In the awesome Jim Shepard short story “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” the biography of the iconic lagoon creature is told in its own heartfelt words. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes tragic, this story speaks to the notion that even a bloodthirsty monster has feelings, too! The phenomenology of monster stories probably owes its very existence to idea that on some level the audience is rooting not for the humans, but rather the monster that stalks them. In some cases (like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and King Kong) the monster is truly acting only out of self-defense. Do we build these monsters up as terrible creatures only to destroy them? And how do we feel about ourselves after they are destroyed? It can be argued that we frequently don’t feel relief for the human character’s safety, but rather sadness and guilt for the death of the monsters.
The word monster comes from the ancient Latin of the word “monstrum” referring to an aberrant occurrence in biology, which even back then had morally objectionable connotations. If something was deformed, you were supposed to kill it. And that fate certainly befalls a large group of our favorite monsters.
It’s likely the most famous mistreated monster from fiction is Frankenstein’s monster. He’s the scariest and most iconic of monsters for one simple reason: Frankenstein’s monster is essentially a human. Or, should we say, several humans. When you try to imagine a world in which this story doesn’t exist, my mind boggles at just how dark and original it is. As a hodgepodge of various human beings, Frankenstein’s monster is at once our greatest and worst qualities all rolled into one creature. If one sticks to the original Mary Shelley text, the murderous tendencies of Frankenstein’s monster don’t derive from him possessing the brain of a criminal, as was the case in the famous 1931 film. Instead, his reactions are relatively normal considering how he is treated by society. The film makes Frankenstein into an even bigger monster by having him murder an innocent little girl, whereas in the book this scene was the exact opposite. He saves the little girl from drowning, and is shot in the arm for his good deeds.
In the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories several of the main protagonist’s fictional films are depicted through the plot structure that the Woody Allen character is attending a film festival of his own movies. In one of the faux-movies briefly shown, Sydney Finkelstein’s “aggression” has escaped and is terrorizing everyone he knows. This is depicted by a large hairy creature attacking Sydney’s mother. While an extremely funny moment in a great film, this also illustrates exactly how we project our own human shortcomings onto the monsters of our fiction. We put all the worst things into monsters as a depository for our guilt and dark sides. In this brief scene, a person’s aggression has literally killed his brother, a former schoolteacher and is terrorizing his mother. (The monster scene is at the beginning of this clip and ends at the 51 second mark.)
Monsters also serve as a mirror for what humans do for entertainment. The Beatles mock hunting culture in the song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” Hunting may be a kind of dragon slaying, and numerous monster-story premises deal with bringing back “the ultimate prize,” usually some kind of monster. Ray Bradbury’s uber-famous short story “A Sound of Thunder” makes obvious commentary on this subject by showing humans having some kind of need to go back in time and shoot the real-life monstrous dinosaurs. Jurassic Park (both book and film versions) continues this premise with a twist. Not only are humans locking up the monsters for their own amusement, but the humans have also created the monsters. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are a great example of classic monsters; they are mistreated and an aberration of nature. And surely, anyone who has ever been a six-year old child can sympathize with dinosaurs.
While not really on anyone’s critical radar, the recent film Predators actually presented a pretty solid depiction on how society handles monsters. Several vigilantes, soldiers of fortune, and various other types of human killing machines are dropped onto an alien planet for the purposes of fighting with a trio of infamous Predators. And yet among them, sticking out like a sore thumb is a character played by Topher Grace, who is not in any of these professions, but rather, a doctor. Why is he with all these other people? What purpose does he serve to the Predators? Surely they would want someone dangerous to fight with, so what’s up with this guy who sort of seems like a wuss? SPOILERS AHEAD. It turns out towards the end of the film, that he’s not really a nice guy at all, but rather a kind of serial killer. There’s no rote twist in that he turns out to be really an alien, or robot, or is getting paid off by the Predators. He’s just a human monster. And even though they are professional killers, Adrien Brody and company aren’t the monsters that Topher Grace turns out to be. Before he’s killed off he even pleads with the Predators that he “belongs with them.” Sure, this is a little over-the-top, but it does illustrate pretty clear the point of a good monster story. The true monsters are rarely the things doing the killing and destroying, but rather the people who cause them to act that way. END SPOILERS.
Naturally there are examples of monster stories in which something is just killing for the sake of killing, and is truly evil. But the good monster stories, the ones that understand why we love and need monsters always hold up the human mirror. And while a movie like Sharktopus has dubious redeeming social value, it is made pretty clear that poor Sharktopus was created for the purpose of being some kind of ultimate weapon. Like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Sharktopus didn’t ask for this fate.
We put Sharktopus in that Sharktopus box, and now we’re the ones who have to deal with it.
Ryan Britt is a regular blogger for Tor.com. He lives in Brooklyn with countless monsters.