© 2020, by M. Keith Booker
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word “monster” as deriving etymologically from terms for portents or warnings. It then offers the following alternative definitions for the contemporary word “monster”:
- An animal, plant, or other thing, which deviates markedly from the normal type; a congenitally malformed animal, a deformed foetus or neonate.
- Something extraordinary or unnatural; a prodigy, a marvel.
- An imaginary creature, usually large and of frightening appearance, and often made up of incongruous elements.
- A person of inhuman and horrible cruelty or wickedness; an atrocious example of evil, a vice, etc.
These various definitions suggest a certain uncertainty and vagueness in the term “monster,” which might be used to describe something that varies from the horribly awful to the marvelously wonderful. What all of the definitions share, though, is the suggestion of something that is extremely unusual, deviating substantially from the ordinary or the normal. As such, any attempt to envision the potential characteristics of monsters leaves considerable room for the imagination to run free. At the same time, envisioning the monstrous also necessarily raises questions, not only about the ways that various monsters might be unusual, but also about just what constitutes the ordinary and the normal.
The category of the “monster” thus holds tremendous symbolic potential, so it should come as no surprise that cultural studies scholars, always on the lookout for items of cultural significance, have come to study monsters more and more in recent years. Indeed, “monster theory” has emerged as an identifiable field in itself, especially beginning with the 1996 volume of essays entitled Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose own essay in the volume, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” laid important groundwork for the subsequent evolution of this new field, the maturity of which was perhaps announced in the appearance of another collection, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Monster Theory Reader, which gathers much of the important work published in this field, up to the time of its own publication at the beginning of 2020.
Of course, the very fact that monsters allow the imagination to run free means that monsters have played an important role in human culture from the very beginning. Some of the most striking and lasting products of creative human culture have been monsters. One of the founding texts of English literature, for example, is the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the oldest manuscript of which is now roughly 1,000 years old and the plot of which centrally deals with the conflict between its eponymous hero and a fearsome monster known as Grendel. But the cultural history of monsters goes all the way back to the most ancient myths of cultures from around the world, which typically involve a variety of monsters. Monsters also have an inherent tendency toward visual spectacle, which means that they were natural choices for representation when the new medium of film arose at the end of the nineteenth century.
In the early years of film, limits in special effects technology also placed severe limits on the kinds of monsters that could be represented. Monsters of the silent film era were typically actors wearing unusual costumes, though these could be quite elaborate and fanciful, as in the case of the Selenites of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). By the time of The Lost World (1925), however, the stop-motion animation technique pioneered by Willis O’Brien helped to create the illusion of giant dinosaurs on the screen, thus supplying a category of movie monster that has remained popular to this day, as in the Jurassic Park film franchise. O’Brien would then use a further refinement of this technique to produce the giant creatures of King Kong (1933), which brought giant monsters into the sound era. Meanwhile, by this time, films such as Dracula and Frankenstein, both released in 1931, had already made their own versions of monsters into some of the iconic images of the early sound film era.
From that point forward, monsters have remained prominent in American film, becoming especially prominent in certain eras—as when a spate of monster films in the 1950s responded to the nuclear fears of the peak Cold War years, a phenomenon I have explored in detail in my book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War. Meanwhile, the development of effective and sophisticated computer-generated special effects has dramatically improved the ability of filmmakers to create monstrous images in films in recent years, making the early decades of the twenty-first century a particularly rich period for monster movies.
In this course, we will explore the evolution of monsters in film, with a concentration on American film and a special interest in the ways in which movie monsters suggest meanings that go far beyond the literal.
Frankenstein’s Creature: The Prototypical Monster of Science
Many of the most compelling monsters have been created—either intentionally or inadvertently by the work of scientists, clearly responding to a suspicion, on the part of many ordinary people, that scientists (and perhaps intellectuals in general) are engaged in dangerous activities without the proper oral constraints. Such suspicions arise from multiple sources, ranging from a fundamental anti-intellectualism that has long run through American culture to the fact that science has, in fact, sometimes created monstrous technologies, such as nuclear weaponry. The prototype of all such monsters appears in the form of the monster created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. That novel was adapted to the stage several times in the nineteenth century and was first adapted to (silent) film in 1910. It then became one of the founding works of the modern horror film with James Whale’s 1931 film version, which was followed by a highly effective sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935. Since that time, films directly inspired by Shelley’s story have become a virtual subgenre unto themselves, while films indirectly related to Shelley’s novel (such as films involving the creation of robots and androids, usually by a form of mad scientist) have also frequently appeared. In this course, we will view and examine in detail Whale’s two Frankenstein films, as well as the 2014 android film Ex Machina.
Vampires: Monsters of Seduction
Frankenstein was not the first American horror film of the sound era. That honor goes to Tod Browning’s Dracula, released a few months before Frankenstein and based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Vampires had, in fact, become prominent figures in the popular literature of the nineteenth century, with the Gothic novella Carmilla (1872), by the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, often being aside as being among the founding works of the subgenre. In film, the Dracula figure was central to one of the most important horror films of the silent era, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Nosferatu was itself inspired by Stoker’s novel, though many details were changed because the filmmakers were unable to secure the film rights to the novel. As with Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula himself became the central figure in a long sequence of films of various types, while vampires in general have been central to an even wider range of films. Movie vampires have had a wide range of allegorical/metaphorical meanings, though one of their most common characteristics is a strong sexual power, which has sometimes involved warnings against the dangers of unrestrained sexual desire, but has also sometimes made vampires romantic figures. In this course, we will watch and discuss the original 1931 Dracula, as well as two recent films that demonstrate the versatility of the vampire concept: Let the Right One In (2008), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
Zombies: Monsters of Dehumanization
Though they began as mindless slaves raised from the dead by black magic, zombies emerged as a new sort of walking dead in 1968, when George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) first produced the sort of movie zombies with which we are now all so familiar. Ironically, Romero’s zombies were inspired less by earlier supernatural zombies than by the “vampires” of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Romero’s rotting, shambling, cannibalistic zombies would remain the dominant image of movie zombies for the rest of the century—and still remain highly influential to this day. Romero’s films were also important because of the effective way in which they were able to employ zombies to make political statements—most importantly for the way in which they were able to use the unthinking consumption of human flesh on the part of the zombies as an emblem of consumerism. However, in 2002, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later introduced a new kind of fast-moving, especially vicious zombie that was not raised from the dead but simply infected with a virus. That new kind of “fast” zombie has become highly influential since that time. Meanwhile, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) gave the zombie comedy (which had existed since the 1980s) a new popularity, spurring numerous imitators. In this course, we will watch and discuss all three of these groundbreaking zombie films.
Giant Monsters: Monsters of Magnitude
When most people think of movie monsters, there is a good chance that they will first think of the kind of giant monsters that have provided some of the most striking screen images since the silent film days to recent computer-generated monsters of Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse. Indeed, the advent of computer-generated imagery has clearly made the production of giant monster films far easier, though the first truly compelling movie monster was producing using mechanical models as early as 1933, when the title character of King Kong achieved not only size and destructive power but also a genuine personality. On the other hand, the next genuinely memorable giant movie monster was the title figure of the Japanese Godzilla (1954), who proved that giant monsters could be thematically effective even without personality and even without impressive special effects. Those special effects, though, would eventually come to dominate the monster movie genre, beginning especially with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993), even though the most important dinosaurs of that film were not particularly large. In this course, we will watch the original King Kong and Godzilla. We will also look at Jaws (1975), the film that made the summer blockbuster a dominant category and made Steven Spielberg the new darling of Hollywood. It also brought the giant monster film down to earth a bit, featuring a central monster that was only slightly larger than real sharks can easily be (though it was considerably more hostile to human beings than are real sharks).
Human Monsters: Psychos, Slashers, and Serial Killers
Most movie monsters have such strong allegorical or metaphorical meanings because they are creatures of a type that does not actually exist. The scariest monsters that do actually exist are probably human beings, who regularly perform monstrous acts upon animals and upon other human beings. Because of the restrictions imposed by the Hollywood Production Code, few genuinely monstrous human characters appeared in American film before the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, though there were a few mad scientists here and there, as well as a few psychotic killers in genres such as film noir. The collapse of the Production Code in the mid-to-late 1960s led to a revolution in the kinds of films that could be produced in Hollywood. One aspect of this revolution was the ability seriously to explore on film the existence of human monsters, a phenomenon that was also boosted by the rise in popular awareness of the activities of serial killers, beginning with the Manson Family murders in 1969 and extended through the murder binges of killers such as John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. Central to this phenomenon was the appearance of key forerunners to the “slasher film” subgenre such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the Canadian film Black Christmas (1974), though of course Psycho is the true founding text of the slasher subgenre. But it was only with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that the classic slasher film began to take shape, featuring a central slasher figure who starts out as a disturbed human child and then evolves into an allegorical figure of danger. Halloween triggered an explosion in slasher film production that came to dominate American horror film in the 1980s. Then, just as the slasher film seemed to be running out of steam in the early 1990s, the arrival of Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lamb (1991) took films featuring human monsters in a new, more realistic direction. Any number of films featuring murderous human monsters of various kinds have appeared since that time, though this film phenomenon reached a new level of prominence with the astonishing success of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, drawing huge audiences with its compelling study of the birth of a human monster, told via a variety of complex, postmodern filmmaking techniques.
A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: This course has been entitled “The Monster as Metaphor” partly for reasons of alliteration, but that terminology might not be entirely accurate. The term “metaphor,” defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “a figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.” The monsters explored in this course clearly take on meanings beyond the literal, though the way in which they do so is more properly allegorical than metaphorical. Allegory, according to the OED, is “a narrative description of a subject under the guise of another having points of correspondence with it.” Of course, all fiction is allegorical to some extent in the sense that the imaginary entities or phenomena that populate fiction provide commentary of various kinds on analogous entities or phenomena in the real world. However, the allegorical nature of the representation of monsters in film is particularly foregrounded, while the almost unlimited possibilities with which monsters can be imagined makes them particularly flexible and powerful allegorical objects. That is the sense in which monsters will be explored in this course.
Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew, ed. The Monster Theory Reader. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.