What Makes a Monster?

We all seem to know what a monster is.  To borrow a(n in)famous line from a Supreme Court Justice: "I know it when I see it."  And yet there's no good taxonomic approach to defining what makes a monster.  They come in all shapes and sizes.

However, the concept of a monster is so intuitive that my kid at age two (and younger) could correctly identify various artistic representations as monsters... without any coaching.  This was often in cases in which he was seeing novel artwork (for example, in a friend's vintage ad featuring a green devil) that I hadn't even pointed out to him.  He could single out the monster and point it out to me without even asking.

The following are some qualities that monsters have.  It seems that many of the morphological ones are the most relevant (i.e., you don't need to know a monster's backstory to know it's a monster), but other attributes are often present.


Returned from the dead.  Many monsters are un-dead.  This includes zombies, of course, but many others have a resurrection as part of their backstory.
Examples: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Mummy, Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees, Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy Kruger

From another time.  Monsters are often anachronistic on even geological time scales, such as existing where they should have died or even gone extinct.  Note that the Loch Ness Monster isn't known as the Loch Ness Dinosaur.
Examples: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Loch Ness Monster

Old, possibly even immortal.  Many monsters are ageless and eternal.  They may have been around for hundreds of years, and they'll be around long after us unless a hero comes along to slay them.
Examples: Loch Ness Monster, Dracula, Kraken, Hellraiser: Pinhead, Witches

Created by magic or advanced science.  Maybe it was a spell or a curse.  Or maybe it was the product of an especially virulent virus, mutagen, radiation, or just a million years of evolutionary time.
Examples: Frankenstein, Metaluna mutants, Morlocks, Hellraiser: Pinhead, Witches

Monstrous conditions are transmitted through bites.  This isn't the only way, of course.  For example, you become a Cenobite (no micro pun implied) by dealing with the box.  However, it is interesting that many monster "races" are actually communicable diseases among humans.
Examples: Werewolves, Vampires, Zombies


Strength.  Monsters are strong, whether they look it or not.  Don't pick a fight with a monster and expect to be anything but tossed.
Examples: Frankenstein, Bigfoot/Yeti, Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees

Size.  Scaling up even familiar creatures can convert ordinary animals into monsters.  Even the term "monstrous" has a connotation of enormity above anything else.
Examples: Godzilla, Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Kraken

Endurance.  Monsters are indefatigable.  They won't stop chasing you.  Many have impenetrable skin, but regardless, they can be shot multiple times without stopping.
Examples: Terminator, Halloween: Michael Meyers, Godzilla, Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees

Slow.  They aren't agile.  They aren't fast.  They just plod along toward their purpose.  It's rare you see a monster run.
Examples: Terminator, Halloween: Michael Meyers, Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees, Godzilla, Frankenstein, and nearly every other monster.


Ugly.  While a monster can take a lot of forms and even be elegant in some respects (e.g., Dracula), they usually have to be ugly.  Beautiful creatures present in the same mythology simply aren't considered monstrous.  To take an example from ancient Greek lore, Pegasus is beautiful while Medusa is monstrous.  Or to take a modern example, in the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" tv special, King Moonracer is considered magesterial, while Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster of the North is a monster, even in name.
Examples: All of them.  Specific ugly traits are detailed below.

Deformed.  Monsters are warped.  They often have additional growths: hunchback, warts, etc.
Examples: Elephant Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Igor, Witches

Damaged, disheveled, and/or mutilated.  Whether it's stitches (in the case of Frankenstein) or a missing nose (like the Phantom of the Opera) or burns (all over Freddy Krueger's body), monsters reveal a history of abuse.
Examples: Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees, Elephant Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hellraiser: Pinhead


Skin.  Almost no monster has a human complexion.  Even Dracula was pale and ashen.  Frankenstein was green.  The Mummy looked like 4,000 year-old papyrus.  Pinhead was blue.  The Wolf Man was hairy.  And so on.

Atypical number of body parts.  Usually it's extra.  For example:
Chimeric.  Monsters may have a humanoid frame (i.e., bipedal; two arms, two legs), but there are so often qualities drawn from predatory animals.


Dark, stony habitat.  You can expect to find monsters in caves, in dungeons, in the walls of castles, and any like places.
Examples: Frankenstein, Dracula, Mole People, Morlocks, Hellraiser: Pinhead, Witches, almost any H.P. Lovecraft monster or Old God

Prey on women and children.  Maybe they're food (for Dracula) or perhaps they're possessions (of the Kraken, King Kong).
Examples: Morlocks, The Boogie man, Friday the 13th: Jason Voorhees

"Magic" powers.  Monsters can do things we can't in this monster-less real world we live in.  They can cast spells, hyponotize victims, climb into our dreams, and transform into other creatures.
Examples: The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy Kruger, Hellraiser: Pinhead, Witches

The Bottom Line

Terror-inducing.  Perhaps the quality that gets at what makes a monster is that they elicit fear.  A monster is the thing that, even if you've never seen one before, you immediately know to run away from it.
Examples: All of them.

Monsters are something that's part of our psyche, as evidenced by my child.  When he was only just beginning to talk, he was able to identify monsters that he has never seen before, such as a green orc-like creature in a banner ad for World of Warcraft.  He never had lessons in what a monster was.  There was no instruction in the taxonomy of what constituted a monster.  And yet he somehow intuitively knew the difference between a monster and, say, house pets, domesticated animals, snakes, etc.


Copyright 2012 the Ale[x]orcist.