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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
They often have additional growths:
hunchback, warts, etc.
Examples: Elephant Man, The Hunchback of
Notre Dame, Igor, Witches
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.
number of body parts. Usually it's extra. For
- Eyes. An extra eye isn't
uncommon, but the Cyclops is a monster whose name describes his most
- Arms. Giger's Alien has extra
arms to go with its extra set of jaws.
- Extra wings. Demons have two arms
and two legs, but somehow wings also grow out of their backs.
Chimeric. Monsters may have a
humanoid frame (i.e., bipedal; two arms, two legs), but there are so
often qualities drawn from predatory animals.
- Scales - Mole People, Creature From
The Black Lagoon, Medusa, Godzilla
- Hair - The Wolf Man, Werewolf of
London, Sendak's Wild Things
- Extra wings - Demons, Cthulu
- Horns - the Devil, Sendak's Wild
- Claws - The Wolf Man, Werewolf of
London, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Sendak's Wild Things
- Fangs - The Wolf Man, Werewolf of
London, Dracula, Sendak's Wild Things
- Tentacles - Cthulu
- Tail - Medusa, the Devil
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
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
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
Examples: The Phantom of the Opera,
Dracula, The Invisible Man, Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy Kruger,
Hellraiser: Pinhead, Witches
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.