Thursday, May 19, 2011

Here There Be Monsters

Monsters and monster stories suit the culture that creates them. You can see this pretty easily by looking at the ancient monsters that ancient cultures created.

In western Europe, "eat me" monsters dominated, and the vast majority of both monsters and monster tales involved being killed and eaten. Vampires do not spread their state by a bite, they simply squat on your chest, eating your breath, until you die. Werewolves, similarly, just kill and eat you. Only later were new attributes introduced that made these monsters into their now-familiar forms.

On the other hand, eastern European monsters and monster-tales tended to focus a bit more on disease and freezing, things closer to their ancient culture's heart. On the gripping hand, Japanese monsters and monster-tales tend to involve enforcement of cultural norms. As one of many examples, the kappa that loves to eat children can be defeated by bowing to it. It automatically bows back and, in the process, spills its life-giving head-water and freezes.

You can see monsters change as cultures change. Our current obsession is with contagion. Most of our most memorable modern monsters are about being changed against our will, being forced to become something else.

Vampires are no longer simple eaters. Now they spread, turning you into a vampire. Werewolves, too, are contagious. Zombies as well. Classic Alien-aliens embed themselves inside you and use you for a host rather than simply eating you. Cthulhu drives you insane with its mere presence. Frankenstein's monster is just a man trapped in a horrific body. Grays do experiments on you, pull things out from inside and put things in that weren't supposed to be there. And Godzilla was a normal lizard until he was forced to change...

Sure, these monsters can also eat you, but that's rarely the point of the story. The point of the story is that you (or the monster) are being changed, forced to do or be something you don't want to do or be. Which we encounter a lot more in our modern culture than being eaten or frozen, so that makes sense.

Classically, a monster's defeat often comes at the hands of what the tellers consider their culture's greatest triumphs - expensive silver, holy symbols, respect... this, too, changes over time. Most modern, western-culture monsters are defeated by feats of creativity, high technology, or determination, things we hold in very high regard.

This is sometimes reversed, with the monster having attributes we regard highly, and using them against us. The terminator was a high-technology, very determined monster that could only be defeated by, you guessed it, creativity and determination.

Distilling the fear a monster causes and the thing which defeats the monster down into simple statements can allow you to create extremely creepy monsters by simply imagining a way to push those things a little further, a little purer. Instead of jumping out and going "boo!", the best monsters first highlight our fears, then our prides.

So instead of re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reinventing vampires, why not invent a new monster that more purely preys on our cultural fears and is defeated by our cultural prides?

It's not as easy as it sounds, largely because our culture's emerging fears and prides often have no agreed-on terminology. For example, a lot of us fear the fact that the rest of us sell ourselves and our information into bondage in exchange for a new trinket. There's no real name for that fear. What would you call it? Eulageddan? iFear?

But I'd be interested in hearing anyone give it, or any other fear/pride, a shot.


Tom said...

Excellent insight into our cultural obsession with monsters. I recently attended a TEDxOrlando talk that was from the hero/super hero perspective and how Superman is an emigrant who brings his undervalued skills/talents to the new world where those same skills/talents become super. The talk covered the US history from Cowboys & Indians all the way up to X-Men and Iron Man. Very inspiring to hear/see both angles. Thank you.

Craig Perko said...

Actually, superheroes are really interesting because, as a specific heroic figure, they bring their own culture with them to any fight.

This means that a superhero's monstrous enemies can reflect the superhero's fears and problems, and be defeated by his good points. Divorcing it from the culture at large allows you to pull an audience member with somewhat different fears and prides into the story.

This is similar to fairy tales, where the hero has specific flaws that get them in trouble, and specific good points that get them out again. Except that a superhero exists outside a single story, so the culture they contain can be made much stronger and concrete as the reader reads more and more tales about them.

By the way, which damn Tom are you?

Erik said...

I generally tend to focus on which side is the individual and which is the group (heroic cooperation, or resisting the masses?), and on the culture/savagery spectrum that vampires hop around (werewolves being mostly stuck on the savage end), but I like what you're talking about here. Thanks for sharing!

Ryan said...

A very recent example of a new monster that exploits cultural fear
is the creeper from Minecraft. The creeper silently runs up to the player and then sets off a fuse to self-detonate, leaving a huge crater. Given that a large part of the game is about building things, a monster whose sole purpose is to destroy is especially scary in the setting.

Is it possible to kill a creeper with your bare hands, but it'll take you a long time. You might end up getting chased by a second one while trying to fight the first! So it's much better to use your diamond sword, or elaborate traps to engulf them in lava, or shoot arrows.

Craig Perko said...

Oh, man, Ryan, that's great. I completely forgot that games and gameplay dynamics can actually create a whole culture inside the game, and you can use that culture as a starting point!

Soyweiser said...

Nice insight indeed. Never realized how much cultural obsessions influence our monsters. Now to develop a monster that thrives on personal information. (I think futurama alread did that, but those where not really scary).

Gaming also introduces another kind of monster. The not so sacry ones. Say the Goomba's from the first mario game. (Which actually is a killer if you never used a controller before).

But this also fits a bit into your insight. Your flaw that gets you in trouble from goomba's is the inability to play the game. And eventually you grow out of this, and wonder why you ever thought of goombas as hard.