Understanding Monsters: Deconstructing Cultural Images of Evil

Understanding Monsters: Deconstructing Cultural Images of Evil

If you are asked to close your eyes and think of a monster, what images would your brain fire up? You might think of a terrorist, or Adolf Hitler, King Kong, Dracula, Loch Ness Monster. Or even Donald Trump, depending on your socio-political beliefs. The images would essentially be an amalgamation of your personal hate and anger, fears and fancies.

Let me share mine – a huge slurry skinned lizard that has one eye dangling about who is hungry for human flesh and blood. A mutated T-rex is just about the right approximation of the image of a monster in my head. And my guess is, most of us who saw Jurassic Park as their first movie in a theatre would draw images of a monster similar to mine.
But what are monsters as a concept? What makes them so ugly, obnoxious and large? Why do they look a certain way in mythologies, folklores, fables and pop-culture? Why are they portrayed, perceived and created to be hated by everyone?

Monster /ˈmɒnstə/
a large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature

The word “monster” is a derivative of (Latin root) monere, “to remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of); admonish, advise, warn, instruct, teach”. Clearly the initial idea for creating monsters, was to advise and warn about certain entities considered morally corrupt. In every culture, monsters are created to enhance contrast of our moral righteousness. We cannot truly see the monster of one culture with the lens of another. However there are some observations and tropes that run common across societies and cultures when it comes to these images.

This post might help one understand how hate and loathing can be politicised, and our minds, manipulated in making a monster out of anyone.

Us and Them: The first rule of making a monster is to create a divide between Us and Them (Henri Tajfel) – a systematic way to sensitise and desensitise rational minds into imagining in-group and out-group thinking. A monster, hence must look strikingly different from “us”. This is achieved by adding certain physical attributes and mutations to the accepted “normal”. This is explained in the next point – “Alienization”.

Alienization: Aliens are epitomes of “the other” in Us and Them theory. We need to make our monster alien-esque to evoke absolute antipathy. Now the problem is no one has seen aliens. So we mix and match our alien fantasies from art, literature and pop-culture (movies) to make monsters. Hence we give them disproportionate body parts, a slime for skin, and other things that we imagine to be “other-worldly”.

Almost Human: This is the part about the monsters that is amazingly cute and insightful. Despite the fact that we need to make them strange and alien-esque, there has to be some part of these monsters that needs to be human/humanoid. And there could be 2 reasons for this.

1) Relatability: We need to evaluate and judge things that a monster is doing through, with human yardsticks. We want to feel that pain, anger, hurt, greed, pride, suffering, death and everything that the monster is shown to go through. This is possible only when there is a degree of semblance between us and them.

2) Lost to Temptations / Wrong Choices: Monsters are metaphors for immorality. “we should act morally lest we become like them”. We see a bit of us in them, and fear there could be a bit of them in us too. And that’s the whole point of creating them. Remember the monsters are a warning. They are like those misfits who had a chance, but made wrong choices. Therefore the similarity with humans in their demeanour & features (they have eyes that see, ears that hear, teeth that cut and chew, have arms and legs and get hungry like humans) and most importantly they are conscious, just like us.

Intentional Hazard: The monsters are fierce, vicious and have an ill will. They are driven and motivated by certain goals. Again this is a quintessential human trait – finding a purpose in our monsters. We are so obsessed with purpose that even out monsters are burdened with it. We can’t deal with a violent monster without a sense of self and purpose.

Embodiment of Hate: We have to feel the hate towards these monsters. To be sure that there is no empathy, we use visual layers that signal abhorrence and filth according to our values. We use sharp teeth to show potential hazard, rough texture of the skin to imagine their obnoxious touch. They look like they’d smell really bad. They’re loud, don’t match their clothes (as per our sensibility), don’t wear their hair the right way and salivate like animals. Everything that evokes deep seated disgust and hate is put together so that the feelings becomes tactile and real.

Difficult to fight/ Bigger than Me / Goliath-ization: The word “monster” is synonymous to gigantic or huge, which essentially insinuates the immense power that the monster wields compared to you. “He” or seldom a “she”, (let’s face it, we can’t empower women enough even in our fancies) is difficult to defeat and hence you must consider doing the extraordinary in order to win it, control it. Sometimes the agenda is to unite “us” into a group to fight the monster. And “unite to fight, because alone you can’t” works as a concept.

Why do we need monsters?

The societies always have and always will create monsters, though many a times used politically and for short term gains. The real need of the monster is to draw lines around our fears as a species.

We don’t need to stay together because of monsters, we need monsters to stay together.

A well defined image of bad and evil makes us morally objective. Our monsters give us references of evil and help us lay the rules one shall never break. We need them because we are driven by fear. Fear is a sign of being alive. Those who don’t get scared, are robots. Fear is the (negative) motivation that is needed for our survival. It is the reason, we are successful as species. Hence it is no surprise that in our cultures, monsters get a special place. And our monsters make sure that we invest in faith, in our gods and heroes, and continue to believe that there is good which wins over evil.

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