One potential answer is that, in this age of individualism and isolation, belonging to a group of people united to fight a common enemy is an attractive prospect. It fills the need for connection that is often lacking in our everyday lives.
Another possibility is that monsters offer us a way to reconcile the “monstrous” characteristics that we as humans struggle to acknowledge can also be our own. It is easier to designate a murderer a monster than to accept that they are human, just like us. Monsters are a far off land to which we can banish our fellow humans who commit monstrous acts.
“The etymology of monstrosity suggests the complex roles that monsters play within society. 'Monster' probably derives from the Latin, monstrare, meaning 'to demonstrate', and monere, 'to warn'. Monsters, in essence, are demonstrative. They reveal, portend, show and make evident, often uncomfortably so.” Lawrence 2015
According to Professor of English, Cajsa Baldini, monsters play a role in facilitating discussion of collective anxieties that might otherwise remain unspoken. By channeling our fears into fiction, we can process them without having to directly confront their reality. For instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be seen to represent society’s fear of the progress of medical science having uncertain ethical consequences. Jurassic Park is a story in which technology strays out of control. The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Jekyl and Mr Hyde are both examples of human anger raging out of control. Stories about werewolves reflect a fear of our animal nature overwhelming our human intellect. Vampires can be seen to represent wealth and elitism: they choose their victims carefully and only “sire” a select few to join them as immortals. Zombies on the other hand represent consumer culture, the hungry hoards of working and middle class who consume everything in their wake.
What about the monsters found in fairytales, folk tales and mythology? Those more ancient beasts whose hideous and violent nature has often been sanitised by generations of Christian retelling and diluted by Disney movies? It doesn’t take too much digging to find the creepy ancestral monsters who first walked in folk tales passed down orally, and then recorded by the Brothers Grimm and their contemporaries from 1812. Even the Grimm brothers rewrote the tales in later editions of their books, making them more palatable. Originally intended for adult readers, the Grimms rewrote the fairytales a second time, to make them suitable for an audience of children. The original fairytales often included sexual violence (Sleeping Beauty wasn’t awoken by just a kiss), incest (Donkeyskin is the story of a young girl who runs away from her father’s attempt to marry her), and violence and neglect done to children by their own parents (Hänsel and Gretel for instance). The Grimms changed some of the monsterous mothers in their transcribed fairytales into stepmothers, violent sisters into step-sisters, adding an extra level of distance from the unpleasant reality that abuse is most often done by close family members. Modern versions of Donkeyskin often don’t include the monstrous father at all. Cate Fricke writes that we do ourselves a disservice by sanitising fairytales. In doing so we render them less powerful as the transformative tales of triumph over horror they have the potential to be.
How much stronger must you be, in every way, when the wolf is your own father, and no malicious, cannibalistic witch is as monstrous as your own mother? When home is the place you must escape, you have to be immensely strong and unfathomably brave to imagine another life and to run toward it full-tilt. Fairy tales reward those that thus strike out on their own to find refuge and help from strange lands and strange people. They offer us the assurance that while monstrosity can fester even in the most sacred of places, the strange new world outside may not be entirely filled with monsters.
Whether they are otherworldly (trolls, witches, sirens, pirates, good and bad fairies, aliens, vampires, zombies) or all too human, monsters play an important social role and so they persist as archetypal characters in the stories we tell. Monsters can unite us, represent our fears, and help us process the darker side of humanity and of our own selves. As writers, monsters can drive our stories forward, providing an external force for our protagonist to struggle against, helping them to grow and change in the process.
I’m just starting out as a writer. I’ve written a lot, but never with the intention of sending anything off into the world of publishing. That was always put aside for some later time, when I would be “ready” or “good enough”. However, now that I’ve well and truly taken the leap into children’s book illustration, I find myself compelled to write stories as well as illustrate them. So, wish me monsters...
References and further reading...
cate Fricke, 2018, “We Have Always Lived in the Woods: On Fairy Tales and the Monsters You Know”, Catapult
Pete Zrioka, 2012, The Monsters Among Us, Arizona State University
Angela Slatter, 2017, Ten Scary Creatures from Fairy Tales and Mythology, Hachette