Originally published at The Preternatural Post. Please leave any comments there.
“I would argue that monsters in literature, in general, are almost always indicative of things we fear in a sort of collective sense,” said Cajsa Baldini, a senior lecturer in the English Department of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University.
Whether it’s the classic monsters for 19th century literature, the alien creatures of 1950′s era science fiction or today’s vampire and werewolf fads, preternatural creatures play a significant role in both society and our psyche. Hollywood, of course, is quick to cash in on the popularity of particular types of monsters, making it easy to dismiss them as fluff rather than encouraging audiences and role players to take a serious look at what the prevalence of certain types of monsters says about what’s going on in our society. As role players, writers, artists and fans, we tend to follow the trends without really thinking about why we choose the preternatural beings we choose to pour our creativity and passion into.
Sometimes monsters represent our fears about external forces such as science and technology. They reveal society at its worst even when that masquerades as its best. At other times, our monsters personify internal fears and the worst aspects of being human.
Technology, Science and Control
“I think that’s what it’s about — to be confronted with our creations,” Baldini explains. “What responsibilities do we have to what we create? It essentially posits the question, do scientists have ethical responsibilities, or is the only responsibility towards further discovery?”
Monstrous tales like Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau are steeped in themes of out-of-control technology. And that’s one external fear that hasn’t vanished since the 19th century when Mary Shelly and H.G. Wells were writing. A more modern take to the theme of technology getting out of control can be found in Jurassic Park and Terminator.
Losing control of technology isn’t our only fear. Society is also afraid of what happens when we are confronted by what we have created though science and technology. What do we say to Frankenstein’s monster or Sonny, the human-like robot of I, Robot asks why they were created or what their fate will be? How do we explain what we have created, be it a monster or society in general?
This theme also deals with the results and consequences of technology and science. Post-apocalyptic tales like The Hunger Games and invasion stories like V or Invasion of the Body Snatchers reveal deep-seated fears about where we are headed as a planet, not to mention our fears of each other.
When it comes to embodying what is wrong with society, vampires and zombies are two sides of the same coin. Vampires tend to reflect our fears of society’s elite, however we describe that. Zombies, on the other hand, seem to represent what we fear about society as a whole.
Throughout their history, vampires have been depicted as elite and superior in some way. Originally they were aristocrats like Count Dracula. Modern vampires may not come with titles, however, they usually do have money and are often depicted as if not glamorous, then at least as attractive and desirable. Of course, with or without titles vampires are uniformly evil because they prey on human beings.
“They are separate and set apart — not everyone can be them,” Baldini points out. “And also whoever they seek out as their victim, even though it’s violent and it’s deadly, there’s a sense of being the elect — vampires don’t just go for anyone. I think this is part of the attraction the erotic appeal of the vampire.”
Zombies at at the other end of the spectrum. If vampires are desirable, zombies definitely are not. Unfortunately, it isn’t hard to become a zombie either.
“The zombie is the underdog of the monsters, sort of the underachiever of monsters as well,” said Baldini. “You don’t have to do much to become a zombie. You’re bitten by one and you become one. There’s minimal grooming involved. It’s the blue-collar monster.”
Which may explain why zombies are popular in films and on television but not extremely popular among role players unless they are just targets to be destroyed. At the same time, hundreds and even thousands of people turn out for zombie events. This contradictory attitude towards the living (and walking and running and…) dead might be an expression of our contradictory attitude towards the society we live in.
“We’re looking at a monster that’s a collective body that consumes everything,” Baldini explains. “That’s western culture that’s what we are. We have over-consumed throughout the 1990s. We over-borrowed on credit, we took all the equity out of our homes and then some, we consumed indiscriminately, we didn’t think, because, like zombies, we don’t think. We just followed the herd in consumption. I don’t think people sit around and think about this, but I think on some level, the zombie is relatable in this particular time in history.”
Monsters Within Us
“When ideas get out of control, you get monsters,” explains Paul Cook, principal lecturer in the English Department of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University. “Monsters, as an archetype, are simply a reflection of some aspect of our human nature greatly magnified to the level of destruction. That is where you get the werewolf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the Hulk — something that’s inside of us that comes out.”
Some might say these types of monsters are expressions of humanity’s desire to rise above our instincts and the forces of nature. As individuals and a society we can choose how we act but the fact is those choices do not change our basic nature. Those base instincts are still inside of us and will be for generations to come.
Take the modern werewolf. In True Blood and the Twilight Saga they can control when they change, at least to some degree. The full moon or strong emotions may bring on the change whether the individual chooses to shift or not. But they may have some level of control about the when and where because otherwise the world would know they existed.
“I think the werewolf is more of a psychological monster,” Baldini said. “Like any monster, it has to be reflective of us to be interesting. I think it’s about the animal within, the aspects of us we think we’ve grown away from that we don’t want to acknowledge we ever had.”
Ultimately, the kind of monster we choose to play, write about or draw says something about who we as people are. Maybe it reveals what we fear most. Or maybe it shows us what we fear least and think we have some control over. One thing role-playing a monster almost certainly does is point out the flaws in our world, our society and ourselves. After all, that’s why we create monsters and why they endure because they help us face and overcome our fears.
“I think it’s most interesting in the way it serves to critique society in a way that seems perhaps innocuous — ‘Oh, it’s just horror’ — but which in fact is incredibly subversive and critical,” Baldini concludes.