A simple request to the universe: would someone please make some new, interesting monsters so we can have some new monster movies.
I guess technically what I mean when I say monsters includes a wide variety of human and humanoid creatures who populate the psyche as vividly as any man-made creature in a rubber suit. While I’m getting all specific, what I’m looking for are the literary creatures that captivate the imagination and then enter the cultural lexicon as a shared experience. Not to put too fine on it, all you vampire-wannabes, we need some new blood. And we need it to repair the damage to our psyches.
Seriously, I can think of nothing more dull than this current vogue in blood drinkers. It’s gotten to the point that the number of vampires extant in the literary world now outnumber the population of our planet. Yes, I get it, blood is elemental, and the various promises of powers and eternal life and blah-blah-blah, but it’s old. It’s tired. It’s 19th century Victorian in a 21st century geodesic dome. We’re talking about a leech in human form, no longer an outcast of society but a parasite. This is sexy? When it’s a single vampyre in the world, driven by a need and felled by lust, yes, it’s got some erotic overtones. When it’s selfish armies driven to feed you might as well set up shop with a sign that says “billions served.” Ma, I’m headed down to the mini mart for a pint of blood. You need me to get you some anticoagulants?
The children of Victor Frankenstein fared a little better. Obviously the first time someone sewed a human together and woke them from an eternal slumber that didn’t work so well. We learned that putting the vehicle together and making the motor run didn’t put a driver behind the wheel. So science fiction picked up the slack and gave us robot think, just once, an intelligent robot would decide You know, I’m thinking the point of life is happiness, so I’m gonna grab a little spiked lube and go hang out at the beach. But no, our robots follow the grand tradition of the monster and come for us. Now it looks like cloning and DNA work are going to make the possibilities less “monster” and more human as we grapple with the moral questions. Frankie’s always been a moral question, with the the fundamentalist villagers waving their burning flags and Armageddon pitchforks asking “Who died and made you God?” The monster just doesn’t scare anymore.
Speaking of the undead coming back for seconds, what’s with zombies anyway? Seriously. Undead, slow-moving, flesh- and brain-eating creatures who do as they’re controlled to, like armies. What’s the appeal in watching humans prove they can out-last and out-think the lowest of creatures on the monster food chain? Maybe it’s me, but I just can’t get excited about these guys. They’re an inefficient vehicle for examining our fear of being alone and exposed in public. Now, if the zombies didn’t want to eat our brains but instead want to strip us naked and keep us from wearing clothes in public, wouldn’t that be something! What if the zombies went from town to town destroying food supplies that contained high fructose corn syrup and trans fats? The horror! What would we eat, what would we eat?
The werewolf cracks me up as a monster, because nothing screams PUBERTY more than this creature with a lunar cycle that culminates with the sudden growth of body hair and animal behavior. Was this ever really a monster to take seriously? And why always male? Don’t wolves have mates, and don’t they mate for life? Why would they need to go marauding the moors or prowling the plateaus in search of… well, the werewolf really never has articulated exactly what it is the old boy wants. Could it be a bath? Maybe a nice stick to fetch? A tummy rub? Maybe the Wolfman still has punch for a modern crowd, given that young people today seem to have a pathological fear of body hair and would rather be shorn and waxed than appear hirsute.
Now, as for mummies, I have to admit I liked what they did recently when they revisited the old Egyptian myths. At least for the first movie. I could have used a little less camp, but it was still fun, they were still able to mine some unexamined aspects of the original curse thing. And while I admire them making a go at those mummies in China to expand the franchise I’m not a little nervous that there’s more going on politically with the choices of mummies in countries America currently has uneasy relations with. Instead of monsters cursing those who disturb their eternal rest we’re now faced with armies (again with the armies!) of undead looking to wreak havoc on the living. But as with werewolves, where are the literary stories of these creatures, what are we really dealing with when we face down the changeling or the creature who has been pickled and cured? Mummies are like zombies in that fear-of-the-undead way, but until recently they, too, were slow moving and posed little threat.
In the 1930s Universal pictures gave us what are now considered the great monsters of movies. They came from literature and they came from recent archaeological discoveries. They also came from a world that was just beginning to open up. Following World War I soldiers deployed overseas had seen parts of the world barely in their consciousness outside of classrooms. Foreign lands and foreign cultures – all this strange newness presented Hollywood and movie-going audience a chance to learn (and fear) things unlike anything American. The Old World with its charms and customs also had its mysteries and secrets: remote mountain villages with scientists living in castles, remote feudal countrysides with dark lords, funerary monuments filled with treasures and curses. Today these are all travel destinations with guidebooks explaining quaint superstitions.
By the 1950s our fears became political and nuclear. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation brought us a new breed of monsters. Creatures bombarded with radiation mutated and grew into city-destroying men in rubber suits. What is a Godzilla movie if not a mutant lizard battling other mutants (like a giant mutant moth?) in an East-versus-West showdown over superiority. Yes, it’s up to the people on the ground (again with the armies!) to push the fear back into the sea or find some other way to placate the fears. And, as if the symbolism of Communist invasion could be made any more blatant, aliens arrived from space to turn us into unfeeling blank slates, to turn us into bits of machinery for the state. Whether the beast came from 20,000 Fathoms or It Came from Outer Space the fact remains, it came and it came to get us.
By the 1970s our eyes were fully opened to the world and our monsters came from within. We no longer would run from mummies or aliens – those were the fears of children, the monsters under the bed from long ago. Instead we would run from our neighbors wielding chainsaws or donning hockey masks and lurking in the darkened corners. Ancient grudges paid in full, more recent grievances are answered in buckets of bloodletting at remote campsites, in haunted houses, and anyplace else of significance to the specters of vengeance. Fear of the unknown or the unusual was simply replaced by fear of each other.
It would seem we have exhausted our ability to be scared from within and have now moved to bring each other to a state of blind terror. How can you expect to tell stories of monsters when you are in a constant state of fear over the monsters among us. You could take all the monsters of literature, all the cultural monsters from movies, all the fear of nuclear warfare and the end of civilization and the couldn’t replace the fear now deeply embedded in the psyche of the average American. Where terrorism was once a remote act of violence that happened elsewhere, now we fear unseen acts of terror awaiting us at every turn. And where is our release for this anxiety, how are we to work out our irrational fears and come to grip with the changes in our society?
Superheroes are not the answer, though I suspect they are an attempt to assuage those fears. We root for superheroes to serve as our surrogates, but they do not show us how to combat our own fears. They are the mommies and daddies who save helpless children, they are the protectors of the weak and frail and those who have abdicated their own responsibilities. That is not who we are or what we need.
What we need are monsters who stand-in for what scares us and shows us how to stand up for ourselves. Accepting the old cliched monsters, wanting to be like them or longing for them romantically, is a defeatist attitude. Why run from the Wolfman when you can lust for him? Why fight the power of the vampire’s magnetic personality when you can open a vein and bleed for her willingly? Ancient curses from ancient cultures have no power over us when we can instead harness those powers for our own ends.
Over the recent decades we have been badly damaged, made to believe that monsters do not exist and that the people we should fear the most are Other People. The people we should fear are those telling us we should fear each other, they are the real monsters. They are the scariest monsters of all because they are accepted, believed, trusted with power and money and government. But as monsters go they are alos uninteresting. They look and talk like us and no one goes running from the room when they enter, no one goes looking for a pitchfork to wield when they draw near. Because we don’t recognize them as monsters we have forgotten how to stand up to them.
So I say it’s time for some new monsters. It’s time to tell the allegories that instruct, to show us how to stand up once again and teach us how to fight back. No superalien from space who will come at the last minute to save us, no humutant with elemental powers to stand in for us, we need credible creatures who invade our mental spaces on a visceral level and show us that our guns are useless, that passivity results in death, and that only by banding together and using our intelligence wil we survive.
We need some new monsters, both in books and movies and any other new media that can support them. The old ones just don’t cut it anymore.
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For those finding the title strangely familiar, or to those who might think I am not aware of such things, yes, I do vividly remember this movie from my childhood. How many kids today would get these referneces the same way I did back in the day? Could a similar movie be made today? Do we have enough of a shared culture anymore to say we have modern, universal monsters?
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