Liz here — this originally appeared over at Twisted Sister lit mag as a highlight in their monster issue, and you’ll see it reposted in various forms back there over the next couple months. Here’s the essay in its entirety — a truly monstrous undertaking.
Here at Twisted Sister, we want to hit the monsters hard; those spooky things that go bump in the night. We invite you to give us your best, your worst, your slimiest monsters and let them shine on our sparkly pages (or screens). Check out We Want YOU! for how to submit.
So to start things off, we have a monstrous essay about monsters from Liz McAdams; a writer of dark things who tends to take them far too seriously (and frequently goes over word counts, by over a thousand words, all in). But – ahem – we digress.
The Truth of Monsters
Definition time – if you care about precise definitions, read on. If not, jump down to The Classic Monsters below.
I’m going to speak broadly and use the blanket term horror to refer to dark fantasy, noire, and anything supernatural-esque while giving a nod to sci-fi and the stuff of superheroes. In modern literature (I’m not talking formal stuff, just what people read, watch, and put out) we’re rocking a mishmash of genres, hence the term slipstream, and while I might be high Gothic fiction today, I might be a little more shoot ‘em up crime tomorrow. (I’m still not too sure where to put Star Wars and all things Marvel without getting excessively wordy, so bear with me.) And you, with the post-apocalyptic dystopian novel in your hand, don’t go anywhere. I’m speaking to you too.
There’s truth in all of it, my friends.
And I’ve already talked about truth in fiction over at my blog – a sort of two truths and a lie approach writing; but the secret is, the more distorted and fantastic your version of reality is (in effect, the lie) the more honest it becomes, and in doing so, actually speaks the truth of the people and situations it involves.
Let that sink in a moment. How it works is the distance provided by a monster or fantastic reality gives the clarity of vision only achieved from great heights – imagine looking down from a mountaintop on to the town below. You see everything in a way that you never could while immersed in that town.
Satirist Jonathan Swift deliberately used distance to speak the truth this in Gulliver’s Travels, but it works in subtler ways too. Don’t believe me? I talk about truth and marginalized characters on my blog – check it out.
So those monsters you see shambling across books and movie screens – be careful with them. Not only do they bite, but they bite hard, because in their very existence they tell us the truths we might not want to see.
To get started, let’s revisit a few classics for a bit.
The Classic Monsters
Dracula – Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic novel about Jonathan Harker’s experiences with vampires has been adapted in various from stage and film for over a century, and the Count is still with us even today. Some feel the novel is about the Freudian struggle between id and ego, and the desire to follow your impulses in a restrictive Victorian society bound by social convention and duty. And the scene when one of the weird sisters is down on her knees and licking her lips in front of poor Jonathan – well, you figure it out. But clearly, as Lucy turns into a vampire, female sexuality and beauty are a thing to be feared, and stopped at all costs.
My suggestion is give it a read (or read it again) and lose yourself in the shadowy mists of the Carpathian Mountains or the damp fogs of London and come to your own conclusions.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde – Victorian culture with its sense of service and duty is in full swing, and Dr. Jekyll originally created a formula to transform himself into Mr. Hyde in order to attend to some of his coarser vices that could compromise the good doctor’s social standing. Mr. Hyde gradually grows stronger, and soon there is little influence from Jekyll; yet, his final act is one of remorse for his crimes and repentance.
The duality between Jekyll and Hyde, one obviously good, the other bad is seen as an allegory of good and evil; or the battle between id and ego, especially with regards to homosexuality. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic story has been adapted for stage and screen for over a century.
Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Gothic novel originally subtitled ‘A Modern Prometheus’ was written in the context of science taking hold of the fears and imaginations of the Victorian mind. The notion of ‘playing god’ and creating things beyond our scope is what’s at heart of this story. Dr. Victor Frankenstein tries his hand at creating a creature that appears to be so monstrous in form that the doctor rejects him.
The nameless creature, known as it, or a wretch throughout the story, initially seeks companionship and tells Frankenstein that he would have been his ‘Adam, but is instead your fallen angel.” He then extracts his revenge, by killing those closest to the doctor.
This cautionary tale contains a truth, that without the good of humanity, we are but machines, capable of only great destruction. Again, as Frankenstein’s monster has shambled across stages and screens for over a century; the essential truth still holds today.
Werewolves and Shapeshifters occur in nearly all cultures and have been with us since Ancient Greek and Roman times, and if you consider the Wendigo or shapeshifters of First Nations cultures, they’ve been with us for longer than that. Some feel the werewolf was used a scapegoat, a way to explain serial killers throughout history, or shapeshifters that follow their animalistic urges are a reflection of the battle between id and ego. Others believe it helps explain the thing that goes bump in the night, and our almost primal dread of darkness. Either way, werewolves and shapeshifters have been around a long time.
History of Horror – a primer
Disclaimer – This is a quick and dirty version, you can spend your life talking about this stuff, and I have a 1500 word limit, so if I don’t mention your favorite books & films, tell me about it in the comments below. (Ed note – you’re already 700 words over limit, get moving.)
The truths in the classics of horror, a fear of science, a fear of (and desire for) sex, and the fear and longing to follow your basest impulses are still with us today. Stephen King wrote that horror tends to follow cycles, reflecting social turmoil, dogging times of uncertainty, but never is really popular during truly bleak times.
Think about the musicals during the thirties, where things were so harsh, folks would line up and pay good money just to escape for a while.
Frankenstein’s monster, Jekyll and Hyde and good ol’Dracula have been stalking the silver screen for over a century in various forms and versions. And King Kong and Godzilla are worth mentioning here too.
But let’s talk about popular horror, starting with the fifties. The Thing, The Blob, Them!, Plan 9 from Outer Space – it’s all about us vs. them.
What was going on then? McCarthyism, few women worked outside the home, and relative social stability (in North America, at least). There was a deeply entrenched belief in the identity of the White, conservative middle class; the value of a dollar; and a strong work ethic. Think “Leave it to Beaver” – Dad went to work while Mother stayed home and did housecleaning in heels and a pearl necklace. It was, superficially, an idyllic time.
Amid rhetoric about ‘mom’s apple pie’ and the all-American family, there was also a not-so subtle emphasis on fitting in, and the fear of the other. You were different, so you were bad. Gays were persecuted, and Blacks still faced racial segregation across the south, and blatant discrimination against Blacks (and all minorities) existed all over.
Movies (Rebel without a Cause) among them, were about identifying the ‘other’ and stopping them from being different. Aliens invading, swamp creatures, whatever – they were different, so they were BAD and must be stopped.
And for me, that’s what really scary, people who are so afraid of difference, that they feel compelled to stop it at all costs. You know what? Those folks exist today, in various forms, and as part of different groups.
Give me the swamp monsters over people like that.
The sixties gave us the classic Night of the Living Dead, as well as some great psychological terror – Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds – and rising interest in the occult brought us Rosemary’s Baby and The Haunting; but monsters and freaks were still going strong. Curse of the Werewolf, various forms of Dracula (Brides, Prince, and Curse), as well as green slime crept across the screen
There was a lot to be afraid of. Vietnam War, the bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis – we were right to be scared. The Twilight Zone (originally aired 1959 – 1964) and The Outer Limits brought the supernatural and unexplained into our living rooms. Scary things happened, and were largely unexplainable, and people (especially scientists and government officials) were not to be trusted. Ever. We lived on fear.
The cynicism of the decade (don’t trust anyone over the age of 30, man) was seen in the movies. Our beloved monsters became jokes, a sort of nudge, nudge, wink wink funny scare. Think Little Shop of Horrors and King Kong vs. Godzilla.
The seventies were a golden age of gritty, realistic films and a great time for horror, following the popular interest in the occult. We had good ones and some spooky spill-overs. (Jaws remains one of my all-time favorites, and yes, I’m afraid to go in the water.)
The classics are still with us. Alien, Halloween, Carrie, The Omen, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We went to the movies to escape in someone else’s terror, and put ourselves in the position of ‘last man standing’ – we would emerge victorious in the face of evil, and experience some serious thrills along the way.
Sure we still had the funnies (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes) and awesomely-strange (The Rocky Horror Picture Show); but we were pushing the limits as far horror went, and the seventies was a time of great social change as well. Fallout from the sixties’ protests and marches for peace and equality was beginning to translate to real social change. Honestly, just check out The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a glimpse of how things were coming together.
The eighties had a lot of slash and flash and gross out gore. Characters like Chucky, Freddie, and Jason shambled through the suburbs and our imaginations, while zombies took over shopping malls in a nod to mindless consumerism. But – pause and examine the settings. The ‘burbs. Shopping malls. It is us – and our pursuit of excess materialism that glorified the eighties that makes these films really scary.
And who could forget the mid-nineties’ The Blair Witch Project, with it’s low budget and ground breaking cinematic approach that terrified millions of movie goers around the globe?
Shaking cameras, training the lens on ourselves (as we adopt the view of Heather Donahue in her final moments) we were tricked into becoming participants in our own nightmare, and reduced to sobbing in terror in the face of the unknown.
Let’s jump forward a couple decades to now. Nearly twenty years after 9/11.
For those first few years after 9/11, there was nearly radio silence on all things spooky; rampant patriotism crept in, and although wars were still going on, it became nearly background noise in the media. Eventually we called for some changes, and although bad things are still happening on a global scale; we just tune it out, and look to our cable and Netflix providers for a good time. Escaping the hum-drum world we live in through some vicarious thrills.
So if you turn on the TV anywhere, you’ll see ghosts or zombies or werewolves parading across the screen. Horror had become so popular, it’s mainstream, the stuff of children’s cartoons and nearly a cliché of itself. Feel-good mainstream entertainment had taken a heavy hit from superhero series and a bunch of spooky critters crawling around.
Heck, everyone’s favorite high school boyfriend is a vampire. What’s up with that?
Horror is no longer scary, horror is a standard for entertainment for the masses, not just for a fringe following. We’re happier hanging with some spooky bad guys than the folks next door (who might be disturbingly normal). Why is that? Take a look around. Presidential elections, wars around the globe, refugees and displaced people, and conspiracy theories (that may or may not be true) abound.
We live in a tortured time, but that’s just part of it.
These monsters and the folks who fight them are seen through an idealized lens.
We now relate to these fine creatures of horror as friends of a sort, alter-egos (who wouldn’t want to be a sexy vampire, at least for an hour?) These creatures are tortured and misguided and conflicted, like ourselves.
Or, so we want to believe. We all are special snowflakes, after all. Our Instagram accounts and Facebook and Twitter feeds confirm this – we are special, we are unique, just like millions of other people around the world. And so we connect to these monsters, these misfits with superpowers and (not-so) little quirks.
They are us.
In the mid-nineties the X-files warned us ‘the truth is out there.’
I would say right now, the truth is right in front of us, we just choose not to see it. And in effect, we become the monsters ourselves, hiding from truth.
In pursuit of casual horror as mass entertainment, we’ve developed a fondness for complicated characters, the battle for good vs. evil isn’t as cut and dry as Jekyll and Hyde, we prefer our monsters to be complex characters, a little good in the bad, or at least offer some great entertainment value. Go back to the sexy vampire boyfriend – we want somebody we can relate to, who’s a special as we are.
But, as I said over in We Invite Them In, we want the bodies to stack up, and often find ourselves cheering for the bad guys. As our modern day take on Mr. Hyde, we favour serial killers and single gunmen brandishing automatic weapons, both in real life and fantasy, and any news of mass murder around the globe is met with rabid fascination. Of course, we are horrified, and whisper ‘it’s a shame, such a loss, a real tragedy’, but, yet, we cannot look away.
We have a strange fascination with those who commit heinous crimes, and, deep down inside, we want them to do it – for bad things to happen – at least in the safety of the movie screen. And if they happen in real life, well, then we want the culprit to be punished, and will accept freak accidents as such, but we want to know all about it first; living vicariously through the six o’clock news and the trauma of others. If you don’t believe me – check your news feed on Yahoo or any social media site.
Right now what’s trending on Yahoo is a tragic beheading of a child. A freak accident that we can’t look away from.
And that fascination, the desire to watch, to somehow be a part of it, is what’s truly tragic.
Our Facebook status updates, Instagram and Twitter feeds are partly about connecting to others; but mostly about chasing stardom. We all want our fifteen minutes of fame, a sense of celebrity, at least for a moment, simply to confirm how special and unique we are. We are all freaks, different from the rest in our own way.
We have become our very own monsters.
If you want to check out some free eBooks and get caught up with the classics, look no further than Project Gutenberg.
Dracula’s Guest, a chapter that was originally removed by the publisher appears there as well.
A really good annotated version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is on Wikipedia – be sure to check it out.
Liz McAdams is short, sharp, writer (here we’re talking height, not word count) who likes to talk about dark things. A LOT. Her work appears in the usual places, including Spelk, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama and will be up soon on Shotgun Honey. Check Liz out at https://lizmcadams.wordpress.com/