Halloween special: the evolution of the monster in popular culture

In honour of Halloween, we take a look at how the idea of the ‘monster’ has changed over the centuries.

Monster. Just the word itself conjures up all sorts of vivid imaginings – the mummy, staggering forward, bandages unwinding from its wrists; the werewolf, silhouetted against a full moon and throwing its head back to howl; the vampire, sinking its teeth into the neck of its victim… The one thing that all those images have in common is that they horrify. They tease. They mystify.

By definition, a monster is (according to that font of all info, the Oxford English Dictionary) ‘a large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature; an inhumanly cruel or wicked person; a thing of extraordinary or daunting size; a congenitally malformed or mutant animal or plant’.Frankenstein

The word stems from the Latin monstrum (‘an aberrant occurence’), and the idea of the ‘monster’ was initially used to explain the unthinkable. Birth defects, previously undiscovered species and things that simply couldn’t be explained were dismissed as ‘monsters’; not by our modern definition, but simply by the fact they were impossible to explain.

However, as scientific understanding evolved, the monster evolved. Things that remained unexplained were twisted into stories and legends and rumours and myth; and the understanding of what a monster was began to change, too. No longer were they ‘different’ – they were evil, malevolent and often utterly implausible to a rational mind. However, the most popular of the monster legends were rooted in fact.

One of the most enduring monsters in popular culture is Frankenstein’s monster. Born out of an experiment by the horrified Frankenstein, the nameless monster represents – to an extent – the moral conscience of Shelley’s novel. Whilst he kills in cold blood and acts with supernatural strength and speed, the monster is also rational, logical and capable of kindness.

This isn’t a monster who takes pride in his hideousness; he is appalled by his own ugliness, and repelled by the way he is forced to act. Arguably, Shelley’s novel was partly in reaction to the ever-growing scientific understanding of the human world – and questions how far man would go in his pursuit of knowledge. In the original text, the reader is left wondering who the true monster is, Frankenstein or his monster; but in film depictions, the creature is rendered dumb, occasionally murderous and comical.

Just over half a century later, a far more villainous monster came into creation. Dracula – the cold-hearted, blood-sucking vampire who stalks through the pages of Bram Stoker’s novel – was based loosely on tyrannical Transylvanian ruler Vlad the Impaler, the infamously godzilla2014_fan_artwork_concept_05cruel and barbaric ruler who slaughtered tens of thousands of his own subjects.

Whilst Vlad remains a chapter in a history book, the character which he inspired – the supernatural and yet eerily charming Count Dracula remains one of the most enduring characters in popular culture, with over 217 film representations – and all that time later, he still wants to suck your blood. The vampire, meanwhile, remains one of the most popular horror figures in general: shows and films such as Buffy The Vampire SlayerThe Vampire Diaries and, of course, Twilight, make this once ghastly group of predators almost, dare we say it, cool.

Godzilla – the giant lizard-like creature that destroys cities with swipes of its claws – is another monster that lurks heavy at the forefront of the monster myriad. Born out of the nuclear bombings in Japan, the creature first appeared on screens in 1954, and was originally considered to be a cross between a gorilla and a whale (eek).

The original monster was designed with marks on its body designed to represent the scars inflicted on the Hiroshima bombing survivors, and the legend surrounding the beast hinted it was a sea monster awoken by the bombings.

Take, also, the witch, a generic woman with specific characteristics (hello broomstick and black cat) that make her a witch. Whilst ‘witch’ was the title given to persecuted women linked to inexplicable events in the early centuries of the last millennium, as time has evolved so has she.

Compare the witches of the Medieval period – who were more often than not executed – with the witches of more recent times. Think Wizard Of OzGlenda in The Wizard Of Oz, Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Harry Potter‘s Hermoine Granger. All ‘good guys’, whereas the traditional witch on which they were based was vilified. What has changed to make this drastic switch in our perceptions? Why are these witches not monsters?

It’s fascinating to see how attitudes have changed over the years; whereas a creature such as the Loch Ness monster would once have struck fear into hearts, its now more of a legend, something that bit too unreal for people to be able to be scared of. Instead, it’s gone full circle; the horror films that hit cinemas these days tend to star regular people rather than archetypal ‘monsters’. And it’s the fear of the hidden and unknown that is, arguably, even more terrifying than Dracula and the gang.


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