Re(a)d Letter Day: What Makes a Monster?


So what makes a good ‘monster’ in horror fiction/films? Why does one individual creation strike home with millions of readers/viewers to become a ‘classic’ with the passage of time, while others last only as long as the book’s/film’s length does and immediately plunge into obscurity? What qualities make for a nemesis that lingers on in the mind, a creature that speaks to us so strongly that it generates a fandom of its own?

(What follows is a personal meditation on the subject – as such it is very much open to discussion and debate. All views are my own.)

Inevitably personal taste enters into the equation as with any other possible element – for instance I am not particularly enamoured of either zombies or vampires, but that’s only due to a personal antipathy towards the overuse of these two species over the last five to ten years. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t some instantiations which really float my boat, but I suppose they tend to be of the original conception of these particular tropes. As an example, let’s take vampires: in European folklore they were genuinely feared as evil beings, to the point where superstition in real life required staking corpses who were suspected of having been bitten by or were vampires. They were nasty pieces of work, anathema to everything that God and the light stood for. Dracula, as envisioned by Bram Stoker, was a parasite and a predator, draining the lifeblood of hapless victims, and bringing the dead back to life – he was amoral, cunning, intelligent, and ruthless.

The most famous monsters and their longevity in culture appears to be because of their connection to one of mankind’s greatest fears: death. Not just physical death, but spiritual death – in other words, the sundering of the eternal soul from the spirit, barring its entry to Heaven or whatever paradisiacal afterlife promised. The notion of a corpse coming back to life, to wreak havoc amongst the living, is a terrifying prospect. As secular as the West has become, there is still a fear of something other taking away the essence of what it means to be human – vampires and zombies do that perfectly, albeit by different means.

So, if vampires represent the loss of the human side of our natures, what do zombies encapsulate? For me, it’s the loss of not only humanity, but also consciousness, conscience and intelligence, the three primary attributes of being human. (I am not claiming human superiority over the animal kingdom here, merely defining what constitutes the species homo sapiens.) Zombies have been used as metaphors for disease, plague, and the shambling mass of unthinking crowds and throngs – the onslaught of something which thrives on instinct rather than reason. In that capacity it serves as a stand-in for the hysteria and mentality of mobs perfectly. There is another dimension to them in addition: the loss of voluntary control over one’s body and mind. That situation essentially negates everything that means what it is to be human: even if the victim is unaware of it, those on the outside have the awareness of discerning the implications. From where I’m sitting, that’s quite a major aspect with enormous repercussions.

From the above, it is perhaps obvious as to the ingredients which go into creating a successful recipe. The ‘monster’ takes a very human fear and exaggerates it, stretching whatever it is to its illogical extreme. But even here, there has to be an often intangible quality to elevate it above being a mere monster-of-the-week. However, that very intangibility makes its definition elusive: there are plenty of examples of fictional creatures out there in book- and film-land which provide us with a frisson of fright yet don’t really connect in any way. I’ve never really been caught up with the serial-killer thing, even though it’s very much a real-life horror. They’re entertaining enough as visual horror, but they don’t get under my skin as much as others do.

Films which have affected me in one way or another would be the best thing to use in defining what makes a good monster for me:

Evil Dead (the original) – Here we have the archetypal ‘kids going to an isolated cabin nowhere near civilisation and encountering forces beyond their understanding or control’. This is a trope which has been used countless times since, with varying degrees of success or otherwise. The horror here is focussed not necessarily on the supernatural events as much as its trigger: the forbidden book from time immemorial possessing the power to unleash inhuman horrors into a rational world. It was a theme that Lovecraft used to great effect as a key point in his Cthulhu Mythos. Also, the notion that there are forces out there, unknown, untouchable, and inimical to mankind, who are just standing in the wings waiting to be called onto the stage to bring chaos. It’s the loss of order which frightens people most, I think.

The Exorcist (the original) – By today’s standards a slow film, where not much actually happens but, if you delve beneath the surface, it’s apparent that here too there are vast forces at play that lie outside the normal human purview. In addition, there’s the knowledge that they’re all being channelled through a young innocent girl. That is itself a scary thought. That something (or someone) so angelic-looking could be the conduit through which evil can manifest. This is an example of the ‘Devil-child’ theme: see also The Omen, The Innocents, and The Village of the Damned, all excellent examples of dark powers wielded by children.

Hellraiser­ This film is a more subtle instantiation of the negative manifestation of the human condition, containing themes which possess both deep philosophical connotations and existential depth. We are the monsters here: we make our own heavens and our own hells. The Cenobites, as identifiable as ‘monsters’ as they are, appear as ciphers and are there merely to act as agents in the creation of those heavens and hells. They possess the tools necessary to concretise our desires/fears. Additionally, and I think this is the point of both film and Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart upon which the former is based, is that both places are essentially indistinguishable one from the other, or more precisely, that definitions of each are unique to the individual. One man’s Heaven is another man’s Hell, to put it simply, and that pleasure and pain spring from the same source. Perhaps what we think of as those two places are nothing like we’ve been taught – and to some that is possibly the most frightening notion of all.

Frankenstein (James Whale’s 1931 film) – This modern Prometheus is as relevant to the 21st Century as it was when Mary Shelley’s seminal book was published anonymously in 1818, perhaps even more so now that Genetic Modification is much more than a science fictional trope. Back then, it was feared that humanity would arrogate to itself the position occupied solely by God as Creator. The same is felt by many in today’s world. The bestowment of life is God’s province only and that even if Man is able to achieve it, it would be of dubious merit anyway. Of course, in the book (and films) once again it is the human who is the monster; the child-like and innocent creature being merely a by-product of one man’s hubris and arrogance. It is a warning as much as an entertainment, and therein lies its power to disturb.

Martyrs – Strictly speaking, this extreme French body-horror film doesn’t have any classic creatures as such, but nevertheless this harrowing film again puts the emphasis on the human as the monster, as well as being the victim. It’s a difficult film to watch and absorb in certain parts, nevertheless it packs an extremely powerful punch. It also blurs the line between the perpetrator and victim, at least initially, and then skilfully swerves to a much more unequivocal position for the rest of the film. We are left in no doubt however, as to who the monster is: it doesn’t need to look inhuman, have fangs or claws – it just needs to have a human face.

Space doesn’t permit me to list all the various categories of monster which have made an indelible impression on me, and by extension book-lovers and film-goers. We all have our favourites or those which don’t do anything for us. At heart, though, they all share various elements which make them work – that they are, in essence, reflections of ourselves, that they are US. And THAT, perhaps, is the most frightening aspect of all.


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