Believe it or not, there is a science, as it were, of monsters. Known as teratology, the study sought to ascertain the origins and the significance of monsters. Originally regarded as ill omens, expressive of God’s displeasure, monsters were believed to warn of the imminence of divine judgment, or the wrath of God, and, of course, the punishment that would follow.
According to Marie-Helene Huet’s Monstrous Imagination, monsters have been considered to have originated as the result of divine creation, of demonic creation, of astronomical influences, of interspecies fornication, of imperfections in parental anatomies, and of the maternal imagination, especially as it focused upon images during the mother’s conception or pregnancy (1); “defective sperm or a deformed womb,” she adds, could also have been the causes of the births of such human deformities (6).
Later, monsters went from being regarded as warnings from God to being considered the results of birth defects, and some teratologists dedicated themselves to attempting to create monsters in laboratories--or in what passed, at the time, for laboratories. One such person, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (called Isidore of Seville, for short), claims to have created them by the thousands in an early effort to comprehend “monstrous embryology,” a study that he termed “teratogeny” (Huet, 108).
Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, exemplifies the excrescence of body parts.
Isidore of Seville also devised a classification system, or taxonomy, of monsters that contemporary horror writers might find helpful in their creations of literary, if not actual, monsters. David Williams summarizes Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy in Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature, to which are added the examples in square brackets:
In Isidore’s structure, monstrosity is constituted in one of the following ways: (1) hypertrophy of the body [i. e. giants], (2) atrophy of the body [i. e., pygmies] (3) excrescence of body parts, (4) superfluity of body parts [Multicephalics (hydra), bicephalics (Janus), tricephalics (Cerberus), Argus] , (5) deprivation of body parts [Antipodes, Cyclops, Acephalic (i. e., Blemmye or Epifuge), Grylle, Baubo], (6) mixture of human and animal parts [Lamia, Mermaid, Satyr, Centaur, Minotaur, Cynocephail, Manticore], (7) animal births by human women, (8) mislocation of organs or parts in the body [Grylle, Baubo], (9) disturbed growth (being born old), (10) composite beings, (11) hermaphrodites, and (12) monstrous races [Sciapodes] (107).
There was occasionally some overlap among the categories, but, in general, they manage to account for most, if not all, of the extant monsters of myth, legend, folklore, and modern literatures in which monsters still answer curtain calls, such as fantasy, science fiction, and, of course, the horror genre, such as pygmies, giants, Antipodes, shape-shifters, multicephalic animals and humans, blemmyes (also known as epifuges), plants which grow human heads instead of flowers; animals with human heads or humans with animal heads, the Cynocephali, and the Astomori, many of which Williams discusses in his book.
Other writers also compiled taxonomies of monsters, including, as Williams notes, Ambrose Paré and Claude Kappler (15).
In developing his taxonomy, Williams offers twelve ways by which writers may create monsters:
- Hypertrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be enlarged, to produce a giant of some kind. Example: Giants.
- Atrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be shrunk, to produce a pygmy of some kind. Example: Pygmies.
- Excrescence: Abnormal outgrowths may appear upon the face, the body, or both, disfiguring a person and giving him or her a monstrous appearance. Example: the Elephant Man.
- Superfluity of body parts: One or more superfluous body parts--arms, breasts, eyes, legs, nipples, teeth--may form on (or inside) the body, often in unusual locations. Example: Multicephalic (many-headed), tricephalic (three-headed), or bicephalic (two-headed) creatures, such as the hydra, Cerberus, and Janus, respectively.
- Deprivation of parts: There may be an absence of one or more body parts that would normally appear on (or inside) the body. Example: One-eyed Cyclops.
- Mislocation of organs: Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).
- Mixture of human and animal parts: There may be a mix of human and animal body parts. Examples: Centaurs, mermaids, satyrs.
- Animal births by women: In a means of creating monsters that implies bestiality, women may give birth to animals. Example: Mixture of human and animal parts: Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).
- Disturbed growth: Normal growth may be “disturbed” in some way. Example: Premature aging, as with Rip Van Winkle (sort of).
- Composite beings: A creature may result from a composite of various body parts, animal, human, plant, mineral, and otherwise. Example: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ents, griffins, Gorgons, Pegasus, and vegetable lambs.
- Hermaphroditic births: Births of infants with both sets of genitals. Example: Hermaphrodite.
- Monstrous races: The existence of “monstrous races” may be posited. Examples: Dog-headed Cynocephali or the Astomori, who lacking mouths, live upon the odors of apples.
(One must wonder whether Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy was descriptive or prescriptive--in other words, did he create it merely to describe monsters or as formulae by which to attempt their actual creation in his laboratory? In either case, his classification scheme is useful to contemporary writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction who want, for purposes of their own, to create such fabulous creatures).
Although Williams, quite rightly, does not include the provision, in his summary of Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy of monsters, that the monster should exist, but “far away, not here” so that its existence cannot be easily confirmed, if at all, the monster maker is well advised to add this to his or her list of principles for creating monsters, because, although it does not relate specifically to the types of monsters that exist, as it were, it does offer sound advice concerning the location of the environment in which they might best be placed.
Monsters must also be metaphorical in nature; that is, they must represent not merely themselves but also a real-life, or existential, and, usually, a cultural, threat of some kind, as Godzilla represents the Japanese’s reaction to, and humanity’s fear of, the atomic bomb and, more specifically, the long-term effects of nuclear radiation upon its human victims. We have discussed this topic in previous posts, so we shall not belabor it here, mentioning it solely as a reminder.
However, as narrators are wont to say in Infomercials, Wait! There’s more!
In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers “seven theses” which, with some elucidation and modification, can, like Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy of monsters, assist writers in the creation of their own monsters:
Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body.
Thesis II: The monster always escapes.
Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis.
Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.
Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible.
Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.
Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold. . . of becoming.
Since Cohen’s theses require some explanation, we will save the task of elucidating (and modifying) them for a subsequent post.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Huet, Marie-Helene. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature. London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.