It’s October, and there are monsters in the streets. Fake ones–but I’ll take what I can get. Seeing so many of our traditional (favorite) creatures all at once has me thinking about hard it is to make a new monster. I’ve tried. It’s tricky.
As a fan who enjoys the fantasy/supernatural/horror side of life, I’ve often wondered about the cultural domination of what I call the Big Six:
4) Ghosts & the Dead
5) Possession/Demons/Devil/anything that comes out of “Hell”
I know these aren’t the only monsters out there, not by a long shot. We have everything from our spectrum of ancient mythologies. But you mostly see those in pure fantasy, and I’m more interested stories set in the present day in something close to our world. And creatures like fairies or sprites or goblins are not the ones you see coming back again and again. They aren’t NEW.
There are mutations and aliens, but I’m leaving sci-fi out of this. You can do anything with sci-fi, even with lazy science. Mutants, superheroes, all kinds of nonsense created by radiation or genetic engineering. Half the time they just fall out of space.
The Big Six are the ones that get heavy rotation. Why do they dominate?
All six were established in the western canon before the 20th century. Dracula appeared in 1897—and the werewolf at least as early. Stoker drew on werewolf folklore for Dracula, and the man himself turns into a wolf at least once in that book (if I’m recalling correctly). That’s two for the price of one, but both have roots in plenty of older cultures.
Zombies also showed up in 19th-century literature—the voodoo version. The modern zombie we know and love probably dates to 1954’s I Am Legend, and even more directly to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.
Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein in 1818, but I’m not putting Frank on a level with the Big Six. Just not omnipresent enough.
Witches: Given the origins of the “witch” concept in western culture—fear of female power and independence—it surprises me that this remains such a common fiction menace. Maybe it’s been stripped of its cultural origins—the witch in Blair Witch is little more than a faceless supernatural threat. Fortunately, the “witch” concept is also used to denote positive female empowerment, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless others.
Ghosts and the dead—these are as old as the human race, so no surprise that they have staying power.
Possession/Demons/anything from “Hell”: This seems to dominate the Hollywood horror film industry these days, at least at the studio level. Nearly as old as the western cultures that make stories out of them, so it’s not a surprise.
The Big Six come back, and back, and back. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful mixed every single one (minus zombies) into a single show.
Many modern stories that employ the Big Six (maybe most of them) are repetitive at best. But there is always originality to be had when great writers are at work. Robert Eggers’s brilliant 2015 horror film The Witch was AMAZING. Totally original, blew my mind.
But why do we keep going back to these six categories? Because it’s easy. It works. For one, it’s not a burden on the writer. These archetypes are so thoroughly ingrained in our cultural canon that the writer can 1) assume that the reader/viewer will accept them without question and 2) that the reader/viewer will already know the associated rules.
No exposition required. Characters might act surprised, but you rarely need a wise old priest or historian to spend an entire scene dumping information about the creature.
There are economic reasons, too. Just as film remakes and reboots are popular, monster remakes and reboots are popular. We already know that people respond to them, so we use them.
I realize I’m getting myself into trouble by trying to have six neat categories. But that’s what I typically do with this blog—bite off more than I can chew and fumble at the goal line. I also mix metaphors.
Can we make new monsters without relying on sci-fi? Should we try?
B-horror films of the 50s and 60s thought nothing of inventing a nonsense monster. It wouldn’t have been uncommon to go for a matinee double feature and see both giant killer guinea pigs and leopard people wreak havoc in one sitting. I don’t know if those films were scary to mid-century audiences—it’s kind of hard to imagine—but it doesn’t fly today.
We’ve borrowed a monster or two from eastern cannon—like the Japanese kaiju—but they aren’t Big Six level yet. We have plenty of remixes, too. Stephen King remixed the vampire concept in Doctor Sleep, making a kind of energy-sucking species that preyed on people with psychic gifts. It was great.
Ok… this should have been a half-baked research paper, not a half-baked 800-word blog post. But there you have it: me pondering about why we so often are stuck with go back to the same big bads.
Enjoy your adult Halloween. I’m guessing your costume will reference a human being or movie character, not a monster. But for those going as monsters, I wish you luck and originality.