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The Monsters We Birth
Studying the monsters born from human imagination.
My childhood home sits adjacent to a funeral home. Cars filled the parking lot on the weekends, and friends and family of the deceased gathered to comfort one another. When military veterans were honored with a 3-volley salute, my brother and I would watch closely in hopes that an officer would gift us an empty shell casing. One Saturday morning, I witnessed the hearse pull up to the rear entrance. The mortician respectfully wheeled out a body wrapped in a white sheet and pushed it into the building. I ran inside and exclaimed to my mother, “They just brought Dracula into the funeral home!”
How I knew of Dracula at an early age is still a mystery. I’m inclined to believe it originated with Scooby Doo, or Saturday morning cartoons. Photos exist of me as a child, dressed as a vampire for Halloween, complete with slicked back hair, a cape, fangs and fake blood. The blood I knew a vampire drained from unsuspecting maidens in order to bolster his life force. Even before I fully understood the permanency of death, I understood that classic example of how to overcome it. While Dracula remains a myth, the symbols associated with his presence are felt and understood from an early age.
One of the unique aspects of speculative fiction is that it can examine the complexities of the human experience, including our relationships with one another, through fantastic imaginary elements. Most popular among those elements are monsters and the mayhem they bring into the lives of fictional characters. Not unlike the Dracula I knew, monsters give us access to explore uncomfortable topics from a safe distance.
These creatures reflect our desires, inhibitions, fears, how we perceive civilization’s progress, or even our chaotic decline. Let’s examine some popular monsters from several fantasy and science fiction worlds and better understand what they symbolize.
Dracula, Nosferatu, bloodsucker, nightwalker, or just plain vampire, are all names used to describe this monster. The common dark visage of a vampire often includes an heir of elegance, a pale complexion, calm demeanor and an irresistible charisma. Depending on the exact folklore, vampires are repelled by a crucifix, burned by holy water or sunlight and can only die with a wooden stake through the heart. They might be able to fly or have special powers, but the most recognizable feature is they can only survive by drinking human blood.
Blood contains oxygen and is necessary for our human bodies to function. However, for a vampire it is a curse and obtaining it is the cost of immortality. Using contrasts like this is a powerful illustration of the consequences for giving into base desires. You will be consumed by them and in constant need of replenishment. Yet, it only satisfies for a time. The repulsion to a crucifix or being burned by holy water is a direct reference to the converse principle, which is the cleansing power of a blood sacrifice and the washing away of sins.
Werewolves symbolize the inner struggle between our civilized, rational selves and our primal, animalistic instincts. Circumstances often out of our control send us into a rage and cause us to do harm to strangers and loved ones. In the case of werewolf folklore, this happens by the light of a full moon, a cosmological event in modern times that is associated with a rise in crime rates. Lunar cycles aren’t scientifically proven to cause behavioral issues, but humans look for logical reasons to explain why we’re led to cause harm to others beyond animal urges.
Similar to vampires, the werewolf has a weakness involving purification: a silver bullet. Silver has value and has long symbolized purity, giving it supernatural abilities in folklore. Warding tools, relics, talismans and artifacts share contrasting properties, which make them especially dangerous to mythological monsters. One of the key properties of weapons used to defeat monsters is permanency, a relationship to everlasting truth. Werewolves are instead transformative, imperfect and untrusted. This duality is a popular theme in speculative works.
The concept of reanimated corpses has roots in various cultures and folklore throughout history. One of the earliest appearances of zombies in cinema can be traced back to the 1932 film White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. In White Zombie, Bela Lugosi plays a character named Murder Legendre, who is a Haitian voodoo master. He uses his powers to turn people into mindless zombies, essentially slaves under his control. The film is set in Haiti and draws on elements of Haitian voodoo mythology.
Being restrained, under the control of an imposing force, is a powerful theme with zombies. It could be a pandemic or a plague, or like White Zombie, a singular figure. In books and movies, zombies have come to represent the power consumerism has over us, symbolizing the dehumanizing effects of conformity and the fear of the economic collapse of society. We eventually become infected ourselves, turned into mindless followers. Zombies as monsters are a dark reflection on society, since the only way to defeat them in modern interpretations is by destroying the brain. Only death can save us from joining the horde.
While vampires, werewolves and zombies symbolize internalized struggles, Godzilla represents a specific external threat. The monster, and all of its iterative spinoffs emphasize the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. The United States has created fiction and film that explores the after effects of a post nuclear civilization, but Japan’s invention of Godzilla immortalizes a real experience as a massive, chaotic form that destroys everything in its path.
In recent years, Godzilla has become just as much a neutral party as an enemy, fighting off other monsters that loom on the horizon as a threat. However, the original version encapsulates Japan’s post WWII trauma and the collective fears and anxiety of the people. It’s interesting to note that in the original film, Gojira, or Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the only way to defeat the monster is by creating a weapon with more power than nuclear energy. The imagery provides a stunning conclusion that there is no way back to a pre-nuclear era.
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories ~ H.P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror is unique in that it aims to expose incomprehensible and malevolent cosmic forces without symbolism. It is pure chaos, an unreasonable and unexplainable monstrosity that has no purpose other than to terrify. While it could be argued that is the symbolism, there is yet a deeper abstraction that Lovecraft is never content to concretely define. There are parts of our deep subconscious, where we can imagine arcane beings, but if we were to know them fully would drive us mad.
A madness in some form or another is a common theme in Lovecraft’s works, brought on by the deity, Cthulhu, that he introduces. He examines our relationship with this mysterious madness through our continued exposure to the exposed monster. The dread is in knowing we can only confront the monster, but we can never really understand it or defeat it completely. Some choose to worship the madness, while others choose to run from it, only to discover it infiltrates their thoughts and nightmares. Monsters like this are difficult to convey, which is why Lovecraftian horror is so recognizable.
There are plenty of monsters to research through fiction and film, a wide range of examples beyond what’s been shared. Understanding the symbolism involved can help readers better appreciate a story and help writers better craft a story. Review some of your favorites, from both fiction and film, and identify the unique traits of aliens, creatures from the deep or those mysterious beings hiding among the stars. How do these monstrous characteristics help us better understand ourselves and the world around us?
Share some of your favorite monsters in the comments!