What is a Monster?
In this essay, I am going to define and test the idea of “the monster” in film. People spend a lot of time drifting and lost in pointless taxonomies. Adding one more is not my intention.
Once we come to a definition of a monster, you will be able to understand the sinews and joints and the themes and structures of a particular type of film which has spanned nearly a century and mistakenly been associated strictly with the horror genre.
I’m going to use three basic rules to help us get there. We will ramble some in the midst, suggesting even broader points about the horror, action and disaster genres.
#1 Monsters are not Supernatural
The first rule is simple and necessary.
If we don’t abide by it we have no way to separate the Monster Movie from the wider Horror genre to which it is related. Is it a prodigal son to the Horror Movie or an uncle? Is it a cousin or a brother? I know this: Closer kin to the Monster Movie are the Survival and Disaster film genres. To understand this, let’s briefly examine one of the main axioms of the horror genre.
Horror films premise their terror on the metaphysical. They usually allow for a greater potential depth in their storytelling when compared to the Monster movie. Horror films seek the supernatural and Monster Movies do not.
Horror films tend to portray family dynamics gone awry and the dangers are usually limited in scope. (This will be important to point #3 and #4) Very rarely is the fate of the entire world at stake in a Horror film, though a specific sub-genre, the Anti-Christ film hint at apocalypse without usually portraying it. (The Omen, The House of the Devil, Rosemary’s Baby).
There are a few Monster Movies that do work on more refined and subterranean emotions: “The Thing” by John Carpenter is effective at using psychological terror. The classic creature feature Jaws works on a horror level because the monster is rarely seen. There are other examples, but this isn’t an essay (or book, or multi-volume collection) about the Horror genre — I only sketch some basics about Horror to point to how it differs with the Monster Movie. I don’t want to begin by deriding the Monster Movie genre, only to point out that they are often about spectacle more so than psychology.
So, if we agree on rule #1 (Monsters are not Supernatural), it follows that the monster in a Monster Movie can ultimately be dispelled by the scientific approach, brute physics, and reason. The mundane and the ingenious are the answers to the monster, not the holy, acts of faith or the interior life of the hero. While the monster might be so overwhelmingly powerful that these tools are likely to fail (The War of the Worlds, Godzilla), the possibility of humankind using reason to gain victory remains. The plots to horror movies where the supernatural, religious, mythological, or paranormal are intrinsic to the film will not use the same resolutions.
(The only exception to this is a complex one: Zombies are an edge case. Is a Zombie more human or monster? Only Rob Zombie probably knows for sure and I am not he.)
What does this all mean? We need to define a monster to understand the mechanics of how they work in the genre. It means that the following two different groups are NOT monsters, even though often confused for them:
Demons and Devils
Most folkloric entities
Now let’s dig deeper into the necessity of this distinction. You may be wanting to shout me down and claim this is all arbitrary. Even if you grant me that I’m at least somewhat logical in my argument, you could say it’s just the result of splicing and dicing genres.
Let me explain why I am removing the above groups from the definition of monsters in terms of the Monster Movie.
Group 1 is composed of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. These creatures are all human beings that are transformed by spiritual/magical/religious powers into something inhuman. Note it’s the way in which they are transformed that matters — the change requires a certain credulity in the supernatural for the interior logic of the film to be sound.
The origins and existence of these, let’s call them “supernatural entities,” are outside the rational, Enlightenment, scientific view — at least for most modern people. The stories they inhabit MUST be almost entirely different than the stories of Monster Movies; they require the psychological and spiritual element to be at the forefront of the story. The Monster Movie does not require this and only mistreats its audience when subjecting them to confused attempts to blend these elements.
A ghost story is a very different story from a Monster Movie in shape, form and content. You will not find a ghost story where ghosts suddenly threaten entire nations or where a minor demon wrecks Tokyo.
Ghost stories almost always have an element of the family dynamic askew. Contrast this theme with most protagonists in what I’m calling a Monster Movie. In Monster Movies the “family” is usually secondary. When it does appear it is unified instead of fragmented, and in direct opposition to the “other” that is the Monster. In a ghost story, the “other” is blended, ill-defined and mysterious.
When the Monster Movie lacks a family unit in the traditional sense, it’s replaced instead by a family of opposition, a team — essentially the same dynamics we find in a Heist film. It can be a military unit, band of scientists, or group of kids battling the monster but the family or team is usually cohesive.
(“The Thing,” which again, is an exception and much more like a Horror movie, is noted here.)
In the ghost movie, the family is the problem, not the solution.
Why do we separate Group 1 from Group 2, you ask? Demons and devils represent a religious problem and require nearly always a religious or quasi-religious answer of some sort. Though similar to Group 1, the main difference is that the Supernatural entities of Group 2 were never human to begin with.
Many folkloric entities are so closely tied to a specific cultural matrix they are essentially religious in nature (think of the Golem). Vampires and werewolves probably also originated from these depths but rose to pop cultural prominence so much so that their earlier births from folklore are all but obscured to most viewers.
We have looked at what a Monster is NOT, now let’s look at what a Monster IS.
Natural Monsters Versus Sympathetic Monsters
We have suggested some of what monsters are not: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, devils and demons, and folklore entities. Now, let’s examine what Monsters are and their two types. Then we can parse out further how they function in a Monster Movie. There are two broad categories and subsets within them.
The Natural Monster
First, we have the Natural Monster. This creature can be placed firmly within the Aristotelian notion of the Chain of Being.
Let’s take Sasquatch as an example.
Sasquatch is a bit like the Missing Link. Even hardcore Bigfoot theorists will usually place the creature within the natural order. In other words, Sasquatch is simply an undiscovered species of animal native to Earth. (Granted there are some fringe Sasquatch theories that require belief in the paranormal. We ignore those since they are very uncommon, yet hail the originality of alien, psychic Sasquatch.)
You don’t need to be religious to believe in the notion of Sasquatch. You don’t need to believe in the supernatural either. Technically and very narrowly, you don’t need to be skeptical of science to believe in the possibility of Sasquatch just as you can posit a scientific explanation for the Loch Ness monster.
(I’m aware that this would be considered specious or fringe science to believe in Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster. That’s not the point. The point is the theory of the existence of these creatures, while it could be weak, without proof and poorly reasoned, does not require arguments to the supernatural to sustain them. The Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot can be squeezed and forced into a scientific framework.)
Sasquatch doesn’t likely exist (neither does Godzilla, Jurassic Park dinosaurs and most other monsters in Monster Movies) but you can concoct an explanation within the realm of the scientific to justify their existence. A viewer must often suspend disbelief in the Natural Monster, but it only requires the suspension of a limited number of a certain type of scientific beliefs.
The origin stories of monsters don’t require you to believe in the supernatural. They may be outlandish, they may be absurd, they may be completely and totally unlikely but at the core they hinge on rational principles expanded and imagined. Monster movies are the children of science-fiction, not the spawn of Romantic horror.
Nor do we need to appeal to the supernatural when dealing with aliens which are also monsters. Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise are explainable in terms of science. All extraterrestrial beings are Natural Monsters in the context of the Monster Movie.
So, let’s turn briefly to characteristics of the Sympathetic Monster to understand the key differences between it and the Natural Monster.
Frankenstein’s Monster (I’m going to use the shorthand Frankenstein from now on) is the ultimate Sympathetic Monster, the exemplar and the foundation for almost all that shambles after him.
But you shout, “Frankenstein’s monster is a human! I thought rule one says, monsters can’t be human?”
Frankenstein’s monster is not a human. In fact, that’s the whole problem for the sad, old boy. He’s an amalgamation of body parts from different corpses which is animated by science. He’s a simulacrum, a living puppet brought to life, infused with consciousness and then rejected — the upside-down cross version of Pinocchio.
(He is also an odd exception, since most malevolent puppet movies are Horror movies and not Monster movies as they rely on demonic possession. See rule one.)
And here too let us be careful. While currently (no pun intended) you would be hard pressed to find scientists who believe in animal magnetism, or any of the other nineteenth century notions that fed into the pseudo-scientific rationalization for the Frankenstein story and their later offspring, the larger point is that “science” even if based on outdated nineteenth century notions was the explanation for the birth of Frankenstein, not a supernatural force.
And now we have come roundabout to a key point.
The Sympathetic Monster is man-made in some form, while the Natural Monster is a product of nature. The Sympathetic monster’s origin is tied to a “sin” of mankind and usually we can extend some empathy to it because of this. The Sympathetic Monster is the manifestation of a mistake on the part of humans. The Natural Monster is a manifestation of a mistake on the part of Nature. The bad guy behind the scene of the Sympathetic Monster is Man himself.
Frankenstein’s monster is an easy example. So, let’s look at a few others to see if the point holds up.
In the South Korean film “The Host”, the monster is a mutated fish or cephalopod of some sort. How was it born? It is the result of American scientists compelling their South Korean counterpart to dispose of toxic chemicals in an unapproved fashion.
The monster from “The Host”, I admit, is fairly mindless and not particularly easy to relate to. Consider though, in the early stages of the film it doesn’t seem particularly blood-thirsty but more like an animal that is off its leash, freaking out. Scared, it seems to only surface and strike out after a crowd gathers to throw trash at it. Also consider the scenes in the latter part of the movie, seen from the perspective from the young heroine, where the camera focuses on the painful looking physical deformities of the monster. We are made to see that this creature is in pain. The more sensitive viewer can feel empathy for it. There is an avoidable tragic element to its entire existence and it is born of Man. We know it is not the Sympathetic Monster’s fault it exists.
The Sympathetic Monster is not without danger to humanity. In fact, they will almost always harm or kill humans, eventually. The difference is we can see the Sypathetic Monster’s point of view. We as humans are complicit in their creation and ultimate turn to violence. In contrast, the Natural Monster’s point of view is always the same: eat, kill, destroy. It is lofty, removed, majestic at times but it’s like watching a volcano erupt and destroy a city. Epic but not an event to induce empathy for the volcano.
And here’s something to consider.
A shortcut for knowing if a monster is a Natural Monster or a Sympathetic Monster is this:
If the audience is cheering when the monster is defeated or destroyed it is nearly always a Natural Monster. Because the Natural Monster represents an amoral force in direct opposition to humanity.
Another more disturbing reason is because the Sympathetic Monster was created by man, and we are nothing if not ultimately forgiving of our own sins.
So only a sociopath will cheer at the killing of the Frankenstein monster at the end of the 1931 classic. Only the most shallow viewer will not feel some pang of sorrow for the monster of “The Host” when it meets its end. There are many of us who want Ava to escape her prison in “Ex Machina” even though we understand the dangers implicit in her freedom.
I could go on with examples, but you will find it amusing to apply this logic yourself the next time you watch a Monster Movie.
Let’s move on to the next rule.
#2 Monsters are Not Human
You can’t have sex with a monster.
You shouldn’t have sex with a monster might be a better way of putting it.
In the rare case this does happen (“The Beast”, some movies about AI/genetic experimentation) it’s an act central to the story. And usually it’s the violation of this taboo which is usually a large part of the conflict or often precipitates later violence.
Well, we can see the reason this is self-evident if we accept rule #2.
The horror genre is filled with romantic relationships between humans and vampires, humans and werewolves, humans and ghosts. (Interview with a Vampire, Ghost). This is all a simple way of proving both rule 1 and 2 at the same time: Monster are not human and supernatural entities are not Monsters. This is why an audience doesn’t usually feel repulsed by sexual relations between humans and Supernatural entities, but do between humans and monsters.
While humans can act monstrously and they do in the Slasher genre (often after “normal” people or “society” have acted monstrously to them), a monster is not a human being. They are “other” and not human. We can examine the classic archetype of the Frankenstein monster to prove the point.
All Frankenstein-type monsters follow a similar path. Monsters in these films resemble humanity but fail to attain that quality in the eyes of other humans. This provokes the violence on their part when humanity rejects them. Just look at Dren from “Splice”, Caesar from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” or the original Frankenstein’s monster. AVA, the AI from “Ex Machina” falls into this Frankenstein tradition as well.
The Sympathetic Monster is always rejected, scorned or mistrusted by humanity, often its creator. This is nearly always the context to a greater or lesser degree of the Sympathetic monster. They are born of man and they have no agency at first. Their agency is found in their rebellion against their creators. And since most of us have been rejected in life at some point, so we feel this rejection in solidarity with the monster on some level. We can’t quite totally hate or blame the Sympathetic Monster. They force us to think about ourselves.
After the rejection, and the monster’s embrace of their otherness an interesting tension arises. As the viewers we have a conundrum. Who do we side with? The wronged monster or the humans who are struggling to survive? A bit of both usually, more so the monster as time has moved on and certain aesthetic sensibilities of Western audiences shift towards identification with the dispossessed.
So we’ve looked at Sympathetic Monsters in detail through this essay. And that’s necessary because it’s harder to tell the Sympathetic Monster apart from the Natural Monster. It’s not difficult or necessary to argue that the Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise aren’t human. They may share human characteristics at times, as the Xenomorph cares about her young in Alien, but that’s not an exclusive trait to humanity, but simply one of life in general.
It is the intrinsic otherness of the monster that will shape the contours of every Monster movie. They are not human.
#3 Monsters Are Bigger than You (In Two Ways)
Monsters are bigger than you in two ways.
First, they don’t only threaten one person or a family unit like in a horror movie. Their threat expands to a team of people or at least a community.
Second, you will find that monsters are always physically larger than a human, individually or in the aggregate.
I can’t think of any Monster Movie where only one person is in jeopardy. There are a few shark attack films which might qualify technically. These tend to be action films though.
And while monsters don’t necessarily have to threaten the destruction of the world, many do. The aliens from “War of the Worlds”, and the Kaiju in their many forms are good examples of large, rampaging monsters who seem to have no interest in communicating with humans but only seek destruction. They act more like natural disasters than malevolent beings.
Even animal monsters, Natural Monsters, usually threaten at least a community of people. The shark in “Jaws” closed some beaches and didn’t just eat one person and leave.
Monsters are almost always physically more imposing than a single human being. When they are not individually physically larger, they are usually found in swarms or packs which are larger in aggregate to the normal human. (The Descent)
Because this is true, their destruction always requires either a communal effort, or the sacrifice of an individual for the community.
The fact that monsters are almost always bigger, sometimes smarter, better at killing is what turns so many of these films into Disaster movies, or when budgets are limited, Survival movies.
I won’t list all the Monster movies that are really just Disaster movies in disguise but here are a few. Note that the monsters are all larger than a normal human individually or in aggregate.
Godzilla franchise, Planet of the Apes franchise, Q, War of the Worlds, Cloverfield…
Godzilla, the most recent version, is a strange case when it comes to the dynamic of the group overcoming the monster. Humans don’t really do a whole hell of a lot in this movie after Mothra escapes. They try to contain them and they try to fight them but they are ultimately standing aside and watching like helpless ants. It’s a very cynical and hopeless movie and reflects the lack of control a lot of people feel in the current period. The movie transitions quickly into pure spectacle as there is no notion of agency on the part of the humans.
“Alien”, “Predator” and “the Descent” are also films which reinforce what I’m saying on both levels. The monsters are larger than the humans, and they threaten more than one person.
These three films begin with a group fighting together but eventually there remains one person left to defeat/escape the monster. If you see a big star or strong lead in a monster movie like this it’s a good signal the remainder of the cast is doomed. In these types of movies, too, the monster is not totally defeated but instead the protagonist simply tends to escape, possibly with a look to sequels ahead.
Question and Answer Time.
Let’s use the rules we know so far to answer: Monster or not a Monster?
Is a Clown a Monster?
In general, not a monster. The ones that are humans are just serial killers in face paint. The ones that aren’t are often supernatural.
Bonus point if you can think of a film where the clowns are monsters.
Technically, the clowns in “Killer Clowns from Outer Space” are aliens. Aliens are not human or supernatural, so they count as monsters. You might think, “these rules are dumb” but I insist on this: When you see an exception to these rules you will find yourself watching either a satire or comedy-horror hybrid, or a terrible film, though there are a couple of exceptions.
Are Mummies Monsters?
Not a monster. They are animated by magic or Egyptian religion which is supernatural. Also, they are humans wrapped in bandages. So, double no. Don’t believe me? Test it out. Are mummies supernatural? Yes. (Rule #1) Are mummies human? Yep. (Rule #2) Are mummies larger than humans? No. (Rule #3)
Find yourself curious about Mummy films? Read my essay on why they almost always fail to be good horror here.
Are Killer Puppets monsters?
No. They are supernatural. And fuck puppets. They scare the shit out of me. See Rule #1