Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Weekend Philosopher: Monstrosity and Storytelling

My second post for May Monster Madness can be found HERE.

Since I'm now in the midst of May Monster Madness, I thought I'd take a look at the concept of monstrosity and how we present it in fiction.  As a writer, I frequently write about things that disturb me greatly, in part because I want to understand how the monstrous operates. 

In order for something to be considered monstrous, it needs to stand apart from us.  We naturally fear that which is different from us, after all.  That is often manifested in the form of an outwardly grotesque appearance.  Though monsters come in all shapes and sizes, they often reflect the horrors within with external markers.  Their ugliness repels us, warning us of their nature.  

Not all monsters fit this criteria, of course.  Some monsters are able to move undetected, playing on our fear of dangers we cannot see.  Some monsters can change appearances, meaning that we can't know what to expect from it.  These play on our fears of having danger sneak up on us.  This is the same reason why human beings often have a deeply ingrained fear of the dark.

And worst of all, the monster may take human form, meaning we have no idea who to trust.

The monster may also have appetites we consider unsavory.  The monster does the things that we cannot stand the thought of doing ourselves, or at the very least, the things we cannot stand to think of having done to us.  Yet we all know that, on some level, we have the potential to do horrible things, because we see some of our fellow human beings doing the unthinkable.

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Humans love telling stories about monsters because these stories help up confront the worst within ourselves.  We know the darkness is there, so we extract it and put it out there for the world to see.  We are terrified, repulsed, and yet we often cannot look away.  Hoping to see good, everyday people outwit or defeat the monster, we are reminded that we can overcome the darkness within ourselves.

Of course, there will always be those who cannot, or simply will not, overcome their darker impulses.  Some will embrace them, or merely act on them because they feel they have no choice.  In a world where we cannot be sure where danger hides, we enjoy being able to go to a movie, or to pick up a book, and find expression for our fears in an environment we know to be relatively safe. Though, after the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, it's clear that even this activity may not always be as safe as we hope it will be.

Since we can't live our lives in a constant state of fear, even when we know anything bad can happen, we will continue to seek out fictional monsters.  They help us cope by reminding us that, even though monsters lurk within and without, we can defeat them.  We defeat them by living our lives the best we can, by being kind to others, and by refusing to give in to the fear.


  1. In fiction, we like the complexity of the monster but we want good to triumph in the end since this give hope in reality.
    Or we may just be hopeless voyeurs.

  2. When I was in grad school I studied Sigmund Freud. He, live many others in Vienna, had to flee his home when the nazis took over. he was deeply distrubed by what was happening to his country and he coped with it coming up with the the theory of Eros and Thanatos. In a nutshell, the theory goes that we all have an equal oppsing capacitiy for creation (eros) and destruction (thanatos). That destruction leads to monstrous acts, and monstrosity.

    While I like the straight-forward monsters that are defeated by the heros the ones that really haunt me are the ones that are like me- the monstrous acts done by people just like me. THOSE are the scary ones, those are the ones that haunt my dreams and those are the ones that make me keep trying to improve myself, to choose to create rather than to destroy.