Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Monsters are degenerate. They represent deterioration or disintegration. As such, they are living object lessons, as it were, examples of what will happen to the rest of us if we pursue their course or “suffer the slings and arrows,” as William Shakespeare might put it, of their “outrageous fortune.” Potentially, we are all Frankenstein’s monster; any of us could be the creature of the Black Lagoon; you and I could both become the next werewolf, vampire, or zombie. Horror fiction is about the could-be versions of ourselves, and, often, these could-be versions are our lesser, degenerate selves.
The authors of horror fiction imply that another’s hubris can cause us to suffer, as arrogant Victor Frankenstein, in seeking to play God, makes his creature suffer. Frankenstein lusts after power and glory (or fame), and, like the novel’s author, Mary Shelley, other writers of horror fiction suggest that our lusts, sexual or otherwise, may bring about our downfall, just as the sexual desire of the creature of the Black Lagoon for Kay Lawrence and the infatuation of King Kong with Ann Darrow lead to these monsters’ downfalls and deaths. If we do not control the animal within, we may become a werewolf; if we parasitize others too freely, whether emotionally, financially, sexually, or otherwise, we may become vampires; if we are too passive and compliant (or indifferent), we may be transformed into zombies by those whom we serve (or, both history and politics show, even by those who supposedly serve us).
Often, monsters expose dangers to society and faults within a nation or a system, but they can also show us the perils of ourselves and others. In addition, horror stories show us that it is humans’ inhumanity to others that frequently creates monsters. Beowulf’s Grendel attacks the Danes because, ostracized by human society, he feels envious of the warriors’ camaraderie and fellowship. Grief-stricken, Grendel’s mother is also motivated by her passion: she seeks vengeance against the Geatish warrior, Beowulf, who killed her son. In the same epic poem, a dragon seeks to avenge the theft of gold that it guards--gold that it has itself stolen from the graves of dead warriors. Such stories suggest what is wrong with us as a group.
However, other monsters, such as Godzilla, the gigantic ants of the movie Them!, and the flora of M. Night Shyamalan’s abysmal film The Happening represent--indeed, embody--the dangers of environmental pollution, whereas such menaces as Frankenstein’s monster, the hybrid human-animal creatures of H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, the gigantic plants and animals of Wells’ novel The Food of the Gods (and the movie based upon it), the human fly of David Cronenberg's movie The Fly, and the dinosaurs of Steven Spielberg's movie Jurassic Park (based upon the novel of the same title by Michael Crichton), represent, as do the antagonists of many other movies, the dangers of overreaching scientists who would manipulate and control nature, regardless of the potential risks involved in their experiments. Madmen as monsters are another type of this menace. Such characters appear in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (based upon Robert Bloch’s novel of the same title) and Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs (based upon the novel, of the same title, by Thomas Harris). Such movies suggest what is wrong with our behavior as individuals.
Still other monsters, such as the blob (in Irvin Yeaworth's movie The Blob) or the cosmic forces and entities that appear in many of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories suggest that the threat to humanity is an external force that is beyond our control; the menace comes from outside, infecting us or subjecting us to its will. Such stories imply that, despite our knowledge and our wit, we are but the pawns of fate.
In short, many of the monsters of horror fiction suggest that something is terribly wrong with us as a society or a species, or with our actions as individuals, or with the very cosmos in which we live. Evils, such movies, imply, are social, biological, or existential; they attack (and lay bare) our weaknesses as dualistic creatures whose structure is both physical and spiritual and who necessarily live in societies which are predicated upon and, indeed, result from, both aspects of our nature as ghosts, as it were, in the machines of our own material bodies.