous creatures. In almost every movie, Godzilla retains his title as the biggest badass of the monster community.
Then we have H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Cthulhu, a priest of the “Elder Gods”, is sealed within his chamber, sleeping in the underwater city of R’yleh. When the planets and the constellations are in the proper alignment, Cthulhu will awaken. Cthulhu, is a creature as tall as a mountain with a "cuttlefish head, dragon body, and scaly wings”. He is a creature so frightening that men go mad at the sight of him. The account of Captain Johansen in The Call of Cthulhu talks not about killing the creature but more his effort of escaping it. The true horror of Cthulhu is the cult of maniacs that worship it and how the psychically sensitive had lost their minds as the creature begins to awaken from its slumber. The Cult has spent all of their time in keeping the creature’s existence a secret. Lovecraft created an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness in mankind’s battle against this creature. Inevitably, a new order of humanity will evolve as part of Cthulhu's rule.
The win in stories like this is in escaping with your life. We need to remember the wisdom of Sun Szu. When outmatched, flee – if you can.
Are you a fan of horror movies?
It takes a bent imagination to think of a creature that can end the writer’s existence.
It takes an even greater writer to find a common item and make the reader afraid of it. Wes Craven did it with A Nightmare on Elm Street – everyone wants to go to sleep. When the monster lives in your dreams, the protagonist (and the writer for that matter) finds fear in letting his guards down. In Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, the monsters incubate in human stomachs and come out the rectum. That’s right, King will make you afraid of going to the toilet. Steven Moffat not only made people afraid of angel statues, but also made us afraid to look away from them in Doctor Who’s Blink. William Peter Blatty made people afraid of Ouija boards in The Exorcist and not going to church. And, more than anyone else, Peter Benchley and Stephen Spielberg made an entire generation of people in Jaws afraid to go to the beach because sharks can attack people in three feet of water, twenty feet away from the land.
The more real the monster to the reader or film goer, the more terrifying it is.
When we experience a story where there’s a monster, it’s more than man versus man or man versus nature. The stories where it’s man versus monster, we can handle. The ones where the monster is incidental to the horror are worst of all. That’s man versus himself. Rod Serling, of The Twilight Zone, has more often than not illustrated that sometimes the monster is nothing more than a by-product of the story. In his story, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, the monsters aren’t seen until the very end – and we find out that the worst monsters of all are what we turn into when we allow our darker selves in fear and paranoia to become dominant. The aliens are seen from a hill on the outskirts of town saying, “Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers… throw them into darkness for a few hours, and then you just sit back and watch the pattern.”
While I’m on that vein, we also have Stephen King’s The Dark Half. A writer's dark alias comes to life and starts killing people. This harkens back to the Robert Louis Stevenson story of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. This theme has run through countless stories when we have to face our own dark sides and they gain a life of their own. Our dark selves start out quite weak as they’ve been suppressed through our own superegos. When they are released and given no boundaries, they grow beyond society’s control. This is perfectly illustrated in not only The Dark Half, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but also in the second volume of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Edward Hyde, who is now a hulking bestial figure, not due to just biology but due to the side effect of dividing his soul in half, has gained physical dominance. Jekyll’s good side is full of restrictions. Hyde has none. In declaring this reality, Moore has made the point that being bad is easier than being good.
It is easier to be a monster than to keep from becoming one.
One of my favorite quotes has been, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
What writers do in their stories is teach and define who we are. Every fictional story you see in the movies, read in a book, or see on television came from the mind of a writer who had a point to make. In monster stories, the monster is usually symbolic of our fears or our ignorance. When we read a story about our werewolf, isn’t it a story about not allowing the beast within our personality control us? When we read about vampires, isn’t it a lesson on overindulgence and lust? When we read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat, rather than look at it as a horror story, isn’t it more a story about how the human mind handles immortality and loneliness? When we read about zombies, isn’t it a story about our own humanity or a story about how we need to actually live our lives?
If you read World War Z by Max Brooks, the moral of the story he tells is the human account of interviewing the survivors and telling their story is more valuable than the soulless account of numbers and historical facts. Brooks’ story is about telling the human story in the horror of battling soulless automations as well as what’s lost when someone becomes a zombie.
The monsters are what we fear within ourselves as much as the threat to the protagonist’s life. Oh sure, we can talk about the corruption of the soul and how the world could be in imminent danger because of blood sucking aliens who want nothing more than to do a rectal examination of our innards and steal our sports cars, but is that enough to make us terrified?
I take that back… Yes, that would terrify me.
When we learn the lessons that science and horror give us, we not only learn more about a good story, we learn about ourselves.
© 2013 Christopher Peruzzi