Living in a Post-Monstrous Age

I had a blast at FogCon, as I usually do. The panels I attended were all fascinating, the people were great, &c. I was a little miffed that the bio I wrote for myself on the website didn’t manage to make it into the printed program, but I’ve learned to live with small disappointments like that. I also enjoyed hanging out with other writers and talking craft and projects with them. That’s always worthwhile.

The panel I was on, “Cuddly Horrors from Outer Space”, went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and as a result I felt a bit out of my depth at times. I was far more prepared to discuss cosmic horrors and Lovecraftian critters and how making them cute is, in a sense, defying the nihilistic culture we live in, so when we veered into social commentary about Dracula and similar creatures of imagination, I was a bit surprised. And although I felt I didn’t have much to contribute to that particular part of the conversation, I enjoyed it.

The more I think about it, the more I think we live in a culture with more “defanged” monsters than actual scary ones: monsters which are cute and cuddly, rather than horrific and scary. It’s far easier to buy a plush Cthulhu than a monstrous statue of him, for example; and cartoon images of vampires and werewolves abound, to the point where they show up on Sesame Street as the Count and Stephanie Myers writes about glittering vampires playing baseball in the sun.

The “Disneyfication” of horrifying cultural tropes came up as well. Many of the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were cautionary tales for children (and some were meant for adults), and some were just plain scary for the sake of being scary, but Disney transformed the original Snow White into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a result, the original horrific element of that story is lost in a whirlwind of singing birdies. Of course, as time has gone on we’ve seen reimaginings of, say, the “Princess” trope, where the definition of a Disney princess has gone from the meek and helpless Snow White to the nearly (but not quite) feminist characters found in Frozen. I think more work needs to be done with these tropes, but I am heartened by what we’ve seen so far (yes, there are feminist retellings of these fairy tales but on the whole they’re meant for adults and not for children).

We also talked about humanizing monsters, making them sympathetic, and about exploring the human side of them. We see this in works such as Frankenstein, where in the novel the creature is meant to be sympathized with and Frankenstein himself is the weak and pathetic character who runs screaming from what he’s created and refusing to take responsibility for it. Seeing our own reflections in these monsters helps us, I think, reflect on our own humanity.

Of course, we also have shows such as Hannibal and Dexter, which invite the audience to see serial killers as sympathetic creatures in spite of their terrible crimes. This brought the conversation, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of our current political climate, in which we “normalize” monstrous people such as Nazis and fascists and find coverage of them in The New York Times, while the forces of good, such as the antifa movement and Black Lives Matter are rendered monstrous.

We talked also a wee bit about “humanizing” zombies, though I am pretty sure we agreed that the point of a zombie is that it is a creature that has lost all dredges of humanity entirely; and thus the moment you start to humanize them, make them sympathetic, then by definition they cease to be zombies. I can’t think of any exceptions to this off the top of my head. Even novels like Scott G. Browne’s Breathers, which is told from the point of view of the zombie, doesn’t really have any zombies in it.

I don’t know for sure. Am I moving the goalposts here, redefining what it means to be a zombie as I discuss the concept? There are plenty of iterations of the vampire motif, so why not so with zombies?

On the whole, then, I think we live in a post-monstrous age, where the supernatural creatures are no longer scary and the monstrous within isn’t examined anymore. While zombies might represent the faceless evils of racism and consumer culture, it’s still pretty easy to find plush zombies in the stores and online through ThinkGeek. Even Sadako and Samara, the yurei that feature so terrifyingly in The Grudge and The Ring so supernaturally, were recently pitted against each other in a more comedic film (in much the same vein as Freddy Vs. Jason).

Are there monstrous beings anymore? Can we be frightened by vampires and werewolves and Cthulhu anymore? Is it even possible? Or can we still find horror within, reflected by media overgeneralizations of cultural forces?

I’m going to have to think about this some more.


9 thoughts on “Living in a Post-Monstrous Age”

  1. Re: cuddly zombies — Santa Clarita Diet and iZombie both have humanized zombies although not all zombies retain their humanity. Or at least they are undead.

    I think I could make a case for disease outbreaks being the last true fictional monsters.

    1. I would argue, though, that Liv from iZombie is a vampire who eats brains rather than a zombie, and that the mother (whose name I can’t remember) in Santa Clarita Diet is a cannibal more than a zombie.

      I do see your point, though.

  2. This reminds me of the time someone told me that she preferred “romantic vampires.” I was all, huh, there’s a preference? I don’t really have any preference because it depends on situation and how you handle it. Sometimes the monsters are nothing but “kill ’em all” bad, sometimes they’re a mixed bag, sometimes they can be reasonable people with some adjustments to deal with. It’s fiction, you can do different things.

    I can’t speak to Santa Clarita Diet, but let’s say i compare the iZombies (still somewhat alive and convertible back to human, ish, pretty reasonable to deal with as long as they’re fed brains but watch out if they’re hungry or mad) vs say, all the many zombies in the Newsflesh series that are almost entirely not curable/fixable/redeemable unless you develop an immunity that means you won’t go zombie. And it’s pointed out that it’d be very risky to NOT shoot someone in the head once symptoms came on just to see if they can recover from it.

    But I think we get bored of monsters always being the same old monsters. It’s more intriguing to have shades of gray or vacillation or to have it debatable whether or not to kill ’em all. That’s why Angel and Spike on Buffy/Angel were so fascinating. Otherwise all you got is new irredeemable monster, kill it, repeat forever. Folks love Black Panther’s villain in some ways because he has a point about how Wakanda shouldn’t be abandoning all black people, even if they don’t agree with him wanting to start wars with vibranium. We need complications to stay interested these days. Always evil monsters that are just there to kill you isn’t the thrill ride it used to be.

    “Are there monstrous beings anymore?”

    Yes, see the news.

    “Can we be frightened by vampires and werewolves and Cthulhu anymore?”

    Sure, but it depends on how they’re handled.

  3. But as for cute monsters: I think it’s all marketing. Also, don’t you have a stuffed Cthulhu on your Christmas tree every year?

    1. I do indeed! I never said I don’t indulge in the cuteification of monsters myself.

      Your comment that it’s all marketing is an interesting one. I think marketing is certainly a driving factor, but I’m interested in what creates the niche for cute monsters in the first place.

  4. I had a fabulous time at my first FOGcon too — thanks to you and your friends for being so welcoming!

    Great post, and I’m sorry I missed this session (there are always at least two good sessions at one time). As I think I mentioned, I have a plush Cthulhu as my holiday tree topper, so the topic is dear to my heart. I think you’re right about the trend toward humanizing the monsters, of both the supernatural and human(ish) kinds. People seem to be bored of good guys, and seek out increasingly flawed protagonists to empathize with and rehabilitate — or not. It’s like they’re too cynical to believe in hope, so let’s cheer on the monsters. But who knows how long this phase will last — how many pro-zombie treatises and werewolf romances can we stand before the pendulum swings back?

    1. “People seem to be bored of the good guys…” How right you are! I hadn’t considered that. Certainly our popular notions of morality and right-vs-wrong have changed, so it’s not surprising that our conceptions of heroes and monsters have changed as well.

      And I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you as well!

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