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Patrick Modern Monsters AUTHOR: Patrick McCormick TITLE: Why modern monsters have become alien to us SOURCE: U. S. Catholic v 61 p 37 - 41 N 96 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
Late autumn has arrived and with it comes the dark magic of Halloween and, of course, the murky thrill of monsters. Yet our appetite for a good monster knows no season. Ever since ancient times we have been fascinated with all sorts of tales about monsters and intrigued by myths and legends about those wild half-human beasts who haunt the edges of our forests and lurk in the recesses of our oceans. The sphinxes, minotaur's, and sirens of early mythology gave way to Beowulf's Grendel and Saint Georges dragon, then to the mermaids, trolls, and one-eyed giants of our fairy and folk tales, and finally to those 19 th-century Gothic classics. Nor are these stories on the wane, for the monster tales that made Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi stars of the silver screen continue to draw mega crowds six and seven decades later. In 1994 Kenneth Branagh and Robert DeNiro brought us the latest reincarnation of Shelleys story of Frankenstein's tortured creature, and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt starred in Interview with a Vampire, the first installment of Ann Rices homage to Stokers Dracula.
Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webers musical production of Gaston Lerouxs Phantom of the Opera continues to pack in audiences from London to L. A. Much of the initial appeal of monster stories comes from the fact that they, like their twisted siblings, creature features and slashers, both terrify and fascinate us with their ghoulish brand of horror. Its the rattling-the-tigers-cage kind of thrill that Scout and Jim Finch got from sneaking onto Boo Radleys porch under a pale moon. Reading or watching great monster stories, we get to accompany the frightened heroes or heroines as they descend into the dragons lair; crane our necks over the tops of books or movie seats and peek into the dank recesses of the giant cyclops cave; stretch out our trembling hands and actually touch the monsters reptilian scales, hairy paws, or cloven hoofs; and then run screaming like a banshee the instant it wakes from its slumber. What a rush!
As frightening as these creatures are, in monster stories it is always the beast that ends up taking the fall, which means that this is a place where we not only get to tangle with evils most daunting and dangerous minions but to vanquish them with regularity. Pretty heady stuff. No wonder we never seem to tire of these tales. And yet the truth is that the best of these stories are much more than simple-minded creature features.
In the original versions of Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, Jekyll 038; Hyde, and even Dracula we arent simply terrified and enraged by these ghouls trolling about in our dungeons, sewers, or bell towers. Instead, in such classic monster stories we are also haunted by an underlying sense of sympathy and, yes, responsibility for these misshapen men. In their deaths and destruction we experience some pathos, some tragedy, perhaps even some shred of regret for the ways they have been abused, goaded, and abandoned. Nowhere is this so clear as in Frankenstein. When, at the end of Shelleys novel, her narrator, Walton, finally sets eyes on Victor Frankenstein's dreaded creature, he describes him as having a form I cannot find words to describe; gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome yet appalling hideousness I dared not again raise my eyes to his face, there was something so scaring and unearthly in his ugliness. Still, Walton, like the reader, feels a mixture of curiosity and compassion toward this disfigured beast.
The very monster who has murdered all of Frankenstein's loved ones is himself a tortured soul, and the strange, misshapen creature who has studied Plutarch and read Miltoncries out to his human maker in such eloquent anguish that we cannot help being moved. then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things Oh Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. At first glance, Stevenson's story of Dr. Jekyll 038; Mr.
Hyde doesnt seem to invite much pity for the villain Edward Hyde, the murderous dwarf whom the character Dr. London describes as something seizing, surprising and revolting and who, according to Henry Jekyll, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil. Still, when Jekyll's manservant Poole hears the poor creature weeping like a woman or a lost soul, he admits to having come away with that upon my heart and comments that I could have wept too. The truth is that for all his physical and moral deformities, Hyde, too, is but a filthy type of his maker, a doppelganger of Henry Jekyll, knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye, and the physical manifestation of all his vile and unruly passion. And though he is not as eloquent as Frankenstein's beast, Hyde could well have quoted Milton's Paradise Lost to his all-too-human creator. Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man?
Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me. And even in Dracula there is a trace of compassion for the monstrous Prince of the Undead, the viper who takes a dozen repulsive forms. In Stokers original narrative the vampire hunter Van Helsing, unlike so many modern action heroes, is not out simply to avenge himself against Dracula and his minions; he actually wants to redeem their lost and tortured souls. Even in visages that do not show up in mirrors, Van Helsing is capable of recognizing a shared humanity and, indeed, of feeling some pity for their frightful plight. And at the end of Stokers novel, Mina Harper, who has more than enough reason to despise this foul creature of the underworld and to savor his destruction, describes Dracula's death with a note of unstrained sympathy. I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined rested there.
Stokers vampire is not so much murdered as forgiven. These stories, again and again, remind us that in biology and myth monsters are disfigured versions of ourselves, fun-house mirrors of our own frail and sometimes monstrous humanity. Monster stories, then, by confronting us with these disfigured embodiments of ourselves, invite us to reflect on our own humanity, and, indeed, our inhumanity. In a way that is not so very different from Lukes parable of the Good Samaritan, these Gothic tales challenge us to recognize the humanity of the beast and to acknowledge the beastliness of our own inhumanity. Indeed, the best of them are reminders and warnings about the ways in which we make and become such beasts. Victor Hugo's 1831 classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (so pathetically sanitized in Disneys recent animated version) may be one of the best modern monster stories we have.
Even the name of the misshapen bell ringer, Quasimodo, tells us that this brutish creature is but half-formed, and, like Frankenstein's beast, Hugo's disfigured monster seems cruelly fashioned of mismatched parts, his body a tortured terrain, his face a terrifying visage. As one critic writes: Nowhere on earth was there a more grotesque creature. One of his eyes was buried under an enormous cyst. His teeth hung over his protruding lower lips like tusks. His eyebrows were red bristles, and his gigantic nose curved over his upper lip like a snout. His long arms protruded from his shoulders, dangling like an apes.
Further, not unlike Stevenson's brutal Hyde, Quasimodo is a henchman of the night, a stalker of darkened alleys, and a hunter of women, finding cover by day deep within the bowels of Notre Dame. Here, it seems, is a fiend to haunt the nightmares of children and whip mobs into a fury. Still, as Hugo's narrative unfolds, it is not Quasimodo but the cathedrals archdeacon, Claude Frollo, who is revealed as the novels real monster. Like Frankenstein and Jekyll, the ascetic scholar and priest Frollo is a man who cannot abide the limits of his own mortality or acknowledge the all-too-human passions that burn within him.
But Frollo's attempts to fly above this mortal flesh, or to bury it within the cathedrals shadowy vaults and Gothic spires, are all in vain. And in the end, it is he who dispatches Quasimodo his own Mr. Hyde stalk and kidnap the gypsy Esmeralda; it is he who will destroy her; and it is he whole the thoughtless Victor Frankensteincruelly abandons the tortured beast he was sworn to protect. The real fiends, then, in so many classic monster stories, are the Frankenstein's, Jekyll's, and Frollo's who cannot abide their own humanity and cannot or will not show any compassion for those whose disfigured humanity has made them outcasts. It is the men who cannot recognize their own deformities writ large on the faces of these brutes who feel no mercy, no responsibility, no pity who are the true monsters, and indeed, the creators of monsters. Even in Richard III, Shakespeare's tale of the sociopathic Hunchback of York, there is some reminder that monsters are fashioned not of some brutish ugliness but of our own failure to acknowledge the humanity of the stranger.
In Richard of Gloucester Shakespeare has created a twisted fiend of unparalleled malice, a misshapen stump of a man who neither evidences nor invites pity. Here is a Shakespearean villain without a shred of conscience, a Renaissance Ted Bundy, Gary Gilmore, or, as Ian McKellen suggests in his recent production, Adolf Hitler. But this disfigured regent believes that he has the same complaint against the world, the same cause for rancor, as Frankenstein's creature which is that he is not, and indeed cannot be, loved. I, that am rudely stamped, and want loves majesty that am curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, and sent before my time into this breathing world have no delight to pass away the time and therefore, since I cannot prove a lover am determined to prove a villain (act I, scene i). Indeed, Ken Magid and Carole McKelvey argue in High Risk: Children Without a Conscience (M 038; M Publishers, 1987), sociopaths are all too often the products of emotional abandonment, children who have never been able to form an attachment or bond with a loved one. Such insights are, of course, not really so different from the central argument of monster stories like Frankenstein.
As the creature says to his maker / parent : I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, that which thou ones me I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drives from joy for no misdeed I was benevolent and good, misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous. The underlying message of these stories is that monsters are made, not born, and that they are fashioned out of our inability to accept our own limits and care for others. We dont make monsters by playing God or fooling with mother nature. We make the monsters by failing to be human and recognize and respect the humanity of others.
Maybe thats why it bothers me that monster stories seem to be being replaced by a kind of tale that has no sense of our own responsibility for evil and no compassion for the disfigured creatures who serve as the stories foils or foes. In the 50 s and 60 s the monsters in most creature features were often the result of some nuclear explosion or radiation experiment gone awry and so reflected some consciousness of our guilt or anxiety about the cold war and arms race. Today, however, we seem to be facing a new breed of monstrous creatures, for whom we are invited to feel neither responsibility nor sympathy. Instead, were just to blast those little suckers out of the sky. In a number of films the monster in question has been a beast from outer space, an alien creature to whom we are not related and who we can hunt and destroy with all the heat-seeking missiles and nuclear arsenals at our command. Meanwhile, in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1993) were confronted with a brood of dinosaurs from 65 million years in the past and given permission to blast and fry these reptilian sociopaths with nothing short of glee.
Nowhere, however, is this trend so evident as in this summers biggest blockbuster Independence Done of Bob Doles recommended family films and a feel-good movie that lets us blow the living daylights out of the meanest pack of really illegal aliens that ever came to town. What a thrill to be able to mount a nuclear Armageddon without the slightest concern about political or radioactive fallout of any sort, to finally find an enemy who its not politically incorrect to hate, and to live in a world of such stark moral clarity and simplicity, where good and evil are so sharply polarized and where we are the absolutely innocent good guys. (Watching the movie, I thought I was at a Pat Buchanan rally. ) I confess to liking action films. Still, I am concerned about the presence of what seem to me to be some very dangerous trends leading to the production of more and more movies where evil is being projected onto an enemy so foreign and alien that it can be destroyed without any trace of regret. My concern is not just that such stories keep us unconscious of our own responsibility for evil and that movies like Independence Day help us forget that the problem, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves, but that they may well be tapping into some very unhealthy rage and bias in our culture. When you start designing movies to be theme park rides and video games, they stop being stories. Its not that stories dont or shouldnt entertain, and its not that stories cant have thrills and chills.
But real stories, at least good stories, have depth and character and plot. They wrestle with ambiguity, conflict, even paradox; pose questions often very unsettling ones; and are open to interpretation on various levels. Stories inspire, upset, disturb, and haunt us. They engage, not replace, our imagination, challenge our moral sensitivities, and invite us to wrestle with the mystery of being human. Theyre about suffering, guilt, remorse, passion, anguish, even redemption. Video games and theme parks, on the other hand, are about adrenaline.
They are engineered to stimulate the fight or flight response, and, as a rule, theyre geared for 12 - to 14 -year-olds. Like pornography, they have the thinnest of plot line shunt down and kill or flee from danger and their characters are strictly cartoon stuff. In the midst of an adrenaline rush you dont have the time or inclination to wonder about the moral ambiguity of this situation, or the humanity of the foe. You just duck and shoot.
A second problem with these features is that their monsters turn out to be not so foreign after all, but rather poorly disguised surrogates of our rage against women and immigrants. Youd think Rush Limbaugh had written the scripts. In the Alien trilogy Sigourney Weaver finds herself battling against a matriarchal colony of insect-like beasts, whose eggs she is always destroying. Indeed, in the second film Aliens, Weavers major confrontation is with the queen bee of this monstrous breed, while the advertisements for Alien 3 excitedly proclaims that The Bitch is Back! Likewise, Marina Warner points out that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are dangerous females who outflank their keepers by figuring out how to propagate without males. In Species the alien is a Jackie the Ripper from outer space, a praying mantis who is looking for a good mate.
The most dangerous monster in the universe, according to these films, is a woman having a child without permission. Its hard to miss the underlying rage against welfare moms and pregnant teens in these movies. Meanwhile, in Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger faces off against a murderous extraterrestrial who inhabits the jungles of Central America, and when Danny Glover confronts the aliens replacement in Predator 2, the monster has decided to visit Los Angeles, of all places. One wonders just which aliens these movies are talking about. In a time when so much political rage is directed at illegal aliens, it cant be all that surprising that films like Independence Day would be such a hit. Finally, there is the little matter of the bomb, or bombs.
Explosives are, by far and away, the most popular special effect in these video-arcade movies. It would be impossible to imagine a contemporary action film or creature feature that isnt littered with the detritus of demolitions, preferably nuclear. Not only do these toys give us the biggest bang for the buck, they are also the perfect tool for obliterating an enemy for whom we feel nothing but rage. Bombs are macho and impersonal, how perfect. Until, of course, they start going off in the World Trade Center, in front of a government building in Oklahoma, aboard a TWA flight out of New York, or at a disco outside the Olympic Village. Then bombs are murderous, insane, cowardly, craven, andyesmonstrous.
We need to pay attention to the kinds of monster stories we tell. They could come back to haunt us.
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