On page and on screen, we love to see monsters wreak havoc. They rampage and destroy, tear and rend. Their simple existence threatens our lives, our worlds, even our sense of self. But for makers of monsters, it can be a trick to strike the right note with our creations. To get there, it may help to ask: do these terrifying figures see themselves as monsters?
Imagine a spectrum with Dracula, Hannibal Lector, and the cenobites from Hellraiser on one side, embracing their nature and delighting in preying on the weak. On the other is the Wolfman and the Hulk, humans fighting to keep their darker side constrained. And in the middle is the place where monsters deny their monstrous nature: the realm of the misunderstood and misunderstanding.
This middle is where we find Frankenstein’s monster, Edward Scissorhands, Bad Ronald, and Michael Douglas’s character from FALLING DOWN (1993). (Think of his scene on the pier, looking befuddled and asking Robert Duvall’s policeman, “I’m the bad guy?”)
Sometimes, the monster is only monstrous when perceived through human eyes. The Amphibian Man in THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), for example, is gallant and charming, and it's clear that the real villains are his human captors. Guillermo del Toro’s work often embraces the monstrous, as does the work of Tim Burton. Edward Scissorhands and the Amphibian have a great deal in common in the way they address the status and soul of the outsider. This is true of both the physically different characters and the “normal” people who embrace them.
But while Edward Scissorhands is self-aware, other monsters are self-deluded. BAD RONALD (1974) is an example of a monstrous character who believes himself to be the victim, unable to accept responsibility for his own actions. Ronald conflates an imaginary narrative to justify his series of progressively violent assaults (in the book, Ronald is far less sympathetic, and his actions significantly more malevolent than in the televised film.)
Some works, such as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), feature both soulless monsters and relatable, human characters who harness the strength of the monstrous but turn their back upon the destructive nature that power brings, showing us that all hope is not lost. In other works, the monster’s self-image changes or shifts. In THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) the monster believes that his hopes of finding happiness were delusional, uttering his famous line, “We belong dead.”
Wondering how audiences perceive these figures, I reached out to other lovers of the monstrous and horrific, and the members of the TV Terror Facebook group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/tvterror/] responded with a collection of monsters and their preferences in specific monstrous flavor. One interesting point that came out was that there are also monsters that exist wholly separate from our imaginary spectrum. Godzilla and his kaiju breather are forces of nature, similar to their dark reflections: the other-worldly Lovecraftian entities. All of them exist and go about their business, indifferent to our world and our conception of them as monsters. Natural monsters and mythological creatures tend to fall into this range as well. (For a look at drawing monstrous inspiration from facts, check out Lee Murray’s entry on the Once and Future Blog: Monster Fiction. )
All this comes together in multiple stories that I've been working on. In my contribution to the ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT anthology, I was able to explore the archetypal roles of Vampire and Hunter and ask what the concepts of right and wrong mean when both sides believe they're doing the right thing? Similarly, my novel TITANSHADE explores what sets people apart physically, culturally, and economically. Each of us exists on many axes, and we all see ourselves as outsiders on at least one of them. Not that this self-examination takes away from the action and romance of the stories—rather, if done well, it adds a depth an nuance that makes the rest of the story that much more enjoyable.
I believe that this is the great calling of Story. Well-told fiction blurs the line between “The Other” and the “Us”, strengthening understanding and pushing back against hate and paranoia. Whether our monsters are sympathetic or villainous, a successful story hinges on an act of empathy between the reader and at least one character. And when characters we empathize with make bad decisions, it causes us to reflect.
If we look at monsters and see our own beliefs and behavior, we’re forced to ask: Are we the monster? Is it us that belongs dead?
ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT is now on Kickstarter! A collection of novelettes that combine vampire mythos and romance with sacred symbolism and magic of the winter solstice.
Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. Dan's stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. His debut novel Titanshade is available for pre-order from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at www.danstout.com.