Modern Monsters Essay, Research Paper
Why modern monsters have become alien to us
U.S. Catholic v61 p37-41 N ‘96
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Late autumn has arrived and with it comes the dark magic of Halloween–and, of course, the
murky thrill of monsters. Yet our appetite for a good monster knows no season. Ever since ancient
times we have been fascinated with all sorts of tales about monsters and intrigued by myths and
legends about those wild half-human beasts who haunt the edges of our forests and lurk in the
recesses of our oceans. The sphinxes, minotaurs, and sirens of early mythology gave way to Beowulf’s
Grendel and Saint George’s dragon, then to the mermaids, trolls, and one-eyed giants of our fairy and
folk tales, and finally to those 19th-century Gothic classics. Nor are these stories on the wane, for the
monster tales that made Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi stars of the silver screen
continue to draw megacrowds six and seven decades later.
In 1994 Kenneth Branagh and Robert DeNiro brought us the latest reincarnation of Shelley’s
story of Frankenstein’s tortured creature, and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt starred in “Interview with a
Vampire,” the first installment of Ann Rice’s homage to Stoker’sDracula. Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd
Weber’s musical production of Gaston Leroux’s “Phantom of the Opera” continues to pack in
audiences from London to L.A.
Much of the initial appeal of monster stories comes from the fact that they, like their twisted
siblings, “creature features” and “slashers,” both terrify and fascinate us with their ghoulish brand of
horror. It’s the rattling-the-tiger’s-cage kind of thrill that Scout and Jim Finch got from sneaking onto
Boo Radley’s porch under a pale moon. Reading or watching great monster stories, we get to
accompany the frightened heroes or heroines as they descend into the dragon’s lair; crane our necks
over the tops of books or movie seats and peek into the dank recesses of the giant cyclops’ cave;
stretch out our trembling hands and actually touch the monster’s reptilian scales, hairy paws, or cloven
hoofs; and then run screaming like a banshee the instant it wakes from its slumber. What a rush!
As frightening as these creatures are, in monster stories it is always the beast that ends up taking
the fall, which means that this is a place where we not only get to tangle with evil’s most daunting and
dangerous minions but to vanquish them with regularity. Pretty heady stuff. No wonder we never seem
to tire of these tales.
And yet the truth is that the best of these stories are much more than simple-minded creature
features. In the original versions of Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “Phantom of the
Opera,” Jekyll & Hyde, and even Dracula we aren’t simply terrified and enraged by these ghouls
trolling about in our dungeons, sewers, or bell towers. Instead, in such classic monster stories we are
also haunted by an underlying sense of sympathy–and, yes, responsibility–for these misshapen men.
In their deaths and destruction we experience some pathos, some tragedy, perhaps even some shred
of regret for the ways they have been abused, goaded, and abandoned.
Nowhere is this so clear as in Frankenstein. When, at the end of Shelley’s novel, her narrator,
Walton, finally sets eyes on Victor Frankenstein’s dreaded creature, he describes him as having “a
form I cannot find words to describe; gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions …
Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness … I
dared not again raise my eyes to his face, there was something so scaring and unearthly in his
Still, Walton, like the reader, feels “a mixture of curiosity and compassion” toward this disfigured
beast. The very monster who has murdered all of Frankenstein’s loved ones is himself a tortured soul,
and the strange, misshapen creature–who has studied Plutarch and read Milton–cries out to his
human maker in such eloquent anguish that we cannot help being moved.
then, must I be hated, who am
miserable beyond all living things
… Oh Frankenstein, be not
equitable to every other, and
trample upon me alone, to whom
thy justice, and even thy
clemency and affection, is most
due … Accursed creator! Why
did you form a monster so
hideous that even you turned
from me in disgust? God, in pity,
made man beautiful and alluring,
after his own image; but my form
is a filthy type of yours, more
horrid even from the very
At first glance, Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde doesn’t seem to invite much pity for
the villain Edward Hyde, the murderous dwarf whom the character Dr. Lanyon describes as
“something seizing, surprising and revolting” and who, according to Henry Jekyll, “alone in the ranks of
mankind, was pure evil.” Still, when Jekyll’s manservant Poole hears the poor creature “weeping like a
woman or a lost soul,” he admits to having come “away with that upon my heart” and comments “that I
could have wept too.” The truth is that for all his physical and moral deformities, Hyde, too, is but “a
filthy type” of his maker, a doppelganger of Henry Jekyll, “knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an
eye,” and the physical manifestation of all his vile and unruly passion. And though he is not as eloquent
as Frankenstein’s beast, Hyde could well have quoted Milton’s Paradise Lost to his all-too-human
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to
And even in Dracula there is a trace of compassion for the monstrous Prince of the Undead, the
viper who takes a dozen repulsive forms. In Stoker’s original narrative the vampire hunter Van
Helsing, unlike so many modern action heroes, is not out simply to avenge himself against Dracula and
his minions; he actually wants to redeem their lost and tortured souls. Even in visages that do not show
up in mirrors, Van Helsing is capable of recgnizing a shared humanity and, indeed, offeeling some pity
for their frightful plight. And at the end of Stoker’s novel, Mina Harper, who has more than enough
reason to despise this foul creature of the underworld and to savor his destruction, describes Dracula’s
death with a note of unstrained sympathy. “I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of
final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined rested
there.” Stoker’s vampire is not so much murdered as forgiven.
These stories, again and again, remind us that in biology and myth monsters are disfigured
versions of ourselves, fun-house mirrors of our own frail and sometimes monstrous humanity. Monster
stories, then, by confronting us with these disfigured embodiments of ourselves, invite us to reflect on
our own humanity, and, indeed, our inhumanity. In a way that is not so very different from Luke’s
parable of the Good Samaritan, these Gothic tales challenge us to recognize the humanity of the beast
and to acknowledge the beastliness of our own inhumanity. Indeed, the best of them are reminders
and warnings about the ways in which we make and become such beasts.
Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (so pathetically sanitized in Disney’s
recent animated version) may be one of the best modern monster stories we have. Even the name of
the misshapen bell ringer, Quasimodo, tells us that this brutish creature is but “half-formed,” and, like
Frankenstein’s beast, Hugo’s disfigured monster seems cruelly fashioned of mismatched parts, his
body a tortured terrain, his face a terrifying visage. As one critic writes:
Nowhere on earth was there a
more grotesque creature. One of
his eyes was buried under an
enormous cyst. His teeth hung
over his protruding lower lips
like tusks. His eyebrows were red
bristles, and his gigantic nose
curved over his upper lip like a
snout. His long arms protruded
from his shoulders, dangling like
Further, not unlike Stevenson’s brutal Hyde, Quasimodo is a henchman of the night, a stalker of
darkened alleys, and a hunter of women, finding cover by day deep within the bowels of Notre Dame.
Here, it seems, is a fiend to haunt the nightmares of children and whip mobs into a fury.
Still, as Hugo’s narrative unfolds, it is not Quasimodo but the cathedral’s archdeacon, Claude
Frollo, who is revealed as the novel’s real monster. Like Frankenstein and Jekyll, the ascetic scholar
and priest Frollo is a man who cannot abide the limits of his own mortality or acknowledge the
all-too-human passions that burn within him. But Frollo’s attempts to fly above this mortal flesh, or to
bury it within the cathedral’s shadowy vaults and Gothic spires, are all in vain. And in the end, it is he
who dispatches Quasimodo–his own Mr. Hyde–to stalk and kidnap the gypsy Esmeralda; it is he
who will destroy her; and it is he who–like the thoughtless Victor Frankenstein–cruelly abandons the
tortured beast he was sworn to protect.
The real fiends, then, in so many classic monster stories, are the Frankensteins, Jekylls, and
Frollos who cannot abide their own humanity and cannot or will not show any compassion for those
whose disfigured humanity has made them outcasts. It is the men who cannot recognize their own
deformities writ large on the faces of these brutes–who feel no mercy, no responsibility, no pity–who
are the true monsters, and indeed, the creators of monsters.
Even in “Richard III,” Shakespeare’s tale of the sociopathic “Hunchback of York,” there is some
reminder that monsters are fashioned not of some brutish ugliness but of our own failure to
acknowledge the humanity of the stranger. In Richard of Gloucester Shakespeare has created a
twisted fiend of unparalleled malice, a misshapen stump of a man who neither evidences nor invites
pity. Here is a Shakespearean villain without a shred of conscience, a Renaissance Ted Bundy, Gary
Gilmore, or, as Ian McKellen suggests in his recent production, Adolf Hitler. But this disfigured regent
believes that he has the same complaint against the world, the same cause for rancor, as
Frankenstein’s creature–which is that he is not, and indeed cannot be, loved.
I, that am rudely stamped, and
want love’s majesty … that am
curtailed of this fair proportion,
cheated of feature by dissembling
nature, deformed, unfinished, and
sent before my time into this
breathing world … have no
delight to pass away the time …
and therefore, since I cannot
prove a lover … am determined
to prove a villain” (act I, scene i).
Indeed, Ken Magid and Carole McKelvey argue in High Risk: Children Without a Conscience
(M & M Publishers, 1987), sociopaths are all too often the products of emotional abandonment,
children who have never been able to form an attachment or bond with a loved one.
Such insights are, of course, not really so different from the central argument of monster stories
like Frankenstein. As the creature says to his maker/parent:
I am thy creature, and I will be
even mild and docile to my
natural lord and king, if thou wilt
also perform thy part, that which
thou owest me … I ought to be
thy Adam, but I am rather the
fallen angel, whom thou drivest
from joy for no misdeed … I was
benevolent and good, misery
made me a fiend. Make me
happy, and I shall again be
The underlying message of these stories is that monsters are made, not born, and that they are
fashioned out of our inability to accept our own limits and care for others. We don’t make monsters by
playing God or fooling with mother nature. We make the monsters by failing to be human and
recognize and respect the humanity of others.
Maybe that’s why it bothers me that monster stories seem to be being replaced by a kind of tale
that has no sense of our own responsibility for evil and no compassion for the disfigured creatures who
serve as the stories’ foils or foes. In the ’50s and ’60s the monsters in most creature features were
often the result of some nuclear explosion or radiation experiment gone awry and so reflected some
consciousness of our guilt or anxiety about the cold war and arms race. Today, however, we seem to
be facing a new breed of monstrous creatures, for whom we are invited to feel neither responsibility
nor sympathy. Instead, we’re just to blast those little suckers out of the sky.
In a number of films the monster in question has been a beast from outer space, an alien creature
to whom we are not related and who we can hunt and destroy with all the heat-seeking missiles and
nuclear arsenals at our command. Meanwhile, in Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” (1993) we’re
confronted with a brood of dinosaurs from 65 million years in the past and given permission to blast
and fry these reptilian sociopaths with nothing short of glee.
Nowhere, however, is this trend so evident as in this summer’s biggest blockbuster
“Independence Day”–one of Bob Dole’s recommended family films and a feel-good movie that lets us
blow the living daylights out of the meanest pack of really illegal aliens that ever came to town. What a
thrill to be able to mount a nuclear Armageddon without the slightest concern about political or
radioactive fallout of any sort, to finally find an enemy who it’s not politically incorrect to hate, and to
live in a world of such stark moral clarity and simplicity, where good and evil are so sharply polarized
and where we are the absolutely innocent good guys. (Watching the movie, I thought I was at a Pat
I confess to liking action films. Still, I am concerned about the presence of what seem to me to be
some very dangerous trends leading to the production of more and more movies where evil is being
projected onto an enemy so foreign and alien that it can be destroyed without any trace of regret. My
concern is not just that such stories keep us unconscious of our own responsibility for evil and that
movies like “Independence Day” help us forget that “the problem, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but
in ourselves,” but that they may well be tapping into some very unhealthy rage and bias in our culture.
When you start designing movies to be theme park rides and video games, they stop being
stories. It’s not that stories don’t or shouldn’t entertain, and it’s not that stories can’t have thrills and
chills. But real stories, at least good stories, have depth and character and plot. They wrestle with
ambiguity, conflict, even paradox; pose questions–often very unsettling ones; and are open to
interpretation on various levels.
Stories inspire, upset, disturb, and haunt us. They engage, not replace, our imagination, challenge
our moral sensitivities, and invite us to wrestle with the mystery of being human. They’re about
suffering, guilt, remorse, passion, anguish, even redemption.
Video games and theme parks, on the other hand, are about adrenaline. They are engineered to
stimulate the fight or flight response, and, as a rule, they’re geared for 12- to 14-year-olds. Like
pornography, they have the thinnest of plot lines–hunt down and kill or flee from danger–and their
“characters” are strictly cartoon stuff. In the midst of an adrenaline rush you don’t have the time or
inclination to wonder about the moral ambiguity of this situation, or the humanity of the foe. You just
duck and shoot.
A second problem with these features is that their monsters turn out to be not so foreign after all,
but rather poorly disguised surrogates of our rage against women and immigrants. You’d think Rush
Limbaugh had written the scripts. In the “Alien” trilogy Sigourney Weaver finds herself battling against
a matriarchal colony of insect-like beasts, whose eggs she is always destroying. Indeed, in the second
film “Aliens,” Weaver’s major confrontation is with the queen bee of this monstrous breed, while the
advertisements for “Alien 3″ excitedly proclaims that “The Bitch is Back!”
Likewise, Marina Warner points out that the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” are dangerous females
who outflank their keepers by figuring out how to propagate without males. In “Species” the alien is a
Jackie the Ripper from outer space, a praying mantis who is looking for a good mate. The most
dangerous monster in the universe, according to these films, is a woman having a child without
permission. It’s hard to miss the underlying rage against welfare moms and pregnant teens in these
Meanwhile, in “Predator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger faces off against a murderous extraterrestrial
who inhabits the jungles of Central America, and when Danny Glover confronts the alien’s
replacement in “Predator 2,” the monster has decided to visit Los Angeles, of all places. One wonders
just which aliens these movies are talking about. In a time when so much political rage is directed at
illegal aliens, it can’t be all that surprising that films like “Independence Day” would be such a hit.
Finally, there is the little matter of the bomb, or bombs. Explosives are, by far and away, the most
popular special effect in these video-arcade movies. It would be impossible to imagine a
contemporary action film or creature feature that isn’t littered with the detritus of demolitions,
preferably nuclear. Not only do these toys give us the biggest bang for the buck, they are also the
perfect tool for obliterating an enemy for whom we feel nothing but rage. Bombs are macho and
impersonal, how perfect.
Until, of course, they start going off in the World Trade Center, in front of a government building
in Oklahoma, aboard a TWA flight out of New York, or at a disco outside the Olympic Village. Then
bombs are murderous, insane, cowardly, craven, and–yes–monstrous.
We need to pay attention to the kinds of monster stories we tell. They could come back to haunt
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