Representations of monsters in mainstream media arguably vacillate back and forth between general cycles of identification and non-identification that develop out of and respond to specific cultural conditions.
For example, many of the classic horror movies of the 1930s, such as ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), ‘The Mummy’ (1932), and ‘King Kong’ (1933), offer the viewer sympathetic monsters victimized by cultural forces that reflect the shared senses of alienation and persecution felt by those traumatized by the Great Depression, while monster movies of the 1950s, giving shape to cultural anxieties about communism and atomic energy, offer creatures such as giant irradiated ants (‘Them!’ 1954) and the Blob (‘The Blob’, 1958), for which it is difficult to feel anything other than loathing.
Despite these localized cycles, however, the overall trend in monstrous representation across the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first has been toward not just sympathizing but empathizing with — and ultimately aspiring to be — the monster.
Touchstone twentieth-century texts demonstrating this shift in response to established categories of monstrosity are John Gardner’s novel ‘Grendel’ (1971), a retelling of the Beowulf myth from the monster’s perspective, and Anne Rice’s ‘Vampire Chronicles’ series, featuring her vampire heroes Louis and Lestat, which present to the reader a very attractive representation of the vampire.
Twenty-first-century mainstream representations of monsters, most notably animated films oriented toward children such as ‘Shrek’ (2001) and ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (2001), and vampire narratives such as the Home Box Office (HBO) adaptation of the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse novels, ]True Blood], and the Stephenie Meyer ‘Twilight’ franchise, forcefully develop this trend of asking the audience to identify with and even esteem the traditional monster while resisting or reviling the cultural forces that define monstrosity based on non-normative appearance or behavior.
The result is a reversal of polarities in which evil is associated not with a physical difference, but with cultural forces that constrain personal growth and expression.
John Gardner’s 1971 novel ‘Grendel’, which arguably initiated the current trend of first-person monster narratives, is a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, from the perspective of its antagonist, the monster ‘Grendel’.
It is, however, much more than this, as it constitutes an extended meditation on the power and seduction of narrative, the pain of isolation, and what existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre refers to as our “monstrous freedom” — the fact that we alone are responsible for our choices.
In contrast to many of the autobiographical accounts told by monsters that follow in its wake, Grendel arguably does not ask the reader to sympathize with its main character. The reader comes to understand Grendel and his evil nature more fully, but as Matthew Scott Winslow observes in his online review, his behaviour is never justified, and he is perhaps to be pitied but not liked.
What subsequent monster narratives rendered from the monster’s point of view do tend to share with Grendel — and which Gardner’s novel articulates more clearly than any of them — is a sense of the confusion and meaninglessness of existence. Grendel, in essence, asks the reader to consider not just what makes a monster, but if there is a difference between a man and a monster at all.
The attempts to understand what it means to exist and what the implications of existing are can also be found at the heart of Anne Rice’s ‘Vampire Chronicles’, and these questions are emphasized most fully in the first novel in the series, ‘Interview with the Vampire’ (1976), which introduces the reader to Louis, the angst-ridden vampire protagonist, and Lestat, his charismatic and devil-may-care companion.
Rice, despite the commonly held misconception, was not the first author to feature the vampire telling his own story — that achievement arguably lies with Fred Saberhagen’s ‘The Dracula Tape’, a novel published one year prior to Interview that features Dracula, depicted as the historical figure Vlad Tepes, telling his own story and coming off decidedly better than Van Helsing and the bungling vampire hunters whom he thwarts.
Rice’s achievement, however, is to create a rich, sensual world in which the traditional monster, the vampire, emerges as the complex and conflicted hero. Gifted with immortality, physical beauty, extraordinary speed and strength, and even the ability to fly, Rice’s vampires are essentially transformed into superheroes.
At the end of ‘Interview with the Vampire’, the young interviewer, Daniel, seduced by the power which the vampire possesses, encapsulates the thrust of much post-1970s monster fiction by desiring to become a vampire. He aspires to escape the world of the mundane by becoming monster.
Jumping ahead to the twenty-first-century, this reversal of polarities, in which the traditional monster becomes the hero, is explicitly combined with an interrogation of the social construction of ideas of normality in works such as ‘Shrek’, ‘Monsters, Inc.’, ‘Twilight’, and ‘True Blood’. ‘Shrek’ and ‘Monsters, Inc.’, animated films ostensibly for children but appealing to adults, vigorously decouple monstrosity from physical appearance.
The hero of ‘Shrek’ is a traditional fairytale villain, an ogre. His eventual love-interest, Princess Fiona, is a sort of were-ogre — human during the day, ogre at night — and, running contrary to conventional narrative expectations, when presented with the option, she ultimately chooses to remain in her ogre form and to surrender her human one.
The villain in the first ‘Shrek’ film is the existing power structure as represented by Lord Farquaad, the diminutive ruler of the kingdom of Duloc. Conventional expectations are reversed even more fully in ‘Shrek 2’ (2004) in which the villains are the physically attractive but morally bankrupt Fairy Godmother and Charming, her vain, spoiled, and egotistical son (who is also the villain in the third Shrek incarnation, ‘Shrek the Third’ ).
‘Monsters, Inc.’ presents an even more straightforward disconnection of appearance from monstrosity and interrogation of normality as it presents a world of monsters — most notably kindly monsters Sully (voiced by John Goodman) and Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) — who are scared of humans. ‘Monsters, Inc.’ is thus entirely the product of contemporary cultural relativism — the awareness that what one culture considers normal may be considered exotic by another.
The ‘Shrek’ films and ‘Monsters, Inc.’ teach the lesson that it is moral values and behaviour, not physical appearance, that define monstrosity. The hip HBO series ‘True Blood’, targeted at a more mature audience, adds to this contemporary awareness of cultural relativism attentiveness to the ways in which monstrosity is a socially constructed category used to police behaviour and empower the arbiters of right and wrong.
The premise of the series is that, co-opting a metaphor from the gay rights movement, vampires — who have always lived among humans — have decided to “come out of the coffin” and reveal their existence to the world.
The push for “vampire rights” prompts a conservative backlash, as expressed in the opening credits of each episode by a billboard reading “God hates fangs,” a tongue-in-cheek parody of evangelical homophobia.
By paralleling vampires with homosexuals, each group unjustly demonized by a society with narrow ideas of socially correct behaviour, the series prompts the awareness not just of the ways in which the term “monster” has functioned as a convenient catch-all rubric for any individual, group, race, or culture whose appearance, behaviour, or values run contrary to prevailing social norms in a given time and place, but also of how the deployment of the term “monster” is a powerful political tool for the furthering of particular political designs.
Expressed in ‘True Blood’, as in other contemporary revisions of traditional monster narratives, is the suspicion that it is those who refer to others as monsters who themselves are most deserving of the label.
The contemporary reversal of values, in which traditional monsters and individuals with non-normative appearances are recast as heroes, is at the centre of any number of modern literary and cinematic narratives — most notably comic books and their cinematic adaptations, such as the ‘Hellboy’ films (‘Hellboy’ , ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ ) featuring a demon-fighting on behalf of good, the X-Men stories in which “mutants” advocate for their freedom from conservative forces of bigotry, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman’ (film, 2003) which features Mr Hyde cast in an heroic role and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) as both a vampire and a hero, the ‘Incredible Hulk’ stories, and so on — but nowhere is the attractiveness of monstrosity more vividly illustrated than in the novels and film adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series, in which vampires and werewolves are presented as powerful and beautiful.
As anyone with even a passing familiarity with these narratives is aware, at the center of the series is protagonist Bella, who falls in love with, essentially, the perfect man, Edward (played by Robert Pattinson in the films), who turns out to be a vampire — albeit a “vegetarian” one who resists drinking human blood.
Although a monster as conceived of in traditional thinking, Edward in the ‘Twilight’ narratives is represented as more angelic than demonic: he is powerful, immortal (barring certain forms of physical violation), handsome, caring, and faithful; and, as if that were not enough, he can read the minds of everyone except for Bella.
He is the apotheosis of the modern sensitive man rather than a repellent monster, and he offers to Bella love, excitement, protection, and escape from the mundane.